Sunday, April 29, 2018

Lady Hyegyong - The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong

Publisher: University of California Press
Author: Lady Hyegyong
Title: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong
Translator: JaHyun Kim Haboush

I was reading one of my earlier posts today about Amanat's Inder Sabha where I talked about references in popular (mass appeal) art which often led to some classical works. This book is another case that supports that theory.

I have lately become addicted to watching Korean Series also known as K-Drama. They are unabashedly mainstream, depending on trusted tropes and situations. Their aim is to garner TRP's while constantly trying to gauge ways to please audiences. One such K-drama that I liked was Sungkyunkwan Scandal that was based in the times of King Jeongjo of Joseon Dynasty. Towards the end of the series things turned very political with the King wanting to find a poem written by his grandfather citing his regret over being forced to kill his own son.

I could not understand these references, hence I googled a little and came across a horrific incident that took place in those times.  King Yeongjo (Jeongjo's grandfather) had put to death his son Prince Sado by asking him to climb into a rice chest (a box that was about 4'x4'x4') and sealing it till he died a few days later. He was eliminated by such means because he could not be killed as he was a royal. If he had been disowned, his wife and child would also have been disinherited, or worse, killed.  Sado was asked to do this as he was mentally unstable and frequently killed people.  The information also listed that his wife, Lady Hyegyong wrote memoirs which described this incident in full detail.

Ever since, I had wanted to read these memoirs. Scribd.  thankfully had a copy. The memoirs are divided into 4 different years. The first few chapters are about the birth and life of Lady Hyegyong, how she was brought up by her virtuous parents, how she was selected to be the wife of Prince Sado. Later we read about various conspiracies that Lady Hyegyong's family members faced. The conspiracy part was rather tedious, frankly. Till now she spoke of the killing of Prince Sado indirectly, referring to it as 'that incident'. I thought that was all we were going to get. In the last chapter, after the death of her son King Jeongjo, she decided to write all about Prince Sado and what led to his end in full detail. This was because there were various erroneous opinion that she wanted to correct.

With admirable emotional restraint but with candor, she talks about Sado. How his father neglected him initially, keeping him away from positive parental influence and isolated among inferior maids and eunuchs. Later, as unsavory traits began building up in Sado, his father heaped scorn upon him, not caring to understand him or correct him. Things escalated to the extent that Sado became quite deranged. At one point Lady Hyegyong wished her husband had died of an illness rather that being forced to do away with himself. It was particularly touching to read this part. We become aware of how deeply she felt about seeing her husband being thus punished and the repercussions she faced all her life due to it.

It the the final chapter and the early one about Lady Hyegyong's life that are priceless. I can imagine what a rich source these memoirs were for historical scholars.

The translation by JaHyun Kim Haboush is truly excellent. At no point does the language rankle or seem inappropriate to the era. Lady Hyegyong wrote in Hangul and I am sure her language was courtly and formal, as befits a woman who tragically missed being a Queen. The same formal tone is conveyed in English. One can feel the loftiness of the original prose. Even while I was a little bored by the dull patches in the memoirs I never ceased being appreciative of the translation.

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