2300-2200 BCE800-9001000-11001100-12001200-13001300-14001500-16001600-17001700-18001800-19001900-2000Mezzo Cammin
by Ann E. Michael

ne of the most capable poets who followed the style of T'ang Dynasty poetry and who is considered to have achieved Li Po's level of craft is a writer little known outside of Korea: the 16th-century Korean noblewoman, Ho Nansorhon. Indeed, it is something of a miracle that Nansorhon's work survived or was composed at all, given the constraints of the culture in which she lived. Although she was Korean, her importance as a poet was first established in China, largely after her death; at one time, reading her poetry was considered a crime against the neo-Confucian ruling elite in Korea. Her themes of feminism, implied sexuality, Taoism, a sympathy for lower-status people, and a willingness to challenge the rules of a woman's place by endeavoring to write combine to suggest that Nansorhon's unconventional genius is worthy of wider recognition.

The second century of the Choson Dynasty marked a period of neo-Confucianism in Korean culture. Women in upper-class families were sequestered from outside view, traveled in covered sedans, and spent their lives in interior rooms and courtyards where they could not be viewed by any males other than husbands and certain members of the immediate family. Few were encouraged to be literate.

The first example of Nansorhon's unconventionality is that she was taught at home by her liberal, Taoist-leaning father whenever her brothers had lessons. Nansorhon thus could read, practice calligraphy, compose poems, and paint--skills that were considered beneath a noblewoman's place in society. Poetry and calligraphy, like dance, were taught to courtesans (kisaeng) for the purpose of entertaining men. A proper Confucian wife was expected to be remote, loyal to her husband, devoid of passions such as jealousy or eroticism, and completely subservient to husband and mother-in-law. The intellectually-inclined Nansorhon found the constraints of female nobility and wifehood exceptionally hard to bear. She writes frequently in the Korean han style of "deep sighs," a style reminiscent of the Chinese "women poets of anguish" practiced by writers such as Li, Ch'ing-chao (1084-1151).


There is limited documented historical biography of Nansorhon's life. How, then, dare a modern reader speculate on the trials of her life and marriage? How can we deem her a "feminist" or a social dissenter when she spent the last 13 years of her brief life sequestered at her husband's house? We do have some facts concerning her life: the death of her children; her husband's frequent travels and difficulty with government service exams; a brother's exile; the death of her father; stories about the family Nansorhon married into and the reason she married the man she did; and of course, her poems.

The poems contain substantial material which aids in speculation about the psyche of the poet who created them. It is especially valuable to recognize how intelligently Nansorhon contrived to keep her poetry within the bounds of neo-Confucian propriety while managing to convey her sensitive range of individual expression. In what are likely her later poems--predominately of a Taoist theme--Nansorhon's literary "I" is transported to an imagined paradise, the ultimate means of escape from the confines her life and position afforded.

The context in which Nansorhon emerges as a unique, female voice may require some explanation, especially for modern Western audiences. A Korean noblewoman's status in the late 16th-century demanded that she follow prescribed duties. Aside from conceiving and bearing children, a noblewoman was expected to achieve honor and respect through negation of her physical and emotional personhood; she was not to display desire, jealousy, or anger. She served her husband and his mother's everyday needs and sublimated her individuality to the family into which she had married. If a noblewoman was literate, she had to use caution; if she wrote love poems, for example--even to her own husband--rumors of her unfaithfulness could occur. Men were expected to have concubines or lovers, but a noblewoman had to remain faithful to her husband even after his death. Noblewomen in 16th-century Korea were therefore isolated and "protected" in an abstract way from the outside world, but vulnerable to mistreatment from their husbands or female in-laws.

Nansorhon differed from other noblewomen because her father chose to foster her intelligence rather than deny or repress it. Her uniqueness, however, was also problematic for her. At 14, she was wed to a nobleman--Kim, Song-rib--and left the lake and nearby ocean of her childhood for the land-locked mountainous region of his family's lands which were south of Seoul. Nansorhon's family chose Song-rib as her husband because a soothsayer predicted the marriage could help her live longer despite her "weak constitution."

Song-rib was no intellectual, and Nansorhon's intelligence likely intimidated him. He neglected Nansorhon for months and years in part by the designs of his mother; Song-rib spent his time away studying to pass exams for government service. Holding a position in government was important to the family's place in the country, and Song-rib's mother would have been influential in the decision for him to leave home to prepare for these exams. Undoubtedly Song-rib had mistresses while away, and his mother would have known that her son would visit other women.

Nansorhon managed to leave the Kim family house for walks unattended; she also wrote poetry and painted while in her female quarters. These improprieties were known to Nansorhon's in-laws. Nansorhon's father-in-law, however, respected her gifts, perhaps inflaming the jealousies of Nansorhon's mother-in-law. The jealousy of mother-in-laws in Korea was and to some extent still is considered natural when it comes to the loss of their sons to wives.

Not long after her move to her husband's house, Nansorhon experienced a series of losses. Her father died three years after her marriage to Song-rib, and her beloved elder brother, Bong, was sent into exile in 1583. Song-rib was present long enough to father two children, but both died young. A miscarriage followed soon after their deaths. When Bong finally returned from exile in 1588, he found himself still out of political favor with the king, and died later in the year without political honor. These traumas weighed heavily on the young woman who had already predicted the day of her death. On March 19, 1589, Nansorhon changed into ceremonial clothes, burned her poems and paintings, and seated herself at her writing table. Her body was found there. Despite speculation about suicide, there is no factual record as to what caused her death.

Poetic Styles and Subjects

Nansorhon's father, Ho Yeob, was an admirer of T'ang Dynasty Chinese poetry with its Taoist influences and imagery. This imagery of mountains and rivers conflates easily with Korean shamanism, which also considers mountains sacred. The T'ang poets write with a sense of spontaneity largely absent in the Song Dynasty poetry that the Choson court poets were emulating. Instructed in the unfashionable T'ang style, Nansorhon probably became familiar with the "women of anguish" poets of China, the subjects and emotions of whom she could certainly have understood after her own marriage.

The Poems

The significance of Nansorhon's Taoist beliefs cannot be ignored. Her poems constantly refer to Immortals and a Taoist heaven through image, allusion, and narrative. Scholars speculate that the heavily-religious poems may be later pieces, written as her life trials increased and as she neared her self-prophesized death.

The Taoist pantheon consists of many gods--kings, queens, Immortals, nymphs, and others--who are arrayed in thirty-six levels beneath the Jade Emperor of Heaven. Nansorhon seems to have been instructed in the "religious Taoism" that rose to popularity in China's Han Dynasty; her poems make reference to the Emperor more often than to Laozi (Lord Lao, one of the Three Pure Ones and often considered the originator of Taoism and the head deity). In "The Life of Immortals," a lengthy poem of 87 stanzas, Nansorhon describes life in heaven which, in other poems, she reaches by riding a bird with a rainbow-feathered tail. "The Life of Immortals" includes a tour of duty with one of heaven's Three Officials (a high-ranking Immortal), a meeting with the Jade Goddess, Pure Child, the Woman of the Western Galaxy, the Goddess of the East, and many other Immortals well known to Taoist devotees. In stanza XIV, on the Mountain of Three Gods, Nansorhon is reunited with her children "calmly;" heaven is not a place for weeping, or in this case, joy. The sense is more one of destiny having been fulfilled, a mutually understood inevitability.

While the iconic images may obscure the poem for readers unfamiliar with Taoism, in Nansorhon's deft hands "The Life of Immortals" becomes a visual, imaginative delight. Essentially, she narrates her life in heaven and progress toward becoming an Immortal; it is worth noting that according to legend, the poets Suk Man Kyung and Li Po also became Immortals. As poet, she longs to ascend to the jade gates above, from which she imaginatively peers down at the human world. In stanza twenty-one, she observes China from heaven--China being a place she has never been but whose influence she honors. The heaven of her mind reads like a fantasy, especially perhaps to Western readers, but this poem and other Taoist-based pieces reveal how well-educated Nansorhon was in Taoist beliefs and how vivid the cosmology was to her. If she could not construct happiness on earth, she could create happiness for herself elsewhere.

Nansorhon's reputation as an exquisite formalist continues in Korea and in China today; her craft rivals Li Po's. In English translation, however, any strict adherence to Chinese poetic form is necessarily lost, but other aspects of her work are worth consideration. Contemporary non-Chinese readers may note this poet's sensitivity to detail and her beautiful balance of restraint and emotional depth. Often she chooses to envision the lives of people in oppressed situations: a simple fisherman, a court maid, and, of course, a woman imprisoned by marriage or abandoned by her spouse or lover. In the poem "A Poor Woman's Song," the subject is a seamstress whom the matchmakers overlook because of her family's poverty. The girl "pretends not to be cold or hungry" as she works:

Weave without rest through the drawn-out night--
the wintry loom: click-clack, click-clack.
One roll of silk on the loom--
will it ever be anyone's clothes?

Sharp scissors held in her hand,
the icy night numbs her fingers.
Sewing a wedding dress for another,
year after year, left to sleep alone.
It is not merely the spinster who sleeps alone. As in so many of the "deep sigh" poems that preceded her poetry, loneliness and the longing for a husband are themes Nansorhon frequently explores. Yet it seems likely she also felt an emotional connection to the "rivers and mountains" imagery of T'ang poets. Both influences appear in "Longing for a Fisherman's Simple House," in which the speaker remembers her childhood home by the waters, and describes her current surroundings with a surprising mix of beauty and unease ("Desolate eastern wind in my garden/a pear tree, freshly flowered. . .white curtains adorn my windows. . ./the iron latch, ashen-black"), and then writes in full "deep sighs" mode:
Tears stream my scarlet-powdered cheeks,
mist forms among river pines--
will my longing ever end?
The wide river and high mountains--
these must be why
my husband has not returned.
Nansorhon's poems almost always show the contrasts or complements between nature and human nature, evidencing her poetic use of Taoist principles and perceptive observations of the world, both natural and social.

Desolation and sorrow punctuate Nansorhon's poems, but the grief is relieved; her sense-awareness keeps her, and her reader, engaged: "The lit incense burner/whirls a thread of scent. . .", "The pomegranate tree, ripe with fruit;/sunlight shifts on shining eaves--/a blind's shade slants. . .", "ravens scatter, surprised by a well-bucket's splash. . ." ("The Four Seasons"). These physical images do not require a knowledge of Taoist cosmology or Korean history for understanding. The woman who sews "a coat for war" in "Deep Night Song" could be any woman in the long history of warfare. The details that set the time of year as the change of season from summer to autumn further increase the sense of coming loss:

Cicadas sing mournfully--
the wind

The essence of lotus blossoms

under an icy moon. . .

The water clock
drips quietly.

My lamp burns bright.
Through silk curtains

cold nears
in the long autumn night.

Finish clothes for the border--
the scissors

Plantain shadows

fill the papered window.
The wind sharpens.
In this poem, the sense of abandonment looms as the woman sews clothes for her husband on a distant borderland. The woman prepares, also, for a long fall and winter alone. Sexual abandonment does not make an obvious appearance in "Deep Night Song," but spending the longest nights of the year without a husband implies as much.

Modern readers may have to analyze a bit to find glimpses of Nansorhon's sexuality; but she did write poems in the mode of courtesans, about them as subjects, and poems in the persona of palace maids. These maids typically kept their position in court through their literacy and sexual favors. Nansorhon also wrote about her own sexual longing, however veiled. A married noblewoman would have shied from such subjects which were seen as unseemly for her. Nansorhon edged around this impropriety by writing poems "in the style of" male poets; section I of "In the Style of Sim, Ah-jee" is one example. In this practice, she could legitimately claim to be imitating a poetic style instead of originating an improper topic or opinion.

Nansorhon wrote actively for a relatively brief time--she died at 27--but her poetry ranges widely in style, form, and subject. She was uncommonly versatile, and a brief essay cannot explain the breadth of her accomplishments nor cover all the areas she explored as a writer. Her memoir-like pieces are especially compelling, capturing as they do the joy of childhood, the regret of long absence from home, the loss of family, and the tonality of child-like play. As an example of how vividly her 16th-century poetry conveys the exuberance of childhood, "Tree Swing Poem" is printed below, in addition to other poems previously mentioned. One need not have any education about Korean history, Chinese poetic forms, or Taoism to grasp the meaning of these poems. Ho, Nansorhon remains a poet whose voice is recognizable and whose artistry and sensitivity is clear.

translated by Ian Haight and Tae-young Ho

Tree Swing Poem I

With my girlfriend neighbors,
I bet on who swings highest.

Tie my dress with an extra belt,
wear a headband: prim as a mountain spirit!

Wind lifts streamers towards the sky--
my jade pendant clinks

from a leafy stand of willows.


Finished kicking on the swing
wordlessly stepping down
I stand

take my cotton shoes
embroidered with gold moon orchids;
catch my breath.

A sheen of sweat
under my hemp jacket

as wings of cicada.
I forget to ask a friend
to bring my fallen hairpin.

The Four Seasons

I: Spring

When apricots blossom, rain falls,
sinking deep in the garden--
a pair of orioles sing,
flitting in banks of magnolias.
A new wind in the silk curtains--
spring confronts the cold.
The lit incense burner
whirls a thread of scent.
A beauty ceases sleep,
freshening her face with makeup;
she wears perfumed silks,
fastening a jade belt
around embroidered ducks.
Draw the double curtains,
fold the fine green bedding,
take the silver harp, and casually play,
waiting for a lover.

Where have the golden bridle and carved saddle gone?
The caged doves whisper tenderly near my window.
Outside in my garden, a butterfly flutters,
disappearing in the bordering rose moss--
surprise lilies float in shimmering heat.
Beyond my flowerbed rails
the butterfly dances.

Whose house has flute songs from the pond pavilion,
moonlight on warm wine in a gold glass?

Through the empty night,
this anxious person cannot sleep.

At dawn
I wake to find
my handkerchief
soaked with tears.

II: Summer

The zelkova's shadow blankets the ground--
an azalea's shade is thin.
In the high pavilion, an inlaid jade coverlet
blankets my soft bed.
Sweat beads under my cool hemp clothes--
wind from my silk fan stirs the curtains.
From the top of deftly cut stairs,
I see the pomegranate trees, ripe with fruit;
sunlight shifts on shining eaves--
a blind's shade slants.
Swallows play with their fledglings
all day on a shaved crossbeam--
within the herb garden's fencing, only bees work.
Fatigue from embroidering--
the heaviness of sleep
rises at noon--
my phoenix-headed hairpin loosens on a silk cushion.

Sweat on my forehead cuts a fat scar of sleep--
an oriole calls up a love-dream.
On the south pond, my old friends in their wooden boats
row to shore, picking all the lotus flowers.
They sing a love song with their slow oar strokes--
two white seagulls, startled, take flight from the water.

III: Autumn

The season's chill creeps through my silk curtains. The long night endures;
the garden, stenciled with rime. My painted screen feels cold.
Pond lotuses wither--their fragrance floats in night.
By the well, under the bare empress tree, no autumn shadows fall.
The sound of a water clock's splish, carried on west wind--
outside the door blind, on frost-covered land, evening insects sing.
On the loom, a sheet of cloth waits gold-scissor cutting.
In a cut dream, I saw you on the borderlands;
the silk curtains, still.
Sewing clothes to give to a distant officer--
lotus-petalled light, so frail, illuminates a darkened wall.
Holding my tears, writing yet one more letter--
the messenger departs in the morning through the south fields.

Clothes and letters finished, I walk my garden--
the sparkling radiance of stars, and dawn of Venus.
Under a frigid blanket, I turn again, sleepless--
slivers of lovely moonlight seep to a screen's panels.

IV: Winter

The water clock's copper bottles time the frozen night--
the silk curtains, lit by the moon;
my coverlet, cold.
Palace ravens scatter, surprised at a well bucket's splash.
Dawn's grayness penetrates the pavilion--
the paper windows, shadowed.
Before the blind, a maid in waiting pours from a golden bottle--
in the jade basin, my hands freeze;
I smell the scent of lipstick.
Pencil-in eyebrows delicately, warm my hands with breaths--
the doves in the gilded cage hate the dawn frost!
Southern neighbors meet their friends,
they smile and talk--
a white face thins, missing a lover.
The wrought stove's charcoal warms a small silver flute--
below the curtains, his medicinal wine
invites spring.

Outside, leaning on a rail, yearning
for my lover on the borderlands--
he rides an iron horse with barbed spear
along the shorelines,
a blizzard of sand and snow blows, fraying his sable cloak--

surely, he remembers home--

          my handkerchief,
          so filled with tears.

A Poor Woman's Song


Though just as lovely as others,
a good seamstress and weaver,
a young girl raised in a poor family
is never seen by the matchmakers.


She pretends not to be cold or hungry,
weaving below a window through the day.
Her parents alone have pity--
how could the neighbors ever know?


Weave without rest through the drawn-out night--
the wintry loom: click-clack, click-clack.
One roll of silk on the loom--
will it ever be anyone's clothes?


Sharp scissors held in her hand,
the icy night numbs her ten fingers.
Sewing a wedding dress for another,
year after year, left to sleep alone.

In the Style of Sim, Ah-jee


The pavilion glows rose in a late evening sun,
serene waves ripple the sapphire-blue pond.
Deep in a willow, an oriole sings, consummate--
dried sepals reel; swallows jitter.

A muddy lane dirties my gold-embroidered shoes--
a jade hairpin glitters from my bowed head.
Blood-warm sheets ripple in curves behind my screens--
I dream of love in spring colors.


A white pear blooms; spring rain falls--
night ends like a burnt red candle.
Above a well, ravens take flight at first light--
on a beam, swallows chirp in dawn wind.

Roll up my cool, windless curtains--
my chill quilted bed, so empty of anything.
Cloud-wagons drift, as if pulled by cranes--
east of the pavilion, a galaxy of stars, shimmering.

Deep Night Song


Cicadas sing mournfully--
the wind
The essence of lotus blooms

under an icy moon.

A beauty's hand
holds gold

sewing a coat for war,

I raise the lamp's wick
through the long night.


The water clock
drips quietly.

My lamp burns bright.
Through silk curtains

cold nears
in the long autumn night.

Finish clothes for the border--
the scissors

Plantain shadows

fill the papered window.
The wind sharpens.

Longing for a Fisherman's Simple House

Desolate eastern wind in my garden--
a pear tree, freshly flowered, near my stone and mortar wall.
I settle on level balustrades, remembering my home's waters--
I can never return.
Meadow grass on the horizon mingles into heavenly skies--
white curtains adorn my window aesthetically--
the iron latch, ashen-black.
Tears stream my scarlet-powdered cheeks,
mist forms among river pines--
will my longing ever end?
The wide river and high mountains--
these must be why
my husband has not come.

Seeing Beyond This World

Chartreuse orchids wave
in a light breeze

a harpy harbinger wings above trees--
the Mother of Heaven
glides to an island
in a chariot drawn by kirin.

In a phoenix-harnessed pearl--
wearing a lace waistcoat,
her banner of orchids coursing--
she smiles, leans over ruby trim
plucking reeds of amethyst.
Nirvana's currents
blow her citrine gown
into aureoles
the beryl rings
of her necklace clink   clink   clink.

On her moon-world
nymphs dance in pairs, strumming harps
and laurel blooms three times a year--
the winter-ending curls of clouds, sweet as honey nectar.

At daybreak, the party ends in a lotus pavilion--
from powdery swells of sea
an indigo messenger boy
rides a silvery crane.

A plum-colored piccolo trills
clears the hyacinth half-light--
the damp of early morning
sprinkles a universe of islands--
and the Dawn Star descends.


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Note: All translations in this article by Ian Haight and Tae-young Ho.

Years: 1563-1589
Birthplace: Korea
Language(s): Korean, Chinese
Forms: Hanshi (Chinese-Korean poems)
Subjects: marriage, social constrictions, Taoism, art, writing, social justice, women's rights
Entry By: Ann E. Michael
32 Poems
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