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Songs inspired by Romance of The Three Kingdoms

#Sounds of Korea l 2021-08-25

Sounds of Korea

Songs inspired by Romance of The Three Kingdoms

The ancient Chinese kingdom of Han ruled the land for about 400 years, from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. and shaped the foundation of Chinese culture that continues to this day. Such a kingdom does not collapse overnight. The government becomes corrupt and incompetent, and the lives of ordinary people become impoverished over a long period of time, which in an insurrection. Warriors from all over the country came to stamp down the rebellion, but instead of bringing peace to the kingdom, the warrior fought among themselves to seize power for themselves, eventually leading to the collapse of the Han Dynasty. The process of Han’s downfall was described in Chinese classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.” The characters in this epic novel include three heroes – Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei – and a brilliant strategist named Zhuge Liang, also known as Zhuge Kongming. Other main characters include the pragmatic and cunning Cao Cao and Sun Quan who lorded over the southern region. These characters use all sorts of tactics and strategies to claim victory and one of the most important combats in the novel was the Battle of Red Cliffs. Zhuge Kongming, who allied with Sun Quan’s deputy Zhou Yu, decides to attack Cao Cao’s army with fire and prays to the gods to send him southeasterly wind to help him win the battle. Amazingly, the wind starts to blow from the southeast, helping Zhuge Kongming to defeat his enemy. Believing that the strategist would eventually become a threat to Sun Quan, Zhou Yu sends an assassin to kill Zhuge Kongming. What happened? The answer can be found in Akdan Gwangchil’s song “Kongmyeong,” the Korean pronunciation of Kongming. 

Kongmyeong/ Sung by Akdan Gwangchil

Zhuge Kongming already knew that Zhou Yu was planning to kill him, so he planned ahead an escape on a boat to Liu Bei. He was chased by Zhou Yu’s generals, but managed to sink their boats and flee unscathed. Meanwhile, the fiery battle between Sun Quan and Cao Cao ended with Sun Quan’s army crushing the other side. The novel emphasizes only Sun Quan’s victory and Cao Cao’s defeat, but pansori “Jeokbyeokga적벽가,” or “The song of Red Cliffs” focuses on the rank and file who lost their lives in this bloody battle. Realizing their imminent death, some soldiers bowed toward the direction of their homes and some jumped off the cliff or drank poison to escape dishonorable death. The story is very tragic, but the beat is quite fast with witty words. Here’s master singer Yun Jin-cheol singing the aria about those unfortunate soldiers from “Jeokbyeokga.” 

Passage from Jeokbyeokga/ Sung by Yun Jin-cheol

While his troops are dying terrible deaths, Cao Cao commits all sorts of foolery to escape with his life. One scene describes how he rides a horse backwards and urges the animal to go forward. His underlings must have been greatly disappointed to see their commander act so selfish and ludicrous. Pansori was music for ordinary folks, so this passage about nameless soldiers must have resonated deeply among the listeners. Another aria from “Jeokbyeokga” is about the sorrow felt by ordinary soldiers. Having barely escaped with his life, Cao Cao arrives at a forest with only a handful of guards. Although he has acted quite selfishly, he would have felt somewhat guilty about leaving his troops to die like that. When Cao Cao heard birds chirping in the forest, he believes the bird sounds are the voices of the dead soldiers blaming him for their death. This aria, “Saetaryeong” or “Bird Song,” will be sung by Kim Young-jae to the accompaniment of geomungo. 

Bird Song/ Sung by Kim Young-jae

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