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

2018.09.05 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. I focus here on two clips that I could describe as “lament-by-premonition” and “lament during moments of excruciating pain.” These clips will both involve a kind of comparison that is known as “typological.” Here is a working definition from H24H 3§11… typological comparison is a kind of comparative method that has to do with the study of parallelisms between structures as structures pure and simple, without any presuppositions. Such a mode of comparison is especially useful in fields like linguistics: comparing parallel structures in languages—even if the given languages are unrelated to each other—is a proven way of enhancing one’s overall understanding of the linguistic structures being compared. In what follows, I will not be doing any linguistic comparisons, however. Instead, I will simply be comparing art forms as they exist in two historically unrelated cultures, ancient/medieval/modern Greek and late-Chosŏn/modern Korean.

“Clips Notes” Hour 3: comments on audio-video segments (“clips”) relevant to Hour 3 of The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours

§1. Ch’unhyang is the name of a female hero who figures in Korean traditions of song originating in the late Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910). The specific tradition is named p’ansori, which is sometimes described (loosely) as “epic.” The Chosŏn song tradition about Ch’unhyang was converted into a film, released in the year 2000, which was directed by Im Kwon-taek (screenplay by Kang Hye-yeon and Kim Myung-gon). I so admire this film, and I wrote about it in H24H 3§§23–25. I would like to think that it was this write-up that led to the publication of a Korean-language version of H24H, published in Korea by Sigma Press in 2015:

After <em>Ch’unhyang</em>, directed by Im Kwon-taek (2000): Ch’unhyang and her secret husband.
After Ch’unhyang, directed by Im Kwon-taek (2000): Ch’unhyang and her secret husband.

§2. Clip 1: lament-by-premonition

In the Youtube version of, the sequence starts at hour 0:47:15 or so.

Here is an epitome of what I say about this clip in H24H 3§24:
In this scene, the young woman Ch’unhyang breaks out in a song of lament when she absorbs the sad news of a terrible fate that awaits her. Her secret husband, Mongryong, announces to her that he will abandon her, though only for a while, he claims. The reaction of Ch’unhyang is instantaneous grief. Her sorrow is mixed with feelings of love for her husband, and with feelings of fear and anger that she will lose him forever. It is in this context that she bursts into a lament, accompanied by ritual gestures, such as the violent tearing of her clothes, which is a ritual premonition of the violence she will endure because of her low social rank, now that her high-ranking secret husband is leaving her. This violent tearing of clothes dramatizes her sexual vulnerability in the uncertain future that now awaits her. In the plot of the Ch’unhyang narrative, that vulnerability will turn out to be a grim reality for this abandoned woman, whose low social status makes her become the tragic victim of predatory men of high social status. Her lament is a premonition that anticipates this reality, as she keeps on crying and singing. And the master Narrator quotes the lament of Ch’unhyang as she cries and sings. This way, by quoting the lament of Ch’unhyang, the Narrator performs his own stylized crying and singing, which is more artistic than the lament of Ch’unhyang. When Ch’unhyang is lamenting, her crying and singing are more natural, not as musical as the stylized crying and singing of the master Narrator, and her lament is echoing in a kind of delayed reaction the singing of her lament as performed by the master Narrator. In the middle of her lament, the macro-Narrative of the film, who is the p’ansori singer, shows flashbacks to happy moments in the past when Ch’unhyang is seen making love to her secret husband. These erotic flashbacks have the effect of intensifying the sorrow of Ch’unhyang as she thinks back to those happy moments in the past that preceded her excruciating pain and suffering in the present. And, conversely, her sorrow intensifies the eroticism of these flashbacks. What we may observe, in “reading” the lament of Ch’unhyang, is a typological parallel to the first laments of Andromache in the Homeric Iliad as analyzed in H24H 3§22 and 3§26. In Iliad 6, Andromache—like Ch’unhyang—is performing a lament-by-premonition.

§3. Clip 2: lament during moments of excruciating pain

In the Youtube version of, the sequence starts at hour 1:08:35 or so.

Here is an epitome of what I say about this clip in H24H 3§25:
In this scene, Ch’unhyang suffers excruciating pain from the torture that is inflicted on her in public by a magistrate who had tried—but failed—to alienate her affections from her absent husband. The earlier lament of premonition sung by Ch’unhyang, accompanied by acts of ritual self-degradation like the ripping of her fine clothing, now becomes a lament of actuality, where she cries and sings over the excruciating pain of being tortured. And the lament that she sings while she is being tortured is quoted by the master Narrator himself, whose stylized crying and singing is foregrounded against the background of the natural crying and singing of Ch’unhyang as she endures the pain inflicted on her. Her crying and singing are echoing the stylized crying and singing of the master Narrator who is quoting her sad song. The macro-Narrative of the film Ch’unhyang actually gets to show the master Narrator in action. What I mean to say is, the eye of the camera sees him performing before a large audience representing a broad cross-section of ages and social status.

How to “read” the two clips…

§4. As we view the two clips featuring laments sung by the character of Ch’unhyang, we can ask ourselves: is Ch’unhyang the one who is singing or is it the p’ansori performer? In terms of the present performance by the p’ansori singer in the film, Ch’unhyang is literally echoing not only what this male performer is singing but also how he is singing what he is singing. In the film, there is a time-lapse effect, in that her singing always follows, by a few seconds, his singing. That is why I say that she literally echoes his singing. And her singing is always in the background, while his singing is always foregrounded.

§5. Viewing both clips, as we observe the emotions of Ch’unhyang while she is singing laments as re-enacted by the p’ansori performer, we can also ask ourselves two questions. First, how are the emotions of this female hero expressed by way of her own singing? And, second, how are these same emotions intensified in the singing performed by the professional performer of p’ansori song? I add here also a third question, which is related to the first two: how is the audience reacting?

§6. Let me address, first of all, the last of these three questions: how is the audience reacting? Some experts, who understand the traditions of p’ansori singing far more deeply than I do, find it something of a distraction to see in the film a traditional p’ansori singer in the act of performing the emotions of Ch’unhyang in front of a modern audience crowded into a modern auditorium. I appreciate the distraction, but my answer to my own question about the reaction of the audience points to something positive I see in the staging, as it were, of the audience. To me, what I have just now called the staging of a modern audience by the director of the film is a genuine coup de théâtre. By making visible a relatively diversified audience inside a modern auditorium, the director can cast this audience itself in the role of a broadest possible viewing public for his film. Such an idealized public, representing an even more diversified audience that must surely exist somewhere out there in the world writ large, could respond more fully to the broad emotional appeal of the story, which reaches out to the broadest possible range of humanity—to the younger as well as the older, to the “lowbrow” as well as the “highbrow,” even of course to non-Koreans as well as Koreans. I marvel, for example, at the moment when the eye of the camera suddenly turns away from picturing the pain suffered by the lamenting Ch’unhyang and now views instead the face of the p’ansori singer: he, too, seems to be feeling the same pain as he sings again what she had sung. And I marvel at the next moment, when, just as suddenly, the camera turns away from showing the singer and now shows instead the audience in the auditorium, listening intently to the song of pain as sung by the p’ansori singer. Just as the p’ansori singer seems to be feeling the same pain once felt by Ch’unhyang as he now sings again what she had once sung, so also the listeners, in all their variety, feel the same pain as well, and their faces show it. All these listeners whom we see crowded together into a modern auditorium now have a role of their own. They are no longer merely a modern audience for the traditional p’ansori singer. They have now also become the traditional listeners of the traditional song sung by Ch’unhyang herself in person.

§7. Now I address the first two of my three questions: (1) how are the emotions of Ch’unhyang as a female hero being expressed in the film by way of her own singing, and (2) how are these same emotions enhanced by way of the singing performed by the professional performer of p’ansori song? Trying to address these two questions, I will now turn back to Homeric traditions for comparison.

§8. I focus on the moment in Iliad 6 where the master Narrator of Homeric poetry is literally performing the first lament of Andromache—her lament of premonition. The performance by the Narrator, as we imagine it in the present time of his audience, is a re-performance of a traditional song of lament that had been sung once upon a time in the mythical past by Andromache herself in person. In the present time of the Narrator’s performance, however, the male voice of the performer would be expected to be the dominant register of performance, as if the far-away female voice of Andromache were by now a mere echo. Similarly in the Korean film, as I see it, Ch’unyang too is represented as merely echoing the dominant voice of the p’ansori singer who “quotes” her, as it were.

§9. In both the Greek and the Korean traditions, what is happening is that the male performer re-performs the female voice that he is “quoting,” though I do see a difference in the Korean tradition: in this case the male voice of the master Narrator has become feminized, in a way. What I mean is, the register of p’ansori singing recedes from an everyday male voice into a falsetto re-performance, as it were, of a woman’s voice singing her primal song of pain and love and all her other emotions combined. It appears that the falsetto voice can in this case pervade, even, the overall frame of narration.

§10. I have just now used not once but twice the makeshift term “quoting” in my reference to the singing, by a male singer, of a woman’s song of lament in both the late-Chosŏn Korean and the ancient Greek traditions. But the term is inadequate, since it implies—misleadingly—that the basis of the lamenting woman’s song is in each case a static text. This makeshift term, then, fails to capture the dynamic aspect of performance in a song of pain that is being sung by the woman and then re-sung by a man who sings what could or even should be primarily her song, not his.

§11. Or, I could have said “acting” instead of “quoting,” but this alternative makeshift term is also inadequate, since it implies—misleadingly—a certain measure of pretense. But the male singer is in each case not at all pretending to feel pain. Rather, to say it more accurately, he is re-enacting what it feels to feel pain. That is the point of lament, as I argued in Hour 3 of H24H. From an anthropological point of view, lamenting is when you sing while you are crying, when you cry while you are singing. Granted, as I also argued in Hour 3, there can be more singing and less crying when the pain is more remote, as when a professional male singer re-enacts in a stylized way the singing of a lament once sung by a woman in pain. The pain for the male singer may not be direct, but the expression of the pain through song still needs to be real, not just pretend-real.

§12. To sing a song that is real requires the male singer of a female lament to be true not only to the content of such a lament but also to its form. To say it more technically, the singing of the male singer must be accurate in re-enacting the morphology of lament as song. The form of lament as a form of singing must be observed. In Homeric poetry, for example, as I noted in Hour 3, the form of lament as song is in fact most accurately represented in the process of re-enacting the laments of a character like Andromache.

§13. This paragraph contains specialized information and argumentation. Readers should feel free to postpone it—or to skip it altogether.
Granted, there are formal differences to be found between, on the one side, lament as a genre, considered to be one of many distinct kinds of “lyric,” and, on the other side, the “epic” of Homeric poetry as a super-genre. Such formal differences, however, involving elements like the rhythms and the melodies and even the wordings of lament as distinct from the corresponding elements of epic, are a matter of surface structure. By contrast, what I am arguing in Hour 3—as also elsewhere, in far more detail—has to do with the deep structure of lament as a form of song, as a genre. My point for now, in any case, is simply this: the epic of Homeric poetry re-enacts accurately the deep structure of lament as a form of lyric.

For those who may be interested in pursuing this point further, I have relevant comments to offer here:;

also here:
p. 119 of;

also here:
p. 35 of;

also, amidst many further details, here:
§§4–5 of

§14. To say in one sentence what I just said in the paragraph of §13…
When Homeric poetry, as epic, “quotes” a lamenting woman in the act of lamenting, her words of lament can be recognized as a song of lament, even if the “quoted” song has lost on the surface some of the formal characteristics of the song.

§15. I conclude here by adding below some further comment on the singing of pain during the horrific “torture scene” in the film Ch’unhyang. The actual torture starts at hour 1:17:35 of What I write below is for readers who have already viewed the video that I cite here.

A. The pain of the torture is not only being sung in the film: what makes the scene all the more horrific is that this pain is actually being shown visually. To say it more accurately, however, I must qualify: the film shows the pain visually only near the beginning, but then this same pain becomes transformed into a visualization by way of song. And the line between the visual and the visualized will become blurred by the song itself. I describe here this visualization from my own point of view, starting at the very beginning of the pain. Every time I get ready to view again the scene as shown in the film, I live through the same agony of anticipating a direct vision of the pain about to be inflicted on Ch’unhyang. With foreboding do I view each time, all over again, the plaintive expression on the face of Ch’unhyang as she sits there, all tied down, on her “throne of execution.” She is about to be hit many times, in a series of excruciatingly painful blows—“hits,” they are called in the subtitles. These “hits” will be administered by a designated torturer who will smash a succession of wooden rods against the bones of Ch’unhyang, aiming at her bared shins. The very first hit will splinter the rod on contact, so that the torturer will need to pick up a new rod for the second hit, but the splintering will continue, one after the next. As the torture continues, the singer will be counting each “hit” as it smashes painfully against the beautiful body of Ch’unhyang. The singer keeps on singing what seems like an endless succession of deadly splintering blows on her shins—hit one, hit two, hit three, and so on it goes. Meanwhile, here we are, viewers of the film, seeing the excruciating “hits” and silently counting them ourselves as each one of them, one after the other, comes smashing against our own bared emotions. And soon we are thinking that we will keep on seeing one deadly “hit” after another until Ch’unhyang dies.

After <em>Ch’unhyang</em>, directed by Im Kwon-taek (2000): the hits.
After Ch’unhyang, directed by Im Kwon-taek (2000): the hits.

B. But the eye of the camera actually stops looking at the excruciating succession of these “hits” after the fourth blow has landed. Instead, after the fourth blow, the eye starts looking at the anguished face of the male singer himself as he keeps on singing a succession of further blows: now he is at the fifth hit, and then there is the sixth, and then there is the seventh…

C. But then, after the seventh hit, the eye of the camera starts looking intermittently at the audience, who are attentively looking at the performer, hanging on the words of his song. We the viewers of the film have already been hearing the audience offscreen, ever since the fourth blow, as they gasp and murmur in reaction to the horror and the pity of the song as performed by the performer. Meanwhile, the performer keeps on singing the song of pain, and the deadly blows continue. There he is, already at the seventh hit, and now he starts gesticulating with his fan folded, raising it high in the air as it were some enormous seven-foot sword that will now cut off the head of a horse. Not even if you behead me like this horse, cries Ch’unhyang to his tormentors as she weeps and sings all at once, will I ever betray the love that I feel for my husband. That is what Ch’unhyang cries, but of course it is now only the performer on stage who is crying, in song, her words of defiance.

D. At this moment, the looks of the audience are chained to the performer, who sings the song of the crying woman as if he were now the crying woman herself, in person. Meanwhile, we the viewers of the film are intermittently looking back and forth, now at the performer and now at the audience that is looking at the performer. The audience is viewing the performer directly, without the mediation that is made available to us—on and off—by the wandering eye of the camera. By contrast with the audience, we the viewers of the film could until now view the performer only when that wandering eye of the camera was viewing him. But now, not only the viewers in the auditorium but we as well, viewing not only this audience but also the performer who is performing for them, can visualize what this performer’s re-enacting voice makes us see all together, all at once.

E. By now we too can visualize without having to continue seeing what the film had begun to visualize for us—now that the eye of the camera has moved away from the scene of torture, after that fourth painful blow. The audience in the auditorium never got to see what we saw with our own eyes, when the eye of the camera was still viewing for us the first four blows in the song about the torture. But that audience nevertheless could see it all, through the voice of the singer. That is why, as soon as we saw the performer performing on stage, which happens after the fourth deadly blow, we already heard his audience gasping and murmuring as they registered their feelings of horror and pity. And, as we then got to view the audience after having only heard them at first, we could see that some of them were even weeping.

F. Such is the power of the singing voice that brings to life the vision of the female hero at the climax of her sad song of suffering.