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Revised RomanizationSijo

Sijo (Korean pronunciation: [ɕi.dʑo]) is a Korean traditional poetic form that emerged in the Goryeo period, flourished during the Joseon Dynasty, and is still written today.[1] Bucolic, metaphysical and cosmological themes are often explored. The three lines average 14–16 syllables, for a total of 42–48: theme (3, 4,4,4); elaboration (3,4,4,4); counter-theme (3,5) and completion (4,3).[2]

Sijo may be narrative or thematic and introduces a situation in line 1, development in line 2, and twist and conclusion in line 3. The first half of the final line employs a "twist": a surprise of meaning, sound, or other device. Sijo is often more lyrical and personal than other East Asian poetic forms, and the final line can take a profound turn. Yet, "The conclusion of sijo is seldom epigrammatic or witty. A witty close to a sentence would have been foreign to the genius of stylized Korean diction in the great sijo periods."[3]

Early sijo and the reemergence in the 18th century[edit]

Sijo was first written in the 14th century during the end of the Goryeo dynasty. However, it was not until the Joseon dynasty that it gained immense popularity. During the rise of the early Joseon dynasty sijo became very popular among yangban and the ruling class. In its earlier stages sijo was often written in classical Chinese by yangban and the ruling class. A lot of the poems used language which showed social hierarchy. It was not accessible to the masses due to it being written in classical Chinese characters. It was also hard to adapt to sijo-chang (sijo in song form) because of the Chinese characters.

The 18th century marked two very important events in sijo. The first being the reemergence of the term. The second being the shift from classical or traditional sijo to modern sijo. During the 18th century, the word sijo reemerged and with it came changes. Sijo was now written in Korean and was more accessible to the masses. It was no longer confined to just being a product by and for the ruling class and the yangban. Sijo was now available, created and performed by the general Korean public. New poems outside of Confucian ideal and hierarchy were being written and performed. This led to the invention of different forms of sijo such as sasol sijo, ossijo, and yon sijo. The themes of sijo expanded and included more than just the narrative of the upper class.

In early to mid 18th century sijo reemerged and can be seen as traditional sijo. This is mainly due to the fact that this period signified Korea's isolation to the outside world. After the Treaty of Ganghwa which opened Korea to a foreign nation, Sijo also shifted to become a modern poetry form. Up until the end of the Joseon dynasty, there was not a singular name for this form of poetry and sijo was not considered a literary genre. Instead, they were seen as songs and were labeled to signify what type of song it was. For example, it would have names such as sijoelga or sijeoldanga due to the situation in which it was a sung source. It was not until late 18th century that the word "sijo" reemerged as a literary poetic genre. It was in the 19th century that the movement of the restoration of sijo began. The activists involved in that movement took the first part of the word sijochang which historically was sung and kept the word as "sijo" to define this literary genre.

Sijo chang[edit]

Sijo emerged in the late Koryŏ Period as a performing art and eventually gained popularity through the Chosŏn period. Initially, it spread amongst the yangban, or upper class, and later amongst the commoners. Sijo was passed down as an oral tradition during this period as a means to preserve the art form. While sijo encompasses a wide variety of traditional Korean poetry, one specific variation that derives from it is known as sijo chang. One of the most significant differences when comparing standard sijo with sijo chang is the presence of musical instruments. Sijo chang poetry employs the use of various Korean instruments to accompany the vocalist reciting the poem.

Sijo chang is known as "short song" because it has slow tunes with long, drawn-out ending pronunciation. For this reason it may also be called "the slowest song in the world". It demands a high level of ability and coordination between drummer and performer in order to keep the song flowing well. Throughout each sijo, the singer employs practiced techniques, such as vibrato and pitch changes.[4]

The singer is accompanied by the dae-gum (bamboo flute) and the chang-gu (hour-glass shaped drum). The singer uses a wide range of vibrato in addition to pitch changes. All sijo chang are sung in a very deliberate pace. The singer must be trained to extend the notes of the song for effect. Other instruments are used as the background musical support to keep the flow. For instance, the piri (bamboo oboe), taegum (transverse flute), tanso (vertical flute), and haegum (two-fiddle zither) may also be used to accompany the vocalist. Although a wide variety of instruments may be used as an accompaniment to the sijo chang vocalist, not all may be used at one time. In more informal settings the chang-gu may be used as the sole instrument. Oftentimes, the sound of hitting one's lap may also serve as the only instrumental accompaniment.[4]

Chinese influences on Korean sijo[edit]

Sijo was first written in Chinese because Chinese was the only written language in Korea before Joseon dynasty. The borrowing and usage of Chinese characters can be traced back to the 5th century. With the adoption of Chinese literary exams during the Goryeo dynasty, the usage of Chinese characters became more popular and it lasted for thousands of years until King Sejong invented Hangul in the Joseon dynasty. This brought about a close relationship between Korean and Chinese literature.

Sijo was influenced by Chinese Tang poetry and jueju poetry, one kind of Chinese Tang poetry that has four lines, can be found in the three line organization of sijo. In jueju, the first line states the theme; the second line develops the theme; the third line offers a twist or a contrasting idea, and the last line presents a conclusion. In sijo, the first two lines play a similar role to Chinese Tang poetry, but the third line can be considered as a combination of the third and fourth line of Chinese Tang poetry. Sijo's first part of the third line gives a twist and the whole third line offers a conclusion.

Similarities with Tang poetry in themes and expression of emotion[edit]

There are many similarities between Korean sijo poetry and Chinese Tang poetry: the reason that people wrote poems, the messages that they want to deliver, and how they express their feelings by talking about natural things. The following passage shows the translation of Kwon Homun's "The Wind is Pure and Clear" (바람은 절로 맑고):

The wind is pure and clear, the moon is pure and bright.
The pine veranda in the bamboo garden is pure of worldly cares.
But a lute and piles of scrolls can make it pure still.[5]

There are only wind, moon, pine, lute and books in the poem. However, Kwon Homun used these to paint a world of himself that he dreams of. For him, a simple life like this is enough, but even this seemly simple life is hard for him to realize. Similarly, Chinese poets in the Tang dynasty also wrote poems in this way and for this reason. Here is the translation of Li Bai's "At the Yellow Crane Tower to Bid Meng Haoran Bon Voyage" (黄鹤楼送孟浩然之广陵):

At the tower of yellow crane, my friend, to the west, you said goodbye,
In this misty, flowery early spring, for Yangzhou downstream, you ply.
A speck, a silhouette is your lonely sail, to the verdant receding, till
In my eyes, there is only the long, Long River, rolling to the verge of the sky.

On the surface, this poem is about the view and the landscape that Li Bai saw while he was in the tower of yellow crane superficially, but it actually expresses the deep feeling of Li Bai when he was still gazing at the river even though his friend Meng Haoran has left. The first line gives readers the background and the second line constructs a confused and sorrowful air. In the last two lines, it describes how Li Bai gazed after Meng Haoran and how he felt, metaphorizing his feelings as the Long River.

By comparing the meanings of these two poems, we know that both Korean sijo and Chinese Tang poetry often employ natural objects such as landscape, pines, bamboo, plants and flowers in order to express human emotions.



The Kisaeng were women who functioned as professional entertainers, performing artists, and courtesans.[6] These women were selected at a young age from the lower class for their beauty and talents; then trained to work for the government performing-arts bureaucracy. Their presence as poets that contributed to the art of sijo is notable due to their position as lower class women. They were considered barely above beggars due to their association with prostitution.[7] Since the Choson period was heavily influenced by Confucianist ideals, social stratification was heavily enforced. Kisaeng's ability to create artwork admired by the yangban—upper class men—was remarkable.

Many scholars note that the sijos written by kisaeng contain "a rare blend of emotional freedom, ironic perspective, and technical mastery"[8] because they were free of the shackles of societal expectations. Their lower class standing released them from having to conform to themes of nature or filial piety. Therefore, despite the fact that the number of kisaeng authored sijo is unknown, their work is heavily associated with love poetry. Hwang Jini is one of the most notable kisaeng poets along with Yi Maechang.

In film[edit]

The title of the 2016 film Love, Lies in English refers to a famous sijo:

사랑 거즛말이 님 날사랑 거즛말이
꿈에 뵌닷 말이 긔 더욱 거즛말이
날가치 잠 아니 오면 어늬 꿈에 뵈리오

"Love." It is a lying word.
That you love me, another lie.
"The loved one is seen in dreams."
That is still a greater lie,
How can I, who can never sleep,
hope to see you in my dreams?

This follows the "classic format" of the three line structure and love-longing content. In , the title of the film literally means "flowers that understand words", which refers to a kiseang's ability to understand the desire or need of men. This film give clear facts on the connection between sijo and kiseang. It also shows on how kiseangs trained since they were very young, and how they performed sijo chang.

Hwang Jin Yi, a 2007 film, gives an introduction to the well-known kiseang Hwang Jin Yi, and her legendary life. The film examples give a clear view and introduction about kisaeng. Also, in these films, there is clear description of the well-educated kisaengs' accomplishmenst in literature. As one of the two classes who contributed to the composition the sijo poems, kisaeng also leave numbers of memorable sijo poems.

Modern sijo[edit]

Emergence of modern sijo[edit]

There are two established developments of sijo: before 1876 and after. Before 1876 was when traditional sijo was prevalent and after 1876 modern sijo was "so-called" created[9] (p.25). Sijo is a genre of short Korean poems with a strictly defined structure reflecting the rhythm of a traditional Korean song known as pansori. It originated from Korea in the Koryǒ dynasty which began to flourish in the Chosǒn dynasty. Established with the Confucian ideology, sijo became the most popular type of poetry among the ruling Confucian scholars and noblemen. During the time, sijo was sung and recorded by word of mouth or transcribed. Sijo is an official name of the genre of poems, which came to be in the period of modernism; especially after a movement for the restoration of sijo that became active in the 19th century. The activists of the movement copied the first part of the name of the music sijo chang as the term to reference the poetry as it did not previously have a name.

Structure and comparison to traditional sijo[edit]

Modern sijo is a new form of Korean vernacular poetry (sijo). It was emerged in 'The open-door period' (개화기) (1876) flourished during The Empire of Korea (1897–1910), Japanese Colonial Period (1910–1945) and is still created today. It refers only written form. Modern sijo is generally structured the same as tradition sijo with a three line poem consisting of clusters of syllables. The difference is that modern sijo poems do not follow the fixed form as uniformly and are considered to be free verse. In contrast, people believe that sijo should remain in tune with the rhythm as it was originally to be sung and consider modern sijo that do not follow the rules as not being sijo[10] (p. 37) (using the syllabic pentameter: 3 4 4 3/4). There are various methods for implementing or translating modern sijo. It has to have title name of each modern sijo. Another difference is that traditional sijo is less likely to have a title; while referencing them, the first line of the poem becomes the title. In comparison, modern writers are more likely to give their work a legitimized title. Modern sijo is still being developed, such as in the case of contemporary poetry, and is written by experts and beginners as writers are not influenced by the class system (Yangban, Kisaeng,.. etc).


  • 1920s – Choi Nam Seon (최남선), Lee Gwang Soo (이광수), Jeon In Bo (정인보)
  • 1926 – 최남선 established the first book of modern sijos, 백팔번뇌, the 108 passions.
  • 1930s – Lee Eun Sang (이은상), Lee Byeong Gi (이병기), Lee Ho Woo (이호우)


| Orchid

Full sprays of slender leaves Seem stiff, but are soft and supple; The stocky purplish stalks Put out plain white flowers; And the dew, turned into glass beads, Clings to every stem Inside, its true heart Delights in its purity; It twists its roots deep down Between grains of clean white sand; Far away from the slightest grime It lives on in the rain and the dew |attr1=Yi Pyǒnggi (1891–1968)|attr2=Richard Rutt (260)}}

This poem was written by Yi Pyǒnggi (1891–1968), who was a well known author and encouraged the creation of sijo. His work is referred to as gentle. This poem, "Orchid", has a traditional moral approach about flowers and is maintained in a modern idiom (Rutt, 260). Yi Pyǒnggi was the father of sijo and came up with the three variants consisting of ossijo, sasol, and yon-sijo. He mentioned that sijo should convey modern life by the extension of the structure from the conventional single stanza to two or more.[9][10]


Sijo, unlike some other East Asian poetic forms, frequently employs metaphors, puns, allusions and similar word play. Most poets follow these guidelines very closely although there are longer examples. An exemplar is this poem by Yun Seondo (1587–1671) :

Middle Korean[11] Modern Korean Translation
내 벗이 몇인가 ᄒᆞ니 수석과 송죽이라 내 벗이 몇인가하니 수석과 송죽이라 You ask how many friends I have? Water and stone, bamboo and pine.
동산의 ᄃᆞᆯ오르니 긔더옥 반갑고야 동산에 달오르니 그 더욱 반갑도다 The moon rising over the eastern hill is a joyful comrade.
두어라 이다ᄉᆞᆺ밧긔 또더ᄒᆞ야 머엇ᄒᆞ 두어라, 이 다섯 밖에 또 더해야 무엇하리 Besides these five companions, what other pleasure should I ask

Yun Seondo also wrote a famous collection of forty sijo of the changing seasons through the eyes of a fisherman. Following is the first verse from the Spring sequence; notice the added refrains in lines 2 and 4.

Sun lights up the hill behind, mist rises on the channel ahead.
Push the boat, push the boat!
The night tide has gone out, the morning tide is coming in.
Jigukchong, jigukchong, eosawa!
Untamed flowers along the shore reach out to the far village.

Either narrative or thematic, this lyric verse introduces a situation or problem in line 1, development (called a turn) in line 2, and a strong conclusion beginning with a surprise (a twist) in line 3, which resolves tensions or questions raised by the other lines and provides a memorable ending.

Where pure snow flakes melt
Dark clouds gather threatening
Where are the spring flowers abloom?
A lonely figure lost in the shadow
of sinking sun, I have no place to go.

— Yi Saek (1328–1395), on the decline of Goryeo Kingdom.

Korean poetry can be traced at least as far back as 17 BC with King Yuri's Song of Yellow Birds but its roots are in earlier Korean culture (op. cit., Rutt, 1998, "Introduction"). Sijo, Korea's favorite poetic genre, is often traced to Confucian monks of the eleventh century, but its roots, too, are in those earlier forms. One of its peaks occurred as late as the 16th and 17th centuries under the Joseon Dynasty. One poem of the sijo genre is from the 14th century:

The spring breeze melted snow on the hills then quickly disappeared.
I wish I could borrow it briefly to blow over my hair
And melt away the aging frost forming now about my ears.

— U Tak (1262–1342)

Sijo is, first and foremost, a song. This lyric pattern gained popularity in royal courts amongst the yangban as a vehicle for religious or philosophical expression, but a parallel tradition arose among the commoners. Sijo were sung or chanted with musical accompaniment, and this tradition survives. The word originally referred only to the music, but it has come to be identified with the lyrics.

동지달 기나긴 밤을 한 허리를 버혀 내여
춘풍 이불 아래 서리허리 넣었다가
어른 님 오신 날 밤이여드란 구부구비 펴리라

I will break the back of this long, midwinter night,
Folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt,
That I may draw out the night, should my love return.

Hwang Jin-i (1522–1565)
A famous female Korean sijo poet who was also a kisaeng,
a professional entertainer.

Note: The English adaptations of verses by Yun Seondo and U Tak are by Larry Gross (op. cit.) The English adaptation of the verse by Hwang Jin-i is by David R. McCann (op. cit.); Some of the information on the origins of sijo are cited from The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo, ed. Richard Rutt (U. of Michigan Press, 1998); Kichung Kim's An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature: From Hyangga to P'ansori; and Peter H. Lee.

In English[edit]

In 1986 the journal Poet dedicated an issue to "classic" Korean sijo translated into English by Korean-American Kim Unsong (a.k.a. William Kim). This was followed by Kim's Classical Korean Poems (Sijo) in 1987, Sijo by Korean Poets in China, and Poems of Modern Sijo (a collection of his originals) in the mid-1990s. They found a devoted audience in American theWORDshop publisher Dr. Larry Gross and Canadian haiku poet Elizabeth St. Jacques. As a result, a volume of original English-language sijo (Around the Tree of Light) by St. Jacques appeared and soon after, Gross launched the first issue of Sijo West with St. Jacques as assistant editor. It was the world's first poetry journal dedicated to English-language sijo and caught on well with poets dedicated to haiku and other forms of Asian verse.

Sijo West folded in 1999 reportedly due to health problems and tragedies with Gross. St. Jacques reemerged with online postings known as Sijo Blossoms (circa 2001), which, apparently, has since evolved into the Sijo In The Light section of her Poetry In The Light website.[citation needed] Sijo In The Light, like the defunct Sijo West, featured original English-language sijo, as well as essays and reviews.[citation needed] Gross, meanwhile, has maintained a significant presence for sijo on his website Poetry in theWORDshop, which includes translations from Korean masters as well as original contributions by contemporary poets. Gross moderated a Yahoo! discussion group, sijoforum.[citation needed]

Urban Temple, a collection of sijo composed in English by the Harvard University Emeritus Professor David McCann is available from Bo-Leaf Books. Nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize, this collection was praised by Jane Shore as "at once present and universal, contemporary and timeless ... a book well worth waiting for." Sijo: an international journal of poetry and song is published by the Cambridge Institute for the Study of Korea and volumes 1 and 2 are currently available. For Nirvana: 108 Zen Sijo Poems by Musan Cho Oh-Hyun was translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl and published by Columbia University Press in 2017. The page Sijo Poet on Facebook shares sijo composed in English as well as poems translated from Korean.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard Rutt (1998). The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo. University of Michigan Press. p. 12. ISBN 0-472-08558-1.
  2. ^ Richard Rutt (1998). The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo. University of Michigan Press. pp. 10 ff. ISBN 0-472-08558-1.
  3. ^ Richard Rutt (1998). The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo. University of Michigan Press. pp. 12 ff. ISBN 0-472-08558-1.
  4. ^ a b Music of Korean. The national center for Korean traditional performing arts. 2007.
  5. ^ The Bamboo Grove by Richard Rutt
  6. ^ McCann, David R. Early Korean literature: selections and introductions. Columbia University Press, 2000.
  7. ^ Edgin, Kayley. "Hwang Jini: An Examination of Life as a Joseon Kisaeng." e-Publications@Marquette, 1 Jan. 2013,
  8. ^ Contogenis, Constantine, and Wolhee Choe. Songs of the Kisaeng: courtesan poetry of the last Korean dynasty. BOA Editions, 1997.
  9. ^ a b Ruth, Richard. The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo. Michigan: University of Michigan Press. 1998.
  10. ^ a b Kim, Jaihun. Modern Korean Vers in sijo Form. 1997.
  11. ^ (in Korean)[1]

References and further reading[edit]

  • The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo, ed. Richard Rutt, University of Michigan Press, 1998.
  • Soaring Phoenixes and Prancing Dragons; A Historical Survey of Korean Classical Literature, by James Hoyt, Korean Studies Series No. 20, Jimoondang International, 2000.
  • Master Sijo Poems from Korea: Classical and Modern, selected and translated by Jaihun Joyce Kim, Si-sa-yong-o-sa Publishers, Inc., 1982.
  • An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature: From Hyangga to P'ansori by Kichung Kim, Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.
  • Early Korean Literature, David R. McCann, ed., Columbia University Press, 2000.
  • The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry, Peter H. Lee, editor, Columbia University Press, 2002.
  • The Book of Korean Shijo, translated and edited by Kevin O'Rourke, Harvard East Asian Monographs 215, Harvard-Ewha Series on Korea, Harvard University Asia Center, 2002.
  • Jeet Kune Do'nun Felsefesi, Yüksel Yılmaz, İstanbul, Turkey: Yalın Yayıncılık, (2008).
  • For Nirvana: 108 Zen Sijo Poems,Musan Cho Oh-hyun, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl, Columbia University Press, 2016.

External links[edit]