The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Century Korea, by Hyegyônggung Hong Ssi. Translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. xii + 372 pp. (ISBN 0520200543 cloth; ISBN 0520200551 paper).
Reviewed by Hyangsoon Yi
University of Georgia
The tragic execution of Prince Sado by his father, King Yôngjo, once again commands our attention in the wake of JaHyun Kim Haboush's new translation of Hanjungnok by Hyegyônggung Hong Ssi (Lady Hyegyông hereafter). The sensational filicide cast a long shadow over the reign of King Yôngjo and his successor King Chôngjo, leaving an indelible mark in the history of the Yi royal house. Lady Hyegyông's memoirs are a unique record of this extraordinary incident and the ensuing political turmoil as they were seen through the eyes of an ill-fated crown princess.
The manifold importance of Lady Hyegyông's memoirs has been amply proven by the bulk of studies conducted on them by scholars in various disciplines. Given the paucity of surviving works by female writers from pre-modern Korea, these autobiographical writings of superb artistic merit by a crown princess deserve a salient place among the research of literary critics. For historians, Lady Hyegyông's work serves as an indispensable source of information on eighteenth-century Korean court society. Two recent books attest to the inestimable historical value of Lady Hyegyông's work: Lee Tok-il's The Confession of Prince Sado, which contains a renewed attack on the crown princess' "real motive" for writing, in light of the intricate web of factionalism in which her natal family was deeply implicated; and Han Young-woo's King Chôngjo's Visit to Hwasông: Those Eight Days, which concerns the celebrated visit by King Chôngjo and Lady Hyegyông to Prince Sado's tomb in the city of Hwasông (today's Suwôn) in 1795.1
Lady Hyegyông's memoirs consist of four separate pieces written in 1795, 1801, 1802, and 1805 for different purposes and audiences, and according to Haboush, in such distinct genres as family injunction, memorial, biography, and historiography, respectively. The four narratives flow smoothly together, however, as their subject and tone gradually develop from "the personal to the public" (11). A major syntactic alteration is evident in the translation when long and involved Korean sentences are broken into shorter and more readable units in English. Overall, Haboush's eloquent style effectively captures the well-measured yet passionate voice of the crown princess who was, on the one hand, caught in the conundrum of human drama at a deeply private level and, on the other, enmeshed in the vortex of court intrigues as a public figure.
While Haboush's is not the first English translation of Lady Hyegyông's memoirs, it is certainly a most welcome addition to the steadily growing yet still quite slim library of Korean classics available to English readers.2 The translator's widely recognized scholarship on Chosôn Korea is clearly discernible through her introduction, annotations, and notes. What especially distinguishes Haboush's translation from the previous efforts is her choice of the source material: the "abridged" manuscript in the Asami collection for the memoir of 1795 and the Asami complete manuscript for the subsequent narratives. The former is believed to be the only original writing by the princess that has survived, accompanied by a memorial by her brother Hong Nagyun. Dated roughly to 1880, the so-called "Asami complete manuscript" is viewed as "the earliest and the least corrupt" among all extant versions of the memoirs composed in the 1800's (33). Since the narrative of 1795 is based on a separate manuscript and is noticeably personal in subject, the translator makes an appropriate stylistic change--mostly in diction--between the first and the following three narratives.
Haboush's introduction to the historical backgrounds of the memoirs and her brief thematic survey of each narrative offer a relatively easy entry into the book for the general reader. At the same time, a perceptive student of literature or cultural studies will find that Haboush's placement of Lady Hyegyông's writings in women's autobiographical traditions opens up several critical questions regarding the complex relations among gender, class, language, and self-representation, specifically in Korean contexts. Haboush's translation and its accompanying materials help to reveal that Lady Hyegyông's work resists facile categorization; it resonates with several strands of native and Chinese literary traditions, and yet it does not fit a pre-set model. Herein lie the challenging aspects of the memoirs and the brilliance of the creative mind behind them.
Lady Hyegyông's autobiographical narratives have enjoyed immense popularity for nearly two centuries. This appeal is to a large extent attributable to one's reader's palpable sense of being presented with "slice of life" in the memoirs. Underneath her admirable rhetorical subtlety, the author unveils a lively portrait of a royal family just as flawed, and thus as human, as any other family. Haboush's translation will make a significant contribution to widening the circle of readers beyond the barrier of language, a barrier which is in some sense taller than the palace walls that early readers of the memoirs had to overcome.