Huh, Nan-Sul-Hun, the Name that Shined After Her Death
Most Koreans would readily agree that Shin Sa-Im-Dang is the most prominent female figure of the Joseon Dynasty. The mother of the Confucian scholar Yulgok, Shin Sa-Im-Dang is affectionately called by many Koreans “Eojin Eomeoni 어진 어머니,” which means "wise mother.” A notable poet, artist, calligrapher, and an embroiderer, Shin Sa-Im-Dang is regarded as the epitome of a good wife and a wise mother.
In addition to Shin Sa-Im-Dang, there is one other female poet worth noting for her intriguing works. Huh, Nan-Sul-Hun, a genius poet of the Joseon era, led a quite different life than that of Shin Sa-Im-Dang in a male-dominant Joseon society. Huh was born with innate qualities required of a poet, but her works reflecting her poetic sensibility were considered too advanced and did not receive much attention until after her death.
The Life of Huh, Nan-Sul-Hun
Huh, Nan-Sul-Hun was born into a prominent family in 1563. Her father was Huh
Yup, who was a renowned writer of the Joseon era. Huh, Nan-Sul-Hun grew up in an open-minded, supportive family, and was called by her real name Huh Cho-hui when most women of the Joseon period were not given names at birth. Along with her younger brother Huh Gyun, famous for his “Hong Gil-dong Jeon,” Huh, Nan-Sul-Hun developed her writing skills and refined her taste for poetry. One of her older brothers Huh Bong recognized his sister’s literary talent from the time that she was young, and asked his friend Lee Dal, the greatest poet of the time, to train her. Equipped with the necessary skills, Huh, Nan-Sul-Hun wrote “Gwang Han Jun Baek Ok Ru Sang Ryang Moon” (광한전 백옥루 상량문 廣寒殿 白玉樓上樑文) at the age of 8 and was soon called a poetry prodigy.
At the age of 15, Huh married Kim Sung-rip from the Andong Kim family, which marked the beginning of her life full of sorrows and pains. The Andong Kim family, known for their conservative tradition, was not fond of Huh who was immersed in reading and writing. Her narrow-minded husband was not supportive of her literary career and neglected her works. Following the deaths of her father and her older brother Huh Bong as well as the deaths of her children at early ages, her marriage inevitably suffered. Leading a miserable life, Huh devoted herself to poetry through which she conveyed her deep sadness and pain.
In her poem “Gokja” (곡자 哭子) “Grieving for My Dead Children,” Huh writes:
Last year lost my beloved daughter
This year lost my beloved son
Sorrow upon sorrow in Gwangreung’s land
Two tomb mounds rise and gaze at each other
The wind blows over a white poplar
And goblins’ fire flashes in the forest
Burning paper money I call your spirits
I offer saffron wine before your graves… (Source: “The Poetic World of Classic Korean Women Writers” by Lee, Hai-soon)
Huh is believed to have died at the age of 27, leaving her last piece of poetry called the “Mong Yoo Gwang San San” (몽유광산산 夢遊廣桑山). According to her will, most of her works were burned. Feeling pity for her sister, Huh Gyun collected the surviving works of Huh Nan-Sul-Hun which were kept at her family’s home and published “Nan-Sul-Hun Jip (난설헌집)” or “Nan-Sul-Hun’s Collected Works” in 1590. Huh Gyun then gave the book of poetry to an envoy from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and “Hun Nan-Sul-Hun’s Collected Works” was published in China in 1606, sixteen years after Huh’s death. Her works enjoyed great popularity in China and were introduced to Japan in the 18th century, making Huh the first international bestseller writer in Korean history.