A Yangban Scoundrel Meets a Beautiful Catechist – Martyr’s Country, Part 6

We’re starting volume 3 of Dowon Park’s Martyr’s Country (박도원의 ”순교자의 나라”)  this time, and we have a new fictional character that becomes the center of the action right away.   The year is 1839 now, the gihae year of the pig which the persecution takes its name from, and the current king is 12 year old King Heonjong who took the throne in 1834.  The regent is his grandmother Queen Sunwon who was also known as Queen Dowager Myeongyeong here; the young king is the grandson of the child king Sunjo who ruled during the earlier Sinyu persecution.  Oddly, we have the nearly exact same unstable political situation developing in this wave of persecution that precipitated the 1801 wave.

As in the beginning of volume 1, we have boats riding along the Han River on their way to Sonae.  We’re back at the dock unloading goods from a ship bearing a man of around 30 years old and his attendant.  He’s tall and stately, but his clothes give away that he doesn’t have a prominent government post.  People recognize him as Han Ryangmok and greet him.  He and his sidekick Seokpal are traveling through the region, and Han Ryangmok is hung over and looking for a hospital where he can get a rice cake cure for it.  The sailors nearby are all chattering about him, surprised that he isn’t more famous.  Ryangmok has a reputation as the head of a gang of ruffians although he is a yangban, and women consider him quite handsome.  There are rumors he may be an illegitimate son by way of explanation for his dissolute lifestyle of drinking, rabble-rousing and frequenting gisaeng houses back in Hanyang.  In fact, the word hanryang actually means “playboy” in Korean, a nice play on words by the author.

In these first few chapters, there are some festivals are going on in Sonae and Hanyang, filling them with the sound of raucous singing and laughter of the drunken revelers, troupes of traveling entertainers, and musical instruments like the gomungo.  Han Ryangmok starts off in the pubs then ends up at the kibang, the formal name for gisaeng houses.  Then the story shifts to Han Ryangmok and Seokpal riding around the mountains on their horses, encountering all sorts of different people.

In one place, he sees some people who are very  poor and sickly with a baby that disturbs him enough to throw some money at them before continuing on his journey.  He and Seokpal discuss the widespread corruption in the government, but their talk is interrupted as they find the pass blocked not far from a roadside shrine by two men and two women who have been arrested and apparently assaulted.  The men are positively identified as officials from the left police bureau.  The women, who are wearing white mourning clothes, try to make themselves look presentable by smoothing their hair and adjusting their clothes as Han Ryangmok and Seokpal approach them.

There is some controversy between Han Ryangmok and the police bureau officials over whether the women were violated.  The officials insist they have done nothing wrong, but Han Ryangmok looks at the women and thinks that it is plainly obvious that they were.  It comes out that the officials were in the mountain district to arrest Catholics because that’s where the group gathers at a Buddhist temple.  The police felt the women seemed suspicious, perhaps are catechists, and the men insist again that they didn’t rape the women, noting that believers wear a cross in their clothes as a strange talisman.  Han Ryangmok doesn’t believe them at all.

One of the women, who has a regal beauty and surprising bearing, explains to him that she was going with her sister to Buddhist services when they were arrested on the pretext of being Catholics.  The police bureau officials then asked them to take off their jackets and intimidated them.  The police listen to this explanation with impatience.  When it’s their turn to speak, they ask Han Ryangmok where in the world can such oppression be found?  They suggest they wouldn’t ask criminals under arrest to strip in the street.  The woman looks at them angrily, then complains to Ryangmok about the corruption and misrule of the people, noting how the police are like bandits.  Han Ryangmok flinches since he is also part of the social class she is trashing, and he blushes.

Suddenly, Seokpal brandishes his whip against the police bureau officials, who scream in terror and crawl away.  The woman tells him that heaven has sent them to help and mentions that their family lives near Dongdaemun gate with their mother, who also goes to the temple often.  The text notes she’s in her mid-twenties and describes her rare beauty in greater detail.  Seokpal suggests that it’s time to go, and the woman encourages them to leave.  The men head for another mountain pass through a valley where they pass through another village and stop briefly to chat.

In chapter 3, they stop at an inn where a man abruptly interrupts them to gruffly summon them into the next room.  It turns out to be left police bureau Inspector Son, whom Ryangmok is friends with, and he demands to know why they were visiting the mountains.  Ryangmok wants to know why that interests him.  They exchange jokes and order something to eat before turning vaguely to the subject of the arrested catechists.  Son wonders how he knew about it and won’t tell Ryangmok what he knows, but he mentions the assumption that the Catholics stir up trouble and are treasonous conspirators.

Martyrs 5

A Scene from the Sinyu Persecution of 1801

Again, the novel points out that Ryangmok is the capital city’s leading playboy and ruffian, yet he has the police bureau officers wrapped around his finger and cooperates with their investigations.   The barmaid and innkeeper bring in their food as the discussion continues.   Son asks Ryangmok if he heard the strange rumors about the Catholics sneaking foreign men in to spread their ideas.  Ryangmok asks what he means, and Son elaborates on the extraordinary appearance of these men, who have blue eyes and blond hair with features like a goblin’s face.  Son elaborates that there are three men from the west, which surprises Ryangmok, who expected Son was only talking about one man.  Ryangmok asks if these men have been arrested, and Son says they are gathering information on them at a Buddhist temple in the area.  The mention of the temple perks up Ryangmok’s ears.  He finally tells Son about the two women under arrest that he met in the mountains going to a Buddhist temple to attend a Buddhist service.  Son suspects the sisters were Catholics.  With this news, Ryangmok says he must leave.

But a young man, Officer Kang, runs in and greets Ryangmok before he can depart.  He talks to the men about seeing three or four men dressed in bamboo mourning hats, including a man over forty, at a temple.  Son confirms Kang’s impressions and answers his questions about which bureau officers are watching the temple in question, stating that it is Inspector Hwang and Officer Jin assigned to that location.  Ryangmok seems to think these are the police he routed when he encountered them with the women.  Officer Kang rushes out of the inn, leaving Ryangmok to probe Son about the identity of the mourner who has them so concerned.  Was the man a Westerner?  Son says yes, he’s sure it was given the very big differences between Western and Joseon faces.  He mentions a prediction he made has come true but doesn’t elaborate on what he means.  Ryangmok expresses a desire to see this “ghost face” for himself.  The three men leave the inn and head for the village near the temple.

In chapter 4, the plot shifts to the Buddhist monastery and activity there.  A young Western priest sits across from the 80 year old head Buddhist priest in a secluded room.  The young Western priest’s name is Maubant, but he goes by the Korean name Nabaekdarok.  To one side sit Jeong Hasang, Yu Jingil, and Cho Shincheol.  These men are the new generation of Catholics, and we now see young six year old Hasang from volumes 1 and 2 as an adult in his mid-forties.  They have all come to listen to the old Buddhist priest’s stories of when the Catholic community was first founded in Joseon.  This temple was apparently where those believers had gathered to study Western thought and Catholic doctrine.  The Buddhist priest complements the Western priest on his Korean and asks about his hardships since coming to Joseon, but Jeong Hasang interrupts to say that heaven has seen to the priest’s needs so there have been no hardships.

They talk a bit about the major characters we covered in volumes 1 and 2, many of them from the Jeong family, but they are interrupted by Kim Sunseong who has come to inform them that police have been spotted in the neighborhood.  He says Kim Hyoim had returned and told them about this development.  When she comes in behind him to elaborate, Maubant asks her if this is true.  She tells them the story of the police insulting her and Han Ryangmok saving her.  The assembly determines that the police have come from Hanyang looking for the Western priest and wonder how they picked up his trail.  They want to hide him somewhere else, but they don’t have a plan and ask the Buddhist priest for help.


A Scene of Catholics in Korea in the 1800s

The scene then shifts back to the three men leaving the inn.  Han Ryangmok, Inspector Son and Seokpal have now arrived at the outskirts of the village.  Inspector Son is walking in the lead, feeling triumphant with Inspector Shinim and five other left police bureau officers accompanying him and Han Ryangmok and Seokpal assisting them.  A Sapsal dog from the village is barking at them as they arrive.   Son inquires about Inspector Hwang, and he is told that both Inspectors Jin and Hwang went to watch the Buddhist temple.


The Korean Sapsal Dog, Dispeller of Ghosts and Evil Spirits

I’m going to stop there for now since I have a lot of other media I want to bring into the discussion at this point.  I added a few paintings up above from the Korean Catholic website I linked to a few posts back that I have been digging through for more interesting things to help teach this series.  I also have a painting with Kim Hyoim on it that I got when I was in Seoul at the museum.  It’s kind of exciting to finally have some idea who these people are.

Kim Hyoim Kim Hyoju

Kim Hyoim and Kim Hyoju (성 김효임, 성 김효주)

At this point, I want to start talking some about the manga I got at the related shrine in Seoul called Jeoldusan, which translates to “chopped head mountain,” because this section of the historical novel features some of the same figures that the manga does.  When I visited the shrine and its museum, I noticed the manga version of the lives and deaths of some of these figures commemorated there was available, which I thought was really unique and something I would find interesting to read once my Korean got better. The full-color manga is Gildong Na’s Great Korea’s Martyred Saints  (나길동의“위대한 한국의 순교성인들”), and it is widely available on Korean books sites, though I am unclear if it is available for shipping to the US. It was published in 2005 and is 200 pages long.  I’ve never seen anything like it at any religious site I’ve visited anywhere in the world, so I had to get it.  I will post some of the drawings from it here and in the next few installments of this series as I finish the novels.

Jeong Hasang

Jeong Hasang Paul (성 정하상 바오로)

This page is a really striking painting of Jeong Hasang that appears to be painted on some sort of cloth, maybe burlap.  It’s one of my favorite frames in the manga.  As you will see in later installments of this series, the manga style is not this sophisticated for the most part and includes real life photos of related places and artifacts.

The stories of the historical figures are framed by a conversation between a friar and two children who come to visit him in his study.  The manga jumps around to highlight different figures martyred at various times in the 1800s, going back and forth between the different waves of persecution, but I will highlight the section on Jeong Hasang Paul, as he is known here. This is a page where the friar explains to the children what happened to Jeong Yakyong (Dasan) during his exile and shows them his house in Majae when he returned from exile.  It looks like he was exiled for 18 years in Kangjin, Jeollado at the southern tip of Korea and spent the time writing 500 volumes of books.

Jeong Yakyong

I did discover in this manga that the Jeongs’ brother-in-law Yi Byeok mentioned in volume 1 of the novels is a real historical figure, and finally I found Hasang’s sister Jeong Jeong Hye at least in a few frames.  One page has a very small family tree of some of the peripheral figures showing Yi Byeok and Hwang Sayeong’s connection to the Jeong clan.  I’ll continue to weave portions of the manga in with the novels for the rest of the series, and I may add one more part to this series if I can’t finish the story adequately in the next two posts.

Part six of an eight 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 since 2007 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her 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.
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