At the Wharf, A Joseon Court Dancer Causes a Sensation – Jin Lee, Part 1

The first book we’ll look at for 2015 is a historical romance novel written by Kyung-sook Shin in 2007, Jin Lee (신경숙의《리진》). It’s in two volumes, runs about 600 pages, and the cover is rather plain pearlized paper, so I won’t give you a cover image. You can purchase the book in Korean only here:

To my knowledge, this book has minimal web presence in English and has not been translated, but author Kyung-sook Shin is very famous over in Korea and has won numerous awards after her debut in 1985. She has written many novellas, novels, essays and short stories. I did find this Amazon page that referenced her work with a few English translations:

This book looks challenging and exciting as it focuses on a Joseon Dynasty court dancer named Jin Lee who goes to Paris in the 1880s and falls in love with French diplomat Collin de Plancy. So the story spans two continents, set in both Korea and France, at a time of great turmoil in Korea in particular. It looks like we’ll have some brutal court intrigue and tragedy as well before the novel is done. I don’t expect it to be an easy read on many levels.

Before we begin, we should look at the time period a little to get a better idea of the setting. These are not historical details widely known in the West, so this will be rather lengthy to get us grounded in the action. Here are some relevant details from Wikipedia, which I will rearrange for clarity:

[King] Gojong [of Korea] took the throne in 1863 when still a child. As a minor, his father, Regent Heungseon Daewongun (or more commonly, Daewongun), ruled for him until Gojong reached adulthood. During the mid-1860s, Heungseon Daewongun was the main proponent of isolationism and the instrument of the persecution of native and foreign Catholics, a policy that led directly to the French invasion [in 1866] and the United States expedition to Korea in 1871. In 1873, Gojong announced his assumption of direct royal rule. With the retirement of Heungseon Daewongun, Gojong’s consort, Queen Min (later Empress Myeongseong), gained complete control over the court, placing her family members in high court positions….

French Invasion of 1866

French Invasion of 1866

In the 19th century tensions mounted between Qing China and Japan, culminating in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895). Much of this war was fought on the Korean peninsula. Japan, after the Meiji Restoration, had acquired Western military technology and had forced Joseon to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876. Japan encroached upon Korean territory in search of fish, iron ore, and natural resources. It also established a strong economic presence in the peninsula, heralding the beginning of Japanese imperial expansion in East Asia. The Treaty of Ganghwa became the first unequal treaty signed between Korea and [a] foreign country; it gave extraterritorial rights to Japanese citizens in Korea and forced the Korean government to open three ports, Busan, Incheon and Wonsan, to Japanese and foreign trade. With the signing of its first unequal treaty, Korea became easy prey for many imperialistic powers, and later the treaty led to Korea being annexed by Japan….

During the years of modernization of Joseon, it is safe to assume that Gojong was finally in love with his wife. They both began to spend an immense amount of time with each other, privately and officially….

In 1895, Empress Myeongseong (referred to as “Queen Min” by the Japanese) was assassinated by Japanese agents. The Japanese minister to Korea, Miura Goro orchestrated the plot against her. A group of Japanese agents entered the Imperial palace in Seoul, which was under Japanese guard, and Empress Myeongseong was killed in the palace. The empress had attempted to counter Japanese interference in Korea and was considering turning to Russia or China for support.

Empress Myeongseong

Empress Myeongseong

His affection for her was undying and it has been noted that after the death of his Queen Consort, Gojong locked himself up in his chambers for several weeks, refusing to assume his duties. When he finally did, he lost the will to even try and signed away treaty after treaty that was proposed by the Japanese, giving the Japanese immense power. When his father was able to take back some political power after the death of his daughter-in-law, he presented a proposal with the aid of certain Japanese officials to lower his daughter-in-law’s status as Queen Consort all the way to commoner posthumously. Gojong, a man who had always been used by others and never used his own voice for his own causes, was noted by scholars as having said, “I would rather slit my wrists and let them bleed than disgrace the woman who saved this kingdom.” In an act of defiance, he refused to sign his father’s and the Japanese proposal, and turned them away.

I understand that Empress Myeongseong is an important figure in this novel, and this is already apparent in chapter 1, so I will add this link for a complete background on the controversies she was involved in:

Meanwhile, France had just rid itself of Napoleon III and founded the French Third Republic, but I’m unclear yet on what aspects of the changes there will be important for our reading, so for now I’ll skip that.

The novel is split into four parts with volume 1 covering part 1 and 2. The parts have no titles, but the chapters they contain do. Part 1 has three chapters, and I’ll just start off this series by discussing the first chapter, “Two People,” and save the other two for next time.

This chapter is heavy on description and begins on a winding mountain road overlooking the river at the port of Jemulpo, known as Incheon in modern times. Jin’s identity as a dancer in the Joseon royal court is immediately mentioned. She is on a boat at the wharf, and this section describes a variety of people milling about and as well as their clothing. Everyone is staring at Jin because she is dressed strangely, apparently in Western not Joseon style. A white man with brown curly hair is with her, her fiancé Collin, a French official. The people aren’t happy to see them. In the crowd are many Japanese and Qing Chinese, many missionaries coming from France as well as nuns. The text notes that every country wants concessions from Joseon.

French is really not understood in Joseon, and Collin can’t really pronounce Korean that well, so there is a discussion of their first meeting and how he spoke intertwined with a description of court hairstyles and a romantic encounter between them. She then reminisces about coming to live in the palace when she was six and dancing there. Juxtaposed with this is her current situation sailing to a strange land across the ocean. She spends some time comparing Joseon men to northern and Western men, including a mention of the double eyelids of Westerners. The men at the harbor are preparing the ship for their voyage. She is excited about their destination.

Collin tells her he loves her. They are planning to marry when they get to France, and Jin thinks about how her court lady coming of age ceremony in the palace was very similar to a wedding ceremony, that she was formally made the king’s woman at it. She thinks back to an audience with King Gojong and his difficulties with Japan, his troubles generally at court, and the difficult relationship between his father and his wife the Empress Myeongseong. Jin thinks King Gojong is lonely and sad when she talks with him. He bestows on her the name Jin Lee, and she has to talk with him about getting permission to go to France with Collin. She had also started living in the French Legation at some point.

Summoned suddenly before Empress Myeongseong, Jin dances the “Spring Nightingale Dance,” which is reported to be the Empress’ favorite. Here is a video made by ethnomusicologist Robert Garfias showing this dance:

Empress Myeongsong gives Jin a set of two rings off of her own fingers before Jin leaves.

Let’s stop there for now since we have covered so much background reading.

Part one of a six part series.


About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards.
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