Songs of the Dragons 

Copy of Yongbieocheonga displayed at the Sejong Story exhibition hall in Seoul. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On October 9, 1446CE, one of Korea’s historical heroes, the Great King Sejong, published a text that would release the peninsula from its centuries-old dependence on the Chinese writing system. The Proper Sounds for the Instruction of the People introduces a new 28 letter, Korean script that better reflected the actual sounds of spoken Korean and extended the bounds of literacy to include the common people who had never had the luxury of mastering the difficult Chinese writing system. Though it was known by many names over the centuries, Koreans still use and refer to Sejong’s alphabet as hangul. This was one of King Sejong’s most important contributions to the consolidation of a unique Korean language and cultural identity.

This consciousness of being distinct, of being Korean comes through in the opening lines of his book: 

“Because the speech of the country is different from that of China, it (the spoken language) doesn’t match the (Chinese) letters. Therefore, even if the ignorant want to communicate, many of them cannot achieve their intent. Because I am saddened by this, I have newly made 28 letters. It is my intention that everybody learn the letters easily so that they can conveniently use them everyday.


In conjunction with this linguistic project, King Sejong was also seeking to legitimize his own reign in the line of the Joseon (1392-1910CE) through artistic declarations. Sejong ordered the compilation of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, the oldest extant work using his newly introduced phonetic script. Its importance as a keystone of Korean cultural identity can not be understated, as scholar James Hoyt explains in his introduction to the English translation: 

“Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven was compiled to establish the legitimacy of Sejong’s lineage, but it is now recognized as a monument to the cultural independence of Korea from China, a most important source for the study of the Korean language, and the beginning of Korean national consciousness and of vernacular literature.” (30) 

The following excerpts from the compact, 125 canto work are part comparative Sino-Korean history, part royal exhortation to the Great King Sejong. The cantos are riddled with allusions to classical Chinese and Korean history that strike even the most learned as elaborate. These needn’t bog down our focus, however, on the divine mandate of rulership (the so-called “Mandate of Heaven” to rule) that Sejong was after for him and his Korean predecessors in searching to emphasize the notion of an independent Korea. 

Further reading:

* Young-Key Kim-Renaud.  King Sejong the Great: the Light of Fifteenth Century Korea.  Honolulu: International Circle of Korean Linguistics, 1992.




Sijo, or shijo, is the most popular and most Korean of all poetic forms (including all modern forms circulating abroad). It was originally called tanga (like the Japanese tanka). The actual designation sijo was not adopted until sometime during the 1920s. The form originated during the latter part of the Goryeo period (936-1392CE) when scholar-officials sought a new mode of expression beyond classical Chinese forms. To make them more Korean, sijo were written in a local script, thehanmun. They were more lyrical, musical and accessible than Chinese poetry. The years of study necessary to understand and write Chinese verse were avoided in these verses by the accessibility of Korean spellings, syntax, diction and vocabulary.

Sijo, though decorated with the occasional Chinese allusion, are unique in their directness of expression of intense feelings, regrets, sorrows and love. Folk influences are to be found in their rhythms and diction. There is no rhyme, but a strong sense of musicality is preserved in syllabic cadences, alliteration, assonance and a necessary caesura (pause) in every line.  The poems are composed of three lines containing a total of 45 syllables and broken down into one of two major structures that vary according to the location of caesuras:

(I) L1: 3 4 3 4              (II)       L1: 6-9 6-9 
     L2: 3 4 3 4                          L2: 5-8 6-9 
     L3: 3 6 4 3                          L3: 3 5-8 4-5 3-4

There is considerable variation in the structure of the final line.  Usually the first line of the poem declares a theme, the second reinforces it and the last line closes it with a twist. The following is an example of this form from one of the most famous sijo by Chong Mong-ju (1337-1392CE):

Introduction: “Though this frame should die and die, though I die a hundred times,” 
Reinforcement: “My bleached bones all turn to dust, my very soul exist or not—”
Twist: “What can change the undivided heart that glows with faith toward my lord?”

Further reading:


* O’Rourke, Kevin, ed.  The Book of Korean Shijo.  Cambridge: Harvard East Asian Monographs, 2002