In this post, I promise I’m going to finish up volume 2 of Dowon Park’s Martyr’s Country (박도원의 ”순교자의 나라”) for real this time. I keep saying that and then find it really interesting and dramatic, and it takes me longer than I thought to get through what I want to cover. I’m not sure how accurate the novel is, because this is historical fiction rather than a non-fiction history book, but it’s hard to put down regardless. This is a good time to remind readers that most K-drama and historical novels are exciting but often only use actual history as source material, so they shouldn’t be taken as factual. Since this was set only a few centuries ago, more of it should be accurate than is typical of such novels.
Picking up with volume 2 chapter 10, the first paragraph begins “Mun Yeongin is dead. Kang Wansuk is dead.” Very dramatic, even traumatic, statements after the last few chapters depicting the executions. They look for a place to bury Yeongin Mun out in the mountains, then Kapnyeong visits with Yoo Sosa and Hasang before he goes out with Kim Hanbin to look for a man named Hwang Shim. They go back to his hometown to find him, meet with friends and relatives trying to come up with some lead on his whereabouts, also stopping in Kang Wansuk’s hometown of Deoksan where they try to find Hong Pilju. Then they resume their search for the elusive Hwang Shim in Hanyang.
One of Hwang Shim’s realtives suspects Kapnyeong of being with the police, but Kapnyeong reassures him that he is not. Apparently Hwang Shim was driven out of the area because he is a church member, so there is some concern as to who might be asking about him. Kapnyeong wants to meet him and presses for more information.
Chapter 11 is a very long chapter that begins the details history of Hwang Sayeong, who is sitting alone in a cave in the mountains thinking of his past. His father died before he was born, leaving his mother Widow Yi to raise him alone. There were rumors in his youth that he was a prodigy, and his mother vows to raise him to be a man her late husband would be proud of. Of course, Korean men took a new name upon reaching adulthood, and his name back then, called an 아명 amyeong, was Shibok, not Sayeong. His mother tries to get him a tutor, but the ones she hires don’t last more than a year. When he turns 15, he goes to Majae to implore Jeong Yakjong to become his tutor and teach him the Confucian classics. Jeong Yakjong for his part arranges for Widow Yi, to come live in Jeong Yakyong’s empty house since he is now in Hanyang working for the king.
After studying together for awhile, Jeong Yakjong wants him to apply for the state exam in the fall, and Shibok asks if he’s too young. Yakjong tells him there are no age restrictions, so Shibok applies and begins studying for the exam day and night. Some observers think he can’t pass the exam. Finally, Shibok goes to Hanyang alone to the testing place, which is the Myeongnyundang Lecture Hall where several hundred Confucian scholars aged twenty through forty are waiting. The next day at the hall a public notice has been posted with a crowd surging around it. Shibok is surprised to see he passed the initial exam in first place. He hadn’t expected to place so high. The next court examination is rumored to be held a year later.
Meanwhile, Shibok marries the daughter of Jeong Yakjong’s oldest brother Yakhyeon. This daughter was known by her childhood name as Nanju, but her adult name is Jeong Myeongryeon. At this time, Jeong Yakjong gives Shibok the official name Sayeong and a pen name of Deokso. His fiancee goes to Jeong Yakyong’s house to live with Widow Yi while Hwang Sayeong goes to Hanyang for more exams.
King Jeongjo is in attendance when they read off Hwang Sayeong’s name as the top exam candidate for the jinsa degree. The king comes over to have a word with Hwang Sayeong and asks his name, family origin, and age. When he answers that he is only 17, Jeongjo looks surprised. Then Hwang Sayeong returns to Majae to give Jeong Yakjong the good news.
The novel at this point goes deeper into Jeongjo’s policy of appointing a lot of Namin faction members, the movements of the Noron at royal court, and the mention of Jeong Yakjong leading Hwang Sayeong to Catholicism. One day Jeong Yakjong is reading books in a sneaky manner that catches his eye, and Hwang Sayeong asks him what kind of books they are. He answers they aren’t books Hwang Sayeong needs to know about. But Sayeong wants to borrow them, so Jeong Yakjong goes into his attic and brings him one, and Sayeong stays up all night to read it. It is Matteo Ricci’s explanation of Catholic doctrine, and this part goes back into that history of the faith coming to China. Sayeong questions him about it later, and they discuss things like the doctrine of the trinity and the saints, etc. He finally asks Jeong Yakjong how to formally become a believer, but first he goes through with the marriage ceremony to Myeongryeon.
Later in Hanyang, he gets into discussions about Catholicism and Jeong Yakjong, even with Jeongjo, but when he sees Jeongjo’s impatience with him, he realizes he shouldn’t speak about it and that he could throw away his glorious future at the royal court if he joins the church. He spends a little more time thinking about Chu Munmo’s arrival and the years leading up to Jeongjo’s death that resulted in the current factional disputes before chapter returns to the present and the errand he sent Kapnyeong on.
The next chapter turns back to Kapnyeong and Kim Hanbin as they look for Hwang Shim out in the villages. Kapnyeong eventually finds him and brings him back to Hwang Sayeong, who has related many stories about Hwang Shim. However, Kim Habnin stays in Hanyang to meet someone, though this surprises Hwang Sayeong, who was expecting him to return to the countryside. In reality, Kim Hanbin is at the police bureau tied up and being plied with liquor by the officers. Finally, Kapnyeong, Hwang Sayeong and Hwang Shim return to Hanyang, though most of the rest of this chapter is them discussing Mun Yeongin, and the next chapter continues following the storylines of these three until the plot climaxes with the decision of Hwang Sayeong to send abroad for help for the community.
Hwang Sayeong asks Kapnyeong to get some silk then writes his letter on the silk to the bishop in China. This chapter has a number of long excerpts from that letter, though I’m not going to get deeply into those details and the controversy surrounding them since they have been discussed in various forums over the internet (see link below in this post for some of that conversation – Hwang Sayeong continues to be a somewhat polarizing figure for this letter). In the letter, he primarily describes the persecution of Catholics in Joseon and is looking for some way that the community beyond Joseon’s borders can come to their aid before the entire community is slaughtered by the authorities. He suggests everything from diplomatic pressure to military intervention as ways for the outside church to help them.
The storyline then shifts to two men at the police bureau, Kim Hanbin and Hwang Shim. They both are interrogated in a trial by Investigator Im, who questions them about their beliefs and about Hwang Sayeong. They are then thrown back into the jail, where they are crumbling under the pressure and discuss how hard it is to stay silent in the face of the various torture methods used on them. That night, Hwang Shim breaks down and talks about Hwang Sayeong, so Investigator Im takes him the next day for a separate trial. The most severe forms of leg screw torture are applied to him for hours until he begs for his life.
In the next chapter, Hwang Sayeong is taken to the police bureau because they found the silk letter he wrote to the foreign bishop asking for him to aid the Catholic community. They had used a method of sewing the silk letter into clothing to smuggle it out, which was a common method for the church to use, but the letter still fell into their hands in spite of that precaution. Inspector Im is involved in the investigation, and he has Hwang Sayeong whipped severely and sent for trial.
The investigators find the writing on the letter to be very exotic, and when the Royal Court finds out about it, Dowager Empress Jeongsun has her ministers pass judgement on it. When Hwang Sayeong’s trial begins, he is brought in wearing a cangue and shackles. The judge orders them removed so he can be seated in a chair. He demands to know who wrote the silk letter for him, trying to find who else may be involved, but Hwang says it is his work alone. The judge wants to know more about the letter’s recipient. Apparently at this point in the handoff of the letter, it was Hwang Shim, and as we saw in the previous chapter he has already been arrested by the police bureau and told them whatever they wanted to know. Hwang Shim was supposed to act as a messenger to deliver the letter to a bishop in China.
The judge moves on to question Hwang Sayeong about the contents of the letter and demands to know if he is a citizen of Joseon or a citizen of some other country since the letter is a declaration of war! When Hwang doesn’t answer, the judge accuses him of being a traitor to the country and says that the letter is proof since it is written in his own hand. The judge goes further with his condemnation, saying he doesn’t understand Hwang at all and mentions Hwang’s heritage as a descendant of a yangban house with a strong Confucian pedigree, holding a jinsa degree from the civil service exam, even receiving royal favor and more! Now he is a criminal, and his actions can’t be tolerated. It is impossible to pardon such a tremendous crime. Everyone is silent. Hwang Sayeong just chews his lip.
The judge then allows him to speak before his execution. Hwang launches into a very long speech detailing how he feels free to speak his mind now since he knows there is no way he can escape death. The general themes of his speech include the history of scholarly learning, Catholic teaching arriving from China after coming originally from the West, Confucianism and heresy. He talks about Chu Munmo and why the Chinese priest came to Joseon to minister to the community. Hwang Sayeong ultimately calls the assembly narrow-minded. I was thinking as I read this that it’s a good thing that he was already sentenced to death when he said that, though he was already wanted even before the letter became a factor and likely would have been killed anyway. He does suggest that there is no way they can interpret his words the way they are given the context of the letter and accuses them of distorting his meaning. They for their part point out the part where he calls for Western armies to come to Hanyang and the royal court.
Meanwhile, as Hwang Sayeong’s trial comes to a close, a memorial is prepared to request Jeong Yakyong (Dasan) and Jeong Yakjeon be sent into exile. Then Hwang Sayeong’s conspirators Hwang Shim and Kim Hanbin are punished. At this point, the text is interrupted by an excerpt of some other document detailing the fate of both of these men; they are to receive the death penalty, too. I’m not going to get into the details, but they mention Kim Hanbin as Jeong Yakjong’s steward, which I hadn’t picked up on earlier. They list where each man to be exiled will be sent, so Yi Chihoon will be exiled to Geoje Island, Jeong Yakjeon to Shinji Island, but Jeong Yakyong’s exile location is left a little unclear.
Hwang Sayeong’s trial ends, and on November 5th, 1801, he is taken to be executed. The executioners’ sword dance begins after the judgment is publicly read. There are five or six executioners since others are to be executed with Hwang. As they rush toward him, Hwang says a final prayer echoing Jesus on the cross, then calls out for his mother, asking her to forgive him for being a bad son. He also addresses his wife Myeongryeon and child Kyeonghan, saying all of them will meet again in paradise. The executioner beheads him before he can finish his sentence.
Hwang Sayeong’s letter caused the arrest and deaths of at least some of the remaining Catholics, and the list given here is long: Jeong Kwangsu, Hong Ikman, Kim Kyewan, Son Kyeongyoon, Kim Ilho, Byeon Teukjung, Jang Deokyoo, Kim Wiho, Song Jaegi, Han Deokyoon, Hong In, Kwan Sangmun, Choi Seolae, and Yi Kyeongdo.
In the final chapter in part 1, a small ship ferries beheaded criminal Hwang Sayeong’s family to Moseulpo on Jeju Island during a wintry night. This short chapter tracks Widow Yi, his wife Myeongreyon and his two year old son Kyeonghan as they travel from Mokpo to the mostly uninhabited Chuja Islands nearby where they will live in exile. The Chuja Islands are rather remote and forbidding, and I doubt most people have heard of them, so here are some photos:
It’s a very cruel end for two women and a child.
Part 2 in volume 2 is titled “Waiting for the New Age,” and I’m only going to briefly go over them since this is the transition to the Gihae Persecution of 1839, so it covers a little of what happens in the 38 years until it occurs. In chapter 1, two boys are walking along a country road. One of them looks as haggard, as if they were forty. That young man is actually twenty-year-old Kim Kapnyeong. Believers are gathering near Bulgoksan Mountain in this chapter at the beginning, and by 1802 Kapnyeong visits Jeong Yakjong’s son Hasang again as a child, there are some details about the church community more generally, but by the last chapter of this volume, Kapnyeong is 28 years old andmarried to a woman named Kayeong. They have started a family and are living in the village of Sugudae. This is ten years after he had been expelled from the village of Gajaeul. It ends on a really quiet note, but the next volume picks up in 1839 almost immediately. I’ll start that volume next time and supplement it with a manga I picked up at the main shrine and museum on these historical events in Seoul.
It would be interesting to investigate whether there was a trial transcript for Hwang Sayeong. There might be, since we have a record of an analogous Western figure, Joan of Arc, that is often used for dramatizations. Obviously, they have a copy of the silk letter, so perhaps there is more extant. Clearly, author Dowon Park is highlighting the similarities between Hwang’s execution and Jesus’ crucifixion in this novel. It is a very sympathetic portrayal given the controversies surrounding the actual historical figure of Hwang Sayeong, which you can read about here:
I’m slowing down a little for this series since I’m pushing to get my Korean language textbook written and published, but I specifically picked something long and juicy in Korean like this to supplement my work on that project to help it along. I’ll eventually catch up once this is done, but I’m adding a lot of content to my secondary blog, too, The Sun Rises in the East, so be sure to look there if it’s getting too long between posts here.
Part five of an eight part series