Portrait of Korean philosopher and poet Choe Chi-won (857-unknown) / Korea Times file
By Choi Yearn-hong
Choe Chi-won (857-unknown) was the famed poet in the Tang Dynasty of China (618-907) and Silla Kingdom (B.C. 57-935 A.D.). But unfortunately, our knowledge of his life and works is very limited.
I am delighted to find out that Dr. Key S. Ryang, a Korean-American historian who has retired after a long teaching career at the University of Mary Washington has just published a book on the poet.
Despite its title, "Koun Choe Chi-won and His Tang Poetry," published by Chicago Spectrum Press, includes poems Choe had written in the Silla Kingdom after he returned to his home country.
While Li Po, Tu Fu and Wang Wei are the best-known Tang poets — all of whom were a generation ahead of Choe — Choe is also certainly a great Tang poet. We realize this when we read Choe's poems in "Quan Tang Shi: Complete Works of Tang Poetry" (Shanghai, 1985) and his poem in "Tang Shi Guanzhi: No Look Further on Tang Poetry" (Beijing, 1995), which covered 108 of quintessential Tang poets.
Choe was born in Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla Kingdom, in 857, and left for the Tang Dynasty in China when he was only 12. He passed the high government official examination in China at the tender age of 17 and served the famous Tang Governor-General Gao Pian from 879 to 884.
In the following year, he returned to Silla and worked for the local governments and the royal court. Declining Silla could not embrace his ambition and dream. Rather, he retreated to hermitage in temples including the Haeinsa Temple in Gaya Mountain with his poetry and writings.
His life in Tang was obviously hampered by his Silla nationality, but returning to Silla did not make his life easier, as he was also confronted by jealous and unjust elite. He was frustrated and disappointed by his fellowmen in Silla. He confessed that studying abroad in Tang and passing the national government exam there were for his father's and family's glory, not for his own. He endured six years of hard work and loneliness in Tang in order to achieve the glory for the Choe family and the Silla Kingdom. His achievements were great, to say the least.
As a Korean-American poet and writer, I understand spending one's life in two countries, even though Choe lived more than one thousand years ago. I have felt neither Korean nor American, but rather a person who lives on the boundary or border of two countries. I feel an affinity to Choe, who lived one millennium ago. I am a man in this world, like a floating cloud. So I appreciate his book of poetry, for which I feel both gratitude and sorrow.
Choe's fame and achievements in the Tang Dynasty were revealed in a poem by his Chinese friend Gu Yun, about Choe's return to Silla. The poem appeared in the "History of Three Kingdoms" compiled by Kim Bu-sik in the Goryeo Kingdom.
Below the mountains spread a rolling sea of a thousand and ten thousand miles.
One spot there in Gyerim stands out bright.
Born in Gyeongju with gifted mind and rare talent,
Sailed to Tang, crossing the sea at the age of twelve.
Shook the literary world of the Middle Kingdom,
Took the national examination at 18.
He broke the golden gate with his first attempt.
Choe was only 27 when he returned to Silla, but by then, the peace and prosperity of his home country were already on the decline.
But the demise of Silla was expected, owing to the turmoil and discontent from the local warlords. He retired to the mountains and meditated as a poet like a Buddhist monk. He wrote about Korea's most outstanding historical, literary and philosophical treatises, known as the "Sasanbimyeong" (Four Mountain Stelae) between 886 and 893. They were erected at Silla's major monasteries; three of the original stelae remain, while the fourth is represented by several fragments and a printed copy.
Within a year of his return to Gyeongju, he compiled and edited 370 pieces of his official Tang correspondence and other documents written on behalf of Gao Pian, including 60 original poems and personal correspondence. that the compilation is the famous "Gyewon Pilgyeong" (Collection of the Writings in the Garden of Cinnamon) dedicated to the reign of King Hongang in 886.
Such a monumental publication was unprecedented in Silla history, if not in the annals of Korean history. A complete "Gyewon Pilgyeong" has not been found until today.
Dr. Ryang organized Choe's 130 poems into six chapters — Pentasyllabic Old Poems, Pentasyllabic Cholgu, Pentasyllabic Regulated Poems, Heptasyllabic Cholgu, Heptasyllabic Regulated Poems and Prose Poems. He translated the 130 poems from Chinese into Korean and English and wrote commentaries on each poem from a comparative perspective.
He often compared Choe's poems with those of Li Po, Tu Fu, Bai Ju-yi and other Chinese poets, as well as with those of Western poets, including Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. Ryang deserves the top translator's prize or award for the significant work that he has done.
I would like to quote all 130 poems in this review, but for space reasons, I can quote only a few. So here, I present only three poems for The Korea Times readers. The first two short poems appeared in "Completed Tang Poems" and were written during Choe's early days in Zhangan. The third poem was written before he returned to Silla.
‘The Willow at Zhangan'
Mist in the purple spreads low over a road of the willow dripping a thousand ways.
A long is drifting out from a red-columned house in the sunset.
‘A Spring Day'
The spring wind spreads the noisy singing of the orioles to just below my seat,
Sun moves the shadows of flowers into the grove.
‘Farewell of Xiucai Yang Shan'
The ship comes every other year as scheduled
To return home in a purple robe embarrasses the man without talent.
Such a sudden farewell at Wusheng at the time of leaves falling
Look toward Silla from the distance, where flowers are blooming.
A valley oriole is thinking of flying high and far
The Liaodong pigs are shameless retrieving.
I want to be sure on the decision I made, so I won't regret.
Toast my wine glass enthralled by nature's beauty of Guangling.
Dr. Choi Yearn-hong is a Washington, D.C.-based poet and writer.