For post 2, I’m continuing my look at volume 1 of Dowon Park’s Martyr’s Country (박도원의 “순교자의 나라”). The story picks up with Yeongin and Kapnyeong returning to Kang Wansuk’s house to visit Jeong Yakjong. Kapnyeong is grateful to meet him since he didn’t see Jeong Yakjong during the incident at Sir Shim’s house. Wansuk is also there, as is Hwang Sayeong, because people gathering for a meeting at the hidden church. Women are cooking in preparation for the meeting. Yeongin and another girl accompany Wansuk as they attend to the guests’ needs while some men stand guard, aware that a crowd of people coming in could attract attention.
When the meeting begins, the priest Chu Munmo sings with them then discusses the death of the king. Wansuk interrupts the meeting to announce that they can all gather to eat since they have a long night of discussion ahead of them, and Hwang Sayeong introduces Kapnyeong to the assembly with a long speech right before the meal begins.
Part one of the first volume wraps up with a discussion between Hwang Sayeong and Kim Kyeonsun, who have moved into another room to have their talk while the rest of the congregation eats. Hwang expresses his concern about the Queen Dowager ruling behind the veil with the young king on the throne officially. Kim Kyeonsun asks him if he thinks the king’s death was due to natural causes. Hwang says he thinks it was poison. There is a court lady who is a believer that he has quietly investigating behind the scenes, and he notes how active the Noron faction has been since the king’s death. A messenger comes in to let them know the meal has ended and everyone is back in their seats awaiting the second half of the meeting.
The story focuses briefly on the security arrangements for the meeting, particularly guarding the alleyways. Some unidentified man may have come around that has them a little worried, but Wansuk has a plan in case of emergency to slip out a secret passage to the adjoining house. Once the meeting starts up again, Jeong Yakjong explains his strategy of nonviolence against the Noron faction that has taken over since the king’s deathto everyone. The assembly is shocked when Hwang Sayeong mentions he thinks the Queen Dowager poisoned the late king based on what some of the court ladies have said, but someone suggests they have Sir Yi Shisu at the royal court look into the matter further.
I forgot to mention last time that volume one is split into three parts, and this ends the first segment titled “The Death of a King.” The second part is called “A Light in the East,” and part three is “The Raging Wind Sparks a Fire.” Part two kicks off with a look back at the historical origin and situation of Catholicism in East Asia. Chapter 1 begins at the time of the establishment of the Portuguese base in Macau in 1557, then describes the arrival of Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci in Macau in 1582.
Macau is an interesting place, I was glad to eventually make it there since it was high on my to-do list, and the most relevant tourist sites for this story would be perhaps Senado Square and the ruins of St. Paul’s, which is an important icon for the zone. Both of them are listed on this page of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, so you can check out the details:
St. Paul’s was one of the most important churches built by the Jesuits in Asia. It’s on a lot of the tourist items that you can buy in the area. Macau is more famous for its gambling, but it also has a lot of good museums, temples and churches that make it worthwhile for tourists.
Of course, Matteo Ricci was interested in going to China itself. The novel briefly mentions some of his preparation before going to Macau and then China included studying mathematics and astronomy as well as the Chinese language. Finally, he ends up in Nanking and brings the Chinese the best of European technology. It also touches on the controversies surrounding ancestor worship, among other details of his activities. One significant mention is the way Ricci’s De Deo Verax Disputatio made its way to Choson Korea through diplomat Yi Sugwang who compiled the first Korean encyclopedia, The Jibong Yuseol. All of the intellectuals in Korea are immersed in Western books, particularly that books that Ricci wrote in Chinese.
The chapter then moves on to 1777 when Jeong Yakjong, Jeong Yakjeon and about eight others formed a study group. One young man in this circle that is mentioned here is Yi Byeok, whose father Yi Buman is some sort of military official. This character becomes rather prominent in the story at this point.
The next chapter jumps ahead to the year 1783 and talks about the delegations sent to China by Joseon Korea. Yi Seunghun is in Beijing, called in this novel by a very old name for the city Yeonkyeong, and the first thing he did was go looking for the city’s Catholic churches. The Catholic missionaries built churches in all four directions, so there was a southern church, an eastern church, a northern church and a western church. Yi Seunghun ends up at the northern church and is startled to see a blonde-haired, blue-eyed westerner, a French missionary priest named Grammont. Yi Seunghun tells the priest he wants to become a believer at the end of the services.
The next year, Yi Seunghun entertains Yi Byeok in his home and tells him he received his baptism in the northern church while in China. He gives Yi Byeok an icon from among his collection of religious items, and Yi Byeok asks if this is Jesus. Yi Seunghun explains that it is and talks more about his baptism in China. The next day, he meets Yi Byeok again, and they decide to establish a church in spite of how difficult it may be. They plan to get one or two friends to join the faith before attempting to convert thousands.
Next, we see Yi Byeok sailing down the Han River in a boat. Yi Byeok it seems has a strong bond with the illustrious Jeong brothers. The firstborn brother Yakhyeon is Yi Byeok’s brother-in-law, and he’s close to the others through their affiliation with the Namin faction. This chapter shows Yi Byeok in a flashback talking with at least three of the Jeong brothers about Yakjong’s role as a leader in their spiritual cultivation, comparing him to the Taoist masters. It then launches into some criticism of the Confucian yangban noblemen, the Confucian anti-Buddhist campaign and other historical topics. Talk of creating a new world also dominates their discussion. Yi Byeok then requests baptism and formal entry into the church.
I’m not sure if this brother-in-law character Yi Byeok is historical or not, but if he is, it’s rather significant to note that it seems like much of the family of Jeong Yakyong (Dasan) was Catholic though Dasan himself was one of the most important Confucian scholars of the day and perhaps in Korean history. Neo-Confucian scholars as a general rule were very dismissive of Christianity in that time, so it’s worth pointing that out. Many of Dasan’s close family were killed in the waves of executions of Catholics in 1801 and 1839, and we’ll get into that more in this series. The first episode in 1801 is known as the Sinyu Persecution, which is covered in this volume and in volume 2. The 1839 episode is known as the Gihae Persecution, which is covered in volumes 3 and 4 in this book series. Korea is known for its literati purges, and there were four targeting Catholics, though other factions were targeted in earlier waves in the Joseon era.
The next chapter continues to discuss how Yi Byeok’s life has changed. Of course, Yi Byeok is aware that the yangban ridicule the idea of the resurrection. The story then turns to a discussion of the Western Learning movement with Yi Seunghun and connects Jeong Yakyong with another man named Yi Kahwan in court factional struggles. Jeong Yakyong succeeded Yi Kahwan in his position, and somehow Yi Kahwan and Yi Byeok have the same level of power in the court, or did, since Yi Byeok is now no longer in his position there. He had such a high position because his family had an illustrious military background and perhaps he himself was considered a military genius, though I was a little unclear as to who that description meant.
Yi Byeok has a gathering of scholars at his house with Jeong Yakyong in attendance. Yi Seunghun’s wife is also there to receive Yi Kahwan. They end up getting involved in a theological discussion of what to call God. This was a major controversy in East Asia going back to the time of Matteo Ricci in China, so this is no big surprise that it comes up here. However, I’m not going to get into the theological arguments in much depth as I cover these books since I’m more interested in the history and dramatization of it. Yi Byeok asks if Yi Kahwan is going to join the church, and though he denies it at this point, even without reading further, I can guess that he did since his death date is also listed as 1801. It’s kind of spooky reading this story and looking back at the lists of who died in these purges, but I think it adds to the poignance of the story that so many of the characters were tragic historical figures.
The story then skips to the year 1785 and gets into a few more vignettes with Yi Byeok and Yi Seunghun and the local church. There are more prominent historical figures introduced here, such as Gwan Ilshin, but a book of this length has a lot of characters, and I am going to skip around to get back to our familiar characters of Kapnyeong and Hwang Sayeong and more dramatic scenes, which happens in part 3 of volume 1.
Five months after his first church meeting, Kapnyeong has been exploring Hanyang, walking the streets daily. One day as he passes the royal palace, he sees a crowd gathered there. It looks like they’re mourning the death of the king. They are crying and telling stories that Kapnyeong is able to overhear, mainly about the successor to Jeongjo and how Queen Dowager Jeongsun will reign from behind the veil. Some details of her past are brought up here, such as how she was married very young to King Yeongjo when he was over seventy and that her younger brother Kim Kwiju became a powerful figure in the Noron faction. He also hears about the theory that Jeongjo was poisoned again among the crowds, though there is some grumbling for the speaker who mentioned it to keep their voice down.
The next scene turns to King Jeongjo’s state funeral and the mourners. The Catholics are on edge with the Norons taking over the royal court after his death. Character Choi Pilgong appears as in this part of the story, and he has a post in the royal court as a doctor treating poor patients. He becomes an enthusiastic Christian, and the yangban have him dragged to the police bureau for preaching in the streets, though he isn’t deterred by it. This section relates a conversation he had with King Jeongjo about the faith in a flashback. Jeongjo asks him to explain how Catholicism compares to Buddhism, for one thing, which Choi Pilgong unhesitatingly does. Jeongjo, however, is impressed with neither Buddhism nor Catholicism. They have this type of conversation regularly until his death.
As the period of mourning for Jeongjo now ends, the Norons have taken over and intend to punish the Namin faction that the Catholics belong to. The scene returns to Choi Pilgong’s arrest. At the police bureau, he is flogged and tortured. Word of this spreads through the Catholic community rapidly. They see this only as a prelude to the coming massacre. A few days later, a number of believers gather at the home of Choi Pilje on a festival day, and patrolling officers hear something suspicious going on near a medical dispensary and raid Choi’s home, expecting to bust gamblers. However, they don’t find gambling at all. The sounds they thought was the shuffling of wooden Korean flower playing cards was actually the believers praying! The officers misheard the sound of playing cards somehow.
The officers demand to know what is going on. Since it’s a festival day, they are suspicious and wonder what the people mean by saying they are a Catholic study group. They take all of them to the police bureau for questioning. At the bureau, they ask where other Catholics might be hiding, then they raid more of their houses and bring them to prison. Kapnyeong, meanwhile, goes to report to Hwang Sayeong. Very upset about the situation, he sees Mun Yeongin as he slips through the door. He asks who she’s waiting for, and she tells him to lower his voice. He wonders if she is aware of the situation.
I’ll finish up the rest of volume 1 and start volume 2 next time.
I was digging around for more interesting items that illustrate this story and found this video, which is a 5-minute recap of a stage play held at Majae dramatizing these events:
It’s a nicely produced short video to give you a taste of the story.
Part two of an eight part series