After analyzing the narrative of “A Poem Composed for Lady Sim, Jang Won-gyeong’s Wife” (Gosi wi Jang Won-gyeong Cheo Simssi Jak), an epic poem that Gim Ryeo (1766-1821) created on the basis of his experience of ten-year-long exile in Buryeong and Jinhae, the present study examines the characteristics of Squad Leader Jang (Jang Pachong), a supporting figure who is given as much weight in the work as is Sim Bang-ju, the heroine.
Transmitted with the latter half missing, “A Poem Composed for Lady Sim” can be divided into six sections in terms of the narrative of the extant portion. As with the beginning of the ancient Chinese poem “A Peacock Flies to the Southeast” (Kongque Dongnan Fei) from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the first section is an introduction that uses the affective imagery (xing) technique presented in the ancient Chinese text Classic of Poetry (Shijing; 11c-7c BC) to imply the overall themes of the work. Introducing the characters from the perspective of the present and depicting the process through which a marriage between a member of the scholar-gentry (yangban) and an outcaste (cheonmin) is achieved successfully, the second to the fifth sections constitute the key portion where the narrative develops in earnest. The sixth section, where Squad Leader Jang’s past is recollected, forms an internal story recounted from a past viewpoint. In particular, this section adopts a double frame structure where the plebeians describe their wretched lives in their own voices, which more vividly conveys both Squad Leader Jang’s life of hardships and the toilsome daily lives of the populace at the time. In addition, also noteworthy is the fact that the author heightens the realism of the work by boldly incorporating into it Sino-Korean expressions such as jinji (“meal”), palja (“fate”) na’euri (or jinsa; “lord”), and satto (or sado; “magistrate”) and Korean place names such as Gurigae (or Dongga), Yonggang, Yang’yang, and Naksan.
Next, the present study seeks to examine Squad Leader Jang in terms of two aspects. First, Squad Leader Jang is unique from among characters in premodern Korean literary works in that he goes beyond social rank and class. A figure who transcends the barrier of rank and class, views outcastes as humans just like himself, a member of the scholar-gentry (sadaebu), accepts them, and treats them as equals, he is presented in the work in a persuasive and impressive manner. By thus clearly depicting Squad Leader Jang, the thematics of the poem is further strengthened. However, it is worth noting that, in seeking to conclude this work tragically, the author’s perception of reality reveals certain limitations.
Next is the fact that Squad Leader Jang, while exhibiting the typical characteristics of a member of the scholar-gentry fallen on hard times, considerably reflects the life of Gim Ryeo himself. First, the setup that Squad Leader Jang, the son of a long-established family of distinction, becomes a wanderer in his youth due to misfortunes is similar to the fact that the author, a talented and promising student at the National Confucian Academy (Seonggyun’gwan), was suddenly exiled by the government due to the “groundless rumor incident” involving Gang Yi-cheon’s (1768-1801), a Roman Catholic. In addition, the setup in the poem that Squad Leader Jang catches and sells fish for a livelihood in his middle age while moving from one fishing village to another is related to the fact that Gim Ryeo himself engaged in fishing while lodging at the home of a local fisherman during his exile in Jinhae. Moreover, the author establishes Janggye, where his father Gim Jae-chil (1737-1799) served as a lesser prefect (hyeon’gam), as the village in which Bang-ju lives and includes in its entirety “The Red Gate Gorge” (Jeongmunhyeop), a classical Chinese poem in fourteen five-line stanzas, in the part where Squad Leader Jang moves from one fishing village to another. In other words, although the narrative structure of “A Poem Composed for Lady Sim” revolves around and focuses on Jang Hyeol-lyeong, a historical figure whom Gim Ryeo encountered during his exile in Buryeong, the poem can be seen as an epic that, while based on the actual words and deeds of this personage, portrays the author’s own life.