A Cry in the Night With a Quick Linguistic Lesson – Queen Seondeok, Vol. 1 – Part 1

This year, I’m rearranging our reading schedule back to the old order I usually do them in, so I’m starting with my short-term Korean selection, Eunkyeong Ryu’s Queen Seondeok (류은경의 “선덕여왕”), which is a novelized version of the Korean TV show by the same name. It was a very popular show when it came out, and I know it is among my favorites though I haven’t watched it recently. This novelized version comes in a three volume set, so I will look at volume 1 for this go round through the region. The cover has a paper wrapping with a partial secondary cover featuring a photo from the show. The characters here are Mishil and Seondeok, left to right.

Published in 2009, volume 1 runs 343 pages and has front matter printed on thick, pearlized silver paper with a decorative border. It’s a bibliophile’s dream if you’re into print books and feels very nice to the touch; many of these novelized TV shows have spared no expense in the printing. This section includes a character list with descriptions and a chart of character relationships that I will at some point do a modified translation of for you.  The book, therefore, has a very nice presentation.

It also is my first example of a mixed text in Korean, especially with its historical footnotes, which is probably kind of hard for a foreigner to run across. I think in the US there is a very low perception that Korean is structured even remotely like Japanese or still retains anything in common with Chinese since there is an overemphasis on the hangul alphabet to the exclusion of the actual historical development of the language and the limited continuing use of hanja in US pedagogy.  Korean actually does use hanja (though in the US, Chinese characters are usually known by their Japanese name, kanji, rather than either the Korean name hanja or the Chinese name hanzi. These are all the regional pronunciations for the same word/characters  漢字).

Historical novels are no joke anyway in any of these languages, and they should be approached as more advanced texts than novels set in contemporary settings, even for TV tie-ins. They use antiquated language, definitions of words are often not in most Korean-English dictionaries, and verb endings that aren’t explained in most available textbooks. This book has enough of an emphasis on hanja that I’m going to do a quick rundown of the main characters of the novel and give the hanja as well. Every single character listed has hanja for their name as well as hangul.

Here is my abbreviated character list – I’m not switching names to American order just for the sake of my sanity as I read the book:

King Jinpyeong (眞平王) – Deokman’s father, the 26th king of Silla.

Mishil (美實) – Silla’s unsurpassed beauty, power hungry and skilled in seducing kings and hwarang.

Empress Maya (摩耶) – King Jinpyeong’s wife.

Munno (文努) – I’m going to translate this as the 8th Hwarang master. The word used here is a historical title with the hanja 風月主 (p’ungwolju), wind and moon master.

Deokman (德曼) – Silla’s 27th ruler, also known as Queen Seondeok.

Princess Cheonmyeong (天命) – Deokman’s twin sister.

Kim Yushin (金庾信) – The 15th Hwarang master (風月主) and descendant of the rulers of the Korean state of Gaya. He is a well-known historical figure in his own right. He was born in 595 and died in 673 AD.

Bidam  (毗曇) – Mishil’s son with King Jinji and a minister in Queen Seondeok’s court.

Kim Chunchu (金春秋) – Silla’s 29th ruler and Princess Cheonmyeong’s son.

Kin Yongsu (金龍樹) – Son of King Jinji and Princess Cheongmyeong’s husband.

Kim Yongchun (金龍春) – Kim Yongsu’s younger brother and Kim Chunchu’s uncle.

Misaeng (美生) – Mishil’s brother.

Sejong (世宗) – Mishil’s husband.

Seolwon (薛原) – Mishil’s lover.

Wolya (月夜) – The son of Greater Gaya’s Crown Prince Wolkwang.

Seolji (雪地) – A migrant from the fallen Gaya state.

Chilsuk (柒宿) – A character in Mishil’s faction.

Seokpum (石品) – A hwarang with royal blood.

Jukbang (竹方) – A refugee from Gaya.

Kodo (高島) – A character who serves Jukbang like a brother.

Bojong (寶宗) – Mishil’s son with Seolwon.

Hajung (夏宗) – Mishil’s son with Sejong.

Seungman (勝曼) – Silla’s 28th ruler, also known as Queen Jindeok.

Kim Munhui (金文姬) – Kim Chunchu’s wife and Kim Yushin’s younger sister.

Sohua (昭火) – Deokman’s foster mother.

Seori (誓理) – Mishil’s ally and head of a shrine. This is the character whose description I’m least certain of.

Yeomjong (廉宗) – Bidam’s closest advisor among the hwarang.

King Wija (義慈王) – Baekjae’s king during Queen Seondeok’s reign in Silla.

Yeongaesomun (淵蓋蘇文) – Koguryo’s general and government official.

One such historical reference that comes up here that you won’t find in any Korean-English dictionary is 화랑 (hwarang), which is the special military corps of young men during the Silla era that emphasized integrity and artistic cultivation beyond merely fighting. They engaged in writing poetry and other more civilized arts.

The hanja for hwarang, 花郞, it literally means flower gentleman. (I would never translate it as flower boys in US English, though that is a commonly encountered translation, because of the disrespectful way the word boy has historically been used for adult minority men in our country. The word 郞 isn’t a casual word for man or boy anyway but is higher style and can be seen used in words like bridegroom throughout the region.) But you have to be able to read dictionaries that are Korean-Korean, Korean-Japanese, Korean-Chinese or Korean-Spanish to get even the most basic, accurate historical definition of hwarang.  According to historical texts, the hwarang was originally all female, but jealousy and murder among the female leadership caused them to be banned in favor of an all male corps. However, here we have the main villain of the story, Mishil, who is a woman still formally connected to the hwarang.

The story is set in the time of the Three Kingdoms, with some references to the proto-Three Kingdoms states, and focuses on the royal court of the Silla, which puts it roughly in the first thousand years of the common era. Here is a decent map of the region during that era with the incorporation of the Gaya state in it.

Map by Ashraf Kamel, courtesy of the Ancient History Encyclopedia Limited


I’m going to just look at the first chapter this time, which is split into four parts. This chapter mostly introduces the characters of King Jinheung, the 24th king of Silla who reigned from 540 to 576 AD, and Mishil. It also mentions two other Silla kings, Beopheung his predecessor, and Jinji, his successor who only ruled three years, as well as Baekjae and Koguryeo rulers, too.

The chapter starts off describing the cold wind, the early frost after the harvest, and the Buddhist temple where prayers were going up for King Jinheung to be cured of an illness. It gets very detailed about the Buddhist service’s wooden bells and overnight prayer sessions.

Mishil is introduced next with a very detailed physical description since she is considered so strikingly beautiful, and she is presented in the context of the hwarang.  It also talks some about her intense love affair with her husband Sejong, whom she fell in love with at first sight, and their son together. Sejong was King Beopheung’s grandson through an illicit affair, therefore a relative of King Jinheung and a member of the true bone class rank in society, which was the extended royal family’s class rank as opposed to the king’s closest family’s rank. That’s the best I can tease out the rather complicated relationship described here. Mishil and another character introduced here named Myodo are both one rank below Sejong’s, which would make it sixth rank.

Mishil spends most of the chapter talking with King Jinheung, the Empress and the Crown Prince Dongryun.  In the final section, Mishil goes to King Jinheung’s bedchamber late at night with medicine, but when she knocks on his door and announces herself, he doesn’t answer.  She enters and puts her hand under his nose but doesn’t feel him breathing. She touches his body with a trembling hand. He is as cold as ice. All of the information in the chapter is just preliminary, years before the title character is born, so I’m not going to spend too much time on the minor characters that come up here. But the chapter ends on the dramatic note of the king’s death.

Two long footnotes in the chapter, which feature a lot of mixed text, too, describe the background of Silla Founder Pak Hyeokgeose and Silla Kyeongju Kim Clan founder Kim Alji. There are actually quite a lot more short footnotes in this chapter, considerably more than you usually see in a fictional piece, but those two were the most in-depth.

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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