Lady Hyegyǒng wrote her first memoir, the “Memoir of 1795,” in response to a request by her nephew, Suyǒng, who lamented that the Hong family had nothing she wrote to pass on to future generations. This memoir details the interesting advice given by her father, Ponghan Hong, regarding how she should handle her correspondence once she entered the palace: they cautiously washed the ink from the paper and reused it, or she wrote her responses in the margins of the daily letters her family sent to her. This way there would be no impropriety, yet the family was not left with a legacy from her as a result, so she complied with her nephew’s request and detailed the ups and downs of the Hong clan in relation to her life in the palace.
She began writing this memoir around her 60th birthday, the Korean hwangap (환갑) celebration, and her “Memoir of 1795” frequently references the 60th birthdays of other prominent members of her family, including her father and her late husband. This birthday was a very significant milestone in traditional Korean society since in those days many people did not live that long. The 60th birthday was celebrated with special feasts and rituals, such as children bowing to their parents and offering them wine, then singing and dancing or composing poetry for the occasion. So it was a significant moment for Lady Hyegyǒng to decide to write about her life.
The span of sixty years was also significant according to traditional culture for other reasons. The Stem and Branch cycle (干支), as it is sometimes known, is a special 60-year calendar used throughout East Asia which is formed by pairing each of the 12 zodiac animals with each of the five phases or elements (fire, water, earth, air and metal) only once in the cycle. A person would not see a year repeat for 60 years, a once in a lifetime occurrence theoretically. Here is a more detailed example of the Stem and Branch calendar:
Each phase can also be expressed as a color. Therefore, the year 2013 would be the Year of the Water Snake or Black Snake under this system, though normally in the West we only think of the animal year.
Lady Hyegyǒng ‘s reflections begin with her father’s dream of a black dragon on the night before her birth in 1735, an auspicious sign that makes no sense to him once a daughter is born. Although her family was poor, her father went to the Royal Academy and was considered very talented by King Yǒngjo himself. Her father eventually passed his exams, but Lady Hyegyǒng points out that accusations against him amidst factional struggles of the court and jealousy directed toward her family kept him from being appointed to high government posts. The court at this time in history was bitterly divided into the Noron (“Old Learning”) and the Soron (“Young Learning”) factions that differed over policy matters and the interpretation of Confucian doctrine whose friction at times had led to bloody purges. Her father was lucky not to be victimized by these political whirlwinds, though not all of her relatives were so lucky. However, during the times when her father was appointed to the palace, he did take on the role of mentor and tutor to Prince Sado and to Princess Hwawan’s adopted son, Hugyǒm Jǒng. In 1750, he was appointed as Minister of the Right in the court, which actually was a major appointment.
She also details all the character of her family relations to her mother and father, her own brothers and sisters, and the family slaves who accompanied her into the palace as a child as well as the fate of each in this memoir. The picture she paints is one of a very good family life with many talented and virtuous members who should have ended up doing great things but didn’t, much to her disappointment.
The loving family life she details is abruptly interrupted by the selection for Crown Princess when she was 9-years-old. She was the top candidate at the first selection and was chosen at the second selection, which seemed very ominous to her family. She then describes the long, elaborate wedding ritual in detail as well as the finer points of court etiquette. At last, she is wed to Crown Prince Sado, and her future seems bright. The marriage was consummated when the couple was 15, and Lady Hyegyǒng’s first pregnancy was in 1750, but her first son Uiso died at the age of 2. Her son who later became King Jǒngjo was born in 1752. She also had two daughters with Sado. As was the custom for royalty, Sado later took two secondary consorts and had a number of children with them, too. Then in 1761, Ch’ǒngp’ung Kim was selected as Jǒngjo’s consort.
Her main description in this early memoir of the tragic events leading to Sado’s strange execution are very melodramatic and vague: “On the thirteenth day, Heaven and Earth clashed and the sun and moon turned black.” She mentions his illness begins in 1753 and that her mother resorted to drastic praying for him, but her mother died a few years later. She details Sado’s minor illnesses and his affection for his children, but she also notes with some consternation that King Yǒngjo favored his daughter Princess Hwawan over Sado, whom he treated roughly. She describes that even Yǒngjo’s ministers admonished him over his “excessive severity” toward Sado, but none of this is dealt with here head on. She does mention, however, that the ascendancy of Princess Hwawan after the death of a few key people in the palace brought about Hwawan working to turn Jǒngjo against the Hong family.
In sum, this is mostly a very personal memoir about the Hong clan and the fate of their members as well as some of the political dynamics of the palace court. The storm casting a pall over the court is still in the shadows at this point in her writings.
(Second of a five part series on the Hangjung Mallok. Part 3 coming soon! )