The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyŏng (1795-1805, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush)

These memoirs consist of four separate documents written by a high-ranking lady of the Korean royal court. Lady Hyegyŏng (or Hyegyeong*) was not her actual name, but one of several titles by which she is known to historians; her family name was Hong. Hers was, to say the least, an eventful life: married while still a child to the heir to the throne, she managed to survive the vicissitudes of palace life in the Chŏson era to reach a relatively secure and comfortable old age. The most appalling incident of her life, and one of the most notorious events in Korean history, was the execution of her husband, Crown Prince Sado, who suffered the macabre fate of being secured in a rice chest and being left to die of starvation. The author’s story is a compelling one, but the nature of the composition of the text(s) means that some sections are considerably more engaging than others. In general, however, it’s a riveting book. As a teenager, I was captivated by Robert Graves’s Claudius novels, and this book offers many of the same pleasures: rivalries, conspiracies, familial and factional strife, reversals of fortune, madness, and murder. A significant difference is that instead of the debauched opulence of Imperial Rome, we have the austerity of neo-Confucian Korea, with its rigid protocol and elaborate rituals; there is a different tension, therefore, between the order maintained by political authority and the chaos that threatens to overwhelm it. Graves portrays a Rome where turbulence is usually the result of the extreme luxury and licentiousness of an amoral elite, whereas in Lady Hyegyŏng’s account, it is likely to appear to modern readers as a reaction to an extreme, repressive formality and impossible ideals of emotional self-control (Lady Hyegyŏng’s own attitude on this score is ambivalent, and not easy to gage).

The first memoir, written when the author was 60, is a general survey of her life, written, she claims, with the purpose of providing her family with a record that might be passed from generation to generation. She begins with her childhood, depicted nostalgically as a time spent under the care of loving and impeccably virtuous parents. Paradise is lost when, after a rigorous selection process, she is chosen to be the bride of Crown Prince Sado; both were only children of 9 at the time (10 by Korean reckoning). This unexpected honor, which utterly alters the course of her life and those of her immediate relations, has the most painful of consequences: separation from her family. The prospect of being sent to live in one of the royal palaces is an awful one both for her and for her parents:

Realizing that his daughter was going to be Crown Princess Consort and that it was going to be irrevocable, Father seemed to experience an acute sense of apprehension. He perspired heavily, his clothes often became soaked, and he seemed to dread the parting. In his uneasiness, he counselled me, offering a thousand, ten thousand words of advice. I cannot recall them all. The prospect of leaving my parents was, of course, simply unbearable for me. This was so horrifying that whenever I thought of it, my insides seemed to just melt away. I fell into a state of such intense anguish that I lost interest in everything.

Life for the young girl suddenly becomes very different indeed: stricter, colder, starved of affection and play, burdened by duties and the weight of expectations attending her role. Her father-in-law, King Yŏngjo, treats her kindly, but from a distance. The counsel he offers his new relation seems truly bizarre from a modern standpoint:

“Now that I have formally received your gift as your father-in-law, allow me a word of advice. In serving the Crown Prince, please be gentle with him and do not be frivolous of voice or expression. If his eyes wander, pretend that you do not notice. It is not at all an unusual thing in the palace, and so it is best to behave normally, not letting him know that you noticed… It is improper for a woman to show her undergarments to her husband. So do not carelessly loosen your clothes in his presence. There is another thing―the rouge stains on women’s towels are not pretty, even though it is rouge. So do not leave rouge marks on towels.”

Remember that he is talking to a pre-teenaged girl.

The King’s behavior to his own son is even more reserved―positively aloof, even. The young author gets on well with her husband, whom she portrays as a gifted child, but as he grows older, he shows distressing signs of mental illness, which will be described in greater detail in the final memoir. Much of the material relating to Prince Sado appears here only in partial disclosure or vague allusion because Lady Hyegyŏng was writing at a time when the circumstances of her husband’s death were a highly sensitive topic; delving into them too deeply would have been dangerous. Thus, we are told of the increasingly strained relationship between father and son, but are given only glimpses into the reasons behind the disharmony. The author claims that she was in a state of suicidal despair, but she says little about why this was so. When matters come to a head in 1762, Sado’s execution is referred to cryptically (Heaven and Earth clashed and the sun and the moon turned black). The second and third memoirs offer a little more insight, but not much; only by the time of the fourth memoir did the political situation favor the appearance of a full account.

Lady Hyegyŏng endures further trials following the death of her husband: she is separated from her young son, the future King Chŏngjo; the aged Yŏngjo becomes increasingly erratic in judgement; family members become embroiled in plots against them. She looks back on these troubles from a position of relative security, but by the time that the second and third memoirs were written 1801 and 1802, matters had deteriorated and her life was somewhat precarious. These pieces are largely concerned with defending her family’s reputation against the numerous attacks it had sustained, especially following the events of 1762; as such, they will probably be of less interest to most readers than the first and fourth memoirs. However, the second memoir does contain a vividly caustic portrait of Princess Hwawan, Sado’s power-hungry sister and over-indulged favorite of Yŏngjo. Lady Hyegyŏng brilliantly skewers her sister-in-law relating an episode in which the Princess, whom she slightingly calls Madame Chŏng, requests her help. The façade of the concerned relative acting only in the best interests of the state is undermined by the insinuating, mock-humble speeches the author reports her as giving, making visible her nefarious designs. But there’s a problem. Lady Hyegyŏng strives to present herself as a trusting, ingenuous woman out of her depth in the deviously conspiratorial world of the court. This is, however, hard to reconcile with the deep understanding she displays of the duplicitous language employed by practitioners of intrigue; even if she doesn’t necessarily implicate herself in the corruption, she unwittingly demonstrates a greater familiarity with its workings than her self-presentation of naïve innocent would allow. On the one hand she claims to have taken Madame Chŏng completely at her word and that she never suspected her of ulterior motives; on the other, she states just a few lines later that she did as Madame Chŏng asked because knowing her as [she] did, she knew that the princess would only cause further trouble if she were to be rebuffed. Lady Hyegyŏng displays further understanding of the scrupulously nuanced and even cunning language necessary at court when she describes the terrible results of a failure in verbal nuance―a particularly agonizing failure because the person in question is well aware of the high stakes involved and attempts to traverse the tightrope by making use of empty formula, a tactic that proves unsuccessful. Of course, the mere fact that Lady Hyegyŏng lived to tell the tale makes it unlikely that she was entirely unskilled in the dark arts of politics.

Undoubtedly the most gripping section of the book is the fourth memoir, written in 1805 when the writer was 70. Following Prince Sado’s execution, discussion of the incident was strongly discouraged; the court itself maintained a policy of secrecy. Far from consigning the matter to oblivion, however, the official silence only served to allow alternative versions of what happened to proliferate. As time passed, those who were close enough to events to be able to give an accurate account of them became fewer and fewer in number, until Lady Hyegyŏng was left (or so she says) the only one alive. Stating that it is her responsibility to correct false narratives (such as that Sado was the perfectly sane victim of a conspiracy**), she traces the development of her husband’s illness from childhood until its fatal culmination in a rice chest. Yŏngjo emerges from this story as both a neglectful and tyrannically overbearing father, his impossibly high demands placing his son under unbearable strain, so that Sado, debilitated by fear, is unable to answer simple questions. The prince is frequently subjected to humiliating public reproaches, denied even the smallest display of fatherly affection, and feels imprisoned in the cloistered palace confines he is seldom permitted to leave. His behavior grows ever more bizarre and erratic, eventually becoming violent and even murderous. So threatening is his existence deemed to be to the stability of the Chŏson state that it is terminated.

Lady Hyegyŏng’s portrait of Sado in the grip of madness is terrifying, and she well conveys the dread those around him must have felt in his presence. Yet she also maintains a remarkable sympathy for him, careful to note the intelligence and kindness apparent in periods of calm. She insists that his insanity be regarded as an illness, as a loss of his true nature, rather than as a manifestation of evil character―even when he commits the most awful acts. What must be regretted is that he became ill, she writes. His illness ‘had absolutely no bearing on his virtue. Yŏngjo, too, receives considerable sympathy, his qualities as a king praised even as his failings as a father are denounced. There is even a suggestion that his own mental health may have been somewhat imbalanced, his odd quirks and superstitions being reminiscent of his son’s. Nonetheless, the author is determined to demonstrate that Yŏngjo must bear most of the responsibility for Sado’s insanity, which worsens after he appoints him regent. It is scarce wonder that Sado was driven insane when he was subjected to treatment such as this:

If the Prince-Regent were to send a memo asking His Majesty’s opinion, His Majesty would rebuke him. “You cannot even handle matters of such insignificance. What is the use in having a regent?” But if the Prince-Regent did not seek his views beforehand, His Majesty would reprimand him just the same. “How dare you make decisions on such weighty matters without consulting me first?” he would scold. In everything, if the Prince did thus, His Majesty reproached him for not having done so, but if the Prince did so, then His Majesty criticized him for not having done this. There was nothing that the Prince-Regent did that His Majesty found satisfactory. He was constantly discontented and angry with his son. It reached a point where the occurrence of cold spells, droughts, poor harvests, strange natural omens, or calamities caused His Majesty to denounce “the Prince-Regent’s insufficient virtue” and to reproach the Prince most severely.

Yŏngjo’s attitude seems like an extreme version―almost a parody―of the harsh and sometimes contradictory requirements of Neo-Confucian ethics. Lady Hyegyŏng frequently finds herself torn between the competing demands of her roles as wife, widow, daughter, daughter-in-law, mother, sister and niece. It often comes down to a tension between what is expected of her in a (semi-)private capacity as a member of the Hong family, and what is expected of her in a public capacity as a member of the royal family; the public usually wins out. She is, for example, prevented from wearing full mourning dress after the death of her mother because it would not be in keeping with the court’s sartorial etiquette. Failure to honor one’s parents by observing the correct mourning rites is a grievous dereliction of social duty; the shame of it is keenly felt, but bear it she must. Her husband’s death sets in motion a ceaseless ripple of consequences that over successive decades tests her ability to live up to the Neo-Confucian ideals that were of such importance in the Korea of her time. What causes so much anguish is that the shame of being unable to meet one set of obligations is not diminished simply because one is forced to prioritize another, competing set of obligations. Giving precedence to one’s public persona may well be the correct, even the noble and self-sacrificing, thing to do, but that doesn’t (at least in the author’s view or stated view) mitigate the disgrace that comes with neglecting other duties; you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. When standards of the all-important filial piety are so impossibly exacting (one of the author’s brothers is guilty of being unfilial for having the temerity to die before his father), it is hardly surprising that Lady Hyegyŏng devotes a large part of her memoirs to wallowing in self-reproach (samples: ‘My terrible sin of unfiliality could not be redeemed, even if my bones were to be ground to dust,’ ‘So deeply ashamed was I that I blushed at my own shadow’ and ‘Can there be another as muddled, as stupid, as irresolute, and as weak as I?’), often for reasons that from today’s perspective seem strange. I can’t help but suspect an element of performance in this―of berating oneself in order to create an impression of virtue―but no doubt it’s mostly genuine.

The various factional disputes, the unfamiliar customs, rituals and modes of thought, the large cast of characters: all these might have made this book a difficult one to follow for non-Korean readers were it not for the extensive and informative notes and introduction provided by the translator, the late JaHyun Kim Haboush. Lady Hyegyŏng has left us a fascinating historical document, and it is fortunate that English readers are able to experience it in such an accessible form.


*For the sake of convenience, I will retain the translator’s usage of the McCune–Reischauer system of romanization of Korean, rather than the now more widely-used (at least in Korea) Revised Romanization system.

**This interpretation has endured in various forms in the popular imagination to this day. A TV series from last year apparently depicted Sado as an idealistic reformer killed because of the threat he represented to the established order. I should add that even legitimate historians do not appear, from my limited reading, to have arrived at a consensus regarding the unfortunate prince, thanks to the scarcity of surviving documentary evidence (the relevant royal records were erased in 1776). After all, the prominence these memoirs have attained is no reason to take them on trust; their author may well have been motivated by a secret agenda of her own. I don’t know enough to be able to reach my own conclusion, so I will limit myself to observing that if Lady Hyegyŏng’s final memoir is indeed a fabrication, then the level of detail and psychological insight she provides far surpasses the requirements of her brief. A key question (one for which I wouldn’t know where to seek an answer) for me would be: to what extent does the portrayal of Sado’s madness conform to the understandings and representations of madness current at the time of writing? If the portrayal differs radically from the models that were available to the writer, then that would surely argue against an attempt on her part to deceive. Many of the details of Sado’s behavior seem convincing today because they chime with modern notions of mental illness (both Sado and his father show signs of what we might be tempted to label OCD or OCPD), but if Lady Hyegyŏng’s intent was to establish a false narrative, the goal would have been to convince readers of her own time, not of ours. If there is no trace of an understanding of obsessive behavior in pre-19th Century Chŏson literature, then that would suggest that the author’s descriptions are based on observation.

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