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Scenario

Korean Novels, All the Rage of the Joseon Period!

In a cigar shop in the Jongno District of Seoul, a man who was listening to a reading of "Im Gyeongeop Jeon" murdered the reader with a tobacco knife.

- An incident from 1790, during the reign of King Jeongjo

What was it about these novels that would drive someone to murder?

The change in novels during the Joseon period coincided with the birth of the Korean writing system, Hangeul.

Different styles of novels appeared, including Chinese novels translated into vernacular Korean (written in Hangeul), novels combining both Hangeul and Chinese characters, and native Korean novels written originally in Hangeul.

Then, in the 16th and 17th centuries, appeared two books assumed to be written in Hangeul: “Seol Gongchan Jeon” and “Hong Gildong Jeon”.

There were various types of novels at the time, the majority of them being satirical, allegorical, or critical of social problems, and featuring stories with the theme that ultimately good prevails and evil is punished.

As a result, reading, once an activity for the upper classes, expanded to the lower classes. This brought about the commercialization of texts during the Joseon period. However, with the rise in popularity of Korean novels, a number of different social problems arose as well.

In recent days, women have become absorbed in paesul (indecent or lowbrow stories), as if that were their only job. They sell their hairpins or bracelets for these books, and some even take out loans to be the first to get them, and then they spend all day reading them. It appears they have forgotten their duties of cooking and mending.

- Chae Jae-Gong (蔡濟恭), Beonamjip(樊巖集)(Collected Works of Beonam)

Women were so absorbed in their books that they neglected their household chores. Government officials were caught reading novels while on night duty, and examinees at the state examination even quoted lines from novels.

In recent days, women have become absorbed in paesul (indecent or lowbrow stories), as if that were their only job. They sell their hairpins or bracelets for these books, and some even take out loans to be the first to get them, and then they spend all day reading them. It appears they have forgotten their duties of cooking and mending.

- Chae Jae-Gong (蔡濟恭), Beonamjip(樊巖集)(Collected Works of Beonam)

Women were so absorbed in their books that they neglected their household chores. Government officials were caught reading novels while on night duty, and examinees at the state examination even quoted lines from novels.

A long time ago, a man in a cigar shop in Jongno was listening to someone reading the novel Paesa(稗史)(Unofficial History). In the story, at the part where the hero is at his lowest point, the man's eyes suddenly went wild and he began seething, foam seeping from the corner of his mouth. He took a knife used to cut tobacco and stabbed the reader, killing him instantly.

- Yi Deokmu (李德懋), Cheongjanggwan jeonseo(靑莊館全書) (Complete Works of Cheongjanggwan)

People were so engrossed in the stories that some public readers were even found murdered.

The King ordered that Japseo (雜書)(novels) be gathered up and burned. He warned the two men not to read novels, but instead to focus their attention on the classic texts.

- Jeongjo Sillok (Annals of King Jeongjo), October 24, 1792 (Year 16 of King Jeongjo)

In an effort to return order to society, King Jeongjo denounced novels as worthless books, so called Japseo, and made it so people could not read them.

Despite such actions by the king, the popularity of the novels was uncontainable, and continued to spread throughout the lower classes. Their popularity even reached international shores.

Foreign diplomats and missionaries brought Korean novels back with them to their own countries. There they were translated and sometimes adapted to fit the country's cultural norms.

These Korean Novels are currently being housed and protected across the globe to help people understand Joseon's popular literature.

Korean Novels, The Joseon Dynasty's Biggest Form of Entertainment

Thanks to the popularity of Korean novels, new jobs were created.
A Jeongisu read novels to the illiterate or those who could not afford to buy them.
Even the profession of a book-broker came about due to the popularity of books.

Jeongisu traveled about reading novels, even visiting the homes of Yangban (upper class). Jeongisu were popular due to their ability to bring the novel to life through their acting.

The Jeongisu were popular due to how realistically they acted out the text. When the Jeongisu would reach the climax of the story, they would stop reading. Listeners, unable to control their curiosity about what happened next, would throw money at the reader, begging him to continue.

At this time, commercial publishers and book rental shops popped up. These rental businesses lent out books for a small fee and soon became all the rage. These book rental shops were called Sechaekjeom.

The books that were rented at these book rental shops, called Sechaekbon, were special compared to other books.

To prevent damage that came with frequent rentals, Sechaekbon were bound with thick covers. Also, page numbers were printed at the top of each page.
On a single page, only 11 to 12 lines of text were written. Some rental shops often broke novels up into several shorter volumes or series in order to maximize profits.

On the last line of text at the bottom of the page, a few characters were left out. This was done since many renters wet their fingers with saliva when turning a page, which often smeared the text.

On the last page of each book, the locations of Sechaekjeom would be written. These were primarily in areas with a large concentration of people as well as being near markets.

Korean novels were divided into different types depending on their method of printing. There were pilsabon, which were handwritten in Hangeul, banggakbon, which were printed by engraved woodblocks (木板), and ddakjibon, which were printed using a type of printing press.

With the arrival on the scene of Sechaekjeom and banggakbon, woodblock-printed novels (banggakbon) spread quickly throughout the country. Seoul and Jeonju became distribution centers for woodblock-printed novels, with the formats and content of novels differing depending on the region where they were made.

In a Gyeongpanbon from Seoul, the printed characters in the text were tiny. This allowed for more of the story to fit on a single page, making the plot move fairly quickly. Gyeongpanbon were also characterized by their simple descriptions.

On the other hand, Wanpanbon from Jeonju were the complete opposite. The printed characters in Wanpanbon were large, making reading much easier, and situations or descriptions were very detailed.

Despite being the same book, the expressions and descriptions used in each book largely differed depending on the type of banggakbon it was.

Take for instance the story Chunhyang Jeon. In the Gyeongpanwon version, Chunhyang's social class is that of a Gisaeng (a low-ranking entertainer to the upper class), and her love story with Yi Mongryong ends quickly.

However, in the Wanpanbon version, Chunhyang's social ranking is that of a Yangban (upper class) and the two main character's love story is described at great length. The result is a book two to three times longer than the Gyeongpanbon version.

Thanks to Sechaekjeom and woodblock printing, Korean novels became increasingly popular, leading to more and more bookworms. Reading novels then began to take its place in the modern lifestyle.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Western printing technology was adopted. This allowed for Korean novels to be printed in large volumes in a short amount of time. This technology also brought about the Ddakjibon, nicknamed the six-pence pop novel. If you had just six pence to spare, you could buy a ddakjibon.

With a large number of Korean novels being produced as Ddakjibon, classic novels were able to sustain their vitality, and also became a significant fount of ideas for the country's prominent writers before and after Korea's liberation from Japan.

Korean novels were transformed once again as new types of media were introduced to the country. At the beginning of the 1900s, Korea was introduced to the phonograph and stories were now put on records.

In the early 20th century, as Korean novels were adapted to radio programs and film, their popularity expanded even further.

The Korean novels of the Joseon Dynasty brought the pastime of reading to the lower class while bringing about several meaningful changes to society. This has made them a precious part of the Korean heritage.

[Epilogue]
Must-Know Facts on Culture and Art in Korean History

1. In the Joseon period, the profession called a Jeongisu, or someone who read books to people, first appeared.
2. Book rental shops, called Sechaekjeomwere extremely popular due to the popularity of Korean novels during the Joseon period.
3. In the Joseon period, commercially distributed books made by engraved woodblocks were calledBanggakbon.

Korean Novels
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