[KS] Re: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong

Sung-jin Yang 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


Lady Hyegyong's ``Unmentionable'' Memoirs Revived in English 

By Yang Sung-jin 
Staff Reporter

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 
Yongjo (1694-1776).

"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," 
explained Kim.

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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