[KS] Re: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong
sungjin98 at hotmail.com
Mon Dec 7 19:34:52 EST 1998
Here's another review of "The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong" I wrote
for The Korea Times
THE KOREA TIMES 971016 CULTURE 1044WORDS
Lady Hyegyong's ``Unmentionable'' Memoirs Revived in English
By Yang Sung-jin
Darkness seals the closed space. In a wooden rice chest, he protests
desperately, but to no avail. After nine days of unimaginable pain and
despair, he dies alone.
It would be a sheer nightmare to see a person imprisoned in such an
unlikely place and die from asphyxiation. To Lady Hyegyong, the widow of
this man, it was much worse. For her husband is Prince Sado and the
person who ordered him to die is no other than his own father, King
"The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong" (University of California Press; 327
pages) reveals the darkest chapter of Korean history. It was translated
in 1996 by Kim Ja-hyun, professor of East Asian History and Culture at
University of Illinois.
For the brilliant translation and the original book's literary value,
Kim received the 3rd Korean Literature Translation Award, a biann ual
ceremony organized by the Korean Culture & Arts Foundation in order to
promote Korean literature overseas.
"Professor Kim's translation is brilliant in every sense. For its
unparalleled accuracy in translation as well as the literary value of
the original text, we had no difficulty choosing her work as the best
one," announced jury chief Lee Young-kul at the award ceremony Tu esday.
"There were a lot of difficulties and problems, of course. Starting from
choosing the most authoritative text available to making footnotes and
endnotes, I had to spend much time solving the problems one by one. And
yet I think I have been with Lady Hyegyong's voice all those years,"
said Kim in a press conference.
Interestingly, Lady Hyegyong's voice was at first Korean and then it
changed into English as Kim continued to work on the translation.
Finally it was Lady Hyegyong's voice which helped and encouraged the
56-year-old professor to finish the translation.
"Over the past 18 years, many times I felt it's too difficult and too
much for me. But whenever I tried to give up, I heard Lady Hyegyong's
voice. That's the reason I did not quit," explained Kim.
The translation started back in 1975 when Kim was a graduate student at
Columbia University, where she was also working as a teaching assistant
of a class called "Asian Humanities," based on the famous humanities
course, "Contemporary Civilization." In contrast to many Chinese and
Japanese works included in the course list, Kim found no Korean
literature, which later prompted her to push ahead with the translation.
"While I was translating Lady Hyekyong's memoirs, it occurred to me that
I am a kind of shaman. As far as I know, a shaman supposedly connects
the living with the dead. The only difference is, translation connects
two different cultures," said Kim.
What Kim did not mention is that a shaman does not simply connect the
living and the dead. Traditional Korean shamans are supposed to resolve
the entangled relations or unfulfilled desire between the living and the
dead through shamanist rituals and trances.
The world of the dead to which Kim guides the reader beyond time and
culture is awash with filial hatred, inexplicable resentment and its
tragic results, all of which are at the center of Lady Hyegyong's
Lady Hyegyong wrote four memoirs (1795, 1801, 1802 and 1805), which are
chiefly known as "Hanjungnok" (Records Written in Silence) to most
In the memoirs, Lady Hyegyong narrates her life as a royal wife and
daughter-in-law from a female perspective, which is rare and precious in
Korean literature. At the age of 9, she had to endure the loneliness of
being separated from her family after she was chosen as the bride of
Prince Sado. Yet the most excruciating experience for her was the
uncontrollable feuding between her husband and her father-i n-law.
Lady Hyegyong argues in her memoirs that King Yongjo treated Prince Sado
so badly that her husband, who is warm and kind at heart from her
perspective, fell into a state of emotional disturbance and insanity.
Prince Sado, as his emotional troubles deepened, developed
clothing-phobia. Among other strange behavior, he spent endless time
choosing his clothes in the morning. In the process, he murdered and
injured the awaiting servants in sudden fits of rage.
King Yongjo, who felt deep distrust and scorn toward his son, finally
decided that Prince Sado was too dangerous to live at the court, and
confined him to the rice chest in 1762, the "imo" year.
What drove Lady Hyegyong to recount the unmentionable "imo incident"
were her feelings of guilt. On charges related to the imo incident, her
own father lost his seat in the Cabinet while her uncle and brother were
executed, all of which led to the downfall of her family.
To prove her father's innocence, Lady Hyegyong candidly recounted the
detailed situation of the imo incident at the age of 71.
The fascinating memoir, as well as its translation, sheds illumination
on the historical background of the period, the private lives of the
royal family and social obligations demanded of the elite.
Kim's masterful translation and thlet foreigners better understand
Koreture. A case in point is that "Asian Humanities" recently included
Kim's translation on its reading list and students read it with
enthusiasm, showing much interest.
"Lady Hyegyong's memoir is very significant as a historical document and
literary masterpiece because it directly deals with historical facts
from a female perspective. It is indeed unique, compared with other
female autobiographical writings that focus on mainly personal aspects,"
Furthermore, Lady Hyegyong wrote in Hangul, which was shunned at that
time by the Korean elite, who persisted in using classical Chinese.
Because of this, the memoirs provide a precious insight into Korean
literary traditions, especially those of works written in Hangul during
the Chosun period, she added.
The front cover of the book is a picture symbolizing the taboo against
depicting members of the royal family, who are "unmentionable," both
literally and visually. In the portrait of the royal family and its
servants, only King Yongjo is "invisible" on the royal horse.
In the pages following the symbolic picture, Lady Hyegyong bravely
mentions the ``unmentionable" through the voice of Kim Ja-hyun, a modern
shaman who transcends culture and language to revive the Princess's
spirit after 200 years of silence.
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