Jewels in Her Crown: Treasures of Columbia University Libraries Special Collections

Exhibition Themes > East Asian Collections > 34. Korean Popular Novels

34a.  [Pigŭk sosŏl] Pulsanghan insaeng (An unhappy life). Kyŏngsŏng-pu: Hongmun Sŏgwan, Shŏwa 11, [1936] C. V. Starr East Asian Library

34b.  Yŏngsŏn (n.d.).  Syongdo mallyŏn pulgasari chyŏn (The account of a pulgasari in the last years of Songdo). Kyŏngsŏng-pu: Tongyang Taehaktang, Shōwa 11, [1936] C. V. Starr East Asian Library

34c.  [Kodae sosŏl] Tang Taejyong chyŏn (Biography of Tang Taizong). Sŏul T’ŭkpyŏlsi: Sech’ang Sŏgwan, Tan’gi 4284, [1951] C. V. Starr East Asian Library

A collection of 155 exceptionally rare, early twentieth-century traditional style Korean popular novels is housed in the C. V. Starr East Asian Library. These novels are deemed unique and no other copies are known to exist, as they were in all likelihood lost or destroyed during the Japanese occupation and the subsequent Korean war. The novels were printed in Korean script at a time when this was discouraged by the Japanese occupation government. Since the Korean language has changed considerably in the course of the twentieth century, and most published material before the twentieth century was typically written in formal language and Chinese script, the novels also provide a unique record of the colloquial language of the time. As these novels were not produced through the major publishing houses, most are physically sub-standard products, printed on cheap paper with primitive printing methods. Most volumes have gaudily colored covers and are no more than thin booklets, most of them with well under a hundred pages. The three volumes here on display are a traditional style popular novel (kodae sosŏl) chronicling the life of the Chinese emperor Tang Taizong (626-649), a tragic novel (pigŭk sosŏl) about a life full of hardship, and the story of a mythical creature(Pulgasari) during the last years of Songdo (modern Kaesŏng), the old capital of Chosŏn (1392-1910), said to eat metal, to expel nightmares, and to purge noxious vapors.

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