Nostalgic Reflections of the Twenty-One Capitals (二十一都懷古詩 Isib’ildo-hoegosi ) is a cycle of forty-three poems, seven character lined ‘heptasyllabic’ Chinese quatrains (七言絶句), describing a personal selection of ancient landscapes and monuments which in turn evoke the memory of various events and characters from some of the earliest recorded kingdoms and dynasties associated with Korean history. Poet-historian Yu Deukgong (1748-1807) initially completed the work in 1778, he added a preface in 1785 and subsequently revised it in 1792. Each of the twenty-one subdivisions and individual poems is accompanied by lengthier prose quotes taken from some forty-three different historical sources.
What’s in the title?
The first four characters, i‘sib’il-do (二十一都 ‘twenty-one capitals,’) in the title refer to the revised work’s subdivision into twenty-one separately titled kingdoms and smaller states. However, in the poems themselves, though often mentioned, there is no overt emphasis placed on the notion of capitals or fortified urban centres. Any stricter adherence to poetically representing each capital, as the title implies, is further diminished in the case of kingdoms such as Goguryeo and Baekje who’s capitals changed location several times but are each treated in the cycle still as a single do (都). The ambiguous usage in the title is thus best understood as more loosely delineating the kingdoms themselves. Perhaps this is because whilst it may have been considered misleading to term all of the twenty-one states included as fully fledged kingdoms or dynasties, they were all assumed to at least have had a seat of power in the form of a fortress or palace where the ruler was based and which could be designated a ‘capital,’ however minor the kingdom itself.
During the process of revision, it also seems Nostalgic Reflections evolved away from an initially stronger concept of structuring the cycle around the motif of capitals. Originally the first edition, though still covering the same twenty-one kingdoms, was subdivided into sixteen do with some of the kingdoms from different periods treated as having shared the same capital locations. The cycle was thus referred to by Jeong Yak-yong (丁若鏞1762-1836) in a letter to his son as the Sixteen Capital Heogo-si (十六都懷古詩). The locations hosting more than one kingdom were Pyeong’yang-bu (for Dan’gun Joseon, Gi Ja Joseon, Wi Man Joseon and Goguryeo), Iksan-gun (for Mahan and Bodeok) and Gangneung-bu (for Ye and Myeongju).
The last three characters of the title, hoego-si (懷古詩 lit. ‘poems thinking of/cherishing the old’), in my translation rendered as “nostalgic reflections,” was a genre of Chinese verse developed during the Tang dynasty. A Beijing friend and early champion of the work, Pan Tingyun (潘庭筠), observed that Yu’s hoego-si incorporates aspects of several related genres of Chinese poem including yeongsa-si (詠史詩) ‘poems reciting history,’ jukji (竹枝 lit. ‘bamboo branch’) typically discussing local scenery and customs, and gung-sa (宮詞 lit. ‘palace lyrics’) which take as their subject the intrigues and tales of palace life. Like Yu’s hoego-si – which also shares much in terms of subject matter – both the latter jukji and gung-sa are composed of seven character lines, whilst yeongsa-si are slightly freer in form.
Yeongsa-si are ‘poems reciting history’ and as expected recount past events. Though famously being the first poetry cycle written in the new vernacular hangul alongside Classical Chinese, in terms of content and style, perhaps the most representative yeongsa-si known to Korean literature today is Yongbi Eocheon-ga (龍飛御天歌 Songs of Flying Dragons ) whilst a more archetypal Korean yeongsa-si in Classical Chinese is the earlier Jewang-un’gi (帝王韻紀 1287) by Yi Seung-hyu (1224-1300). What distinguishes Yu’s Nostalgic Reflections most from other yeongsa-si or prose histories, such as the dynastic chronicles, is that as a hoego-si it does not attempt to recite or recount a historical narrative but only recalls episodes from it. In contrast to official histories there is no underlying didacticism, Yu neither eulogizes nor overtly moralizes.
It could also be noted that in content and motivation Yu’s individual quatrains are highly reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon elegiac verse; they do not overtly ponder death but are keenly aware of the passing of ages and ruination of ancient civilization.
In what form does the work survive?
Currently eight known variant editions of Nostalgic Reflections have survived to the present. They are chiefly divided into the first version of 1778 and the revised version of 1792. The latter is the dominant version whilst extant copies of the former were only recently rediscovered.
Aside from changing the classification of the capitals, the main difference between the first and revised versions is the greater detail of the quotations taken from historical sources. In the first edition, the quotes following the poems apparently do not always indicate their source and sometimes do not even directly relate to the contents of the poem. By contrast, the quotations used in the revised version are chosen to explain only specific names, phrases or words in the text and their sources are explicitly stated. Previously absent, introductions composed of further quotes were also added for each of the twenty-one kingdoms inserted before their associated poems.
In the final revision then, the forty-three quatrains are in total accompanied by some 196 separate quotations including from one paeseung (稗乘), from two poems by Jeong Mong-ju (鄭夢周 1337-92) and one byeolgok song (別曲) by Jeong Cheol (鄭澈1536-93). The remaining 192 quotations are from the aforementioned forty-three sources twenty of which are Korean, the other twenty-three Chinese of various dynasties including the classic histories.
Of the twenty Korean sources, three now only exist in fragmentary form quoted in other books whilst two are entirely unknown outside of Elegies. Only one of the quoted Chinese sources is no longer extant. Throughout the cycle, the most frequently referred to source is the Sinjeung Dongguk Yeoji–seungnam (新增東國輿地勝覽Newly Augmented Complete Korean Geography, 1530), quoted from some forty-six times, followed by the Samguk-sagi (三國史記History of the Three Kingdoms, 1145) quoted thirty-two times and the Dongguk Munheon– (東國文獻備考bigoEncyclopedia of Korean Writings, 1770) twenty times.
Significance of the revision
The enhanced academic rigour of the revised version no doubt reflects the experience Yu had subsequently gained working at the Gyujanggak royal library combined with a more fully developed interest in historical research as well as greater appreciation for toponymy derived from his travels.
Whilst the quatrains themselves retain the characteristics of a hoegosi, the effect of augmenting the quotations to such a degree is that, taken as a whole, Nostalgic Reflections becomes as much a prose work of historical survey as it does one of poetic rumination.
As the poems themselves did not greatly change in content, Yu’s somewhat idiosyncratic choice of historical personages and scenes chosen for the cycle were preserved throughout the revision. The final result is best appreciated then as an ‘alternative history’ or even, simply a miscellany of topics which interested Yu most at the initial time of composition. In this former sense, the work bears some similarity with the Samguk–yusa (三國遺事), though Yu was not trying in any way to supplement or revise the orthodox histories from which he was inspired as is thought to have been Il Yeon’s (1206-89) motivation. Thus, even though during the intervening period of revising Nostalgic Reflections he had compiled Balhae-go, in which he lamented the kingdom having been omitted from Kim Bu-sik’s Samguk-sagi, he still chose not to add a new Balhae ‘capital’ to the cycle despite its importance over some of the more minor kingdoms already included.
Aside from Balhae, much else could be made of what and who Yu left out of the cycle but the selection process is better understood by considering the content that was included. What becomes apparent is that each poem was composed in order to reference at least one cultural, anecdotal, literary or archaeological point of interest. The latter often includes the monuments and landscapes Yu observed on his early travels, the others were culled from his extensive reading. Nostalgic Reflections is not a panegyric and so Yu was under no obligation to include names of historic figures and major events, unless they served a further purpose in linking to the other points of lesser known interest.