As we continue our look at the Korean novella Mujŏng by Kwang-su Yi, we flash back to Yŏng-ch’ae’s painful situation after selling herself at age 13 to become a kisaeng (Korean geisha). This part is very ugly and brutal, and there’s so much to cover even in short portion of the text.
Yŏng-ch’ae reflects at the beginning of chapter 30 on how Hyŏng-sik was the only person she felt close to now that she had been set adrift in society and had lost her family. As the men around her seemed more and more predatory after becoming a kisaeng, she thought of Hyŏng-sik as a man she could rely on and could trust. It never occurred to her that Hyŏng-sik might not be the same innocent boy she once knew. I want to quote this chapter at length because I think it gets to the heart of what author Kwang-su Yi is up to in this story: in my opinion his primary concerns are what makes a person human, how evil manifests in people, and how people reach a point where they are enlightened to see both of these realities. He is also interested in showing the old Confucian ways as morally bankrupt, which Yŏng-ch’ae is meant to illustrate because she ended up in such a horrible situation by imitating the virtuous women of Confucian manuals. But I’ll get more into that in a minute. This chapter is fascinating for how he describes Yŏng-ch’ae’s understanding of people and the world:
Yŏng-ch’ae was sure that no matter how many years passed – a thousand years, ten thousand years – Hyŏng-sik would always be the same Hyŏng-sik she had known at her house in the town of Anju. Yŏng-ch’ae did not know that people who had once been good could change for the worse. She thought that a good person was good by nature, and would always be good. Similarly, she thought that an evil person was born that way, and would always be thus. Yŏng-ch’ae had never known any evil people in her childhood. Her father was a good person. Her brothers were good people. The students who lived in her father’s study, and the students who visited there in order to learn, were also good people. Of course, Hyŏng-sik too was a good person. The people in books such as the Elementary Learning and Biographies of Virtuous Women, which she had studied, were all good people too. In her childish mind, the characters in the books that she read and the people in her family and around her, were all the same….She also thought that since the world was like her home, all the people In the world would be like herself and the people around her. Kim Sŏn-hyŏng and Pak Yŏng-ch’ae were similar in this respect.
Yŏng-ch’ae’s young mind was shocked, however, when her good father and the people around her became the object of people’s contempt and ridicule for having committed wrongdoing. She was treated cruelly by her maternal cousin’s wife and her nieces and nephews….She realized at a young age that the world was different from her family, and that the people of the world were different from herself and those she had known at home. In other words, she had realized that there was evil in the world, and that there were evil people…. Yŏng-ch’ae realized another truth as she gained experience in life: the evil world was larger than the good world, and there were more evil people than there were good.
Since leaving her home seven years ago, Yŏng-ch’ae had never even once seen the good world, nor met any good people. She had left the good world of her hometown, and become a sojourner in evil, unfamiliar lands. She had left her good relatives, and experienced all manner of humiliation and torture from evil people who were her enemies…She thought that she herself, moreover, was like one of the women in Biographies of Virtuous Women, the Admonitions for Women and the Elementary Learning, and that she was someone who would certainly not stay in the evil world for long….
….She believed that she would find that good world and those good people again some day… Yŏng-ch’ae believed that there would be a good home and a good man in Seoul. She tried hard day and night to find that home and that man. The only good man in her thoughts, however, was Yi Hyŏng-sik. This was why she had single-mindedly looked for Hyŏng-sik for seven years, refusing to yield her body to anyone, even though she had met hundreds of men. Then she had heard that Hyŏng-sik was in Seoul, and she had come to see him. (Mujŏng , pp. 142-4)
Next the text turns to Yŏng-ch’ae’s experiences after becoming a kisaeng. She had grown close to a few of the other kisaeng, but the one she was closest to was an older, very popular girl named Kye Wŏr-hwa, or cinnamon moon flower. Wŏr-hwa was a very beautiful and talented kisaeng that every man seemed to want, and she was selective in what men she interacted with, which annoyed the men she rebuffed and the old woman who ran the kisaeng house. Wŏr-hwa found the men who pursued her to be of the wrong sort of character and longed for the literary scholar of old, though it was hard to find such a man. Yŏng-ch’ae idolized her and tried to emulate her, and when it came to her ideal man, she only thought of was Hyŏng-sik. One day when the girls were out walking together, they saw a school of students gathered near a cliff singing, and Wŏr-hwa thought she saw the man of her dreams and wept with longing for him. Wŏr-hwa also feared that Yŏng-ch’ae was destined for her same unhappiness as Yŏng-ch’ae blossomed into a beautiful, talented young woman in her own right.
Some time later, they go to a school to hear a speech. The only women among the male student body, they listened raptly as the principal of the school, Ham Sang-mo, spoke of transforming the people of the nation. Both women are in tears by the end, but when they get home, Wŏr-hwa declares she has found the man of her dreams in Ham Sang-mo though she knew she could never have him; overnight, Wŏr-hwa slips out, leaving her jade ring on Yŏng-ch’ae’s finger, then goes to throw herself into the Taedong River. The old woman who ran the kisaeng house is irritated when her body is recovered and wrapped in hemp, because the girl died and could no longer make the old woman rich, while the men who were guests at the house were irritated that they lost a toy. Yŏng-ch’ae vowed then and there that she would follow the same principles as her mentor and friend Wŏr-hwa. She would definitely hold Hyŏng-sik’s memory close to her heart and pursue him even if it was hopeless.
We return to the present time in the story as Yŏng-ch’ae reflects on her visit to Hyŏng-sik, her despair that now made her see the wisdom her best friend’s choice to die, and the old woman she served who had gotten rich off of her talents and was now auctioning off her body to the highest bidder.
Meanwhile, Hyŏng-sik is standing before the house of Kye Wŏr-hyang, afraid to find out if it’s really Yŏng-ch’ae. He enters and encounters the nasty old woman who owns her, but Wŏr-hyang is out. The old woman tell him she went to Ch’ŏngnyangni. As he leaves the house in disgust, Hyŏng-sik imagines that he can hear Yŏng-ch’ae begging him to save her, and he rushes to Ch’ŏngnyangni on a trolley and runs into his old friend Sin U-sŏn, who agrees to go with him. When Hyŏng-sik tells his friend the name of the woman they are going to find and her connection to him, U-sŏn is really taken aback, because he was one of the men who was pursuing Wŏr-hyang. He’s a little offended that his friend, whom he doesn’t really think that highly of, might be preferred by her, but he agrees to help anyway. It turns out that U-sŏn was actually the person that tipped Yŏng-ch’ae off to Hyŏng-sik’s whereabouts accidentally.
When they arrive at the house in Ch’ŏngnyangni, they discover Yŏng-ch’ae tied up, a little bloody with torn clothes, and the two men who abducted and possibly raped her, school dean Pae Myŏng-sik and the wealthy Kim Hyŏn-su. They smash their way in, save her, then take her home, while the police deal with her abductors. The author goes into the abductors’ reasoning about why they thought it was okay to kidnap and rape a kisaeng, and part of the section I’ll finish covering in this post goes on for quite awhile about the old philosophy that a woman who is raped is worthless and should kill herself versus the new idea, or more human idea, that the rape is a bad thing but it doesn’t require a woman to commit suicide or be thrown away. At this point, we don’t really know if Yŏng-ch’ae actually was raped, though U-sŏn does know even if Hyŏng-sik does not. U-sŏn reasons that withholding that information is his little way, the only one he really allows himself to indulge in, of getting back at his friend for stealing away the woman he loves.
The text turns to Yŏng-ch’ae at her house with the old woman in chapter 41. This is another really pivotal, difficult scene that I want to focus on. The old woman, who feels the girl has cheated her out of whatever money she would make if only she allowed men to start spending the night, feels a certain schadenfreude at seeing Yŏng-ch’ae in such a state. It comes out later that the old woman actually encouraged Kim Hyŏn-su to rape her since she wouldn’t yield to him willingly. The old woman herself, whom I don’t think we get the name of at this point in the story, also had been saving herself for a special man before she was raped when she was fifteen, so she feels satisfied at destroying what she sees as Yŏng-ch’ae’s arrogance at thinking she too could escape such a fate. She calculates all of the money she could have made selling the girl every night to men and feels she has taken care of Yŏng-ch’ae in vain all of those years since she hadn’t gotten quite the return on her investment that she had expected.
Yŏng-ch’ae for her part understands the old woman’s thoughts and hates her for it. Yet somehow the old woman pretends to be understanding and comfort Yŏng-ch’ae, noticing how she had bit her lip to the point it was bleeding profusely.
“I bit my lip! I wanted to bite my lips off! Other people want to eat my flesh, so I wanted to eat my flesh too!” she tells the old woman (p.169). The old woman breaks down and cries as she sees the girl covered with blood.
Back at the boarding house, Hyŏng-sik thinks about what he witnessed at the house in Ch’ŏngnyangni and whether Yŏng-ch’ae was raped or not. Again, he compares Kim Sŏn-hyŏng and Yŏng-ch’ae:
He could see Sŏn-hyŏng and Yŏng-ch’ae side by side. At first they were both dressed in garments white as snow, and each held a flower in one hand, and held one hand open towards Hyŏng-sik, as though asking him to clasp their hand. “Take my hand, Hyŏng-sik! Please!” they said, smiling and holding their head slightly to one side coquettishly. Shall I take this hand, or that one? Hyŏng-sik thought, and reached both of his hands into the air, then hesitated. Then Yŏng-ch’ae’s appearance began to change. The white, snowlike dress gave way to a bloody, torn skirt of some nameless kind of silk, and her bloodied legs showed through the torn skirt. Tears fell from her eyes, and her lip was bleeding. The flower in her hand disappeared, and she held instead a fistful of soil. He shook his head and opened his eyes. Sŏn-hyŏng still stood before him, dressed in white, and smiling. “Please take my hand, Hyŏng-sik!” she said, reaching her hand out to him, and bowing her head. When Hyŏng-sik reached for Sŏn-hyŏng’s hand in a daze, Yŏng-ch’ae’s face as she stood beside Sŏn-hyŏng, was hideously transformed like that of a ghost. She bit her lip and sprayed blood over Hyŏng-sik. (Mujŏng , p. 176)
The next day U-sŏn takes Hyŏng-sik to Yŏng-ch’ae’s house, but they discover she has taken a trip to P’yŏngyang suddenly to see her father’s grave. She has left a note for Hyŏng-sik, though the old woman doesn’t know who that is until U-sŏn hands it to his friend. It contains a letter in which Yŏng-ch’ae pours out her heart to Hyŏng-sik, how she has only been living for him, and she admits that she was raped that night and now must commit suicide in the Taedong River where her best friend also died to cleanse the stain. The letter also contains a cloth upon which Hyŏng-sik had written Korean letters to teach her when they were children, her jade ring, and her knife that she has used to defend herself against the advances of men up to that time. Alarmed, the three of them try to determine what they should do. In chapter 52, the old woman did indeed have her eyes opened to her own evil ways when Yŏng-ch’ae’s blood dripped on her hand, such a striking Christian reference. The author tends to talk in terms of Buddhist/Christian idioms often side by side, like referencing God and Buddha together, when talking about “enlightenment” and “becoming a human being,” and this is the most blatant image. It continues as Hyŏng-sik observes her sudden desire to help Yŏng-ch’ae:
Hyŏng-sik had been glaring at the old woman with loathing until then, his heart aching and his resentment growing deeper as he thought, That fat, filthy old woman is the person who has caused this tragedy. When he saw her worrying about Yŏng-ch’ae, though, he thought, The soul that was asleep within you has awakened! He thought of the robbers who were crucified with Christ. That old woman is a human being just like me, he thought. (Mujŏng , p.192)
U-sŏn however is less than worried about Yŏng-ch’ae committing suicide since it was expected of women in such a situation. Once she was stained, there was nothing she could do but die. This is a common idea in many cultures, including old Europe, but the author tries to contrast U-sŏn’s view, deemed the old classical Chinese view, with the new, “English” view that Hyŏng-sik held that rape didn’t define a woman’s worth .
The old woman and Hyŏng-sik take the train to P’yŏngyang that night to try to find Yŏng-ch’ae and stop her.
Part two of a three part series.