Dinner at the French Legation with Coq au Vin and Berlioz – Jin Lee, Part 3

Part 2 of Kyung-sook Shin’s historical novel, Jin Lee (신경숙의《리진》) has six chapters and runs for more than 200 pages. The structure of this section is quite a departure from Part 1. Each chapter has a letter from Collin de Plancy to “Your Excellency.” The text eventually reveals he is writing to the French President, Marie Francois Sadi Carnot, reporting on his activities in Seoul:


French President circa 1880s

Marie Francois Sadi Carnot

Fairly brief, chapter 1 is called “Meeting.” The opening letter explains Collin’s recent arrival in Korea. It’s June of 1888, and Collin goes outside to reflect on the beauty of the morning outside of the French Legation. The author spends quite a while talking here and earlier about trees in the garden. There is also a lot of detail on the clothes Collin should wear for a visit to the royal court, including a reference to a concealed vest camera that Collin wants to use to take photos. I didn’t know they had vest cameras back then, so I looked it up, and indeed there was a concealed vest camera available during that time.

The Stirn Conceal Vest Camera circa 1886

The Stirn Conceal Vest Camera circa 1886 – Photo Credit CW Riley

Once he prepares for his audience with the king, he sets off for the palace and encounters a group of court ladies. He talks to someone about who they are and what they are studying. They are surprised to see a foreigner there, and he snaps a few photos with his vest camera as they pass. He notices one dancer wearing a jade green jacket and blue skirt looking at him with a warmer expression than the others, and as he takes her photo, she catches his eye with a surprising intensity and greets him in French! He is fascinated. When he asks the dancer’s name, someone explains that all of the women in the palace belong to the king and that it is a crime to get entangled with them.

Collin joins the group of foreign ministers having an audience with King Gojong. They have refreshments and talk about the changes in Joseon as the country modernizes. Later Collin mentions his own correspondence with Carnot back in France with the king as well as various other political issues, such as the troubling expansion plans of Vladivostok and Japan. King Gojong is interested in his small camera, which has a lens the size of a button, and Collin explains to him how it works. He gets permission to take his picture at the audience, but they have to go outside since the camera doesn’t work in interior lighting. There is a bit of talk about the latest types of cameras that have been invented. The one he is using is an American make. All during the audience, Collin is looking around for the mysterious court lady who speaks French.

Once the audience is over and Collin is on his way back to the French Legation, he goes over details he wants to put into his letter to Carnot and thinks some more about the court lady and the sweet way she spoke French. Back at his desk, Collin reviews his instructions on treaty negotiations with Joseon, which were concluded 2 years earlier. They had tried to deal with issues such as Joseon isolation and the human rights of Catholics in the country after the massacre of 8,000 Korean believers and 9 French missionaries years earlier, but the treaty was concluded without resolving the issue of their missionaries’ safety. He prepares to write his next letter.

Chapter 2 is titled “The Dancing Girl,” and it opens with Collin’s letter to Carnot explaining the military and diplomatic situation in Joseon among the various Western nations. Then the chapter goes straight into a detailed description of Jin’s face as she prepares with the other dancers to perform at a banquet hosting many foreign ministers. The day is rainy, so everyone’s shoes are muddy. Yeon Kang is also there to welcome the French minister. Jin is to dance the spring nightingale dance again. The scene then flashes back to the night before when the Queen summoned Jin to speak with her about the banquet and its importance. The text explains some details of the court that show why the Queen is very nervous and fearful of a coup d’etat as well as assassination.

The banquet is about to start. Collin is in attendance, and the King and Queen talk with him at length. One of the French aides, Guérin, is also in attendance here, and I think his title is secretary of the embassy. There is an extended discussion about the Qing Chinese that I will skip over. This topic comes up a lot when the novel gets into diplomatic talks. Collin wants to take another photo while someone is playing the bak (a Korean clapper). Yeon Kang is one of the musicians playing at this banquet, but I’m not sure if he’s the particular musician in question here. A group of eight dancers dressed in green, yellow and blue costumes comes out from either side of the stage and recites a poem when the music stops, then they perform their dance.

Finally Jin comes out to dance a solo wearing wooden clogs and a yellow jacket, and Collin recognizes her as the French-speaking court lady he met earlier! As before, the music plays while she comes out, then when it stops she recites a poem. As Collin watches her dance, he is breathless and full of tension. The Queen notes that he was the only one who didn’t clap for her performance and questions him about it. Afterward, Jin is introduced to them as Court Lady Seo. It’s interesting to see that Jin has taken on her adoptive mother’s name now that she’s serving at court. The Queen calls Jin the best dancer in Joseon and urges her to help the minister. Collin then asks for permission for Jin to visit the French Legation so he can take a photo of her since he admired her beautiful dance so much. The Queen convinces the King to grant permission, and it is all arranged.

The next chapter, “Your Name,” shows us her visit to the French Legation. The chapter’s opening letter is dated late July of 1888 and continues to explain the political situation among the countries in relation to Joseon. The story then directly launches into Jin preparing to go to the French Legation in the morning rain. The Queen apparently loaned her a palanquin to take her there. She meets Collin in the legation garden dressed in a jade green jacket and dark blue skirt. This section also updates us on the status of Missionary Blanc, who is now a church pastor and is founding the orphanage, which forces him to meet with Collin frequently. Blanc chose to take the Korean name of Kyusam Baek.

We discover through a flashback that Collin was from a village called Plancy and attended a theological school in Paris where he studied law and Chinese. After getting his degree, he went to Beijing to get away from his father, so that was his point of entry into East Asia. He didn’t know a lot about Japan or Joseon. Collin lives with a Jindo dog at the legation, which you can read about here:


During Jin’s visit, Collin speaks in French to her and uses an interpreter. He impetuously tries to embrace and kiss her check and gets flustered when she just stares at him. She coldly explains how strange this is and that he should know better that it is not a proper greeting in Joseon. He apologizes profusely, and she smiles. While they are talking, Guérin shows up with another man and mentions dinner. They go into Collin’s office, and he tells Jin his name and explains what it means. He asks how court ladies are named, and she just answers that she is called Court Lady Seo. He wants a Joseon name and asks her for her help in coming up with one.

Inside the legation, there us a room where books are piled up everywhere, which fascinates Jin. The collection includes books in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese as well as French history books. The author names quite a number of them, from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and Stendhal’s Scarlet and Black. This book does name check a lot of French artists, and earlier I skipped a long list of painters mentioned around the time her mother’s history was explained, but you get the idea. She wants to see books on Paris, and he suggests they go there together sometime. She reminds him she is not able to leave the palace and only came that day to visit with the Queen’s intervention. Jin asks if she can borrow his French books, and he lets her choose which ones she wants as dinner is served.

A dinner of coq au vin and champagne is served for four (Collin, Jin, Guérin, and the interpreter whose name must be Peter Choi), and Collin puts Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique on the phonograph for them to listen to while they eat. Jin has to use a fork, knife and spoon during dinner. Dinner conversation includes a discussion of Blanc again and his orphanage, and Jin explains that Blanc was the person who taught her French. Collin says he is not a Christian when Jin asks. Jin isn’t either, and there are some heavy restrictions on believers in the royal court that are not detailed here, but Mrs. Seo and Yeon Kang became believers at some point. They also discuss French cooking methods. Reproductions of famous French paintings are nearby, one each of Monet and Seurat.

They finally get around to taking her picture. She says she thinks photos steal a person’s soul, but Collin reminds her that he took photos of the King a month before with no problem. They talk more about her childhood, and she keeps noticing how he uses a word for you that is probably too intimate. Coffee and cake are served, and she suggests the name Killin of Kirrin for him as his Korean name.

Chapter 4,“I Live Here,” starts out with a letter to Carnot dated August, 1888, detailing the activities of Missionary Blanc, including his founding of a church, a printing house, schools and his desire to establish an orphanage. Blanc has come to Collin requesting negotiations to help with this project. I think Jin has a nightmare about the death of the Queen and her funeral, which came up earlier in the book, too, but it’s a little hard to follow in those parts.

Jin is going to the French Legation almost daily to borrow books from Collin, which she usually visits taking a palanquin. Once when she walked instead, she immediately regretted it because people noticed a woman with Collin who wasn’t wearing foreign clothes. She visits with Mrs. Seo and Yeon Kang, too, and they all go to see the orphanage Missionary Blanc has built. It has three wings, including one for boys and one for girls, but Jin overhears someone say in Korean that foreigners kidnap children. Yeon Kang’s arm is hurt during an attack while they are at the orphanage and must visit a doctor there because his wound looks deep. The doctor doesn’t know Korean and must rely on Collin and Jin to understand. But Yeon Kang is a little wary of Collin since he remembers Collin didn’t clap when Jin danced the spring nightingale dance at the banquet and therefore embarrassed Jin in front of the Queen.

Missionary Blanc then arrives and is surprised to see Collin with his group of friends. His face darkens when he realizes Collin has a romantic attachment to a court lady! The person who harmed Yeon Kang has been dragged off to the police, and Blanc offers to send word to the palace of the incident. They visit with the orphans for a time and talk about musical instruments and becoming a court musician. Blanc talks for a while with Collin about other issues in Joseon.

The scene switches to the Queen getting the news of the assault Jin was involved with. When the Queen asks why she was assaulted, her attendants tell her it was because she was walking on the road with the French minister and was misunderstood to be a foreign agent. They give her the full report of where and who was involved in the incident. She summons Mrs. Seo for more details. That night, Jin is with Mrs. Seo and Yeon Kang, and they talk about wanting to return to Banchon to live. She dances for them.

Chapter 5 has the title “Confession,” and the opening letter is just a few days after that of Chapter 4. It just gets into details about salaries, budgets and foreign representatives.

Collin is meeting with the King and Queen about the treaties being negotiated, but the King asks him about a rumor he has heard about a dancer visiting the French Legation. The Queen reminds him that he gave permission for Court Lady Seo to go there, and at one point Collin blurts out that he wants to marry Jin. The royal court doesn’t quite know how it will handle the scandal of a foreign minister falling in love with one of the King’s women!

When Collin returns to the French Legation, he finds Jin there waiting for him. He asks if she wants to take a stroll or if she wants to return to the palace. They talk about the books she is reading a bit and a letter of petition to the Queen. Jin wants Collin to take her to Paris, and he asks her if that means she will accept his love.

The Queen finds Jin’s diary at the end of the chapter. Jin has sent a letter to the Queen requesting that Jin stay at the French Legation. Finally, the Queen summons Elder Lady Seo, I think Mrs. Seo’s sister whom we met in an earlier chapter – there are numerous words for court lady in the novel, so it’s hard to distinguish differences in level and meaning with them. The Queen tells her that Court Lady Seo, meaning Jin, will be joining the French minister. This shocks Elder Lady Seo.

Part three 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 from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror 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 and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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