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    The study of Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka (hereafter PKSK) reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s. However, several important topics in PKSK still remain provocative and unexplored. This study attempts to bring new approaches to the debates regarding how to interpret the identity of the main character Kangsoe and what the actual theme (as opposed to the surface theme, namely, lewdness) of the work is in order to clarify a number of contradictions in the PKSK not explained in extant research.

    Contrary to the presupposition that there should be a single consistent theme in PKSK, one can identify more than one possible theme and hear multiple voices in the work. Any work of fiction, as Bakhtin argues, represents a “multiplicity of styles” and exemplifies the idea of the “nonexistence of a one-voiced novel.” This essay argues that there was an intentional and systematic revision of PKSK by Sin Chae-hyo, who thoroughly compiled the work. Kangsoe can be seen as an alter ego of Sin Chae-hyo in that they share exceptionally high levels of self-aggrandizement, resulting mainly from the discontent that their talents were not properly appreciated. As a frustrated scholar, Sin’s escape from reality was accomplished through his devotion to p’ansori, just as Kangsoe’s only escape is his devotion to carnal desire. Kangsoe is used to betray Sin Chae-hyo’s resentment toward an absurd social system, his disdain for the petty moralism of yangban, and his unrestrained pursuit of aesthetic value in erotica. Teptŭgi and Kangsoe, as the two polemic reflections of Sin Chae-hyo’s inner conflict, betray the realism and idealism of Sin, respectively. Eventually, Sin makes the realistic version of his alter ego annihilate the idealistic version.1


    identity of Py?n Kangsoe , surface theme and actual theme , alter ego , nonexistence of a one-voiced novel , manipulation of the emphasis on lewdness


    Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka (Song of Pyŏn Kangsoe) has been studied by a number of scholars, especially during the 1980s and 1990s. Scholars who have made significant contributions to the study of Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka (hereafter PKSK) include Sŏ Chong-mun, Pak Kyŏng-sin, and Kim Chong-ch’ŏl. Arguably, the study of PKSK reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s when relatively copious research as well as substantial debates on some important topics in PKSK appeared. However, despite the fact that many debates have already been held, several important topics in PKSK still remain provocative and unexplored. In this article, I will endeavor to draw distinctly new interpretations of PKSK by focusing on aspects not covered by scholars thus far. I will explore topics on the identity of the protagonists and the main theme of PKSK.

    1I would like to express my gratitude to Dr. Ross King (University of British Columbia), who read an earlier draft of this paper and provided editorial help. I also thank two anonymous reviewers for their meticulous comments, which I found very helpful. Mr. Leif Olsen proofread the text.  2The Romanization systems used in this paper are McCune-Reischauer for Korean and pinyin for Chinese.


    PKSK is a P’ansori narrative text. P’ansori is both a folk art and a popular art that emerged in the latter half of the Chosŏn period. It is, in the words of Cho Dongil, “a form of oral narrative that weaves together an array of characters and events using both verse and prose.”3 Marshall Pihl notes, “Some writers used the expression ‘one-man opera’ to explain the term [P’ansori].”4 It is generally believed that the P’ansori corpus originally consisted of twelve works (madang). Sin Chaehyo (1812–84), who arguably made the most crucial contribution to the development of the P’ansori art and to the acceptability of this performance to upper-class yangban literati, chose the six best works among the twelve, transcribing and modifying these six P’ansori works according to his artistic taste in his P’ansori sasŏl chip (P’ansori libretti).5 PKSK is one of these six P’ansori works revised by Sin Chae-hyo.

    In PKSK, the two major characters are the woman Ongnyŏ and the man Pyŏn Kangsoe. As for the first half of the story line, Pihl summarizes, “After telling how the two [Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ] wander in search of a living, happen to meet, and then marry, it goes on to bawdy heights as it describes scenes in which the slattern and libertine go in search of pleasure.”6

    In terms of story plot, PKSK can be divided into two parts, with Kangsoe’s death being a turning point. The story starts with the introduction of Ongnyŏ’s misfortune. Ongnyŏ, a sort of femme fatale who involuntarily harms any male sexually aroused by her, is banished from her hometown. On her way to the south of Korea from Hwanghae province in the northwest, she happens to meet Kangsoe, who is also looking for a woman with sufficient libido to satisfy his own carnal desires. After enjoying some satisfactory sex, they marry on the spot and start their married life in a nearby town. Soon, they move into the deep mountains, though, since Kangsoe’s lazy and unruly temper keeps causing conflicts with other males. One day, Kangsoe, being too lazy to gather fallen branches as firewood, chops down a changsŭng (a totem pole that traditionally stands at the entrance to Korean villages) instead. Cursed by the changsŭng, Kangsoe soon falls sick and dies; his last request is for Ongnyŏ to follow him by committing suicide right after arranging his funeral. Ongnyŏ seduces a number of males to arrange the funeral for Kangsoe, only to find all these males die from Kangsoe’s curse. At last, Teptŭgi, a playboy from Seoul, after undergoing a shaman ritual to appease Kangsoe’s grudged soul, succeeds in moving Kangsoe’s corpse to a burial ground. However, due to Kangsoe’s tenacious grudge, his corpse is stuck so firmly to Teptŭgi’s back that he has no choice but to grind the corpse into pieces against a rock from a cliff. Teptŭgi then decides to return home to his family and a life of abstinence, even though he could have obtained Ongnyŏ as his wife.

    Scholars generally agree that PKSK does not seem to have a consistent main theme.7 Popular topics in PKSK scholarly literature include the following interpretations of the identity of the main characters Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ. They are seen as (1) itinerant homeless people; (2) people in pursuit of sexual freedom; (3) the unrighteous ruling class, as compared to the changsŭng; and (4) the manifestation of carnal instinct.

    Scholars also differ in their opinions on which main figures generate the central conflicts in the story—whether they are Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ, Kangsoe and the changsŭng, Kangsoe and Teptŭgi, or Kangsoe and all other males. The problems of how to interpret the role and identity of the changsŭng and whether PKSK has a consistent theme or subject have also been major scholarly topics.

    Scholars have shown distinct or even opposing interpretations of these significant topics in understanding PKSK. However, the various interpretations attempted so far, whether in some cases they be quite the opposite of each other, are mostly based on a single premise. That is, they often regard PKSK as a representative literary work reflecting rapid social change in late Chosŏn Korea and recurrently interpret the deeds and characters of Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ as serious sociopolitical metaphors. Although such an interpretation may prove to be useful more often than not, it can be argued that this overly serious approach often brings about a rather absurd reading of the work. The result has been that although there are some influential interpretations of PKSK, not a single one is widely accepted by scholars. I explore a series of logical contradictions in the previous interpretations of PKSK below.

    3Cho, “The General Nature of Pansori,” 188.  4Pihl, The Korean Singer of Tales, 3.  5With regard to Sin Chae-hyo’s contribution to the development of P’ansori, Marshall Pihl notes, “Shin Chae-hyo [Sin Chae-hyo], as an outsider, made a significant contribution to the development of P’ansori in his patronage and training of kwangdae [P’ansori performers], consolidation and editing of extant textual materials, exposition of theory, and composition of P’ansori itself.” Pihl, 35.  6Pihl, 65–66.  7Many scholars also agree that there was more than one prototype story for PKSK.


    Sŏ Chong-mun asserts that Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ should be understood as itinerant homeless people (yurangmin), a group whose numbers increased rapidly during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries due to rapid social changes in that era. According to Sŏ, the conflict between the Kangsoe couple and society is also comprehended in terms of the conflict between itinerant people and settled people, the latter being represented by the changsŭng.8 Although various other interpretations are available, Sŏ’s interpretation has become one of the most persuasive and dominant renditions of the identities of Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ.9

    Kim Chong-ch’ŏl, however, questions the couple’s identity as itinerant homeless people, asserting that they were originally urban idlers, especially in the case of Kangsoe.10 Kim suggests Kangsoe’s case is distinct from that of itinerant peasants who once owned their own small plots of land. Given that, throughout the PKSK text, Kangsoe’s libertine profligacy is obviously depicted as something more innate than acquired, Kim’s viewpoint seems more plausible than Sŏ’s interpretation that Kangsoe’s grudge resulted mainly from his frustration as a former peasant who had lost his land and become homeless due to social turmoil.11 Although it is true that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Korea witnessed numerous peasants becoming homeless, the application of this situation to Kangsoe should be attended by more careful textual reading. However, regarding Kim’s rendition of Kangsoe’s identity as being more plausible than Sŏ’s, Kim fails to state the reason for the conflict between Kangsoe and the changsŭng and why Kangsoe had to become a grudge-bearing soul.12 As a result, Kim concludes that the main theme of PKSK is to parade the aesthetics of its grotesque mood more than anything else.13 However, even Kim himself is not fully confident in his conclusion and wonders whether this somewhat evasive conclusion could be accepted by general readers.14

    Kim’s evasive conclusion is due to his belief that there should be a consistent theme in PKSK; because he thinks a warning against licentiousness is not substantial enough to explain the miserable death and undying resistance of Kangsoe, the grotesque mood dominant throughout PKSK becomes the center of his focus and eventually is presented as the primary feature of PKSK.15 There is no denying that grotesqueness is one of the main features of PKSK, but it is doubtful whether the author intended it as the main theme of the work. Like a number of other scholars who study PKSK, Kim does not realize that there is more than one voice in PKSK, and that the work has accumulated multiple echoes from various authors and/or background stories for generations.16

    I suggest that to understand Kangsoe’s identity better, we should observe how Kangsoe describes himself in the text before attempting to consider the social, historical, and political background of PKSK. Strangely, this fundamental approach of textual study has been more or less unexplored by most scholars.

    8This interpretation by Sŏ Chong-mun can be seen in his various essays on PKSK, all with slight modifications on essentially the same theme.  9A number of scholars accept Sŏ’s interpretation (sometimes with their own modifications) or at least refer to him when discussing the protagonists’ identities in PKSK.  10See Kim Chong-ch’ŏl, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka wa kigoemi,” 53–59.  11See, for example, the scene where Kangsoe challenges the changsŭng by saying that he has been the hero of the pleasure quarters. Kang Han-yŏng, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka (Sŏngdu-pon B),” in Sin Chaehyo P’ansori sasŏl yŏsŏt madang chip, 436.  12See Kim Chong-ch’ŏl, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka wa kigoemi,” 50, 57–60.  13Ibid., 51 and passim.  14Ibid., 80.  15Ibid., 70–80.  16It is rather surprising that some scholars, after pointing out that PKSK has a number of prototype stories and has been revised by many P’ansori singers, including Sin Chae-hyo, are still attempting to find a consistent theme or universal theory with which to interpret PKSK. For example, Kim, although he refers to Bakhtin in his essay, does not pay attention to Bakhtin’s ideas of “multiplicity of styles” and “nonexistence of a one-voiced novel.” See Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, ix, for discussion on this topic.


    Scholars generally agree that Kangsoe is portrayed as a person with a distorted temper. As the narrator says, Kangsoe is “a profligate like no other under Heaven” (ch’ŏnhajamnom). He has never worked an honest day in his entire life; instead, what he enjoys is “to ride the belly boat of a woman.”17 He exploits Ongnyŏ, making her take exclusive responsibility for their livelihood. His exploitation of Ongnyŏ continues even after his death. Based on his behavior, Kangsoe is perceived as a negative and wicked character by many scholars. It is notable that this is how the narrator describes Kangsoe, and many scholars tend to accept this portrayal at face value.

    However, Kangsoe’s evaluation of himself is strikingly different from that of the narrator; Kangsoe thinks of himself as a heroic figure who has missed his time. In other words, it is not Kangsoe who is to blame for his deeds, but the wrong society and wrong time in which he finds himself. When asked to cut firewood, he laments, “Alas! What nonsense! People say that when a Tatar horse breaks its waist it is employed to carry manure, and that when a courtesan is ruined she is forced to sell cheap wine in a tacky tavern. Never thought it would ever happen to me. How can one make a romantic guy like me gather firewood?”18 Moreover, the reason Kangsoe chooses not to gather firewood is also because he “does not feel like raking together fallen branches like some unripe youth.”19 He also compares himself with numerous legendary Chinese heroes. When he shouts at the changsŭng, he describes himself as a master of martial arts (kwonpŏp, “boxing,” and ssirŭm, “wrestling”), comparing himself with legendary Hercules-like characters from the Chinese tradition—generals known for their military prowess such as Fan Jiang, Zhang Da, and Xu Zhu.20

    Kangsoe not only excels in military arts (wu 武 ) but also shows his understanding of literary skills (wen 文 ). Chŏn Sin-jae points out that Kangsoe often uses pedantic expressions from the Chinese classics in a comical attempt to sound erudite.21 Kangsoe’s last will right before his death is full of metaphors describing his tragic and unfulfilled love with Ongnyŏ.22 Moreover, Kangsoe even compares his romantic affairs to those of great Chinese emperors and kings.23

    Here we observe a huge gap between the narrator’s view of Kangsoe and Kangsoe’s own self-description. Given the fact that PKSK has been revised in the process of its oral transmission and is the result of adding together several prototype stories, it is still not fully understandable why these two opposite interpretations of Kangsoe’s character exist in the PKSK text. Consequently, it can be argued that there was an intentional and systematic revision of PKSK by a certain compiler. Unfortunately, among the numerous anonymous people who affected the textual revisions of PKSK, we can trace only one person: Sin Chaehyo. Nevertheless, it seems obvious that Sin Chae-hyo was the only person who could have made these systematic and intentional revisions; likely no one else would have devoted such fervent and methodical efforts toward the compilation of P’ansori, including PKSK. While P’ansori performers tended to emphasize the musical effect of P’ansori, Sin Chae-hyo paid attention to the content of the text and often revised the text completely or even re-created it according to his taste and purpose.24

    More importantly, it can be verified that Sin Chae-hyo remains the sole compiler/rewriter who is known to have made critical revisions to the extant version of the narrative text of PKSK and also that no historical text of PKSK exists other than the one written by Sin. Among the six P’ansori narratives edited by Sin, all other five works except PKSK have been passed down in diverse forms including various versions of P’ansori novels and libretti.25 Only PKSK has no version in novel form available and exists exclusively as a libretto, which was written by Sin.26 Among scholars, the PKSK narrative edited by Sin is referred to as the Sŏngdu edition, which remains the only extant text of PKSK.27 Given these, we can say with confidence that, although there have been several prototype stories for the work such as the Pyŏn Kangsu sŏrhwa (Anecdote of Pyŏn Kangsu). Sin Chae-hyo’s version of PKSK is the only extant version of this P’ansori narrative that has been kept intact to date with no further revisions by other writers or performers.28 As such, we can deduce that Sin remains the only rewriter who could have made the systematic and ideological revisions to the narrative text of PKSK.

    While it is obvious that PKSK must have been affected by Sin Chae-hyo’s revisions,29 the extent of his revisions remains in question. To discuss this, I will adduce some observations about Sin’s personal background as well as textual evidence and draw connections between Sin and Kangsoe.

    The most basic element shared by Kangsoe and Sin Chae-hyo is that both are discontent with the social situations and conditions surrounding them. Sin Chaehyo, restricted by his social standing as the son of a minor local official (chungin), was not even qualified to take the Civil Service Examination, which was regarded as the only and utmost realization of self-cultivation for a learned man. Neither his accumulated wealth nor his literary skills could overcome this fundamental restriction. Sin lamented, “Born as a man in Chosŏn, I regret that I was not born into a prestigious family to become a p’yŏnt’ong with my military arts, or to become a degree candidate with my literary skills.”30 It is surely no coincidence that just as Kangsoe thinks he is a heroic figure equipped with both martial arts and literary skills, Sin Chae-hyo deplores that his literary and military skills are going to waste. They are both equally miserable in that no one in reality appreciates their talents; Kangsoe is simply degraded as a profligate while Sin was nothing more than a member of the nouveau riche in the eyes of his yangban neighbors.31 Not being properly recognized, Kangsoe eventually develops a rather blind antagonism toward society.32 One anecdote about Sin reveals his cantankerous and distorted nature, too; Sin enjoyed observing yangban people bending at the waist to pass through the low gate of his house—a feature intentionally designed by Sin himself.33 In other words, Kangsoe can be seen as an alter ego of Sin Chae-hyo in that they share exceptionally high self-aggrandizement, resulting mainly from the discontent that their talents are not properly appreciated.34 Kangsoe’s excessive use of pedantic expressions from the Chinese classics can also be understood in this context; in essence, Kangsoe is bragging in Sin’s place. However, Sin’s resentment expressed via Kangsoe was not fully welcomed even by the performers he patronized. Both Sŏ Chong-mun and Kim Sŏk-pae point out that P’ansori singers (kwangdae) disliked the parts of the narration revised by Sin because it was edited into a text that was too sophisticated with a blatant didactic message.35 Kim also points out that the thorough revision of the narration part of P’ansori often burdened P’ansori singers. It is also notable that a reconstruction of PKSK released in 1990 by P’ansori singer Pak Tong-jin actually omits many parts of Kangsoe’s elaborate narrations that did not appeal to Pak. However, the fact that Pak chose to use the chinyang rhythm (usually dedicated to a heroic figure in a P’ansori story) for Kangsoe’s narrations suggests that Sin’s attempt to convey his voice through Kangsoe was not entirely disregarded by performers.

    Sin’s escape from reality was accomplished through his devotion to P’ansori, just as Kangsoe’s only escape was his devotion to carnal desire. Sin’s attempts to excel yangban in dignity correspond to Kangsoe’s endeavor to identify himself with dignified ancient emperors and kings. It can be argued that Sin’s P’ansori patronage parallels Kangsoe’s pride in being a master of romantic affairs. In his “Kwangdaeka” (Song of the kwangdae, ca. 1875), Sin compares the great P’ansori singers he patronizes with legendary Chinese literary figures. He compares Song Hŭng-nok with Li Bai, Kim Kye-ch’ŏl with Ouyang Xiu, Chu Tŏk-ki with Su Dongpo, etc.36 Sin’s comparisons can parallel those of Kangsoe, who compares himself and Ongnyŏ with King Jie and his wife Moxi, the king of Zhou and Daji, Emperor Minghuang of Tang and Guifei, etc.37 Just as Kangsoe tries to disclose his heroic features by showing that his romance is as great as those of the famous ancient kings, Sin Chae-hyo also endeavors to portray his superiority over yangban by showing that he is the patron of the greatest masters of P’ansori who exceed even the greatest literary masters in history.

    17Kang Chin-ok, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka” (hereafter PKSK), 431.  18Ibid., 432. All translations are mine. I translated oipchangi as “a romantic guy.” Although this term has frequently been used to blame someone as a profligate, it was also used to refer to a romantic fellow who understands fengliu (p’ungnyu in Korean) when used by an idle youth of the gentry (hallyang). According to Chang Kilsan by Hwang Sŏg-yŏng, there were quite strict and complex rules to follow among oipchangi themselves in late Chosŏn. Anyone who violated these rules was shunned by both the pleasure-quarters frequenters and courtesans. These rules in certain respects resemble the chivalric code of medieval Europe in their treatment of ladies in terms of romantic affairs. Teptŭgi also shows his pride and nature as a Seoul hallyang when asked by Ongnyŏ for help. See PKSK, 470–71. This feature common to Kangsoe and Teptŭgi will be discussed in the following sections.  19Ibid., 434.  20Ibid., 436.  21See Chŏn, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka ŭi pigŭksŏng,” 115. Here, we can observe another striking resemblance between Sin Chae-hyo and Kangsoe in that they both “make much use of erudite Chinese phrases mixed together with references to classical events.” Pihl, 97. Also note that Sin’s comparisons of his favorite performers with the legendary Chinese literary figures in his Kwangdaeka (Song of the kwangdae) strikingly resemble Kangsoe’s comparison of himself to the legendary Chinese heroes. This feature common to Sin and Kangsoe will be discussed further in the following sections.  22PKSK, 449–50.  23See Ibid., 428. Kim Chong-ch’ŏl and Pak Kwan-su point out that these comparisons portend Kangsoe’s tragic death, since these kings are figures who ruined themselves by indulging in excessive sensual pleasure. See Kim, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka wa kigoemi,” 64; and Pak, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka ŭi sabip kayo tchaim,” 274.  24For a more detailed discussion of Sin Chae-hyo’s revision of P’ansori texts according to his ideology, see Kim Sŏk-pae, “Sin Chae-hyo ŭi P’ansori chiwŏn hwaltong kwa kŭ han’gye,” 313–52. Kim argues that through comprehensive revision of the texts, Sin attempted to convey his own moralism and rationalism targeted at the contradictions of the society of his time.  25Cho Dong-il notes, “[PKSK] has not been passed down as P’ansori and only the narrative text recorded by Sin Jae-hyo [Sin Chae-hyo] survives today. It is noteworthy that there is no novel version of this P’ansori work.” See Cho, 230.  26Pihl notes, “Of the six songs represented in Shin Chae-hyo’s [Sin Chae-hyo’s] collection, only the “Song of Pyŏn Kangsoe” exists solely as a P’ansori libretto; the other five are extant in many variants, including both libretti and novels.” See Pihl, 65.  27As for the available libretti versions of PKSK other than the Sŏngdu edition, another one called the Kosu edition and its two partial copies exist. However, these texts are incomplete handwritten copies of the Sŏngdu edition with the final scene in the original libretto missing; all other parts of their texts are completely identical to the Sŏngdu edition, which confirms that the Sŏngdu edition is the only extant version of PKSK. For more details, see Kang Yun-jŏng, “Pak Tong-jin ch’angbon Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka yŏn’gu,” 90–91.  28PKSK was included among the P’ansori yŏsŏt madang (six works of P’ansori) by the late nineteenth century as verified in Sin’s P’ansori sasŏl chip (P’ansori libretti, 1866–84). However, it was soon dropped from the six works as verified in Yi Sŏn-yu’s Oga chŏnjip (Collection of five songs, 1933), possibly due to its licentiousness and its grotesqueness, which confirms the fact that Sin remains the final editor/rewriter of the PKSK narrative. See Pihl, 63–66; Cho, 229–31; and Chan E. Park, Voices from the Straw Mat, 72, for more details.  29Most scholars agree that all six P’ansori libretti/ballades extant now underwent revision at the hands of Sin Chae-hyo. Kim Chong-ch’ŏl and Pak Kwan-su both discuss the revision of PKSK by Sin.  30See Kang Han-yŏng, Sin Chae-hyo P’ansori chŏnjip, 4. Cited in Sŏ, “Sin Chae-hyo ŭi segye insik kwa P’ansori iron,” 162.  31Sŏ Chong-mun observes that although Sin obtained the nominal title of a government official by donating money, he was not able to act as a yangban in reality due to the conservative atmosphere of the “authentic” local yangban class in his hometown, Koch’ang. See Sŏ, “Sin Chaehyo ŭi segye insik,” 161–62.  32See, for example, PKSK, 432. Kangsoe shows his enmity toward all males in general.  33See Sŏ, “Sin Chae-hyo ŭi segye insik,” 163.  34A similar example of the main character in a novel serving as the author’s alter ego can be found in Yesou puyan (Humble words of an old rustic), a Qing novel written by the unsuccessful degree candidate Xia Jingqu. The main character of the novel, Wen Suchen, is depicted as a Confucian superhero who excels in both literary skills and martial arts, just as Kangsoe does. Another critical similarity between Wen Suchen and Kangsoe is that Suchen also possesses superb skills in the bedchamber. He is depicted as a figure with enormous “yang energy.” With his excessive yang power, Suchen not only marries four concubines, but defeats grotesque yin monsters who use sexual licentiousness as their weapon. Martin Huang interprets Wen Suchen’s erudite and heroic image in the novel as Xia Jingqu’s alter ego. As a matter of fact, the most important task for Xia Jingqu as the author is to have his alter ego (Suchen) in the novel fulfill a lifelong obsession of his, namely, achieving success in the examination with all the fancy honors that attend this. For further arguments on Suchen being the alter ego of the author, see Huang, Literati and Self-Representation, 127; and Epstein, Competing Discourses, 231. It is particularly noteworthy that both Sin Chae-hyo and Xia Jingqu were frustrated scholars who were not given the opportunity to fulfill their dream of maintaining a successful career holding high office and produced novels whose main characters are frustrated heroes endowed with literary and martial skills.  35See Sŏ, “Sin Chae-hyo ŭi segye insik,” 177; and Kim Sŏk-pae, 349.  36Sŏ, “Sin Chae-hyo ŭi segye insik,” 167.  37PKSK, 428.


    Whether Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ are itinerant homeless people or urban idlers, it is obvious that they are rejected by society. Their decision to live in seclusion is due to the fact that they cannot live harmoniously with ordinary, settled people.38 Neither Kangsoe nor Ongnyŏ thinks their rejection by society is their fault. As discussed above, Kangsoe thinks he is underestimated and eventually develops hatred toward society, while Ongnyŏ’s hardships are depicted as a fate over which she has no control. Both face rejection, but Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ differ in their attitudes toward dealing with their situation. Kangsoe never compromises; he does not admit that it might be he who is wrong, and he is unwilling to change himself to fit into society. Ongnyŏ, however, shows a strong attachment to the pursuit of a happy life and struggles to survive in society.

    Their distinct natures are also betrayed in their names. The name Kangsoe seems to be derived from Kangsu from the “Anecdote of Pyŏn Kangsu.” Although the Chinese character corresponding to Kang is not designated in the PKSK text, it is not hard to find one when we compare the name Kangsoe with the name Ongnyŏ, which literally means “Madam Ong” or “Woman Ong.” Her name in fact implies that she is a woman who pursues harmony within society and attempts to compromise with harsh surroundings, since Sino-Korean ong 雍 is interpreted as “to be harmonious, soothing or concordant.”39 As a matter of fact, the narrator calls her “a woman pursuing compromise.” It is notable that Ongnyŏ never abandons the possibility of acquiring a decent husband instead of getting angry with her harsh fate.

    Sino-Korean kang 剛 , on the contrary, can be interpreted as “being firm, strong, indomitable,”40 which accurately and properly symbolizes Kangsoe’s attitude to dealing with society. Kang also denotes “stubbornly uncompromising” in a word like kangjik.41 We can also understand that su in Kangsu somehow became soe,42 which was often used as the final character for a typical male servant’s name or a low-class person’s name (cf. madangsoe, Tolsoe, etc.). Here we can see that Kangsoe’s name itself connotes his nature and his social standing. Although he has the potential to establish himself as an upright person, he is fettered to his humble social standing, which eventually stimulates his uncompromising resentment toward society. Although we are not sure whether it was Sin Chae-hyo who created this connotation and contrast for the names Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ, it can be argued that this connotation and contrast are not mere coincidence.43

    In this context, it is quite natural for Kangsoe to challenge the changsŭng. Although various analyses of the identity and role of the changsŭng have been made,44 scholars tend to disregard the basic role of changsŭng as a symbol of civilization in general. In Chosŏn Korea, wherever there was a town or a village, there stood a changsŭng. Kangsoe and Ongnyŏ were rejected by settled people and abandoned the idea of living in the city with them (tobang saenghwal). For Kangsoe, the changsŭng is a symbol of the civilization of settled people that rejects him. In this respect, it is natural for Kangsoe to feel that a changsŭng is less useful even than trees on a mountain for him, since Kangsoe cannot derive any benefit from the society represented by the changsŭng. When Kangsoe approaches the changsŭng, it “gets angry, turns red in the face and glares at Kangsoe.”45 This harsh attitude on the part of the changsŭng in fact reflects how Kangsoe feels toward the society that repudiates him. There is no room for reconciliation between them.

    However, Chŏng Pyŏng-hŏn asserts that the changsŭng represents the preexisting order, system, and ideology of the governing class in that the changsŭng is compared to an official in the royal court (chogwan). Chŏng notes that the changsŭng in the narrative have their own complex social hierarchy.46 Here it can be argued that Kangsoe is challenging the social contradictions that restrict him by chopping up and burning the changsŭng. Just as Sin Chae-hyo enjoyed watching yangban bend at their “arrogant” waists with his invention of an unusually low gate, Kangsoe punishes this presumptuous eyesore by disregarding its authority and treating it as mere firewood.

    Kangsoe’s audacious challenge to authority is repaid with even harsher revenge. The scene of Kangsoe’s wrongful death and his curse is the section that has produced the most numerous debates (and misinterpretations) to date. Some think Kangsoe joins the male authority represented by the changsŭng in that Kangsoe also forces his conservative and old-fashioned ideas upon Ongnyŏ.47 Kim Chong-ch’ŏl does not understand why Kangsoe becomes a wronged soul.48 Pak Kwan-su wonders why Kangsoe does not take revenge on the changsŭng.49 These various interpretations and questions all disregard the fact that, for Kangsoe, who was rejected by society and could not join the settled life of ordinary people, the only accomplishment he could cherish was his romantic affair with Ongnyŏ, just as Sin Chae-hyo’s only outlet was P’ansori. Kangsoe’s strong pride in his mastery of romantic affairs was already discussed above. To Kangsoe, death means his only accomplishment is challenged by authority because it means the termination of his romantic relationship with Ongnyŏ.

    Accordingly, Kangsoe wants to remain the only partner in Ongnyŏ’s romantic affairs. For Kangsoe, any men who approach Ongnyŏ after his death are representative of the authority trying to take away Kangsoe’s ultimate pride, whether they really belong to that authority or not.50 The fact that Kangsoe clings to Teptŭgi (the competitor most capable of taking away Ongnyŏ) until the last moment can be understood in this context. Consequently, Kangsoe’s curse upon Ongnyŏ can be understood as his curse on the authority endeavoring to take away his ultimate accomplishment. Kangsoe’s indomitable pride prevents him from admitting defeat at the hands of authority, as depicted by Kangsoe’s unyielding resistance until the very last moment.51 In short, as long as the unfair authority does not withdraw, Kangsoe’s resentment cannot cease.

    38See PKSK, 430. Ongnyŏ persuades Kangsoe to live as a recluse, saying, “With your temper, you will eventually be killed if we continue to live in the city; and saving money will be impossible.”  39Refer to Mathews’ Chinese Dictionary, 1133. Interestingly, ong does not have other meanings.  40See John DeFrancis, ABC Dictionary, 185. Although there are quite a few Chinese characters whose Korean pronunciation is kang, those characters traditionally selected for names are quite limited; kang 剛 and kang 強 , the two most frequently used Chinese characters for a name, in fact have identical meanings. It can also be noted that soe in pure Korean means “iron” or “steel,” which often carries sexual connotations for male strength.  41Kangjik is often used to praise an official who is uncorrupted and upright. In other words, kangjik is an expression applied only to yangban of integrity. I assert that the inclusion of kang in his name, with kang’s multiple implications, shows that Kangsoe’s neglected talents might have the potential to be developed in a positive direction if given the opportunity. Of course, Sin Chae-hyo might have thought he deserved the same opportunity.  42It can be argued that there may have been different prototype names for Kangsoe. This does not affect the conclusion here, though, since my interpretation of the name Kangsoe is limited to Sin Chae-hyo’s version of PKSK.  43Surprisingly, no one has thus far paid attention to the meaning of the protagonists’ names in PKSK. It is common to decipher the implications of protagonists’ names in traditional Chinese fiction. For example, the title of Jin ping mei, one of the Four Masterpieces of the Ming novel, is “conventionally translated as ‘The Plum in the Golden Vase’ or ‘The Golden Lotus,’ but the primary reference in the title is to the three most important female characters of the novel.” See Rolston, ed., How to Read the Chinese Novel, xiii.  44Chŏn summarizes the discussions on the conflict between Kangsoe and the changsŭng. See Chŏn, 106–7. Kim Chong-ch’ŏl also introduces various discussions of the changsŭng and disapproves of all preexisting theories. See Kim, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka wa kigoemi,” 47–49.  45PKSK, 436.  46Chŏng Pyŏng-hŏn, 371–74.  47For example, see Chŏng Pyŏng-hŏn, 371.  48Kim Chong-ch’ŏl, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka wa kigoemi,” 50. Kim thinks a villain such as Kangsoe does not deserve to have a grudge to harass other males after his death.  49Pak Kwan-su, 286.  50Kangsoe shows his firm enmity toward his potential competitors in terms of romantic affairs when he decides to leave the city, saying, “I would rather starve for ten years than see those scamps trying to seduce my woman.” See PKSK, 430.  51As Kim Chong-ch’ŏl points out, according to the traditional concept of spirits, Kangsoe’s grudge should be relieved by proper prayer or sacrificial ceremonies (cf. footnote 48). However, Kangsoe’s unyielding resentment after his death reveals that his grudge is not something private but is a protest against social contradiction as a whole.


    Kangsoe’s death is a turning point in PKSK in many aspects. The latter half of PKSK after Kangsoe’s death accommodates a number of characters, among whom various kwangdae groups generate the festive mood of Bakhtin’s carnival. Observing Kangsoe’s death along with the appearance of these new characters, some scholars assert that the protagonists in the latter half of the narrative have changed. Thanks to the carnivalesque mood, the tension derived from the conflict between Kangsoe and the changsŭng seen in the first half seems somewhat relieved on the surface. However, it can be argued that, although Kangsoe does not appear as a live character in the latter half of PKSK, the grudge that his wronged soul bears is still dominant in the latter half, only to be assuaged to some extent by Teptŭgi at the end.

    We have already observed that the ego and temper of Kangsoe resemble those of Sin Chae-hyo. Scholars also note that it is Sin Chae-hyo who bolstered and developed the lewdness and licentiousness in PKSK.52 Interestingly, it is also Sin who emphasized lewdness at least as a surface theme.53 It is also notable that the lewdness of PKSK is predominant in the first half through Kangsoe’s bold behavior, while the theme of admonition of dissoluteness prevails in the second half. Consequently, it can be argued that Kangsoe is used to betray Sin Chae-hyo’s wild imagination, his resentment toward an absurd social system, his disdain for the petty moralism of yangban, and his unrestrained pursuit of an aesthetic value in erotica. However, Sin’s boldness also declines the moment Kangsoe dies, and his sense of reality gradually returns in the latter half.

    Sin’s sense of polarity between the ideal and the real is clearly betrayed in his way of thinking. Lamenting that he did not meet with the right time and with better luck, Sin must have been aware that his status as a famous P’ansori patron was due not to his literary or martial skills, but came from the great wealth accumulated by his parents and himself.54 As a matter of fact, Sin exposes his intention to improve the situation around him by making use of his wealth.55 Although Sin relieves his resentment through Kangsoe at first, in the latter half of the story he looks for a proper excuse to escape from the bold ideas Kangsoe portrayed. As a matter of fact, Sin degrades Kangsoe and the ideas he disclosed with his manipulation of the emphasis on lewdness and with the punishment of licentiousness of which Sin himself once approved. For Sin, the punishment of Kangsoe on the charge of being a profligate is the least painful and most traditional way of returning to reality.

    Concerning this traditional, didactic conclusion to works of erotic fiction, Patrick Hanan notes, “The libertine’s adulterous adventures may enthrall the reader with their glimpse of forbidden pleasure, but ultimately they must fail. Sexuality for the Chinese writer, unlike the Western apostle of eroticism from Sade to Lawrence, was a drive that had to lose when it collided with social values.”56 Nevertheless, it can also be argued that what Sin considered riskiest about Kangsoe was his violation of the social norm caused by his resentment, and that the charge of lewdness for Kangsoe was used as a nominal disguise.

    Teptŭgi is the character employed by Sin for this purpose. In other words, if we can compare Kangsoe as the alter ego of Sin in the ideal, Teptŭgi is his other alter ego in the real. It is notable that Teptŭgi is the only character who recognizes Kangsoe as a heroic figure, comparing Kangsoe with other tragic heroes who did not meet their time, such as Jing Ke and Xiang Yu.57 Teptŭgi also adds, “The most righteous man of all time! Who can console you but your most intimate friend! … You are the most gallant man in this world. Master of drinking and leader in the pleasure quarters! Your reputation can be found everywhere and there are none who do not fear you. Once wishing to live with flowerlike beauty for a hundred years, you never thought this ephemeral dew-like life would be gone in a day! Grieved and grudged, you surely cannot close your eyes!”58 Here we find a striking resemblance between Kangsoe’s evaluation of himself and Teptŭgi’s praise for him. In fact, Teptŭgi has never even met Kangsoe in the story. Even Ongnyŏ, who has the most intimate relationship with Kangsoe, does not understand the pride and ambition of Kangsoe as a gallant figure. As Teptŭgi mentions in his narration, none but Kangsoe’s most intimate friends can comprehend Kangsoe’s self-appreciation.59 It is obvious that Teptŭgi is a potential intimate of Kangsoe, as they share the feature of becoming Sin Chaehyo’s personifications in the PKSK story. It can be argued that Teptŭgi also shows that he is a reflection of Sin in that he is the only one in PKSK who shares the understanding of the romantic affairs with Kangsoe as a pleasure-quarters frequenter (oiphan saram).60

    We have argued that Teptŭgi and Kangsoe, as the two polemic reflections of Sin Chae-hyo’s inner conflict, betray the realism and idealism of Sin, respectively. However, Sin chooses to return to reality for his conclusion. Sin’s conflict is so bitter that Kangsoe does not withdraw even after his corpse is cut into three pieces. Eventually, Sin makes the realistic version of his alter ego annihilate the idealistic version. The moment Teptŭgi grinds Kangsoe’s corpse into particles is in fact the moment Sin Chae-hyo grinds his ambitions and resentment into pieces, returning to his reality as a wealthy minor local official.

    In his “narration of pulverizing” (karijil sasŏl), Teptŭgi declares, “I almost died four times, barely saving my life each time. I will abstain from lechery in this fleeting life so that I can become an upright person.”61 On this sudden and obscure surface theme, Hanan mentions, “Erotic novels obviously cannot be taken at their face value as the dire warnings they profess to be. For all its obsessiveness, the libertine adventure is presented to us with so much gusto that we are surely meant to enjoy it.”62 Although Teptŭgi leaves Ongnyŏ to take care of the wife and children that he never mentions previously, readers might follow and admire Kangsoe’s adventure of “falling into the trap of infatuation.” This may be the key to explaining why Sin Chae-hyo’s overly didactic revisions were not welcomed by P’ansori performers.

    52Pak Chin-t’ae points out that although PKSK originally had lewdness to some extent, it is Sin Chae-hyo who developed the bold licentiousness in the narration of PKSK. See Pak Chin-t’ae, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka ŭi ŭmnansŏng chaego,” 297–321. Kim Chong-ch’ŏl also notes the sensuality of PKSK. See Kim, “Pyŏn Kangsoe-ka wa kigoemi,” 71, 74.  53For the theme of lewdness, see Pak Chin-t’ae’s article mentioned above.  54See Sŏ, “Sin Chae-hyo ŭi segye insik,” 159–64.  55Ibid., 165.  56See Hanan, The Carnal Prayer Mat, viii (emphasis in original).  57PKSK, 486.  58PKSK, 486.  59The literati’s ceaseless desire to seek a friend who truly recognizes his talent and virtue has been one of the most popular and persistent topics in traditional Chinese and Korean literature. In premodern Chinese and Korean society where Neo-Confucianism functioned as the predominant ideology, many intellectuals believed that having a true zhiji (often translated as “soul mate” or “intimate companion”) is more important than obtaining wealth and fame. This notion is based on the famous saying “A shi 士 dies for one who appreciates his value [zhiji zhe 知己者 ], and a woman adorns herself for one who admires her [yueji zhe 樂己者 ].” Translation cited in Huang, 80. In this respect, Kangsoe is in a worse situation than Wen Suchen, whose four concubines make up his zhiji. In Yesou puyan, Suchen discovers a zhiji in each of his four future concubines when he learns about their various talents and eventually makes all four “soul mates” his concubines. However, Ongnyŏ, who struggles hard to make a living alone without Kangsoe’s help, does not share his grudge caused by society neglecting his talents, leaving Teptŭgi as the only figure who shares Kangsoe’s sentiment in the work. Also see Henry, “The Motif of Recognition in Early China,” 4– 30, for more discussion on the literati’s desire for recognition.  60See PKSK, 469. Also see footnote 18.  61PKSK, 488. That Teptŭgi almost died four times because of his attachment to lechery might be the confession of Sin Chae-hyo himself. Unfortunately, it is not clear whether Sin in fact had this experience.  62Hanan, viii.

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