창작과 비평

[Boudewijn Walraven] Kasa, Communication, and Public Opinion



Boudewijn Walraven

Boudewijn Walraven is Professor Emeritus of Korean Studies of Leiden University in the The Netherlands and currently Visiting Professor at the Academy of East Asian Studies of Sungkyunkwan University.


* This article was translated and printed in The Quarterly Changbi (Summer 2018) ⓒ Boudewijn Walraven 2018






In his book Poetry and the Police, Robert Darnton states that his study of poetry and songs in eighteenth-century France “reveals the way an information society operated when information spread by word of mouth and poetry carried messages among ordinary people, very effectively and long before the Internet.”[1] He draws attention to the importance and complexity of communication, which is too often assumed to be hardly possible on a large scale without writing.  Darnton, however, advocates attention to forms of non-written communication: “We will never have an adequate history of communication until we can reconstruct its most important missing element: orality.”

In this article, I want to reflect on the ways in which ideas and opinions were diffused in the late Chosŏn period, concentrating on a genre that, like the material Darnton explored, stands between the written and the oral: the kasa 歌辭. A consideration of certain kasa produced after 1700 may contribute to the discussion about the emergence of public opinion or a public sphere in Korea. In this context the phrase “public sphere” should not be understood in the exact sense in which Habermas employed the term, as this obviously has too many connotations that are specific to the development of European bourgeois society and are not applicable to Chosŏn Korea or East Asia. One may discern a form of public opinion or a public sphere in a form that is typical of Chosŏn Korea, however, because there existed a concept of the general interest, the common good (in a specific East Asian, Confucian form). It goes without saying that this does not imply, for instance, that a basis for liberal, bourgeois democracy, as associated with the emergence of public space according to Habermas, was created. But a discussion about the public sphere in Korea should not concentrate on checking a pre-determined list of elements that according to Habermas have been important to create the bourgeois public sphere in Europe; rather it should examine the particular dynamics and characteristics of Korean developments.


The Chosŏn Concept of Public Opinion


Chosŏn knew a number of ways to express and circulate ideas regarding matters of importance, largely related to the Confucian concept of kongnon 公論. This required that the ruler should show a willingness to listen to the opinions of his subjects. In many cases presenting one’s views was an individual matter, and not in any way a form of public participation in the political process. Yet, in late Chosŏn this changed. The court kept both officials and literati in the countryside informed through a “court gazette” (chobo 朝報), which allowed a wider stratum of the population than just the officials to express opinions or take part in political discussions. This took the form of sending memorials (箚) or petitions (上疏) to local officials or, if this did not produce the desired result, to the court. Such appeals were also forwarded by groups of people. The students of the Sŏnggyun’gwan were frequent petitioners, but also scholars without official position from the countryside, who in many instances were associated with sŏwŏn. In late Chosŏn, some of these petitions were signed by thousands of literati and accordingly called maninso (萬人疏). Such mass petitions were the result of a consensus that was achieved through circular letters (t’ongmun 通文), which constituted a more horizontal way of expressing public opinion. T’ongmun, were often circulated among the students of the numerous sŏwŏn and the more than 350 local governmental schools (hyanggyo).

Opinions on matters of general concern, as opposed to petitions for private purposes, were mainly voiced by the literati, who according to Confucian ideology were obliged to remonstrate with the king when they thought certain policies ran counter to the principles of good government. It is important, however, to note that as time passed the concept of the nature of the state that lay at the basis of Confucian ideology spread beyond the yangban elite. There is ample evidence that there also were a growing number of sŏmin who possessed some degree of literacy and had received a Confucian education that inculcated a view of the nation that included the concept of kongnon and a sense of belonging to the nation. Anyone exposed to even elementary levels of such education would be familiar with the notion of a national community according to the Confucian model. In this context, it is also relevant that extant population registers from late Chosŏn show a dramatic increase in the number of persons who were identified as yuhak 幼學, that is persons who aspired to yangban status. Office holders and yuhak in some places made up between 60 and 70% of the population.

The consequence of this was that those who thought of themselves as part of the nation as it was imagined in Confucian terms comprised many more than the yangban elite and over time grew in number. By the end of the nineteenth century a wide swath of the population had assimilated the Confucian concept of仁政 to such an extent that they felt entitled to it and used it to justify political action. All this needs to be kept in mind when the potential public and political potential of the kasa are considered.


Critical Kasa


Anyone who needs convincing that late Chosŏn differed from early Chosŏn only has to look at the dramatic changes that can be observed in the kasa. But the new forms kasa assumed were more than just a reflection of social change. They were part of change itself, of new ways of communication, spreading a growing variety of messages to people from a growing number of social echelons. The change in the nature of kasa after 1600 allowed a much greater variety in the content that was communicated by this genre. This opened the way for the expression of conflicting or controversial opinions. This is most obvious in the sub-genre of kasa that criticize certain aspects of the social reality of the day: 現實批判歌辭.  Critical kasa sometimes address the monarch, but the appeal does not concern a personal problem but the plight of the population in general. Even when the formal addressee was the king they were intended to contribute to kongnon in the same fashion as formal memorials to the throne. Additionally, it has been argued that some of them, although probably not intended for this purpose, also served to incite open rebellion.

Here I will discuss two instances of critical kasa, Imgyet’an 壬癸嘆 and Kŏch’angga 居昌歌, in some detail. Imgyet’an (Lament of the years imja 壬子-1732- and kyech’uk 癸丑-1733-) is regarded as one of the first kasa that criticized social reality. It describes the terrible consequences of failed harvests, insect plagues, epidemic diseases and bad governance for the people of 長興 in Chŏlla Namdo.[2] Most likely it was written not long after the events it describes, at some time in the 1730s. Its author is unknown, although Im Hyŏngt’aek has suggested that the yangban 魏問德 (1704-1784) may have been the author. The song is interesting because of its dramatic depiction of rural suffering, but also for hints that indicate what its function was in the communication of political opinion.

In the first lines, the poet addresses the paeksŏng, recalling the unprecedented famines of 1732 and 1733. He also announces that he will send it to the capital.  This is in accord with the very last lines, in which the king is singled out as the recipient. This is the pattern that underlies yubae kasa like Songgang’s Samiin’gok, but also makes the kasa into a kind of petition to the throne. However, the monarch certainly was not the single addressee of the kasa, which also directly addressed the common people, to whom the poet felt closely connected. Vis-à-vis the king they were all “paeksŏng”: “이 시절 만난 백성 네오 내오 다를쏘냐.”

After the introduction the famine is situated in its historical and geographical setting. To the poet, the famine has dissolved doubts he had about the reality of stories in historical sources about cannibalism. The present situation, which actually started to deteriorate already in the sinhae 辛亥 year, 1731, is even worse, in spite of the fact that “우리 조선,” possesses favorable natural conditions and is blessed with everything it might need.  The south of the country, where Changhŭng is located, in particular, is famous for its abundant produce. The suggestion is that human intervention is to blame for the catastrophic situation. In fact, in the lines that follow it is explained that in previous years government orders to register land had caused great unrest in rural communities and interfered with the preparations for coping with bad harvests. Once the failure of the harvest was a fact, the destitute and hungry peasants were unable to supply the government with what was expected of them, that is the return of grain advanced to them in spring as well as various labor services, and therefore already in 1731 they had left their homes in great numbers to become roaming beggars.

After the winter of 1731-1732, the people expected relief from the government granaries, but “rats” had depleted them. The kasa leaves no doubt that rats in human form are meant. There is a reference to the “Song of the Large Rats” ( Shuoshu 碩鼠歌) from the 詩經, which is interpreted metaphorically as directed against the oppression and extortion of the government.  The stomachs and guts of the local clerks are full, the kasa says, but the starving people have nothing to expect.  The officials are directly addressed and asked when they will open their eyes to the needs of the famished people.

Efforts to make the best of agriculture are again frustrated by insect plagues that wipe out the entire harvest.  “Who is to blame?”, the kasa poet asks rhetorically. He does not immediately supply an answer, but in a following passage he reproaches the magistrate of Changhŭng for not taking adequate action on behalf of the people entrusted to him and downplaying the seriousness of the situation in his official reports. The officials, he adds, just busied themselves with collecting taxes and imposing corvée duties. The population is left with no other choice than to leave home, and for many nothing but death on the road awaits. The corpses piled up at the side of the road are ravaged by dogs and birds.

Some hope is kindled by the arrival of a special inspector from the court, who had garnered a good reputation as governor of Chŏnju, but even that hardly brings any relief, because the local clerks, charged with the registration of sufferers, only think of their own interests. In vain, the poet calls on the governor, who is blind to these abuses, to open his eyes. He also observes that serious famines always result in banditry and relativizes the bandits’ greed by comparing it with the cupidity of the wealthy. In the end the epidemics that follow hard on the heels of famine threaten to kill even the last survivors.

Then follow four verses that sketch out a Confucian concept of the nation (국가).


百姓이 업슨 後에 國家를 어이하리

나라히 나라안여 百姓이 나라히요

百姓이 百姓안여 衣食이 百姓이다

衣食百姓 다 업스니 이 時節 어이될고?


The poet plays with the two meanings of the word nara. It may be considered the same as kukka, but could also refer to the king (in which case the suffix –nim may be attached to it: nara-nim). The apparent paradox of the first part of the second verse, where the first nara is to be understood as meaning “king” and the second use calls that into question, is resolved in the second half of the line, which reveals that nara should be interpreted as referring to the nation in the sense of the community of the people. The author of Imgyet’an adds to this that the physical well-being of the people is essential for the nation; without the people no nation, and without clothes and food no people.

These lines are immediately followed by verses that may be interpreted as hinting how the kasa poet thinks of his own role, as an advocate of the people, attacking the officials who hide the seriousness of the situation because they are afraid that they will be blamed. When he exclaims: “Who will report the disaster and appeal [to the court] (고변호소 뉘 있으리)?” it is clear that he himself is the one who takes up this duty.  At the very end of the kasa he announces that he will present his appeal (the kasa) to the king. It is telling that he speaks of the kasa as if it is a written petition; it has the same function. Accordingly, it makes the same contribution to kongnon as petitions were supposed to do.

The second kasa I will discuss is Kŏch’angga. It has a complicated history,[3] but for our purposes the most essential part of it deals with events in Kŏch’ang in the years between 1837 and 1841. The contents of the kasa that deal with Kŏch’ang overlap with an appeal (弊狀) that was addressed to the provincial governor to redress the situation, and also explicitly refer to that appeal. In other words, it seems the kasa was in the first instance intended to fulfill the same function as such an appeal.

Although some lines in the kasa suggest that it was composed in the 1840s shortly after the events it described, the earliest extant manuscripts date from the second half of the nineteenth century and there appears to be a connection between the popularity of the kasa at that time and the popular unrest that erupted in the 1862 壬戌民亂. It is obvious that then the kasa was no longer an appeal to the government to correct the abuses the people of Kŏch’ang had suffered. It was most likely revived because it gave voice to widespread dissatisfaction with unfair and overly burdensome taxation, and so indirectly may have contributed to fomenting rebellion.

To present a clearer picture of Kŏch’angga, I will discuss some of the more salient passages on the basis of Cho Kyu-ik’s study. The first part of the kasa is devoted to the establishment of the capital of Chosŏn and the Yi monarchs. The tone is celebratory and light,: the reader or listener is exhorted to enjoy the peaceful times good governance provides. In line 331, however, there is an abrupt change.  “조선 삼백육십일주 간 곳마다 태평이되/엇지타 우리 거창 읍운이 불행하야? The responsibility is largely put on the shoulders of the local magistrate, 李在稼, although the 향리, too, must share the blame. The kasa represents itself as an appeal to the king who must be unaware of the behavior of those who work for him.  The specific nature of the appeal is emphasized by comparisons with other districts where the tax load is less oppressive. The kasa specifies different forms of abuse like the roaming off of taxes by intermediaries such as the clerks and the inaccuracy of the registers, which results in levying taxes on newborn babies and the dead. A dramatized story about a young widow who has to pay tax for her dead husband is followed by an angry account of an actual incident.  Underlings of the magistrate wanted to collect taxes from 金日光 , a yangban who was a lodger in the house of a young widow. Kim was not at home, but the men broke into the women’s quarters of the house and dragged out the widow by the hair. This act evokes the indignation of the author of the kasa, as the separation of men and women was sacrosanct to the yangban. This class-conscious attitude shows that he was not a proponent of a radically egalitarian society.  The widow reacted to this humiliation by killing herself.  In accordance with popular beliefs, the kasa suggests that the unseasonable hail that subsequently did great damage to Kŏch’ang was due to the resentment of the dead woman.  The kasa also mentions the death of another protester, 李禹錫, probably a 서민, as well as the suicide of his widowed mother, who hanged herself rather than seeing her son executed.

The kasa continues with several other examples of misgovernment and cheating. At one moment scholars’ robes and caps were demanded as a kind of levy and used to disguise government slaves as literati when the son of the magistrate of Kŏch’ang took part in the examination in the capital; this to the horror of the author of Kŏch’angga, who was aghast that the robes donned by Confucius were worn by slaves. Thus once again, he demonstrates that he does not favor equality for everyone. Yet, he clearly defends the interests of a wider group than his own, speaking for all the people.

In the conclusion to the kasa, there is a prayer addressed to heaven for 尹致光, the man who had written a letter of protest (의송) to the government:


거창일경 모든 백성/상하남녀로소 없이/비나이다 비나이다/ 히늘님께 비는이다/의송 쓴 저 사람을/무사 방송 뇌여주쇼/살리소셔 살리소셔/일월 성신 살리소셔/만백성 위한 사람/무슨 죄 잇단말가?


This plea is, of course, actually addressed to the king.

In sum, it is impossible to say that in its origin Kŏch’angga represents “봉건시대 민중의 저항,” as the subtitle of Cho Kyu-ik’s book suggests, because the author of the kasa was too much attached to the discriminatory class structure that favored his own position in society, but the song did contain elements that explain its popularity among a wider segment of the population in a later period, when the particular plight of Kŏch’ang was no longer of any concern. Kŏch’angga attacked abuses, particularly of the local clerks and mostly related to taxation, which were extremely widespread in late Chosŏn, and emphasized the responsibility of government for the well-being of the whole population. When in the second half of the nineteenth century popular protests against unfair taxation and extortion by the the ajŏn developed into a succession of local revolts, the kasa gained a second life, which in different senses of the word was more public than at first.  At that juncture it was first of all more public because its meaning was less local, less specific, more concerned with the general interest, and also more public because it was much more widely diffused.

Both Imgyet’an and Kŏch’angga in some ways retain the character of an appeal to the monarch, but the audience addressed was wider, particularly in the case of Kŏch’angga. It is especially because of this that this kasa may be considered a contribution to the expression of public opinion and a medium that stimulated public participation in the political process. However, as will be shown below, already in the eighteenth century there was a common perception that kasa could be used to express and propagate political opinions.



Protest kasa in historical sources


The political significance of kasa is confirmed by historical sources such as the 실록.  In the first half of the Chosŏn period, the word kasa (歌詞 /歌辭) only occurs in the Sillok in the sense of the lyrics of songs sung during court ritual. This changes after 1700. In 1722, a certain睦虎龍claimed to have knowledge of a plot to harm the king. Apart from the plans to murder the king, one of the conspirators was said to have composed a kasa in the vernacular that slandered and criticized the king. This kasa had been introduced into the palace, presumably to strengthen the case of the putative conspirators.  Irrespective of whether the accusation of Mok Horyong was true, it is clear that a political function was assigned to kasa.

In 1739, a kasa once again is mentioned in a context of treason. Of the main conspirator it is said that he had written a kasa that contained very wicked pronouncements about the court. Another record referring to the case comments that the people of the locality where the conspirators came from by nature were ill-tempered grumblers and would criticize the government in kasa whenever they were even slightly dissatisfied about something.

In 1744, it was reported that an anonymous kasa criticizing the failings of the government had been affixed to Namdaemun. Unfortunately, but for understandable reasons, we do not have the text of this kasa, nor of several other kasa that were highly critical of the government, and perhaps even contained open incitements to rebellion.  Ko Sunhŭi, however, who has been the first to unearth historical references to such songs, found some references in the Sillok, and also in judicial documents, such as 推案及鞫案.[4] For an understanding of the role of kasa in public political discourse the kasa that were not transmitted because of their controversial content are of obvious importance.

One particularly interesting case of a politically charged kasa Ko Sunhŭi mentions was written in 1799 and emerges in the context of an aborted revolt in Hwanghae Province in 1804. The author was a certain 李達宇, a commoner who was literate in Chinese and had made a failed attempt to obtain a position through the military examinations. When interrogated about the kasa he explained that he was moved by the plight of the people who were so much exploited by local clerks and landowners that they left their homes and fields to go begging or even became robbers. In the record of the interrogations it appears that Yi Taru first had considered bringing his proposals to the attention of the king through the more regular medium of a petition. Details in the interrogation report about the way the kasa was propagated are also of interest. It was copied by the students of a sŏdang and Yi Taru’s co-conspirators took it to Pyongyang and other places in northern Korea to gather support for their cause.

The kasa Yi Taru wrote in many respects may have been like Imgyet’an and Kŏch’angga, a passionate appeal to improve the situation of the poor in the countryside. Once Yi had made his opinions public in the form of a kasa he seems to have radicalized and plotted a rebellion. In this stage, the kasa no longer was an alternative to a petition, but became a means to propagate the views that prompted their attempt to organize an uprising. It goes without saying that this did not imply that the kasa itself advocated rebellion. That would have been too startling and have made it useless as a means to win over people to their cause.  The change in the function of Kŏch’angga will have been similar. Originally intended as an alternative to a petition aiming to alert the central government to local abuses, several decades later, at a time of great local unrest in the 1860s, it served to prepare the ground for revolts.

Another incident in which kasa were mentioned took place  in 1823, when the annexation of the magistracy of P’ungdŏk 豊德 by Songdo caused unrest among the students of the local hyanggyo, which spread to other communities. Interesting is the fact that the writing of kasa was mentioned as just one of the mediums of protest, alongside with a circular letter that was sent to the Sŏnggyun’gwan and a petition to the government.

Ko Sunhŭi also refers to a kasa produced in the context of the revolt that occurred in 1862 in Chinju. According to the testimony of one of the rebels this was explicitly meant to mobilize protesters. Yu Kyech’un 柳繼春 , the man who had composed the kasa, was a commoner, but literate in Chinese and had made it his living to write petitions to officials on behalf of the illiterate. He had been punished when he went to Seoul to file a complaint against misgovernment. The existence of a socially active group of literate non-yangban such as Yu Kyech’un added to the potential of the kasa as a medium to voice political protest and is one of the most significant developments in late Chosŏn from the viewpoint of communication.


Twentieth-century kasa


The newspapers that were published at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century embraced the older medium of the kasa to a surprising degree. The inclusion of kasa, often responding to the events of the day, increased the potential of the papers for disseminating ideas, as one may assume that the messages in their pages were reinforced through the oral dissemination for which the kasa, which could be memorized more easily than prose, were ideally suited.

During the entire first half of the twentieth century (and sometimes even after that) the composition of kasa that were made public independently from the newspapers also continued. The contents of these kasa were quite diverse, but in many cases of a political or ideological nature. One might be inclined to associate the traditional genre of the kasa with conservatism and see them as opposed to modernity. In fact, the genre demonstrates that such a dichotomy is meaningless. As the genre appellation 계몽가사 indicates, the kasa might turn into a vehicle for modern education and reform.




It is an undisputed fact that in the last years of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century kasa were part of the mechanisms through which opinions –political, religious or otherwise- spread among the population. But this was not a new phenomenon that had come into being because of the opening of the country and the advent of what usually is called modernity. Rather it was a continuation of a mode of communication that had its origins in the late Chosŏn period, well before 1876, the year when the country established “modern international relations.” This mode of communication had several advantages that still were valid in the early twentieth century. First of all, it could reach even people of little education. Second, it was less direct than other forms of communication and therefore more easily could escape suppression or censorship. The various modes of distribution of kasa –including the copying by hand of printed texts or manuscripts, recitation or singing- favored a relatively free circulation. And thirdly, the aesthetic appeal of the kasa added to the persuasive power of the arguments they put forward, and might even have the power to attract those who basically were inclined to disagree with their messages.

The use of kasa for political purposes in the twentieth century was rooted in communicative practices that went back to a period well before the so-called opening of the country. It was the continuation of a tradition rather than an innovation due to the advent of “modern times.” I do not suggest here that Korean modernity started earlier than many believe, but that the concept of modernity may blind one to continuities and perhaps should be reconsidered or even abandoned altogether.


[1] Robert Darnton, Poetry and the Police: communication networks in eighteenth-century Paris (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2010), 145. For full references, see the much longer English version of this article “Kasa, Communication, and Public Opinion”, Journal of Korean Studies vol. 20, no. 1 (2015).

[2] 임형택, 『옛노래, 옛사람의 내명풍경 (서울: 소명출판, 2005), 45-80.

[3] The relationship between the many variants of this kasa is analyzed and discussed in 조규익, 『봉건시대 민중의 저항과 고발문학: 거창가』 (서울: 월인, 2000), from which I have also taken the text I discuss here.

[4] 고순회, 「19세기 현실비판사사연구」(이화여자대학교 박사학위논문, 1990), and 「민란과 실전 현실비판사사」, 『한국고전연구』, no. 5 (1999): 236-267.