Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Han Joong Nok by Crown Princess Hong

Han Joong Nok by Crown Princess Hong 1737-1815

A very tough book -- consisting of 6 letters found in the palace of Crown Princess Hong -- relating to the dramatic events of her life -- recurrently -- in no particular order -- and with no particular depth of either description or understanding of the characters and situations involved. What she has to say could be reduced to about a page -- and everything else is perseveration. I.e. -- it's what you might expect from a traumatized fishmonger's wife -- not from the privileged daughter of a high ranking, powerful clan who was selected to marry the crown prince.

In sum: my family is good -- my relatives are loyal and filial --
our opponents are lying, cheating, conniving scum --
oh how they have made us suffer! -- and if it weren't for
my son (who would later become king), I would have killed myself
a long time ago.

Or -- as she wrote in the concluding words of her final letter

"But the "wicked words" of Kwiju and Hannok that had aimed at the destruction of the nation remained unexposed. Moreover, they came to be called faithful retainers and our family suffered from greater calamity quite undeservedly and came to be called heinous traitors. Was there ever such a law and principle of nature? Woe is me! It is not possible for me to understand this curious law of nature even though I spit blood and die."

But of course -- for all her suffering and abuse -- her son DID become king --
which is usually considered a great achievement for the son's mother -- since kings tend to have many women -- and there are always plenty of half-brothers (and their mothers and uncles) who are competing to be crown prince.

So -- I'm not sure she's a dummy -- but if not -- she didn't really take these letters all that seriously as an attempt to justify her family -- but rather -- just as an opportunity to vent her feelings onto paper when she was feeling especially bored or depressed -- 30-40 years after the critical event of her life -- which was the execution of her husband by her father-in-law.

The basic story is that her father-in-law, King Yongio (1696-1776) -- who seems to be recognized by history as a competent ruler -- was faced with a dilemma faced by many dynastic leaders : his number one son of his number one wife (Princess Hong's husband) was a nut case -- and I tend to believe Princess Hong's account of how her young husband capriciously murdered the women and men with whom he surrounded himself (because Princess Hong gained nothing by bad-mouthing her connection to the royal family)

In the Roman empire, Marcus Aurelius had the same problem (Commodius) -- and he did not have the strength of character to destroy his son to save his nation -- but King Yongio eventually did -- albeit through the terrible process of tying him into a rice chest and effectively burying him alive -- as would demonstrate an act of willful deliberation rather than passion.

With her husband destroyed -- this left Princess Hong (and her clan) in a tight spot --but somehow they managed to get her son to the throne. (perhaps King Yongio recognized his talent - and took greater efforts to raise him up properly)

But don't look to this book for any insights into the national issues of Korea in the 18th and early 19th Century-- Crown Princess Hong can see no further than the jealousies and bitter in-fighting within the court. If only her father had written a candid memoir -- he appears to have been a competent statesman serving several kings and crown princes.

Korean royal politics seem to be somewhere in between the Japanese and Chinese systems. Like China -- the king himself (rather than a miliarary chieftain) is ruler. And like China -- national examinations seem to qualify men for politicl positions. But like Japan -- political power is also the prerogative of certain powerful clans -- and I'm not seeing a role for a powerful burearucracy of eunochs directly serving the throne. How Korea managed to remain independent of its two powerful nieghbors puzzles me. I guess it was just too large for Japan to afford to dominate -- and too small for China to bother with incorporating -- so there it sat --an autonomous Confucian monarchy.