Book Reviews 

The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong. Translated with an introduction and annotations by Jahyun Kim Haboush. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1996. 372 pages. 

At the opening of her fourth memoir, the one containing an account of the most bizarre tragedy in the misfortune-riddled royal house of Yi Dynasty, Lady Hyegyong says, "While I wrote it, the pain and terror returned. My heart grew heavy, my spirits fled in fright, and my innards felt as if punctured." She wasn't exaggerating in the least. It is indeed hard to imagine a woman who lived through more pain and terror. 
Written by a princess consort who suffered such singular and continuous misfortunes, her memoirs have triple significance - as an eyewitness account of the excruciating human tragedy which had huge political reverberations; as a literary masterpiece whose keen psychological insight reveals the interweaving of character and Fate for the most unfortunately paired father and son; and as a portrait of the customs and political climate of the court and the life of a great statesman's family in eighteenth-century Korea. 
Prof. Jahyun Kim Haboush, a history professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, undertook the daunting task of translating the complete text of the princess's four memoirs. She also wrote an introduction which examines the moral and political implications of the terrible incident and analyzes the memoirs as historical and literary documents. And she did both with resounding success. Her introduction is insightful and informative. And her translation superbly captures the tone, atmosphere, emotions and characters of the original. 
The first memoir was written for the benefit of her siblings' descendants, in conformity with the tradition of a family elder writing an injunction for the instruction of the younger members of the family, exhorting them to follow in the footsteps of honorable family elders. It contains a most poignant and endearing account of how the author, an innocent child of nine, was suddenly wrenched from her loving home and put in a strange and awesome court. It is also gives an intimate view of the princess's natal home, which was that of an exemplary Korean scholar. 
The second memoir is an aggrieved and infuriated protest against the execution of her younger brother engineered by her stepmother-in-law, the queen dowager in the first year of the reign of her young grandson. Lady Hyegyong vehemently defends her father against the charge of disloyalty towards his son-in-law, the crown prince, by listing the many dedicated services he rendered the prince and asserting that her father stayed on in the State Council after the prince's execution only to protect the royal grandson. She also testifies to the loyalty and integrity of all her family members with accounts of their virtuous words and deeds. Even though it is clearly a partisan view, the depth of her pain and suffering and her apparent honesty arouse strong sympathy in the readers. 
The third memoir is a biography of her son King Chongjo, with emphasis on his kind attention to her and especially his concrete and detailed plans for restoring the honor of his father and the members of his maternal family. In order to carry out his plans, which were impossible to execute while he was on the throne, on account of the injunction by his grandfather, the former king, he had planned to abdicate in favor of his son and dictate matters with the absolute authority accorded the senior king. But Chongjo, one of the most intelligent and hard-working monarchs of the Yi Dynasty, passed away before his son was old enough to take over the throne. 
Lady Hyegyong brought herself to chronicle the death of her husband at the hands of her father-in-law only in the last of her four memoirs. The need to inform her grandson, the new king, the exact truth of the incident so as to counter malicious distortions and preposterous conjectures compelled her to it. She sensed that all was not well shortly after she "married" at age nine the crown prince who was also nine years old. Conscious of falling short of the king's high standards and mortified by his contempt and aversion, the crown prince, grew tongue-tied and clumsy before the king, which further inflamed the king's impatience and disgust. The son's fright, anxiety and self-dissatisfaction made him a mental case before he was out of his teens. His illness deteriorated inexorably, until he could appease his frustrations and fury only by assaulting and killing people, thereby necessitating his own elimination to protect not just the palace officials and servants but his own immediate family, including his own son, wife and father. 
The compassionate, sensitive and honest personality of the princess (Lady Hyegyong), as well as her infinite bitterness and grief make her memoirs "a work of unforgettable vividness, drama and insight," as Professor Kichung Kim says in his An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature. 
Thanks to Professor Haboush, these extraordinary memoirs are now available to readers worldwide. An abridged translation of the memoirs was previously undertaken by Yang-hi Choe-Wall and was published by Kegan Paul International in 1985. This one is not only a complete translation, but it also contains helpful background information and literary analysis. I for one understood for the first time why King Yongjo, however he may have disliked and disapproved of his son, put him to death by the extraordinarily cruel method of locking him up in a rice chest in the peak of summer. It was because if he meted out a formal death sentence on a definite criminal charge, then the criminal's entire family would have to share the punishment according to the laws of the Yi Dynasty. 
Prof. Haboush also analyzes and assesses the four memoirs according to the genre each may be classified into respectively and compares each with some of the prominent works in its respective genre, taking note of its typical and special features. Her analysis of Lady Hyegyong's character and beliefs is insightful. Lady Hyegyong believed that "social privilege should be based on moral renewal" but acknowledged man's inability to live up to the ideal. So, she sought redemption for the players involved in the tragedy by portraying them "in their full human complexity and imperfection, causing and enduring pain." By describing their pain and their struggle, Lady Hyegyong offers a historian's compassion and consolation "to all those, who, in 1762, voluntarily or involuntarily had to do what was necessary to uphold the social order." 
It would have been even more helpful if Prof. Haboush went on to explain some of the major concepts that governed the psyche and conduct of the Korean people of the times, such as those of filial piety, loyalty, and wifely fidelity. These were so different from their Western counterparts that they may mystify and baffle uninitiated readers. For example, one counted oneself guilty if one's parents, husband, or monarch suddenly conceived an unreasonable dislike to one. Of course, a close reading of the text would tell one how such concepts worked, but a brief explanation in the introduction would have facilitated the understanding. Also helpful would have been a note concerning the terms and usage interspersed throughout the memoirs, such as the frequent appeals to Heaven and Fate in lamenting one's misfortunes or for asserting one's sincerity; bodily or intestinal metaphors for describing emotional states, such as livers shrinking or lungs being pierced; and the reverential epithets used in referring to royalty. 
The difficulties in translating the texts must have been staggering. The texts are in eighteenth-century Korean, and contain many archaic terms and expressions. The Korean spelling was not standardized at the time, and no space was used between words. Several letters of the alphabet have since become obsolete as well. The translation gives the feeling of a very faithful, literal rendering, which is exactly right for this particular text, as it conveys the feeling of immediacy and transparency of the original. However, the translation is not so literal as to obscure or falsify the meaning of the original, as was the case in a few places of the work by Choe-Wall. And I was truly impressed to learn that Prof. Haboush translated the whole of the first memoir again when a more authentic text turned up. 
This book, beautifully produced by the University of California Press with the famous painting depicting the royal procession of King Chongjo to the tomb of his unfortunate father on the cover, is a welcome addition to books on Korean studies. The sensitive translation and insightful and knowledgeable commentary, and the notes and appendices provided for further research, are sure to make this book both engrossing and informative reading for not only scholars of Korean history but for everyone interested in the human heart and strange ways of Fate.

Reviewed by Suh Ji-moon
Professor of English, Korea University