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
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
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
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
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