The Hangjung Mallok is a very important literary classic in Korean history. One reason it stands out is the fact that it was written by a very prominent princess of the Joseon court in a time when women didn’t write of such matters or use the styles of writing typically available to men. She wrote it in the vernacular Korean hangul while the male Confucian ministers normally wrote such forms of writing in some form of Idu, a mixed script of hangul and Chinese characters. The fact that her writings revolve around a particularly shocking, personally painful episode of court history has also added to its popularity.
Lady Hyegyǒng was born in 1735 into the illustrious Hong family which had a long history of service to the king. As a young child, she was selected to marry Crown Prince Sado and was brought to the palace. It was there that a tragic series of events caused her bright future to come crashing down and brought the end of the Hong family’s influence. Crown Prince Sado came into conflict with his father, King Yǒngjo, and his father had him executed by the bizarre fashion of being shut in a rice chest for 8 days until he suffocated in 1762. Sado’s son, who was later to become the renown king Jǒngjo, was only 10 years old at the time, and he witnessed his father’s death. The court was then a dangerous place for Lady Hyegyǒng and her young son due to their relation to an executed criminal, and the strange death of Crown Prince Sado caused a great deal of suffering for many in the court for decades to come. This incident still haunts many of South Korea’s modern historical TV dramas and books as it is a subject of public fascination.
In her later years, Lady Hyegyǒng finally wrote about these events which had so adversely affected her throughout her life. At that point, she was at an advanced age, and her father-in-law and many involved in the incident that killed her husband were long dead, so the political consequences of exposing the details of the incident and daring to criticize her father-in-law, King Yǒngjo, were minimal by then. Her son King Jǒngjo was also dead by the time she revealed the details of Crown Prince Sado’s end. Both men were very sensitive to any mention of Sado’s death and, in the case of Jǒngjo, to hear any blame placed on Sado. King Yǒngjo tried to cope with accusations of filicide, while the only way Jǒngjo could inherit the throne after his father’s execution was to sidestep the question of his parentage through legal adoption by deceased Prince Hyojang. Although it was “against custom to mention royal misconduct,” as the translator of her memoirs puts it, she was free to speak since it no longer mattered what she did. So she wrote a series of four memoirs for relatives starting in 1795, each circling in closer to exposing the details of the controversial execution. Lady Hyegyǒng died in 1815.
The formats she chose to use were usually written to describe their subject’s virtue, but Lady Hyegyǒng reveals their faults and dark sides instead. This is very shocking given the Confucian worldview that the Joseon Dynasty was founded upon in 1392, which put an authoritarian king at the pinnacle of society. While imperial censors were required to criticize the king in this system of thought, Lady Hyegyǒng wasn’t positioned socially to freely discuss the injustices she witnessed and assign blame for them. Anything she said could have jeopardized her son’s future as Crown Prince. However, she still felt a burden of disloyalty to her husband for struggling to survive after his death.
Her memoirs are split into four parts, each labeled by the year that she wrote them. This series will look at each of these memoirs separately.
This link is for an original scanned manuscript from the University of California at Berkeley, which looks like a mix of hangul and Chinese characters rather than the actual original hangul Lady Hyegyǒng would have used. However, I am not sure of the textual history of the work to explain why it is written this way or where this manuscript came from:
Lady Hyegyǒng ‘s memoirs are also available in English translation, published as The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyǒng: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth Century Korea, translated by JaHyun Kim Haboush. It’s available here at Amazon.com:
First of a five part series on the Hangjung Mallok. Part 2 coming soon!