Echoes from the past

There is no better window into the past than reading the words of those who lived it. Diaries, letters and memoirs offer such an intimate view for us to learn from. It is especially enriching when these accounts come from voices not usually recorded or represented, such as women before the modern era.

One such source that I encountered while researching the novel White Lotus was the Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong. This is an autobiographical manuscript written by the grandmother of King Sunjo, between the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Korea.

Lady Hyegyong had been the Crown Princess of Joseon until her husband, Crown Prince Sado, was sentenced to death at the age of twenty-seven. The Crown Prince’s own father carried out the sentence, ordering his son to be buried alive in a rice chest. It took eight days for him to die.

The story is a controversial one. It was then and it is now. The memoirs, in fact, served in large part to tell the account of her husband’s death. Lady Hyegyong puts this plainly in her 1805 memoir:

‘Much time has elapsed. Those who know the details of the incident are growing fewer and fewer. This has provided ample opportunity for those who seek profit and enjoy wreaking havoc by twisting facts and fabricating rumors.’

It is a human story, and I think many of us today can understand what Lady Hyegyong was trying to achieve. We might call it ‘setting the record straight.’ In her own words:

‘I feel that it is against heavenly principle and human affection that he [Sunjo], a grandson, be kept ignorant of an incident of such immense consequences, one involving his direct ancestor.’

For historians, memoirs such as these are a goldmine for research into a time, place or person. They also happen to be laden with riddles and snares when accounting for the subjectivity of the author and their purpose in creating the record. It is not hard to imagine how this would be the case for Lady Hyegyong, who undoubtedly tries to cast her husband in a sympathetic light. The Crown Prince was a murderer, likely the result of his mental illness.

The story of Prince Sado is an important one in Korean culture today, the subject of many films, television shows, plays and literary works. A recent production is the 2014 television series, Secret Door, directed by Kim Hyung-Shik and featuring Park Yeun-Bing as Lady Hyegyong. In this series, Sado is portrayed in a positive light, as an idealist and reformer, which is more in line with some conspiracy theories than with the historical record.

Unlike this rich array of creative works focusing on Prince Sado, White Lotus is set almost half a century after his execution. It is a backstory, but not the most important one. Sunjo and Lady Hyegyong are, however, key characters in the novel. The memoirs have been a precious jewel as far as writing the novel was concerned. They capture the spirit of Lady Hyegyong, her voice echoing from the past into the present.