The second memoir of Lady Hyegyǒng was written primarily to protest the execution of her uncle Inhan Hong, who was accused of opposing Jǒngjo’s regency in 1776, and the execution of her brother Nagim Hong, who was accused of being a Catholic in the 1801 Sinyu Persecution (신유박해) at the hands of Dowager Queen Jǒngsun. It was written in the style of a memorial for her grandson, King Sunjo (1790-1834), who was still a young boy of eleven at that time with Jǒngsun as his regent. Memorials were written to the king on public policy by male ministers of the court all of the time, and so this was unusually personal and rare in that it came from a woman.
Early in this memoir, Prince Sado’s sister Princess Hwawan, whom Lady Hyegyǒng sometimes derisively calls Madam Chǒng, emerges as a malicious figure competing for Jǒngjo’s allegiance. Lady Hyegyǒng details one of Hwawan’s schemes to drive a wedge between mother and son that she inadvertently falls for, which causes Jǒngjo some embarrassment. It is an anecdote that reveals Hwawan’s personality quite effectively as the princess changes her allegiance from the Hongs to the Kims, the family of Queen Jǒngsun.
At this point in this discussion, I think it would be helpful to introduce readers to a TV show that portrays the historical figures mentioned in Lady Hyegyǒng’s memoirs. The 2007 K-drama “Yi San” from Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation shows much of King Jǒngjo’s life, as well as major historical figures and events mentioned in the memoirs. The series features Lady Hyegyǒng herself, played by the formidable Mi-ri Kyeon. Actor Seo-jin Lee is an appealing and quintessential King Jǒngjo, and the supporting cast is quite good. Note that the title, Yi San, is actually King Jǒngjo’s personal name. The series can be viewed for free in its entirety at this link (some adult themes not suitable for children):
Lady Hyegyǒng spends a fair amount of time in this memoir describing her despicable distant relative, Kugyǒng Hong, who wormed his way into becoming Jǒngjo’s main confidante until his lust for more and more political power brought him down. He was eventually banished, but while at the palace he was appointed to many key positions as Jǒngjo ascended to the regency and then to the throne. Kugyǒng’s downfall was precipitated by a disregard for killing his enemies using trumped up accusations and his aspiration to become a “royal affine”, or royal relative. He plotted to gain access to the throne himself by taking advantage of Jǒngjo’s childlessness by first presenting his 12-year-old sister to become Jǒngjo’s concubine. This move angered Lady Hyegyǒng since the girl was too young to even think about having children and was therefore blatantly political.
When Kugyǒng’s sister suddenly died shortly after her appointment as concubine, Kugyǒng attempted to appoint Jǒngjo’s very young nephew, Tan, heir to the throne by adoption through his deceased sister! It wasn’t uncommon in East Asian imperial politics for families to try to use children in line for the throne to gain regency for themselves so they could act as de facto ruler. But in this case, Kugyǒng’s plans didn’t work out at all. Jǒngjo eventually saw through him and produced a son of his own to become heir. However, Kugyǒng is presented as a fascinating, devilishly clever scholar in “Yi San,” perhaps following Lady Hyegyǒng’s dismayed lament when observing her son’s friendship with Kugyǒng that, “It was as if a man were completely bewitched by a new concubine.” And so viewers of the series get to see Kugyǒng through Jǒngjo’s admiring eyes, at least for a while.
Kugyǒng Hong was the one who decided to have Lady Hyegyǒng’s uncle, Inhan Hong, executed in 1776. Lady Hyegyǒng saw the matter of her uncle’s execution rooted in his concern over Jǒngjo’s potential regency. Since the last two regencies were so disastrous and court politics so treacherous, Inhan Hong was reluctant to fully support Jǒngjo’s regency even as Yǒngjo’s health was failing, fearing a trap on either side for or against the regency. So he decided to remain noncommittal, but with Kugyǒng’s ambitions and power, this got Inhan branded as a traitor and executed.
Lady Hyegyǒng’s complaints about the execution of her talented 3rd brother, Nagim Hong, bring up a major philosophical clash of that time, particularly Confucianism with “Western Learning” (seohak, 서학), which the memoirs refer to only as “heterodox learning.” In this instance, Catholicism in particular was in question; it was brought to Korea via books from China on the subject written in Classical Chinese, and it was attractive to the idealistic scholarly class which first encountered it for a number of reasons.
Heterodoxy was a key concern since the Joseon Dynasty and the kingship itself was founded on a Confucian ordering of society, which included the onerous bone rank system (golpumjedo, 골품제도), a sort of caste system with severe restrictions, especially for the lower classes. Conflict with Christianity in particular was inevitable given the following observation from JaHyun Kim Haboush’s The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yǒngjo and the Politics of Sagacity:
Sumptuary laws reaffirmed the Yi [Joseon] social hierarchy, which was in turn believed to mirror the cosmic order. They regulated one’s abode, clothing, headgear, and mode of transport according to social status. Though they were effective tools for maintaining social distinctions, they were also rationalized as the mark of a civilized society in which a person, living within his limits and privileges, would not fall into excess. (p. 76)
The bone rank system led to a lot of dissatisfaction and even rebellion at times, and the yearning for social mobility and freedom made Christianity a very attractive alternative in its emphasis on the equality of all men and women. But that would mean very drastic changes to the social order. Even within the context of Confucian factionalism, bloody purges were not uncommon, so it should come as no surprise that such radical ideas that Christianity brought to the population would do the same. It was in this context that Nagim Hong was possibly falsely implicated as being Catholic by another believer during the Sinyu Persecution of 1801.
When Lady Hyegyǒng asserts that her brother could not have had any knowledge of Western learning, that he was not a Catholic and that they didn’t even know any Catholics, she is a bit inaccurate. Perhaps that was because she lived in the inner palace and didn’t know what was going on in the outer palace that well. But in fact, Prince Sado’s ill-fated half-brother Ŭnǒn had married a very prominent Catholic woman later known as Maria Song who was killed in this same wave of violence. Also, another of Jǒngjo’s close confidantes was Yakyong Jǒng, also known as Dasan, who was considered one of the most brilliant minds of the time. Dasan was the younger brother of one of the first martyrs of the persecution of 1801, Yakjong Jǒng, who was a prominent member of the Catholic community and the author of the first catechism in Korean hangul. Many of the court’s Namin (“Southern”) faction had been attracted to Catholicism, and Jǒngjo had enacted a policy of tolerance and began recruiting Namin members for his court. Certainly, there were many connections either directly or through second parties to “heterodox learning.”
In her second memoir, Lady Hyegyǒng breaks from focusing on the ordeals caused by her late husband’s execution to complain about her troubles at court as well as the unjust executions of two of her male relatives and their circumstances. The next memoir will return to the aftermath of the ugly turn of events of 1762.
(Third of a five part series on the Hangjung Mallok. Part 4 coming soon!)