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The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong: The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown… (1996)

by Hyegyŏnggung Hong Ssi

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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2214106,500 (4.17)10
Lady Hyegyong's memoirs, which recount the chilling murder of her husband by his father, form one of the best known and most popular classics of Korean literature. From 1795 until 1805 Lady Hyegyong composed this masterpiece, depicting a court life Shakespearean in its pathos, drama, and grandeur. Presented in its social, cultural, and historical contexts, this first complete English translation opens a door into a world teeming with conflicting passions, political intrigue, and the daily preoccupations of a deeply intelligent and articulate woman. JaHyun Kim Haboush's accurate, fluid translation captures the intimate and expressive voice of this consummate storyteller. Reissued nearly twenty years after its initial publication with a new foreword by Dorothy Ko, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong is a unique exploration of Korean selfhood and an extraordinary example of autobiography in the premodern era.… (more)
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Showing 4 of 4
A series of four memoirs by the wife of a deceased (murdered) Korean prince, and the mother of a subsqeuent king. This is a tremendously sad story; the reader feels the constant stress as the author contemplates suicide throughout, and fears for her life and her son's. Lady Hyegong enjoyed a happy childhood with kindly and intelligent parents. Picked as a child to be the wife of the Crown Prince (Sado), her first memoir (1795) recounts the trauma of being removed from her home to the formality of the court. She's very cautious in her words here; precisely what happened to her husband and why is treated with euphemisms.
The next two memoirs go into great depth on the manoeuvrings, lies and jealousies of the Korean court. Malevolent lookers-on trying to bring down anyone in favor- the author's illustrious family reaped a lot of this, related in great detail.
The final section is certainly the most interesting as she opens up about her late husband. The mental illness merely hinted at before, is here explained: rince Sado's unhappy relationship with his distant and critical father, the King, undoubtedly didnt help his state,of mind yet as he goes about murdering people, exhibiting a phobia of clothing, we see a truly mentally ill person. In desperation, the King had his son confined in a rice chest and left him to die there (it being unacceptable to straight-out execute a royal.) The anguish of the wife and child...yet the author acknowledges there were good reasons for the decision.
Some long bits about court intrigue that went on a bit, but a very interesting work (that reads like an English text rather than a translation.) ( )
  starbox | Aug 21, 2021 |
Very interesting although rather beyond me in depth of scholarship. Lady Hyegyŏng (translator JaHyun Kim Haboush notes this is a title, not a personal name – her personal name is unknown) was a critical figure in a crucial event in 18th century Korean history, the death of Crown Prince Sado. Lady Hyegyŏng started out with a sort of Cinderella life; despite being the daughter of a “poor scholar” she married – was married to, she didn’t have any say in the matter – the proverbial handsome prince, heir to the throne. However, things went haywire. Prince Sado had always had a troubled relationship with his father, King Yŏngjo; the king was very harsh with Sado, blaming him for all sorts of unreasonable things (like bad weather) and refusing to include him in palace activities. Sado became increasingly fearful of his father. But it wasn’t until he’d recovered from a severe illness that Sado went completely off the rails. He developed a “clothing phobia”, unable to select clothes to wear, burning some of his clothes because they were supposedly possessed by spirits, and needing to change clothes every time he encountered someone unexpectedly. And he began to kill people - household servants, ladies-in-waiting – by beating them to death, often after an unpleasant encounter with the king. In 1762 things came to a head; King Yŏngjo confronted Prince Sado, had a box – a rice chest, roughly a 4 foot cube – fetched, had Sado put inside it, and strapped it shut. Sado died eight days later.

Years later (1795, 1801, 1802, and 1805), Lady Hyegyŏng wrote a series of memoirs, intended as explanations, to her son (by Prince Sado), King Chŏngjo, and grandson, King Sunjo. It had previously been forbidden to speak of the death of Prince Sado and Lady Hyegyŏng was one of the few living witnesses (and probably the only one who could safely speak of it to the kings). The memoirs become increasingly explicit with time; in the early ones Sado’s death is euphemized as “the terrible event” while by the last Lady Hyegyŏng goes into much more detail. Eighteenth-century Korea comes across as a pretty strange place – ostensibly Confucian harmony on the surface, complex and potentially deadly underneath. A poorly chosen word in the presence of the king – or spoken elsewhere and repeated to the king – could get a courtier banished, demoted to commoner, or executed, and the results afflicted his entire family. For example, at one point King Yŏngjo complained that he was getting too old to govern effectively and suggested a regency; any courtier who expressed disapproval was demoted or worse. Sometime later Yŏngjo felt better; now all the supporters of a regency were the ones to suffer while the previous opponents were restored to their positions. (In a way, the situation reminds me of modern day North Korea, where losing the favor of the Great Leader or Dear Leader or Young Leader gets you terminated with extreme prejudice).

Haboush’s translation is clear and elegant, making for a fascinating read even though the subject matter was pretty alien to me (fortuitously I had just finished reading A Brief History of Korea so I had a little background to work with). Harboush elaborates on things in an introduction, and with both footnotes and endnotes; one of the later explains the rice chest. It was forbidden to shed royal blood or mutilate a royal body, so Prince Sado couldn’t be executed by beheading, the customary methods. Nobility accused of capital crimes could be offered a cup of poison – but if Prince Sado were executed that way, it would imply that he was a criminal and his whole family would suffer – including his son by Lady Hyegyŏng, the eventual King Chŏngjo. That would have left Korea without a direct heir to the throne and precipitated a dynastic crisis. Thus the rice chest – no criminality implied and no royal bloodshed.

The story of Prince Sado remains very popular in Korea; it’s been the subject of numerous Korean movies and television series. ( )
4 vote setnahkt | Feb 7, 2021 |
I really enjoyed this book, a set of four memoirs written by Lady Hyegyong in the Korean royal palace around 1800. The first three memoirs, written in 1795, 1801, and 1802, give fascinating details about life at court. Lady Hyegyong also describes her early life with her parents, how she was chosen to wed the Crown Prince, and how that changed her family's status. There are also many descriptions of plots and intrigues against her father and other relatives. The fourth memoir, of 1805, is the most powerful one. In this memoir, Lady Hyegyong finally describes the events that lead to the death of her husband, who suffered from some kind of mental illness. These circumstances are only alluded to in the other memoirs, but as Lady Hyegyong grows old she wants to leave a record of what truly happened for her grandson, the young King.

In addition, the translation is beautiful. It reads like a work originally in English and has none of the stiffness or artificiality present in some other translated books. There is a very comprehensive Introduction, some helpful Appendices (including family trees which are indispensable for keeping track of all the characters), and an index. There are also frequent endnotes and footnotes. ( )
1 vote Pferdina | Dec 15, 2008 |
Beyond the scholarly merit and historical significance of this book, the story is hugely compelling, not merely for the facts of the chilling event, but for several other reasons.

First, the view Lady Hyegyong provides of the court life and the strict Confucian beliefs that hinge on filial piety, loyalty, virtue and honor is evident more in what she doesn't say than what is said. It's a growing subtle presentation of how life unfolded within these confines of faith, and as a result, how tragedy after tragedy continued to compound. One could read the Analects or any Neo-Confucian work, and not understand to the degree shown here the depths of the practice and belief that affected every aspect of life in the late Choson era.

Second, along with JaHyun Kim Haboush's careful introduction, the annotations she has so helpfully added, the glossaries and appendices, the book presents a highly respectful translation that brings forth all the humanity of the players in a way that makes the story unfold like a novel of hope, horror, survival and the desire for inner peace and heavenly redemption.

Third, by providing the historical literary context of these MEMOIRS (in the introduction), we benefit from understanding not only the historical events but the tense cultural climate and the severe limitations that Lady Hyegyong had to challenge and overcome in order to redeem the honor of her family. Almost as a self-reflective postmodern work of existentialism, the book stands as its own redemptive testament to its themes.

To read of this historical event from one who suffered in its aftermath, and who despite the strictures of her sex and position could tell of it with artistry, is an amazing literary experience. ( )
1 vote sungene | Oct 24, 2007 |
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Hyegyŏnggung Hong Ssiprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Choe-Wall, Yang-HiEditormain authorsome editionsconfirmed
Haboush, JaHyun KimEditormain authorsome editionsconfirmed

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To the memory of my mother and grandmother.
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The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong consists of four autobiographical narratives written by Lady Hyegyong, an eighteenth-century Korean noblewoman.
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Lady Hyegyong's memoirs, which recount the chilling murder of her husband by his father, form one of the best known and most popular classics of Korean literature. From 1795 until 1805 Lady Hyegyong composed this masterpiece, depicting a court life Shakespearean in its pathos, drama, and grandeur. Presented in its social, cultural, and historical contexts, this first complete English translation opens a door into a world teeming with conflicting passions, political intrigue, and the daily preoccupations of a deeply intelligent and articulate woman. JaHyun Kim Haboush's accurate, fluid translation captures the intimate and expressive voice of this consummate storyteller. Reissued nearly twenty years after its initial publication with a new foreword by Dorothy Ko, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong is a unique exploration of Korean selfhood and an extraordinary example of autobiography in the premodern era.

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