Education About Asia: Online Archives

The Sijo: A Window into Korean Culture

Download PDF

Many fourth graders in the United States have a Haiku Day. As I discovered from discussions with the students in my Writing Asian Poetry class, it is a great way to begin to learn about Japanese culture—the aesthetics of understatement, the appreciation for the natural world, the glimpses of humor in everyday life. Trying to write a seventeen-syllable poem about nature also seems a very doable project for almost any grade-level. The Korean counterpart is the sijo, a three-line vernacular verse form that dates back to the fourteenth century. Some are serious political statements, some offer rather dour Confucian teachings about the proper ways of behaving in a family or a kingdom, while others can be quite humorous or poignant comments about life. A number of them are remarkably expressive works and can be read not only for a sense of the general flavors, sights, and sounds of Korea’s historical past, but also for the individual voices of those who composed them. The legendary Admiral Yi Sun-sin is said to have composed a sijo on the evening before the great naval battle with the invading Japanese fleet in 1599. What I find especially poignant about the poem is the reference to the Mongol flute, which was thought to have a particularly lonely tone.