Ch’unhyang—further typological comparisons from late-Chosŏn Korean song culture and modern Korean film culture

2018.09.05 | By Gregory Nagy

§0.1. Continuing my commentary on the film Ch’unhyang as a point of typological comparison, I will compare here, more broadly, the visual art of film-making with the verbal art of poetry and song as we see that art at work in the epic and lyric traditions of ancient Greece. In making such a comparison, I will highlight two general features of verbal art, metaphor and metonym (an alternative way of referring to the second of these features is metonymy). Examples of these two features can easily be found in both the Korean and the ancient Greek verbal arts, but my emphasis for now is different: examples can also be found in the modern visual art of film-making as we see it at work in the film Ch’unhyang. And what I find most remarkable about the uses of metaphor and metonym in this film, as also in all visual arts, is that these uses are transcendent, that is, they are relatively free of limitations. Similarly in the case of ancient Greek verbal art, as we will see, the uses of metaphor and metonym transcend categories of genre such as epic and lyric—even if we accept the idea that Homeric poetry is a general form of epic, and that the singing of lament is a specialized form of lyric.

After Ch’unhyang, directed by Im Kwon-taek (2000): Ch’unhyang facing her tormentor.

“Clips Notes” Hour 4: comments on audio-video segments (“clips”) relevant to Hour 4 of The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours

§0.2. In comments I have written so far, for Hour 3, on clips taken from the film Ch’unhyang, my perspective was relatively narrow: I concentrated on analyzing songs of lament as “quoted” or “acted” or, better, re-enacted by the singer. The medium for the re-enacting was p’ansori song, which as we saw could function as a narrative frame for songs of lament. When I say narrative frame, what I mean is that the storyteller told his story about a lamenting woman while framing her lament as a real song of lament. Such framing of lament in the p’ansori tradition, as we also saw, is comparable to what we find in narratives belonging to the ancient Greek epic tradition of Homeric poetry. In Greek epic, as in p’ansori song, the storytelling about a woman’s lament can frame that lament as a real song of lament. But now, for Hour 4, my perspective will widen.

§1.0. That said, I now return to the late-Chosŏn form of song known as p’ansori, sometimes described as “epic,” with specific reference to the re-enactment of this form in the film Ch’unhyang.

§1.1. I start with some general comments, §§1.1–1.3, deriving from an occasion, long ago (2005.10.11), when I gave an informal talk about the film after showing it to a diverse audience of students, colleagues, and old friends. In writing up these comments, I have jogged my memory by consulting minutes stemming from that occasion, written for me at the time by Andrew Paik.

§1.2. On that occasion, I kept emphasizing two things that may seem all too obvious. First, in the traditional medium of Korean “epic,” the “audio” of the performance interacts with the “video” of the mind’s eye, and the result is visualization. Second, in the modern medium of the film Ch’unhyang, the director is attempting to represent such interaction of audio and video as he sees it at work in the traditional “epic.” In making such an ambitious attempt, he manages to transform the world of poetry and song into a world of film.

An example from the film

§1.3. Here is an example of such transformation. It is where that the song of the p’ansori singer says, metaphorically, that I long to go, I long to go, I long to follow my love, The wind goes, the clouds go, all creatures, even a wild hawk, they all fly beyond the Tongsŏl Pass. I long to cross over it to follow my love (translation by Ivanna Yi). Then, following what the song says, the eye of the camera will see, literally, a wild falcon soaring over these snowy ridges.

In the YouTube version of, the sequence starts at hour 1:00:37 and it continues till hour 1:02:01.

A working definition of metaphor

§2. At H24H 4§32, I give a brief definition of metaphor. And is a more detailed version of this definition at 0§01 in my book Masterpieces of Metonymy:

Metaphor is a mental process that expresses meaning by substituting something, which is Y, for something else, which is X.

In the example we have just seen, the wild falcon as it soars is substituted for the sheltered young girl as she longs for the young boy who abandoned her.

I have an added observation, which I developed in the second of the two books I have just cited: when Y is substituted for X, it can be unfamiliar in some ways to X.

The wild ways of the falcon, for example, are surely unfamiliar in some ways to the sheltered ways of the young girl. To say it another way: when Y is substituted for X, in can be alien in some ways to X.

On the other hand, the substitution of Y for X can also be familiar, not alien, in some ways. The wild falcon, to go back to the same example, will seem familiar in some ways to the sheltered young girl. Her wild longing to wander away makes the falcon seem familiar to her as she watches the bird literally wandering away. Such a mental connection between X and Y, where Y becomes familiar to X, is a metonymy.

A working definition of metonymy

§3. Here is my working definition of metonymy, as formulated at 0§01 in the book Masterpieces of Metonymy:

Metonymy is a mental process that expresses meaning by connecting something to something else that is next to it or at least near to it, thereby making contact.

Once again, as in my earlier definition of metaphor, I have an added observation, and, this time, it is about metonymy: when Y is connected to X, since it is the nearest thing to X, it seems familiar, not alien.

General observation about the film

§4. I return here to the picturing of a wild falcon soaring over the snowy ridges of a solitary mountain… I see here a perfect example of the beauties to be found in this film, Ch’unhyang. The whole work, I think, is a treasure-house for learning how verbal art can be transformed into the visual art of film.

Some relevant background about the p’ansori tradition that inspired the film

§5. The story as it is told in the film Ch’unhyang opens in a seemingly narrow way, showing the p’ansori performer singing “on stage.” For those who have never before experienced a p’ansori performance, there is a feeling of defamiliarization. The “falsetto” voice of the male performer surprises. But, as time goes by, the voice starts to fit, especially for re-enacting a female voice in pain. I already made such an observation at §9 of my comments on the film at Hour 3.

§6. Here is another surprise… Right from the start, we note the p’ansori performer’s deft gestures with the fan that he is holding during performance. These gestures and gesticulations spill over, eventually, from the performer to the characters who are being re-enacted by the performer. We have already seen an example, described at §15C in the comments at Hour 3 about the film: there the closed fan that is lifted on high by the singer becomes, metaphorically, an enormous seven-foot sword, big enough to behead a horse. Further, at the final climax of the “epic,” the male hero himself, named Mongryong, will be gesturing with his own fan as a personal signal that will now prompt his followers to attack his enemies and take revenge.

In the YouTube version of, the sequence starts at 2:04:50.

In an uncannily comparable way, Odysseus takes revenge against his own enemies at the end of the Odyssey:

§7. With regard to the typological comparison I have just made between Mongryong and Odysseus… For those who feel inspired to view the film Ch’unhyang in its entirety, I note here, in passing, a striking overall parallelism between the self-disguising of Mongryong as a lowly beggar in the second half of the Korean “epic” and the self-disguising of Odysseus, likewise as a beggar, in the second half of the Odyssey.

An extended exercise in analyzing the poetics at work in the film Ch’unhyang: Chunhyang as both metaphor and metonym

§8. I marvel at the meaning of the name given to the female hero Ch’unhyang: the scent of flowers blossoming at springtime. In the light of this meaning, the occasional references to the persona of Ch’unhyang as a goddess, occasionally translated as “angel,” seem to me all the more suggestive.

§9. The name of Ch’unhyang is basically a metaphor: the scent of a flower blossoming at springtime is being substituted here for the girl. As is true with any metaphor, the comparison that results from the substitution is in some ways unfamiliar, alien. It is to be expected, surely, that the scent of a flower in springtime will be in some ways alien to the essence of the girl. She will say it herself, in song, as I show at §19 below. She will sing, through the voice of the p’ansori singer, what I can paraphrase this way: I would rather not be a flower, since flowers wilt. So, wilting is alien to Ch’unhyang. But, on the other hand, blossoming is for her the most familiar thing in the world. Thus, even though any comparison by way of metaphor will be in some ways alien, the fact remains that, in other ways, the same comparison will be perfect in its familiarity.

§10. There is something about the scent of a flower and about the essence of the girl herself that blends here perfectly. There is a familiarity that connects the scent and the essence. And, once the story of Ch’unhyang becomes familiar to its avid listeners, they will readily connect in their minds the universal delight of smelling the fragrance of beautiful flowers blossoming in springtime with the special delight of hearing the story of a beautiful girl whose very name points to this delight. Thus the naming of Ch’unhyang extends from metaphor into metonymy. The scent of blossoms in springtime is literally connected to the story of Ch’unhyang, not only to her name.

§11. In what follows, I will argue further that both the name and the persona of Ch’unhyang in the “plot” or “narrative arc” of the traditional story that is named after her can be viewed as essential ingredients in the poetics of metaphor and metonymy.

§12. The meaning of the name for Ch’unhyang, celebrating the fragrances that signal the seasonality of springtime, is I think directly relevant to a song that Mongryong overhears on the occasion of a local festival that actually celebrates the coming of spring. It happens early on in the story, and here is the clip.

In the YouTube version of, the sequence starts at hour 0:14:00.

The song starts already at hour 0:14:07. The overall occasion, as I already said, is a festival celebrating the arrival of springtime. This song is being sung at a festive celebration that Mongryong is attending, and the beauty of the song’s wording attracts his attention. The film visually stages in the background the singing of the song. By contrast, Mongryong is visually staged in the foreground, and it is from here that he overhears the song being sung not for him, in front of him, but behind him, in the background. But this background, as we are about to see, is in fact only a middleground for us the viewers of the film. What I mean is, we can see a further background to this background, so that the earlier background can now shift into a middleground. Back in the further background, all the way back, behind the middleground, we see a festive group of revelers. Those revelers in the further background are all absorbed in the merriment of the local festival that celebrates the arrival of spring. As for the middleground, we begin to see here a more intense kind of reveling. Standing here is a dapper gentleman, with his back to the camera—and with his back to Mongryong, too. Even we the viewers can only see him from behind, since he is turned away from us as well. The standing gentleman is singing a song while looking directly at a seated lady. She is facing us the viewers while occasionally glancing at the singer, listening to him distractedly while inhaling puffs of opiate smoke out of an overlong waterpipe. The singing of the dapper gentleman here in the middleground seems aimed at seduction. The singing is seductive, but only when the song is coming to the end does Mongryong finally look back and view the scene, though he has been listening to the song all the while. Then, turning once again toward his own fellow revelers, and now facing us the viewers once again, Mongryong starts musing out loud about the beautiful words of the song that he has just heard the singer sing. He repeats to himself the words of the song, without the melody, as he looks dreamily ahead. I show here a translation, adapted from the wording as embedded in the captions for the film:

Though I never knew how deep it was—that bright light of springtime,
everywhere the peach blossoms are already in bloom.
A pair of butterflies did not intend to linger,
but are fluttering from flower to flower.
White and red flowers, white and red flowers.

(retranslated from the captions in consultation with Dr. Ivanna Yi)

Here again is the relevant clip:, starting at hour 0:14:00.

§13. Then, right in the middle of his distracted musings, all of a sudden, Mongryong catches sight of Ch’unhyang for the very first time. And, off camera, all at the same time and just as suddenly, the singing falsetto voice of the p’ansori singer now breaks in, announcing the appearance of this “angelic girl.” The first two lines of the singer’s song go like this…

What a beauty appears from the flowery field.
Like the sun and like the moon, the lovely girl appears…

(retranslated from the captions in consultation with Dr. Ivanna Yi)

Here again is the relevant clip:, starting at hour 0:15:26.

§14. All the reveling that we have just seen going on here at this springtime festival—in the foreground, in the middleground, in the background—reminds me of the ancient Greek kōmos, mentioned so often in the celebratory songs of Pindar: the word kōmos in those songs actually means ‘revel, reveling, band of revelers, occasion for reveling’, as I note in my comment on Pindar’s Isthmian 8, lines 1–4.

§15. As the eye of the camera was lingering over all this festive reveling, a singer, as we saw, had emerged in the middleground. His song had picked up on the general atmosphere of merriment in the background and was then in turn picked up—overheard—in the foreground, where the superficially flirtatious words of the song could now become serious poetry in the heart of Mongryong. This boy is beginning to understand, foregrounded as he is, the deeper meaning of the words that the dapper gentleman has sung to a distracted lady in hopes of seducing her.

§16. Thinking of the middleground and the background of this festive scene as an overall background for the foreground where Mongryong overhears the song that is being sung behind him, we the viewers may ask ourselves: is the singing in the overall background really a backgrounding of the story? Is it background music, as it were? Or, is the background singing perhaps even a foregrounding? After all, what is backgrounded visually in the film may be intended as a premonition for a foregrounding in the rest of the story. Such interweaving between background and foreground is “good to think with” as we read comparable interweavings in the Iliad and Odyssey.

§17. To take further this idea of backgrounding and foregrounding, I review here what we have seen so far. And I focus again on that singular moment when Mongryong overhears the springtime song being sung in the background behind him. He turns backward and catches sight of the merriment that pervades the celebration of the springtime festival. Then he turns forward again, looking dreamily ahead into the foreground. Gazing almost directly into the eye of the camera, he starts repeating to himself, ever so wistfully, the words of the overheard song, which speak nostalgically about the attraction of butterflies to the scent of blossoms in springtime. And then, in the midst of his reverie, he suddenly catches sight of Ch’unhyang, that incarnation of flowers blossoming in springtime. The attraction that he experiences, compared to the attraction that happens to butterflies, is the beautiful sight of Ch’unhyang. But, true to her name, the scent of Ch’unhyang could be attracting the would-be lover just as surely as the scent of flowers blossoming in springtime attracts butterflies. I sense here a metonymy of smelling and touching and tasting as I consider the interaction of these three senses, and such interaction is combined here with a fourth sense, sight, which in turn had been triggered by the fifth sense, sound. What had led to the first sighting of Ch’unhyang was the sound—the sound of music. It was the music of the song about the attraction of butterflies to the scent of blossoms in the merry season of spring. It was this sound, the sound of the song, that had first been picked up by the senses of the would-be lover. Then and only then did the sight of Ch’unhyang come into view. Just as the butterflies of the song are attracted by the primal scent of flowers in springtime, so too is the would-be lover attracted to his beloved Ch’unhyang. And, for this lover, the attraction gets to be felt through all five of the senses, in a riot of synesthesia. I have studied the poetics of such “synesthesia” at 1§§9–21 in Masterpieces of Metonymy.

§18. Before I go on, I need to repeat my working definition of metaphor at 0§01 in the book Masterpieces of Metonymy:

Metaphor is a mental process that expresses meaning by substituting something for something else.

§19. This repetition is needed because I also need to emphasize here, one last time, a basic fact in the story. The primal metonymy of Ch’unhyang, who connects with the scent of blossoms attracting butterflies in springtime, is itself connected with a primal metaphor about Ch’unhyang. She herself, as we saw, is like a flower in blossom. That is, she is compared by way of metaphor—and compared often—to a flower that blossoms at springtime. Or, to put it in metaphorical terms, the flower is substituted for Ch’unhyang. But the would-be flower resists such a substitution. As I already anticipated above, at §9, Ch’unhyang herself will say, in response to the metaphor, that she would rather not be compared to a flower, to a peach blossom.

In the YouTube version of, the sequence starts at hour 0:41:30.

I am about to show the wording of the song, sung by the p’ansori singer, who is performing here the roles of both Ch’unhyang and Mongryang. While the duet is being sung off-camera by this soloist, the camera views the couple making passionate love. Mediated by the singing of the p’ansori singer, Mongryang is the first to speak, singing to Ch’unhyang: “When you die, become a flower—a peach blossom that blooms in the spring.” Now the soloist shifts from singing the role of Mongryang, and now he sings the role of Ch’unhyang. who is responding to her lover: “When a blossom wilts, then the butterfly will not come. The butterfly will look for a new flower, so I do not want to be a flower.” Now the roles shift again, and Mongryang responds in song back to Ch’unhyang: “Then, you become a bell.” After all, the beauty of a flower will wilt, but the beauty of the sound that a bell makes, at festivals celebrating year after year the arrival of spring, will never perish. That beautiful sound will be the music of Ch’unhyang. The metonymy that connects Ch’unhyang with the scent of flowers at yearly celebrations of spring festivals will be preserved forever by the metaphor of sound, which is the song of Ch’unhyang. Even if Ch’unhyang herself perishes, her song will never wilt. Such a metaphor is comparable—movingly so, I think—to the metaphor of Achilles as a wilting flower in ancient Greek song culture. I analyze that metaphor at 4§38 of H24H.

§20. The interweaving of metaphor and metonymy continues. At a later point in the storytelling, where Mongryong competes with a multitude of rivals in taking the State Examination that will determine which competitor will be awarded which kind of governmental office, the topic that is posted for the exercise in writing that has been assigned to all competitors is this:

“From then till now, the spring pond and the color of spring remain one.”

Here again is the relevant clip:, from hour 1:27:28 to1:27:44.

Thus the topic of the State Examination that Mongryong is destined to pass, winning the highest score and the highest official position in the government, is a continuation of the meaning carried forever by the name of his lady love Ch’unhyang, which is, the scent of an eternal spring.

For a deeper explanation of this mysterious line, I turn to my colleague Dr. Ivanna Yi:

First, it may be helpful to note that the language the line is written in is not Korean, but Classical Chinese, which some scholars call Literary Sinitic. CC / LS was the lingua franca of East Asia before the 20th century, the language of scholarship, government, and most literature in Chosŏn Korea. As Mongryong is taking the civil service exam, all of the writing would have been conducted in LS.

Literally, the line 春塘春色古今同 reads “Spring Pond Spring Color Past Present Same.” Commentaries show that 春塘 Spring Pond here alluded to a portion of a palace in Seoul where the King resided. Put together with the remaining characters, the line was intended to express that the King had, through wise and efficacious government, created peace and prosperity throughout the land. Of course, with two “springs” in the line, Mongryong is reminded of Ch’unhyang and this spurs him on to receive the top exam result.

Ivanna Yi 2018.09.04