The Family Plot


[This review originally appeared in The Village Voice, October 8, 1996.]

It is not a good place to die: a wooden rice chest, of four cubic feet, sealed with rope and covered with grass. Issues of food, air, evacuation present themselves at once, and if it is your husband who lies within, you might understandably refer to the chest, four decades hence, as “that thing.”

In 1762, the imo year, King Yongjo of Korea ordered Prince Sado, his regent and sole living son, to climb into the chest. This dark chapter in the dynasty’s history is at the core of these memoirs by Lady Hyegyong, Sado’s widow. For years Sado had exhibited bizarreries of mind, perhaps the strangest being his profound difficulty in dressing himself—an ordeal that sometimes ended with the murder of an attending servant. He decked out his residence like a funeral chamber, and the clothes that he donned, after much effort, were necessarily of the coarsest unbleached cotton, resembling Korean mourning garb. Sado’s illness had (according to Lady Hyegyong) “spread through him just as water soaks into a piece of paper,” until his suspected designs on his father’s life—an outrage not only to the state but to the Confucian tenet of filial piety—prompted the encounter with the chest. (By custom, royalty could not be executed in a way that drew blood.) Eight days later, perhaps during a thunderstorm (about which he was chronically phobic), Sado died.

The shadow of “that thing” looms across Lady Hyegyong’s four memoirs, which she began writing at age 60. She recounts the filicide itself—known as the imo incident—in the last of these. Her take is unflinching, nearly unbearable, her sorrow palpable and enormous. The execution, blackly alluded to throughout, puts into context the setbacks and occasional triumphs of her long, lachrymal life, and we come upon the thing itself as though visiting a place presaged in wretched dreams.

This authoritative edition of Lady Hyegyong’s memoirs, prepared by JaHyun Kim Haboush (a professor of East Asian history and culture at the University of Illinois [now the King Sejong Professor of Korean Studies at Columbia]), elucidates the intricate world of the Korean court—its morass of age-old strictures, interfamilial rivalries, and just plain ill will—through which Lady Hyegyong had to navigate, both in her life and writing.

Haboush also preserves what she calls Lady Hyegyong’s “narrative authority.” Prior editions, even in Korean, generally butchered the memoirs (composed in 1795, 1801, 1802, and 1805) to construct a sequence that was chronologically clearer but more corrupt. In fact, the book is well known in Korea by the title Hanjungnok (Records Written in Silence), which came courtesy of later compilers rather than the author herself. Respecting Lady Hyegyong’s compositional structure, and utilizing the earliest known manuscripts (alas, no original survives), Haboush has minimized the editorial losses typically incurred in this work—already heavy with the ghosts of loved ones and of words unwritten, forgotten, or unutterable.

Part of what makes these memoirs so gripping is the threat of erasure, present from the start. (Indeed, Lady Hyegyong’s birth name is unknown, erased by tradition from family records upon her selection as Sado’s wife.) Her doting father was a scholar who rose to high office shortly after her move to the palace. Keenly observant of court decorum, he advised his daughter (who was just nine, as was her husband, the prince) to keep brief her missives to the natal home, though this surely broke his heart. At age 60, in response to her nephew’s request for family history, she found the courage and the reason to begin her tale—its opening paragraph suggesting all that had been lost: “Thus my family gathered all my letters and, at regular intervals, washed away all that was written.”

That Lady Hyegyong wrote what she did—that she wrote at all—seems a minor miracle. She notes repeatedly, and not without regret, that the truly dutiful response to her husband’s death would have been her own suicide Yet she chose to live for the sake of her son, Chongjo (who would succeed his grandfather Yongjo to the throne in 1776). “Preserve yourself,” her father urged. “Secure the Grand Heir.” Motherly affection and civic duty here agreed, with notable public consequences.

The large intersection of public and private spheres lends these memoirs an almost claustrophobic complexity. Family becomes plot. Just as the filicide threw the dynasty into crisis (the political fallout from Yongjo’s decision would last for decades), Lady Hyegyong’s public role dragged her into the political arena, with disastrous results. She wrote much of the Memoirs specifically in her family’s defense. Though tearful as she bemoans their unjust fates (her father repeatedly stripped of high office, her uncle and brother executed), she nimbly avoids offending those others to whom position binds her—especially in the memory of her father-in-law, King Yongjo.

This last feat could not have been simple: one of her persistent agonies, rooted in the imo incident, was Yongjo’s decree that her son be “posthumously adopted” by Sado’s long-dead brother. The decision distanced the heir apparent from his father’s guilt, but set more grief in motion. When he became king, in 1776, Chongjo felt remorseful, unable (by Yongjo’s decree) to render full honors to his true father. According to Lady Hyegyong, Chongjo intended to correct this in 1804, after abdicating to his son (King Sunjo, to whom the last three memoirs are directed). Chongjo died, however, in 1801.

In the end it is Lady Hyegyong who most enduringly redeems Sado’s life, bringing a human dimension to his sensational death. “One sees that his true nature was good,” she writes, citing palace stories of Sado’s childhood and the lucid moments amid his illness in which his filiality was patent—for example, his copious tears upon the death of Yongjo’s queen, who was not even his birth mother. (Significantly, when his father was present—when such visible, filial sincerity might have redounded to his good—fear overcame Sado, and his tears stopped, leaving Yongjo disgusted at his apparent lack of respectful anguish.) Lady Hyegyong blames Sado’s mental deterioration on evil spirits, lax (or worse) servants, an early interest in martial games and the occult; she suggests that the root of these ills lies in the early, curious removal of Sado from his parents’ quarters to those of the previous king, whose servants were still loyal to his memory, to the point of arrogance. The reason for the move points to an older, similarly complicated tale of sovereignty, family, death. Yongjo, son of king and concubine, had come to the throne after the brief reign of his more legitimate brother, King Kyonjong—and charges of fratricide dogged him ever after. Moving Sado to Kyonjong’s old quarters might have been Yongjo’s way of displaying his own respect—and innocence.

Too soon and sadly, relations between Sado and Yongjo grew strained, until they “seemed to act toward each other almost against their wills”; when Yongjo named him regent (at age 14), the pressures of administrative duty further burdened his mental state. Yongjo was in many ways a capable, upstanding king; he made valiant (if necessarily self-serving) attempts to quash the bitter factionalism that pervaded the court. He was also superstitious, however. Lady Hyegyong notes that Yongjo blamed his son for foul weather, and would often clean his own ears after speaking to Sado, in order to wash away the day’s bad luck. It is no surprise that, with the start of the regency, Yongjo made Sado preside over only “grim and inauspicious affairs” like criminal cases.

Though Lady Hyegyong writes long after the fact, her grief is mitigated neither by time nor by notions of fate. She recounts the details of Sado’s dying day with the scrupulous precision of a detective novelist, partly to set the record straight (so wild were the rumors surrounding the imo incident that, Lady Hyegyong states, “in several years no one will be able to figure out what his crime was”), partly as if to obtain a last measure of understanding. “In my decrepitude,” she write, “I remember but one word in ten thousand.” This is sadness of an uncommonly thorough order. But perhaps a final, posthumous justice—now that the world the Memoirs evokes is dust—is that we can still read her words, which remember so much sorrow so well.

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