For this year’s first foreign language selection, I have decided on Dowon Park’s Martyr’s Country (박도원의”순교자의 나라”), which is a four volume historical epic from 2007, probably about a thousand pages total. We’ll see how far I can get through it. You can buy all four volumes here:
This series picks up where a number of popular K-drama TV series have left off or carries on with a few familiar characters. As far as I’m concerned, I’m ready for anything remotely connected to King Jeongjo, and it connects back to TV series “Yi San” and “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” with some of the minor characters. It tells the story of the early Catholic community in Korea, which I think isn’t that familiar in the West, though if you travel to South Korea, you’ll see a lot of tourist sights and museums connected to its history.
The novel starts off right before Jeongjo’s suspicious death in 1800 and the evil Queen Dowager Jeongsun taking over as regent for the boy king. Jeongsun, for anyone who caught “Yi San,”was Yeongjo’s young concubine that stirred up so much factional trouble in that series. She was a very prominent character, and while most viewers would know she was one bad mama who wanted Jeongjo dead, I think it may not be as widely known that she went on to be quite the bloody queen when she grabbed the reigns of power after Jeongjo’s son was put on the throne. This novel details that part of her story.
“Yi San” also connects to this novel since the servant girl who is Jeongjo’s love interest in the series, Seong Songyeon, has a long lost brother shown in later episodes briefly who is part of this Catholic community, plus one of Jeongjo’s advisors late in the series is the famous Confucian scholar Dasan, his birth name Jeong Yagyeong. Dasan and his brilliant brothers are major characters in this story since his brother Jeong Yakjong was a prominent Catholic at that time. Of course, Dasan shows up in “Sungkyunkwan Scandal” because Jeongjo is also a minor character in it, and Dasan is connected to the academy where the main characters are studying. So be sure to check out those shows to provide some context to this novel.
Volume 1 begins with a description of the villages of Majae and Sonae, which are across from each other on the Han River. Here is a tourist video by HLKIM001 of the church and grounds of the shrine that has been constructed there:
Since this aspect of Korea is not as well known in the West, I think this video is very educational. We’re used to thinking of Korea as a Buddhist country perhaps by default, but that’s far from accurate. I haven’t been to this shrine myself, though I went to the museum in Seoul featuring a different but related massacre. Here is the tourist website for this shrine (Korean only):
I found a painting of one of the main characters in the novel that was based on a real historical figure.
Painting of Jeong Yakjong
In this preface to the novel, we are immediately introduced to the four illustrious sons of Jeong Jaewon, and their names are listed: Yakhyeon, Yakjeon, Yakjong, and Yakyong (sometimes written Yagyeong). Once the announcement of King Jeongjo’s death is made in the text, the story focuses in on one of these brothers who is traveling by boat down the Han River to Majae. He is a forty-something scholar in mourning for the king, Jeong Yakjong, and his attendant is in his thirties. The men disembark at the bustling port full of sunburned peasants busily unloading baskets of different vegetables from the boats at the dock. It mentions in passing his elder brother and his younger brother Yakyong are famous and serving at court.
His presence in Majae causes a minor commotion, but he ends up at an inn where he and Kim Hanbin have breakfast. While they are there, word comes that a local slave named Kapnyeong tried to commit suicide. As the barmaid and slave reporting the incident prepare to run back to the village to intervene, Jeong Yakjong asks what has happened. The barmaid explains that the widowed young daughter-in-law at Sir Shim’s house had thrown herself into the river and died a few days earlier, and the slave Kapnyeong had gotten caught up in a swirl of gossip about her death, with accusations flying. Sir Shim had him under guard and interrogated about the matter. Moved by the barmaid’s emotional story, he goes with them to Sir Shim’s house in the nearby village of Gajaeul.
At Sir Shim’s, about a hundred villagers are gathered outside, very upset by the situation. Sir Shim sends his steward out to fetch Yakjong, but Yakjong notices a covered straw mat nearby, probably a corpse. The barmaid drops beside it, ranting about Kapnyeong already being dead. She relates how he helped at the inn and mentions his young age, only 16 or 18. But the boy isn’t actually dead yet. Yakjong remembers meeting Kapnyeong when he was a child and thinking he was quite polite. He had befriended the boy back then and had seen Kapnyeong only the year before. Comparing him to Sir Shim’s son, he felt Kapnyeong seemed innocent and dignified, while Shim’s son was frivolous and had a roving eye.
Sir Shim had quickly married his son off before his interest in the maidservants caused them trouble. His daughter-in-law, from the Gwangsan Kim family, was pretty and careful in her behavior, but his son had died of a snake bite suddenly at the age of twenty not long after their marriage. Now a widow, Miss Kim was now forced into uncomfortable circumstances since in old Confucian society widows weren’t allowed to remarry. The villagers sympathized with her but couldn’t do anything to help her. Yakjong immediately realizes that given Miss Kim’s restricted living in her in-laws house, she would only have contact with the men of the house, including the menservants. Such a noblewoman risking an affair with a slave would stain the honor of Sir Shim and his family, and such an evil could not be tolerated.
The novel mentions the factional affiliations of Jeong Yakjong and Sir Shim, which may become more important later as the dramatic tension of the story increases and the action shifts to the royal court, but let me note here that Sir Shim was of the Noron faction while the Jeong family was in the Namin faction. It also mentions how the Shims were excited when Yakjong’s brother Yakyong had gotten promoted into King Jeongjo’s close circle of advisors and conducted business at the Hongmungwan Confucian Library. Sir Shim’s family had not done as well as the Jeongs. Most of Jeongjo’s advisors were from the Namin and Shimpa factions, especially the Namin.
The family calls a meeting of the Shim clan elders to discuss what to do with Kapnyeong. Jeong Yakjong is asked to attend the clan meeting as well since he was rather close to Sir Shim. They hold the meeting in the men’s quarters of the house. The men are concerned that outsiders have already guessed at the nature of the relationship between Miss Kim and Kapnyeong, though they take Yakjong into their confidence on the matter. The clan elders are split on whether to kill Kapnyeong or not, though they had strong reason to punish him to save face since Sir Shim had not been able to preserve the chastity of his daughter-in-law and stop the adultery. Exile is also considered. But Yakjong is asked to give his opinion, and he secretly wants to save the boy’s life, disagreeing with their nation’s harsh traditions regarding widows.
He asks Sir Shim if there were any witnesses to the adultery, but there were only rumors. Sir Shim reveals, however, that Miss Kim’s corpse showed signs of pregnancy which all could clearly see and that they got Kapnyeong’s confession. He tries to argue that harshly punishing Kapnyeong would make matters worse by confirming the more sordid rumors floating around. By pardoning the slave, people would gradually forget the rumors and move on, perhaps assuming they were meaningless. He also asks if perhaps it could be that Miss Kim could have river water in her stomach to make the corpse look pregnant. The elders decide these are reasonable suggestions and agree, forcing Kapnyeong into exile instead of executing him.
In chapter 3, Kapnyeong sets off by boat into exile, a large group of villagers seeing him off. Hanbin Kim is on the boat with him and marvels at how much affection the locals had for a mere slave boy. He reflects on how mature Kapnyeong seems for his age and how he has the appearance of a noble rather than the average slave. As the boat floats along the river, Kapnyeong sobs at the sight of his childhood home receding in the distance. Meanwhile, Yakjong observes Kapnyeong’s departure but is invited to Sir Shim’s family banquet. After the banquet, Yakjong ponders how saving Kapnyeong’s life was God’s will and is sharply reminded of the king’s unexpected death, which he was still in mourning over.
Next, he meets a scholar named Gwon Cheolshin and remembers ten years earlier how there was a big dispute over a scholar who didn’t observe the ritual burning of the mortuary tablet of his deceased mother, which caused one of Gwon’s Catholic relatives to be rounded up by the Security Bureau. Because of that incident, Gwon’s relatives had turned their back on the Western Learning movement since anything short of complete rejection of Catholicism would get one branded a traitor, and Gwon Cheolshin had become a recluse. Yakjong joins him beneath a tree, and they mourn the passing of the king together.
It seems word has come explaining the cause of Jeongjo’s death, which is thought to be poisoning rather than the progression of a natural illness. Gwon Cheolshin gives him the letter from Hwang Sayeong that describes in detail what the men of the royal court suspected happened to the king. Yakjong thinks that Hwang was reckless in sending such a rumor to them by letter, and it is revealed Hwang passed the civil service examination in first place at a young age. He was very talented but perhaps had moved up the ladder too soon, even receiving the Jeongjo’s attention at only 20 years of age. His ability to advance in the royal court would be hampered by his acceptance of Catholicism, much like Yakjong’s was. Hwang also was working quietly with Catholic priest Ju Munmo.
The novel delves a little into the factional strife over Prince Sado’s death, King Yeongjo’s policies in dealing with factional strife, and Jeongjo’s rise to power at this point. In those days, the factions at court were the Byeokpa and Shipa; the Byeokpa were the strongest at court while the Shipa was most strongly associated with Catholicism. I don’t think the Shipa were all Catholics, but the Catholics were all Shipa. The Byeokpa faction used the intelligence networks of the royal court to ferret out secret Catholics and get rid of them. A court lady was reportedly victimized in this way, and Hwang Sayeong was trying to determine if the rumor about her was true.
Jeongjo in his late years suffered from a boil on his back, and it became more or less of a problem over time until the pain increased. Medical infusions didn’t help. Rumor had it that Queen Dowager Jeongsun had visited his bedchamber alone the night he died. She reportedly screamed, and Jeongjo was found dead. Hwang Sayeong explains his list of reasons why he thinks Jeongsun and the Norons may have had him murdered. Among those reasons were the political connections of the medical office and royal physician with a Noron Byeokpa leader and Jeongsun herself; his eleven-year-old son had only just been named Crown Prince with Jeongsun named regent who would really hold the reigns of power until the Crown Prince was of age; Noron leaders took over after his death; and the boil wasn’t really a serious illness that should have killed the king. Yakjong and Cheolshin discuss the theory in detail. One of their concerns is that while Jeongjo had tolerated and defended Catholics, Jeongsun was a different story.
Meanwhile, Kapyneong arrives at Majae and is escorted by Kim Hanbin to Jeong Yakjong’s house. They meet Yakjong’s wife Miss Yu and his young son Hasang. A butcher named Old Hwang Ilkwang also stops by the house, has a meal with them, and reveals himself to be quite a jokester. That night, Kapnyeong dreams of Miss Kim, and broken-hearted, he hopes that she is in a happier place now. He also thinks back to when he was a child and first came to Sir Shim’s house, when he and his mother were sold together, and when his mother died the following year. Sir Shim then gave him as a personal servant for his son Chunshik since his son had the sort of character that made the other servants avoid the boy. The two boys became good friends since they were about the same age. As they became teenagers, Chunshik’s fascination with girls forced the servant girls to avoid him or flee from him. He tried to assault a servant girl who was playing music for him, but she hit him with the instrument.
Lady Shim was horrified to discover her son’s assault, so they hurriedly married him off to Miss Kim. She was two years older than Chunshik. After Chunshik had been bitten by the snake and suffered a horrible death, Miss Kim was forced to wear white mourning clothes and to live in a separate house alone like a criminal. Lady Shim blamed Miss Kim for bringing bad luck upon her son and killing him. The servants mostly felt sad for her though they too rarely saw her. Miss Kim had only been widowed a month when she turned to the pitying Kapnyeong for comfort.
The affair started when he would bring her wild grapes and berries to leave at the house to cheer her up. He did this regularly. He realized he was in love with her. They finally meet and talk a little. Later, the servants notice something is happening to Miss Kim physically and suspect she is pregnant. They knew the consequences would be terrible for Miss Kim if she was. However, Kapnyeong hopes to run away with Miss Kim and tries to cheer her up even as she thinks of suicide. But he can’t stop her and sees her corpse wrapped in a straw mat by the river. Rumors fly about Miss Kim’s pregnancy, and Kapnyeong is interrogated. He hopes only to join her in death.
The next day Kapnyeong spends time again with Old Hwang, whose family had been butchers for generations and therefore were part of the untouchable class. It was a profession in a very low social position, and they were not even allowed to live among the rest of the villagers. Butchers were also forced to speak with even tenant farmers’ children using honorific language. Only when he became a Christian did Old Hwang understand this wasn’t how things had to be. He had heard a scholar preaching about Adam and Eve in a village at the time of the Harvest Moon Festival, and he had emphasized the equality of all people regardless of class distinctions. The scholar even singled out Hwang to point out that butchers deserved to be treated with the same dignity as noblemen. After this, Hwang abandoned his trade as a butcher and started traveling with the scholar, Yi Jonchang. But his new ideas caused him trouble. Now he refused to carp before noblemen who treated him with contempt and had been beaten by a mob for his insolence. Because his hometown had been upset by his behavior, he had been traveling alone to Hanyang. He had stopped at the Jeong house on the way and was both flabbergasted and liberated by their respectful treatment of him. He also became Kapnyeong’s boisterous roommate at the Jeong house.
The story then turns to Kim Yusan, the courier of the Catholic community. He was known as a fast walker, able to cover 50 miles a day on foot, so he carried messages around the peninsula and knew all of the news faster than the rest of the population. This was how he heard about Catholicism. Since his father was a relay station slave, the Christian message of the equality of men also was very attractive to him. When he stops by the Jeong house to chat, Kim Yusan brings news that the changes at the royal court may bode ill for their community, which was functioning in a state of emergency since Jeongjo’s death. Everyone is afraid of Queen Dowager Jeongsun. Hwang Ilkwang announces that Kapnyeong has decided to become a believer and that he also plans on traveling to Hanyang.
Kapnyeong leaves for Hanyang with Kim Yusan. I guess Hwang Ilkwang was going to travel there separately. Hanyang, of course, is known as Seoul today, so this is the capital where the royal court is located. It’s a huge, bustling city, so Kim Yusan leads Kapnyeong to the local church, which appears to be a wholesale shop full of thread and instruments used in embroidery. The owner is Hong Pilju, and Kim Yusan asks to see “Mother.” Yusan leads Kapnyeong through a doorway to another building. They have an audience with a middle aged woman who seems very dignified. Kapnyeong introduces himself as being part of the Kim clan, and she is introduced as Kang Wansuk. She warns him spies of the court are watching the house and could crack down on the community at any time, so he should be careful. She suggests he could ask the priest she is secretly harboring questions about the faith if he doesn’t understand their community’s requirements.
After their meeting, Kapnyeong sees a young woman out in the courtyard. The woman who has caught his eye is drop dead gorgeous, even more beautiful than his beloved Miss Kim. He hears Wansuk calling for her, and her name is Mun Yeongin, though her baptismal name of Viviana is what Wansuk calls the woman here. Wansuk introduces her to Kapnyeong and charges her with his care. They talk a bit after Wansuk leaves. Since Viviana knows Kapnyeong’s history and his status as an orphan slave, the two promise to be family to each other.
The story then explains that Mun Yeongin had been selected to be a court lady at age six because of her extraordinary beauty. She served Lady Hyegyeong, Jeongjo’s mother, though she was pressed by Lady Hyegyeong later in her service to try to seduce Jeongjo in his bedchambers since he had begotten no royal heir. She was not particularly upset with the assignment, but Jeongjo was preoccupied with his studies and didn’t notice her. After two years passed without Yeongin gaining the king’s affections, Lady Hyegyeong scolds her. She finally admits to herself that the role of king’s concubine was distasteful since he was already married to the queen. Afterward, she fell deathly ill and was sent home when court remedies were of no effect. Lady Hyegyeong released her from serving in the royal court, which ruined her ambitious father. In desperation, Yeongin’s mother sent her to Kang Wansuk to protect her from her husband’s bouts of drunkenness. Now she serves Kang Wansuk and the priest Ju Munmo, and they have been making plans to establish a catechetical school where Yeongin would teach. As a former court lady, this is a role she is well suited for. Kapnyeong feels lucky to have met her.
We’ll pick up the second half of volume 1 next time.
Part one of an eight part series