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Yun Seon-do

#Sounds of Korea l 2018-08-08

Sounds of Korea


Joseon-era Neo-Confucian scholar and poet Yun Seon-do윤선도 is thought to have been a lucky fellow who got to enjoy the scenic Bogil보길 Island. But he was actually exiled to the beautiful yet remote island, one of his four banishments over 25 years. The only things that he must have been able to do was contemplating about the meaning of life, writing poems and playing music. When he was sent away to the distant Hamgyeong함경 region, he was accused of idling away his time playing music. He must have been put in a tight spot with that rumor, so he left behind the following letter. 


How can there be music in this god-forsaken place? When I came here in exile, I heard there was a geomungo without an owner, so I asked around about it. When Kang Seol강설 was serving as village magistrate, one of the women servants knew how to play the geomungo. When Kang Seol’s term was over, Baek Gang’s백강 concubine left the instrument behind. When Baek Gang returned home, the servant who was learning the geomungo died shortly after and the instrument was left all by itself at home. I brought it over and found out that it was the same one that Gang Seol had borrowed from me when he was the magistrate of Haenam해남. I was moved to tears by the thought of my hometown as I examined the geomungo. Perhaps the Creator knew that I would come to this place and put the instrument here to welcome me. 

Music 1: How Many Friends Do I Have/ Poem by Yun Seon-do, sung by Kim Hee-sung, geomungo by Lee Bang-sil, daegeum by Chae Jo-byeong, janggu by Kim Byeong-oh


That was a song based on Yun Seon-do’s poem titled “How Many Friends Do I Have.” It was sung by Kim Hee-sung and the geomungo was played by Lee Bang-sil. The poem goes as follows.


When asked how many friends I have, I see water, a rock, a pine tree, and a bamboo tree.

When the moon rises above the hill, I’m glad to see that too.

Let it be. What more would I add to these five?


Water, a rock, a pine tree, a bamboo tree, and the moon - these five are his friends. This poem was written when Yun was back in his home town after being released from his banishment in Yeongdeok영덕 in the southern part of Korea. He was put in exile for not protecting the king during the Manchurian invasion of Joseon in 1636. Frustrated by politics and disappointed by people’s greed and selfishness, he simply wanted to get away from all the complexities and live peacefully in nature. Yun Seon-do didn’t only play the geomungo, but also the gayageum sometimes. He once found a geomungo at an unexpected place and wrote the following essay.


I found an old gayageum at a place blackened with smoke and leaking rainwater. When I dusted it off and played it, the sound from the twelve strings flowed like water. I was able to clearly see the sentiments of the godly Choi Chi-won최치원.

Music 2:  Utdodeuri/ Gayageum by Kim Jeong-ja


That was “Utdodeuri” with Kim Jeong-ja on the gayageum. Yun Seon-do experienced political hardships all his life. The only comfort he could find during his turbulent political career was music and literature. In his later years, he decided to live on Jeju Island, away from the secular world. On his way to the southern island, his ship met a storm and had to dock temporarily at Bogil Island. But that island was so beautiful that Yun gave up his plan to live on Jeju and just settled down there. The greatest composition from his years in the island is “Eobusasisa” 어부사시사 meaning “The Fisherman’s Calendar.” It is a long poem, comprised of four sets of ten short poems about the seasonal cycle. The final song for today is a verse from “Eobusasisa,” sung by Kim Na-ri.

Music 3: Eobusasisa/ Sung by Kim Na-ri

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