A Kisaeng from P’yŏngyang Disrupts a School – Mujŏng (The Heartless), Part 1

For my final series of 2016, I want to cover another East Asian classic, this time Korea’s Mujŏng (The Heartless), a novella written by Kwang-su Yi. Mujŏng was serialized in 1917, and it runs about 270 pages. You can purchase a copy in English translation by Ann Sung-hi Lee here:


Kwang-su Yi (1892-1950) was an important writer in the early modern period of Korean history. I’ll be posting more details about him at my affiliate blog, The Sun Rises in the East, hopefully this weekend, so be sure to check there for that post.

Here is the frontspiece of the book, a nice sketch of a traditional house the author used to live in.


I’m not sure what year the story is set in, but for now, we’ll just assume it is the time that it was written. The story is at its heart a love triangle between a young scholar and two women, one the daughter of his revered mentor who raised her in the Confucian tradition but who fell upon hard times and became a low-class kisaeng (the Korean version of the Japanese geisha, which sometimes involved in prostitution), the other the daughter of an elder in the Korean Presbyterian church who was raised in a Western style and who is about to go abroad to study in the US.

Main character Yi Hyŏng-sik is an English instructor at the Kyŏngsŏng School in Seoul. Elder Kim has hired him as a private tutor for his daughter Sŏn-hyŏng, and along the way to the Kim residence, he tries to decide how best to greet her and conduct class so he wouldn’t give offense or be improper. He meets an old friend along the way, who presses him for details on his plans for the day when Hyŏng-sik turns down an invitation to go drinking. His friend congratulates him on his new fiancée, even though Hyŏng-sik didn’t say anything about marriage, because Elder Kim’s daughter is reportedly very beautiful. Hyŏng-sik reflects on his lack of personal power, which would normally attract a woman, and the fact that though he is a Christian, he is not a particularly fervent one.

Elder Kim was one of the wealthiest men in the Seoul Presbyterian Church and is a nobleman to boot, so he has a large house with servants. When Hyŏng-sik is invited into Elder Kim’s house, he notices how Western it is and how accessible it is to strangers compared to a traditional house. As the two men relax in the heat, Elder Kim explains his plans for Hyŏng-sik to teach his daughter English for a year before she goes abroad to study.

Calling his wife and daughter into the room, Elder Kim introduces Hyŏng-sik, who remembers hearing that Elder Kim’s wife had been a celebrated kisaeng before becoming Elder Kim’s concubine and then his official wife upon the death of his primary wife. Elder Kim’s conversion to Christianity later in life led him to regret taking a concubine at all, and he married her against the wishes of his family, who preferred he take a different primary wife. Hyŏng-sik notices how beautiful his daughter is and feels his heart flutter. Another unrelated orphan girl is brought into the room, Yun Sun-ae, since she will also be taking English lessons with Hyŏng-sik alongside Sŏn-hyŏng. As Elder Kim and his wife retreat deeper into the house, Hyŏng-sik begins their lesson.

When the lesson ends, Hyŏng-sik returns to his boarding house and is startled when the landlady tells him a woman dressed like a kisaeng has stopped by to see him and will return that evening. He can’t figure out who she might be.  When the woman returns later as promised, he doesn’t recognize her right away. It’s the daughter of his former teacher, Scholar Pak. For her part, Yŏng-ch’ae is afraid that she will cause his reputation to be ruined if they are seen together.

Scholar Pak’s family was purged in 1871, and he went to China, brought back books to help Westernize Korea, then founded a school. He taught and took on Western ideas and customs of dress. He was the rare father who sent his daughter to school, and he also taught her the Confucian classics at a young age. His neighbors considered him crazy, and he lost his wealth. Hyŏng-sik, an orphan, became one of Scholar Pak’s beloved students, but when Pak couldn’t find anyone to fund his school, one of his other students robbed and killed a wealthy man to get money to help Pak. Scholar Pak was horrified when he heard about the crime, but he was arrested along with his two sons as accessories to the crime and jailed. All of Pak’s students were interrogated, and Hyŏng-sik was let go after a short time. The women in Pak’s household were scattered, and his daughter Yŏng-ch’ae had gone to life with relatives. This was the first time Hyŏng-sik had seen her in seven years.

He is overcome when he sees her weeping. She informs him that her father and brothers died in prison five years earlier. Hyŏng-sik marvels at the vicissitudes of fate and how different the lives of Sŏn-hyŏng and Yŏng-ch’ae were. Yŏng-ch’ae describes how miserable it was to live with distant relatives. When the landlady blurts out that Hyŏng-sik still wasn’t married, Yŏng-ch’ae wonders if it is because he was waiting for her. She had thought of him often in the intervening years as if he were her only remaining relative.  After she sold herself to become a kisaeng, she never slept with any man because she had devoted her life to Hyŏng-sik even if he were dead or married, even if it was hopeless.

However, it turned out that Hyŏng-sik had also turned down marriage offers because he believed Scholar Pak had wanted him to marry his daughter. Looking at her now, he realizes she must now be a kisaeng and has probably yielded to prostitution, though he had hoped she had remembered the example of virtuous kisaengs and remained chaste. Hyŏng-sik indulges in a fantasy of marrying Yŏng-ch’ae.

Yŏng-ch’ae is now 19, but when she was 13, she ran away from her relatives to find her father’s jail in P’yŏngyang. She ends up being abducted by a man along the way who tries to rape her, but she fights and runs away. She had really terrible ordeals as she ran away to see her father:

There were many people in the world, but how many of them could understand the thoughts she kept deep within her heart? Sometimes when she was very distressed, she thought of seeking out the kindest of her friends and confiding everything. All of the people she met, though, wanted to exploit her, and catch her and devour her. The people who passed her indifferently on the street, and even people who approached her with smiling, affectionate faces and gentle words did not actually love her and take pity on her, but wanted to deceive her and seduce her to satisfy their greedy desires. (The Heartless, p.104)

Yŏng-ch’ae agonizes over admitting that she has become a kisaeng, something she did after a shocking visit with her father in jail.  She decided she wanted to follow some of the highly praised women in the Confucian tradition who sold themselves out of filial piety to save their parents.

She does find a more kindly benefactor, or so she thinks, and while staying at his house, she expresses her desire to sell herself to become a kisaeng. This wasn’t the only choice available to her, she could have become a servant, but this is what she told the man helping her. He encourages her, then steals the money from her sale, abandoning his family. When Yŏng-ch’ae’s father finds out what she has done to herself, he starves himself to death in jail in despair. Now she’s afraid to admit this to Hyŏng-sik because she fears the same dramatic reaction. She finally leaves abruptly without getting to the point.

Hyŏng-sik is bewildered by her leaving so quickly and guesses the reason. He tries to figure out whether this was really how she was or if she would be laughing at him with sleazy men behind his back as she plied her trade. A comparison between the women arises inadvertently in his mind:

Even Sŏn-hyŏng, the Elder’s daughter, could not compete when it came to the gentle, modest way that Yŏng-ch’ae carried herself. It was not that Sŏn-hyŏng’s face and behavior were not gentle or modest, but there was less movement and vitality about her when compared with Yŏng-ch’ae. If Sŏn-hyŏng was seated like a Buddha, Yŏng-ch’ae was like a fairy dancing and singing above the clouds. Sŏn-hyŏng’s face and bearing were like a painting, whereas Yŏng-ch’ae seemed to be in movement. Yŏng-ch’ae’s appearance was never still, but like a thin fog that passes quickly, her face and her eyes were always full of change. This movement was unspeakably beautiful and gentle. Her voice was also modulated in pitch and timbre depending on her emotions. It was like listening to wondrous music. (The Heartless p. 114)

The next day when he goes to school , he hears from two of his students at the Kyŏngsŏng School. They come to visit him to warn him they are about to withdraw from the school, the entire third and fourth year classes, as a protest so the school will get rid of the dean whom they hate, Pae Myŏng-sik, whom they have followed and caught going to visit a kisaeng and drinking a lot. They feel he is too corrupt to be a dean or instructor because of his position of authority over young men. Many people also didn’t like Pae personally. Hyŏng-sik tries to advise them to take a more restrained sort of action, though he does agree that Pae is a problem, but it only makes them angry. Later when the instructors discover the students have withdrawn, Hyŏng-sik must admit he knew of their plans, and Pae accuses him of helping them even though Hyŏng-sik was trying to smooth things over.

But this event brings to Hyŏng-sik’s ears news of the kisaeng who has robbed Pae of his senses, a new woman from P’yŏngyang who goes by the name of Kye Wŏr-hyang, or Cinnamon Moon Fragrance. She has just arrived, and all of the men are after her, some bidding as high as 1,000 won to have her as their own, since she has reportedly had no man sleep with her yet. Although she has rejected Pae, he is desperate for her. Dismayed, Hyŏng-sik wonders if this kisaeng could really be Yŏng-ch’ae. He agonizes over how he can save her if it turns out to be his childhood friend, and he realizes she may have come to him at the boarding house the other day because of this situation, in the hopes that he would save her. But none of his schemes to get the money to buy her seem possible. He imagines her plight and the unsavory type of men who have their sights on her.

He then has another lesson with Sŏn-hyŏng and Sun-ae. There’s a lot philosophizing in the chapters around this lesson and within it, most of it considering the nature of people, evil, and the definition of being human. Most of it is also quite good writing.

After his lesson ends, Hyŏng-sik asks around among the students to see which of them followed Pae to the kisaeng’s house with the intention that the boy will be able to lead him to the house too and he can see for himself whether it really is Yŏng-ch’ae as he imagines it must be. The student leads him to the house without difficulty.

It was a chilly evening. One could hear from the Chongno evening market the sound of vendors shouting out how cheap their goods were, and advertising medicines as they wielded long knives. The places where dozens of people were gathered seemed to be places where cheap, useful goods were being sold. People wandered about aimlessly, intoxicated with the taste of the cool evening. Groups of students in twos and threes ran about between the people on the street, chattering amongst themselves, as though on some urgent business. There were some women who still covered their heads when they left the house, and went about with a girl carrying a lantern to light their way, in traditional style. The noise of a Western orchestra could be heard from the Umigwan, where what was known as an ‘action movie’ (taehwalgŭk) was probably showing. Through the windows of the second floor of the Youth Association building flickered the shadows of youths walking about energetically, perhaps playing billiards…(The Heartless, pp.140-1).

Hyŏng-sik stands before the house where there is a lantern with the kisaeng’s name on it and pauses, hoping it is not Yŏng-ch’ae after all.

Part one of a three 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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