The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong
About a month ago, I kind of started to wander off the poetry path a bit and into the non-fiction section. I read a few other things, which although related to Korea, don’t really bear mention here, but then I came across The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush, which is one of those books that makes you truly admire how difficult and underrated a translator’s job can be.
There were a couple of things that fascinated me about the book from the beginning, the first being that Lady Hyegyeong was the wife of Prince Sado, who carries one of the most bizarre and contentious stories in the course of Korean history. Prince Sado was the son of King Yeongjo, and as the story famously goes, was locked in a rice chest by his father until he died, due to the havoc his mental illness was wreaking on the palace. The entire incident was so deeply buried in official history that even today some scholars have trouble making heads or tails of what exactly happened.
But the other thing that caught my interest about the book ties closely into this first, in that Lady Hyegyeong, as a woman and as a member of the royal court, stepped quite far outside of her own assigned bounds, and outside of the bounds of traditional modes of official written communication, in order to shed light on what she saw as the truth of these events, and many others that surrounded that period of Korean history within the palace walls.
Haboush writes in the introduction that the memoirs were regarded for a long time as “court novels”, which was a form taken up by ladies within the palace to capture the lives of the women living inside. She goes into great detail about the heavy implications of the time in regards to which language — literary Chinese or Korean Hangul — was used to compose one’s written expression, and the impact it had on the classification of the resulting product. Women, of course, wrote and read mostly in Hangul, whereas men (doing the important, official and scholarly work) stuck to Chinese:
"Men continued to write in literary Chinese, except for letters to women, certain genres of poetry, and other incidental pieces that concerned mostly private aspects of their lives. Women wrote almost exclusively in Korean. They used the vernacular as a means of self-expression and communication as well as a mode of social and political empowerment. They wrote poetry, essays, and manuals of manners and housekeeping for other women. Letters were the most usual form of writing and generally fulfilled social obligations to kin such as greetings and condolence. This custom changed the texture of social life by allowing women to play a distinct role in the written discourse, though within the limited sphere of domestic concerns."
So whereas the division between the languages and the ways in which they were used created a language “ghetto” for women, it also, at the very least, at last gave them a written voice.
The reason why this is so interesting in the case of Lady Hyegyeong’s memoirs is that they have become, over the years, the only truly detailed account of what happened during that stormy period of history, and by adapting a personal, vernacular tone, Lady Hyegyeong was able to tell these stories in a way in which official documentation (often left to the whims of politically motivated censorship) never could. Which, in the end, winds up being a much more crucial reflection of the humanity involved.
What I’ve written here doesn’t even begin to do this book justice — it’s one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a very long time. And if you are someone who is generally bored by history, rest assured that this book is anything but dull. The introduction itself delivers many important insights into the issues of language, gender and modes of discourse, as well as a comprehensive explanation of the historical background that the memoirs play against.