The main professor behind the study of naebang kasa is Lee Jeong-ok at Uideok University in Pohang. She is the scholar who discovered that naebang kasa were still being written today.
When I studied Korean literature, and especially pre-modern literature, I learned that kasa was a dead genre, a form no longer written, and an archaic form that came into being in the 16th century or so whose primary author was Jeong Cheol, a mid-16th century figure. I learned that kasa was a poem in pair verse format with four segments to each of the pair lines, and the poems were long. Really long. David McCann of Harvard wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on kasa.
The structure was like that of a sijo, the famous three-line poem that has made its way to America as a rival to Japanese haiku. Like the first two lines of a sijo, but without the third "conclusion" line, but rather sets of two lines, as a couplet, with more couplets following. I've written in this series about the sijo and its growing popularity in America ― see sejongculturalsociety.org.
Prof. Lee discovered that the kasa was not dead, but was being practiced among upper-class women from traditional households in the North Gyeongsang area, primarily, but also in some areas of the Chungcheong and Jeolla provinces. She discovered that it was still part of the wedding paraphernalia, one of the things the bride would prepare to show she would be a good bride as she was preparing to "ssi-jip kada" to marry into her husband's household, and family, and lineage ― the marriage in the "bugye" system (the patrilineal kinship system of traditional Korea) that I've written about before in this series.
By preparing a long, long kasa, the bride-to-be was demonstrating her literary skills and thus her education and her ability to educate the next generation of traditional upper-class children in the husband's ancient lineage.
The poems were not about nature and mountains and travel in the way of the old kasa of the Jeong Cheol variety. But were about family, filial piety, loyalty and good Confucian virtues. She was not only showing that she was educated and cultured and could write poetry, but that she knew what the values were that should be taught to children to raise the next generation of properly Confucian children.
At the conference a chorus of women came to the stage, sat elegantly in matching hanbok, white tops and sky-blue skirts. Three women performed solos. Yes, they all sat like a chorus, but only backed up the soloists. I was waiting for the finale that never came. I guess it is and always will be a solo genre.
Will it become recognized internationally? Will UNESCO in its infinite wisdom say, yes, here is a cultural treasure worth protecting and honoring? Well, I think so, because they have honored a lot less, in my humble opinion.
At the conference they handed out a book produced by the Academy there in Andong of all the other UNESCO Memory of the World honorees. It included, of course, Hangeul; and Jikji, the oldest extant book printed with metal movable type; and the 80,000 wooden printing blocks of Haein Temple; the Joseon Kingdom medical encyclopedia; the Joseon pharmacological encyclopedia; the set of paintings of royal processions ― these all I knew about. But I was surprised to see a couple of modern documents: the documents surrounding the Gwangju Democratic Movement of 1980; and the documents supporting the Saemaul (New Community) Movement of the 1970s ― these surprised me.
So, will the ancient but revived form of literature known as naebang kasa pass the test? Will it be a UNESCO Memory of the World? I hope so.
But if it is, then the question is: where is traditional kasa? And perhaps more importantly, since it is known and practiced much more widely, where is sijo? Perhaps the application should be for all three ― sijjo, kasa and naebang kasa.
Mark Peterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.