Friday, February 10, 2012

Tragic love stories from Joseon era

Judging from the tales associated with Joseon Korea’s 13th king, Myeongjong (1534-1567), romantic relationships were often filled with tribulations and death.

Kim Su-dong was a gifted man. He was handsome and enjoyed a very high position in Myeongjong’s court and often held up as a standard of success. It was a common saying amongst Koreans at that time that a father would be blessed to have a son like him. But despite his success Kim had shortcomings. First, he was still unmarried and, second, his mother dominated him.

Solving the first problem was relatively easy. A jungmae (marriage broker) was consulted and she chose a young girl named Hae-su. As was the custom of that time, Kim never really got the opportunity to see his bride’s face until after they were married. Hae-su must have felt a great deal of trepidation and fear as her very handsome husband removed the thick white makeup covering her face to reveal pockmarks (most likely from smallpox) “as big as thimbles” and badly sloping eyes which gave “her a most ugly expression.”

Kim was taken back by the perceived ugliness of his bride but he was a good man and accepted his fate without complaint. His mother, however, felt cheated and greatly abused Hae-su. She took great pains to ensure that no one could see her daughter-in-law by locking her up in a small dark room and making her work only at night and away from the prying eyes of neighbors and their wagging tongues.

Kim apparently liked his wife and urged his mother to show restraint especially considering Hae-su fulfilled her most important duty as a wife _ she bore a son. But Kim’s mother would not relent and one day, while he was away, she cast Hae-su and her child out of the house to fend for themselves on the streets. So domineering was his mother that Kim made no effort to retrieve them.

Hae-su had endured so much but this last insult was too much. So she starved herself to death but before she died she sent a message to her husband beseeching him to bury her next to a stream so that the fresh running water would cool her “fevered spirit.”

But Kim refused and instead buried her on a hillside. Soon afterwards his dreams became plagued by the spirit of Hae-su demanding to know why he had not fulfilled her dying wish. Kim, driven by fear, confessed to the king the ghost’s visits and asked what he should do. The king, whose own mother was very domineering, ordered that Hae-su’s body be buried next to a stream ― a place that is now known as the White Buddha. Hae-su’s fevered spirit was appeased.

Myeongjong had his own tale of misguided love ― in fact, he is said to have died from it. A beautiful young palace girl attracted his attention but she would not willingly reciprocate his affections. An investigation revealed that the young girl had once been in love with a local boy but her father disapproved and sent her to work as a palace girl and had the boy seized and made into a eunuch.

The king, who apparently had a mean streak, had the young eunuch assigned as the guard at his door. The young man was forced to listen to the king ravish the love of his life. Eventually the girl became pregnant.

One night, when there was confusion in the palace, the girl and eunuch ran away but they were soon captured by the king’s agents. The eunuch was executed and the king, still infatuated with the girl, spared her life but made her attend him regularly. This was the king’s undoing. While in the heat of passion, the young girl plunged a needle into the back of the king’s head, killing him instantly. She then took her own life.

Source: The Korea Times

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