Lives of Women : Historical Romance Part II (Korean Classic Stories Vol.5)

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KOREAN CLASSIC STORIES Vol. 5 Historical Romance Part II

Lives of Women Compiled by

Kim Hunggyu Translated by Kim Jung-eun


Lives of Women Copyright Š 2013 by Seoul Selection All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the publisher. Published by Seoul Selection 4199 Campus Dr., Suite 550 Irvine, CA 92612, USA Tel: 949-509-6584 Fax: 949-509-6599 E-mail: Website: ISBN: 978-1-62412-018-3 Library of Congress Control Number: 2013952728 Printed in the Republic of Korea


Foreword 7 Part I The Daughter of County Official Choe Gil-nyeo The Good Daughter-in-Law The Wrestling Bet

19 31 45 52

Part II A Broken Promise Lady Bu: Woman Warrior

67 77

Part III The Widow Her Dying Words

97 102


by Kim Hunggyu

Works dealing with romantic love and women’s lives were by no means rare in the epic literature of Korea up to the 16th century, but yadam (unofficial circulated narrative), which was in vogue beginning in the 17th century, saw diversification and expansion in characters and subject matter. In addition, yadam often approached affairs of the heart from the viewpoint of the conflict between social norms and individual desires rather than at the level of simple romanticized love. “The Widow” (“Sangnyeo”) and “Her Dying Words” (“Yuhun”) are two notable examples of yadam that dealt with problems relating to social conventions. Understanding these works requires an awareness of the marital customs of the aristocracy, particularly the proscription against the remarriage of a widow. The conventional wisdom was that “a good wife does not serve 7 Foreword

two husbands.� As a result, young widows of the noble class were expected as a matter of course to live out the rest of their lives without a new spouse. The constraints were not imposed in the form of any law prohibiting widows of noble birth from meeting someone new and remarrying. However, any son born of those remarried widows was deemed deficient in his claims to nobility and subject to considerable discrimination when he sought appointment to a government office or promotion. In spite of the occasional intellectual that condemned the custom as an inordinately harsh oppression of human life and natural desires, these ways of the aristocracy went unchecked. The high official in “The Widow� affords his daughter a secret opportunity for escape. A widow at a young age, she has only a long life of suffering to look forward to under the norms of the day. The official arranges for a young military officer he trusts to elope with his daughter to somewhere far away, and pretends to the rest of his family and the world at large that she has committed suicide. This gambit allows him to save face for the family, and also to give his daughter a chance at

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life with a loving partner and children of her own. The remarriage of female aristocrats is again the central theme of “Her Dying Words.” As she nears death in her twilight years, the protagonist Jang reminds her daughters-in-law of the need to exercise circumspection in making, in effect, a lifelong commitment to a dead spouse. As she explains why using an example drawn from her own youth, her words feel uncommonly compelling and raw. The protagonists in yadam were not only aristocrats. “A Broken Promise” (“Bangmaeng”), “The Daughter of County Official Choe,” and “Gil-nyeo” are stories depicting the proactive responses of commoners to problems of the heart in light of their respective situations. Among these, “The Daughter of County Official Choe” is of particular interest for its plot, which highlights the heroine’s sagacity, perceptiveness, and quick wit. The hero Jo is a bachelor from a noble family that has long since fallen on hard times and is now of little note socially. By contrast, the maiden Choe comes from the commoner class, but her family is among the wealthiest in their rural community. Their union is

9 Foreword

possible thanks to the peculiar relationship between their social stations and economic circumstances. However, serious complications arise when Jo’s maternal uncle employs underhanded tactics to marry his own son into the Choe family. Choe, the bride-tobe, shows exceptional acumen and courage in the face of this quandary, and the tide turns to give way to a happy ending. The plot sets the consistently naive and passive aristocrat groom against the bright and spirited commoner bride, who takes the lead in resolving the situation; this contrast may be regarded as a literary reflection of another social evolution—the ascendancy of the commoner class—that was under way at the time. The heroine of “Gil-nyeo” is treated by society like a commoner, unable to properly inherit her nobleman father’s title because she was born of his concubine. An aristocrat, Shin, falls in love with her and wants her for his wife. Since he cannot marry her, he takes her as his concubine, cementing their relationship with a sort of wedding ceremony. One day, though, he has to leave on official business; he promises to come and get Gil-nyeo at a later date but then fails to deliver on this vow for

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some time. While Shin is gone, an unscrupulous uncle uses devious ploys to trap the beautiful Gil-nyeo, hold her captive, and attempt to coerce her into becoming the concubine of a man she does not want. Like Choe, Gil-nyeo finds a way out of her predicament through her wits and courage, but the process is much more combative than the one described in “The Daughter of County Official Choe.” Gil-nyeo placates her captors by saying she will go along with the wedding but then frees herself with a knife that she hid in her sleeve, using it in a bloody fight with her kidnappers. This heroine is not only a faithful wife bent on defending her pure love, but also a champion who wins popular acclaim for boldly denouncing the tyranny of a corrupt authority. “The Good Daughter-in-Law” (“Hyeophyobu Jeon”), by Yi Ok (1760–1812), relates the story of a widow who is so intent on continuing to care for her aged mother-in-law that she refuses the relentless coercion of her relatives to remarry. The tiger, an animal revered in classical Korean mythology, is featured as a pivotal character. Even as she is confronted by the alarming prospect of falling prey to the tiger, the woman does not so much fear for her life

11 Foreword

as lament having to leave this world without bidding farewell to her infirm old mother-in-law, with whom a deep familial love, trust, and bond has formed. These ties go much deeper than the sense of duty imposed by Confucian ethics. The tiger understands her refusal to betray the tie with her mother-in-law, and the unlikely commiserating pair feel sympathy for each other’s situations and help each other. It goes without saying that this turn of events is pure fancy. Nevertheless, this woman’s acts and words are representative of traditional Korean ethics. “Lady Bu: Woman Warrior” (“Bu Nangja”) is a peculiar story of a young girl of the Bu family who grew up in a frontier settlement. The story is set in the early 17th century, when northeast Asia was plagued by wars great and small and other military conflicts and when Ming China waned while the Manchus built up enough power to eventually pose a threat to the Chinese heartland. It is unclear whether this maiden was a real person, but all of the other characters that populate the story were, and an event known as Yi Gwal’s Revolt has been recorded in history.

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Bu grows up as a tomboy, becoming adept at horseback riding, archery, and other martial arts, and with the experience gained in leading her friends in games of combat, even develops exceptional military tactics. Despite these qualifications, however, she is unable to completely overcome the bounds of womanhood when she joins the army. She joins the army in the disguise of a lad to fulfill her father’s military obligations; in addition, her contributions on the battlefield are not through direct involvement in fighting but rather the more indirect means of providing the commander Jeong Chung-shin with tactical suggestions. After distinguishing herself more than once, she finally reveals her identity and becomes the wife of her superior officer Jeong. The legend goes that Bu, after observing the three-year mourning period after Jeong’s death, became a Buddhist nun, resisting the temptation to join the military though one conflict after another broke out during that period. Notwithstanding the exceptional potential the story attributes to her, Bu is an imperfect champion who managed to participate in the world only through a male surrogate who translated her ideas into

13 Foreword

action. W h i le t h i s work ’s por t r ay a l of one woma n’s tremendous military feats contradicted the conventions restricting the public role of women, it stopped short of any suggestion of tearing down the male-centered social order itself. But there is no arguing that, with its exploration of the female figure as a military hero, this work suggests a very thought-provoking potential as a novel. “The Wrestling Bet” (“Ssireum Jangsa”) illustrates one of the many contests and games of chance that often took place on the streets of old Korea. A corrupt Buddhist monk of formidable strength has bullied a young man into surrendering his beautiful wife. To get her back, the young man, who is of slight build but has amazing strength and wrestling skills, tricks the monk into a wrestling match, with the wife as prize. The plot itself is fraught with palpable tension, but weak development of the story causes it to fall short in comparison with other works of epic literature. In spite of the various shortcomings of these stories, they are all good examples of the yadam genre, which

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generally encompasses episodic anecdotes of real-life events and well-developed works of fiction.

15 Foreword

Part I

The Daughter of County Official Choe

Choe was a well-to-do official in the county office of Hoengseong. His daughter was pretty and very bright, and her parents loved and cherished her, as though she were a precious jewel. Scholar Jo was a lowly civil servant in a neighboring village. He was poor, but a good scholar. He made his living by teaching literature to the children of noble families in the district. He had one son. When Jo died, his son was left alone to fend for himself. Some of those who had studied under Jo took turns providing food to the son, in memory of their deceased teacher. The son had no

19 The Daughter of County Official Choe

home of his own and lived in the village school. He was now over 20 years old but still hadn’t married. Young men in the neighborhood consulted among themselves and said, “It’s only right that we try to help young Jo find a bride. That official Choe in Hoengseong is well off, and he has a daughter as fine as jade. Jo wouldn’t have to worry about supporting himself if he could marry her. But I’m sure her family wouldn’t want her marrying beneath them. Can anyone here come up with a plan to get them together?” One of them came forward and said, “We need to deal with this situation with a good deal of political acumen. And we can’t just keep talking about it like this and expect to accomplish our goal.” Another asked, “And what particular sort of political acumen might you have in mind?” “Well, everyone knows that Choe is one of the richest in his village. Why would he take an orphan as his son-inlaw? He’s probably planning to get his daughter married to someone from an aristocratic family. But I’ve heard

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that his daughter is wise and virtuous. If we could get her to want to marry Jo, her father might go along with it.” Then he turned to young Jo and continued, “How about you, can you handle this? This is your chance to begin a new life. Tonight you climb her wall and find the young lady alone and enchant her. If all goes well tonight, we will arrange everything else. But don’t even think about coming back if you can’t persuade her to marry you. We’ll never talk to you again.” The young Jo answered, “Tonight I live or die.” The midnight moon was faint that night. Jo’s friends went along with him to the hill behind Choe’s house. One pointed to the small, dimly lit window and said, “That’s her room. Go ask her to marry you—show some confidence—and if she accepts your proposal, get her to give you something to confirm that she’s accepted. We’ll wait for you here.” Then they escorted him closer to the house and helped young Jo over the back wall into the courtyard. He went over to her dimly lit room and poked a hole in the rice

21 The Daughter of County Official Choe

paper window. He peaked through the hole and saw the young lady Choe sitting in the room, alone. Jo pushed the door open and went into the room. He dared not go near her and sat on his haunches in a corner of the room. She asked in a low voice, “Are you a person? Or are you a ghost?” “I’m the son of Scholar Jo,” he answered. She reproached him in a serious tone, “What is this absurd behavior, that a person of noble background should jump over the wall of someone’s house, in the night, and sneak into a woman’s room?” Young Jo was scared at first; he nervously straightened his clothes and then replied, “How can I not know that what I’ve done is not proper behavior for the son of a nobleman? My friends felt sorry for me still being unmarried, and they gave me an ultimatum: to get you to accept my proposal or not come back. I didn’t come here to harm you in any way but to ask you for your hand in marriage. So please have pity on me.” Choe answered, “Marriage is not something I can

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decide on my own. My father is home, so your friends should go ask for his permission in earnest. How can he refuse a proposal from a nobleman? If this doesn’t work, I won’t marry anyone else and will remain chaste till death.” “Would you give me a piece of something that belongs to you,” the young man asked, “so that I can keep it as proof of your promise?” She took off a silver ring from her finger and handed it to him. Young Jo was ecstatic. He took the ring and left her. He jumped back over the wall and went to his friends, who were waiting for him. They were happy when Jo showed them the ring and told them about the words he had exchanged with her. The next day, Jo’s friends invited the girl’s father to the village school. They pointed to Jo and said, “You already know the Jo family’s good social standing. And, as you also know, the situation has developed so that Scholar Jo’s son has no one to rely on since his father died. Please have

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pity on him and allow him to marry your daughter. We’re pleading with you in good spirit, and we’d be grateful if you accept our plea in good spirit. Don’t you think that this would be a splendid thing for everyone?” Choe’s father fell into deep thought for a while, then opened his mouth to say, “Your spirit is truly admirable. How could I ignore such noble spirit and refuse to give my daughter’s hand to young Jo?” The promise was made, and the date was chosen for the wedding on the spot. Jo’s friends told their parents about the plan, and everyone chipped in to help with the wedding costs. They were able to collect 30 to 40 strings of coins. His friends told him, “We’ve done our part now. Take this money and go ask your uncle to help with the arrangements for the wedding. This should be enough to prepare for the wedding without putting a burden on him. And let’s have a celebratory drink together after the wedding.” Jo answered, “Of course, anything you say!”

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CREDITS Translator: Kim Jung-eun Publisher: Kim Hyung-geun Editors: Lee Jin-hyuk, Kim Hansol Copy Editors: D. Peter Kim, Daisy Larios Proofreader: Emma Kalka Designer: Jung Hyun-young

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