This time we continue to look at Kyung-sook Shin’s historical novel, Jin Lee (신경숙의《리진》). Chapter 1 of Part 1 introduces the characters and the general situation of Jin Lee going by steamship to France with her fiancé Collin de Plancy in 1891 when Jin Lee is 22 years old. The remaining two chapters in Part 1 flash back to Jin’s childhood. These are titled “The Pear Blossom Girl” and “The Boy from the Lotus Pond” respectively. Doing the math, Jin Lee was born in 1869, and the text mentions Banchon as her birthplace. Here is a description of the area of Banchon (Korean only) that is the district around the Sungkyunkwan, one of the most prestigious learning institutions of the Joseon Dynasty:
Her father was a militiaman involved in the armed conflict with Americans caused by the US expedition to Korea in 1871. The Americans were trying to settle the incident involving the destruction of US steamship the General Sherman, but things didn’t go as intended, and there was a lot of negative political fallout from that event. Here is some background on the controversies surrounding the steamship:
Her father never returned from Ganghwa Island, and Jin’s mother died when she was five. A neighbor named Mrs. Seo takes her in. Mrs. Seo has a younger sister who serves as a court lady in the palace, and she takes Jin to meet with her sister. Court Lady Seo questions Mrs. Seo about the girl and is especially interested in her clan name. Oddly, Jin has no name, her mother just called her Hua Yi after the pear blossoms on the pear tree that is Jin’s most dominant memory of her childhood and her mother. Note that hua means flower in Chinese, which does show up in some Korean words; it is not the standard word for flower in Korean, which is actually kkot. Court Lady Seo insists that she needs the girl’s clan name if she is to take Jin into the palace with her.
Later, Jin is presented to Queen Myeongseong, or at least that is what I assume since Myeongseong would have been around 24 at this time. But then maybe she wasn’t queen yet and it was the Queen Dowager. All of that may be cleared up as we continue reading. The difficulty with Korean historical novels (that sometimes also can be seen in modern novels like The Man Who Walked Dogs which we read last year) is that they don’t use personal names but typically use only titles, sometimes for a long time or almost exclusively. The main title for adults also doesn’t show gender, and characters can all have the same last name. So it’s quite confusing for a Western reader to figure out all of this. I tried reading one English translation of a Korean novel not long ago that I felt was very frustrating, full of really awkward references to the characters. Because of this problem, I found myself wondering if it would have been better for the translator to just give them random personal names just so readers could figure out what was going on. Unfortunately for the writer and translator in that case, the English translation didn’t stay in print very long, and I barely made it through the first few chapters.
But back to our story. When Jin meets with the Queen, the Queen asks whose child she is and why she is alone. They are served white pears, but Jin hesitates to taste one. She is caught up in the memory of her mother. The Queen keeps encouraging her to eat a bite, and eventually she accepts.
The last chapter in Part 1 shows Jin at age 7 in 1876. She is undergoing philosophical training with the court ladies and still lives with Mrs. Seo. This chapter is gives some background political information, mentioning problems between the Joseon regent Daewongun and the Japanese. The Japanese used military force to get the Joseon to open their ports around this time. One of the court ladies takes Jin out to meet a strange-looking man under an apricot tree in the garden. Jin is amazed since she never saw anyone who looked like him, dressed as he was in black with a curly brown mustache and blue eyes. She heard him speaking French and later broken Korean. His name is Missionary Blanc, and he has a young boy with him whom he introduces as Yeon Kang. The boy’s name can have a double meaning of lotus pond, and there was some reference to this when he was named by his village.
Missionary Blanc speaks at length with Mrs. Seo about Jin and other matters. Yeon is left in Mrs. Seo’s care, and as she works in the kitchen, she talks with Jin and Yeon and one of them plays a bamboo pipe. This part is interesting because it’s another example of what I was talking about before with names in Korean novels: Yeon Kang is almost never referred to in this section by his name but only by the boy (소년). While Jin leaves the room, Mrs. Seo strips Yeon Kang of his ragged clothes, bathes him, then dresses him in the too large clothes of a boy who is apparently a scholar at Sungkyunkwan nearby. Only after she bathes him does the text consistently call him Yeon Kang and not boy, so I guess there’s a little psychological transformation going on with that.
When Missionary Blanc returns and finds them in the garden, they talk more about the commercial treaty between Joseon and France because he wants to found an orphanage. At this time, there were no orphanages in Joseon, and children were living in the streets. He also talks about the religious sisters working in this field and the medical field in Japan. The four of them sit down to dinner, and the text refers to them explicitly as a family. We also learn that Mrs. Seo isn’t a believer in the Lord, though some of the elite students in Banchon are.
I should mention that this was only about 10 years after Daewongun massacred French and Korean Catholics, an event which is connected to the very interesting tourist attraction in Seoul called Jeoldusan. Here is more information on that episode (Korean only, but with photos):
This situation probably had some impact on the local community at this time, but I’m not sure how important it is to the novel yet. The main thing with this incident is to get a feel for the tense relationship between France and Korea that serves as the backdrop to this story.
Mrs. Seo talks with Missionary Blanc about Yeon Kang’s education. I think some of this discussion is written perhaps since the responses aren’t marked as usual dialogue but are set off in greater than and less than signs. I’m not familiar with how these are used in Korean novels, but it isn’t generally used here. They are talking about Yeon Kang’s writing ability, so that may be how the author shows it. He asks why Jin doesn’t have a name, and it is clear even at this point at age 7 or so that Jin is being trained specifically as a court dancer. But then Missionary Blanc suggests Jin learn French. Mrs. Seo thinks it is unusual for a girl to learn French in Joseon but acknowledges that Jin is better at reading and speaking than most children and that boys are usually praised for learning such subjects. I think Mrs. Seo’s own background illustrates how the attitude was that girls reading books was something considered distressing and distracting. But Blanc wants to teach Jin and begins his lesson with Jin and Yeon immediately. It’s tough reading French in the Korean alphabet, but at least so far there hasn’t been much of that, just a few phrases like mon dieu and la fleur.
At this point of the novel, Jin has a lot in common with popular TV figures such as Jang Geum in “Jewel in the Palace,” the story of the first female physician to the king that was shown in South Korea around 2005. Of course, the stories have very different trajectories from here, but the parallel of a little orphaned girl who is smart, wants to read books and trains to serve in the royal court is a familiar formula.
A court lady comes every morning to escort Jin to the palace, while Yeon Kang walks around Banchon with Missionary Blanc. Yeon eagerly waits for Jin to come home with the court lady. The rest of the chapter focuses on Jin’s interaction with the King and Queen after a palace fire interrupts Jin’s training. Apparently the Queen requested Jin wait on her after the fire just missed her pavilion, and she holds Jin’s hand tightly. I think she feels spooked by the fire and the possibility she could have died in it. Then there’s a scene with Yeon, who is waiting for Jin near the palace wall all night after hearing about the blaze. They walk back to Mrs. Seo’s garden. Both Yeon and the Queen can’t seem to let go of Jin’s hand in these scenes.
These two chapters are more slice of life establishing Jin in her world at court and in her family situation, describing her upbringing and her close relationship with Yeon. Next time, we’ll look at Part 2, which returns to her meeting with Collin in 1888.
Part two of a six part series.