Epistolary Korea

Epistolary Korea: Letters in the Communicative Space of the Choson, 1392-1910

Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    Epistolary Korea
    Book Description:

    By expanding the definition of "epistle" to include any writing that addresses the intended receiver directly, JaHyun Kim Haboush introduces readers to the rich epistolary practice of Chos?n Korea. The Chos?n dynasty (1392-1910) produced an abundance of epistles, writings that mirror the genres of neighboring countries (especially China) while retaining their own specific historical trajectory. Written in both literary Chinese and vernacular Korean, the writings collected here range from royal public edicts to private letters, a fascinating array that blurs the line between classical and everyday language and the divisions between men and women. Haboush's selections also recast the relationship between epistolography and the concept of public and private space.

    Haboush groups her epistles according to where they were written and read: public letters, letters to colleagues and friends, social letters, and family letters. Then she arranges them according to occasion: letters on leaving home, deathbed letters, letters of fiction, and letters to the dead. She examines the mechanics of epistles, their communicative space, and their cultural and political meaning. With its wholly unique collection of materials, Epistolary Korea produces more than a vivid chronicle of pre- and early modern Korean life. It breaks new ground in establishing the terms of a distinct, non-European form of epistolography.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51959-5
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction: The Epistolary Genre and the Scriptural Economy of the Chosŏn
    (pp. 1-14)

    This book is about the epistles and epistolography of Chosŏn Korea (1392–1910). Applying a broad definition to “epistles”—writings in which the writer directly addresses the (intended) receiver—the book outlines epistolary genres, presents a body of epistles in these genres, and maps the space that these epistles create. The project has several goals: by means of individual letters, to inquire into epistolary practice, that is, the literary production of each epistle and its ingredients; and by means of the collective body of epistles, to trace the epistolary space produced by them and its cultural and political meaning. I...

    • 1 Royal Edicts: Constructing an Ethnopolitical Community
      (pp. 17-28)

      Royal edicts in which the ruler addressed the entire population of the country were arguably the most public and widely disseminated of missives in dynastic Korea. The practice of issuing royal pronouncements is recorded very early in China, as early as the era of the classics (the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e.). The states of the Korean peninsula adopted the practice sometime during the Three Kingdoms period (trad. first century b.c.e.–668 c.e.), and it continued until the end of the dynastic era. In earlier periods, the practice of promulgating royal edicts was mostly limited to such momentous occasions as...

    • 2 Female Rulers: Queen Dowagers’ Edicts and Letters
      (pp. 29-41)

      Whereas the social structures of the Chosŏn monarchy rendered women largely invisible in the public space, the queen dowager was an exception. This exception was based on the queen dowager’s position as the eldest member of the royal family—not by age, but by generation. The queen dowager, by definition, was the surviving legal queen of a deceased king, and when there were two generations of such queens (i.e., the legal wife of a deceased king and the legal wife of his predecessor), the widow of the earlier generation occupied this position. Chosŏn kings were allowed only one legal queen...

    • 3 Memorials to the Throne
      (pp. 42-55)

      Memorials to the throne, which constituted a channel of written communication between officials and subjects, and their ruler, were a well-known genre in the Confucian polity. There were different categories of memorials: so, the formal and most common memorial; ch’a, a more informal memorandum; and (letter of appeal), something between a memorial and a petition but not presented only to the throne. Within each category, there were further variations. The importance of the memorial in a given polity was very closely related to the political culture of its time. In Korea, although there are records of officials’ offering written...

    • 4 Joint Memorials: Scholars’ Channel of Communication to the Throne
      (pp. 56-67)

      The system of memorials to the throne was the only possible method for Neo-Confucian, nonofficial elites to partake in Chosŏn state politics. Thus, this system had particular significance to the community of educated elites, although they were not the only ones who had the right to present memorials to the throne. At the beginning of the Chosŏn dynasty, scholars’ memorials were not generally accepted by the court as a desirable mode for them to express their opinions. As late as King Sŏngjong’s reign (r. 1469–1494), the king allowed Confucian scholars to present memorials only about political issues. However, when...

    • 5 Individual Petitions: Petitions by Women in the Chosŏn
      (pp. 68-76)

      The establishment of the petition system gave women of the Chosŏn period the opportunity to participate in the public sphere. The state created the petition system in 1401 under the auspices of “hearing” the joy and grief of the people,¹ regardless of their gender or social class. To this end, petitions could be submitted in both written (sangŏn) and oral (kyŏkchaeng) forms, which allowed the illiterate lower classes to participate in this public discourse. Whereas most literate petitioners chose the written form, they occasionally opted for oral petitions in order to reach a larger audience; written petitions could be presented...

    • 6 Petitions by a Collective Body: A Petition by the Residents of the Chip’yŏng District
      (pp. 77-82)

      The following petition by the commoner residents of the Chip’yŏng District (present-day Yangp’yŏng-gun) of Kyŏnggi Province was submitted to the governor, O Chunyŏng (1829–1894),¹ in the second month of 1889 while he was on a tour of inspection of the district. It was originally included in a group of documents consisting mostly of O’s writings, and it only came to light in 1978 when Professor Kim Ilgŭn acquired a group of old, hitherto unpublished documents from the Haeju O family and had it published in the Reader’s Newspaper (Toksŏ sinmun). The text of the petition, apparently drawn up by...

    • 7 Letters of Appeal
      (pp. 83-99)

      The letter of appeal () in this chapter was written by Paek Kyŏnghae (1765–1842), a scholar from P’yŏngan Province, and was addressed to the highest court of the Chosŏn state, the State Council (Ŭijŏngbu).¹ Paek wrote the letter in response to discriminatory political practices such as the assignment of scholars who passed the munkwa (higher civil service examination) to trainee positions based on their regional and familial backgrounds. He believed that this practice was an obstacle for men from P’yŏngan Province that prevented them from attaining “prestigious positions” (ch’ŏngjik),² and ultimately positions of rank three and above (tangsanggwan). Although...

    • 8 Circular Letters in Chosŏn Society: Writing to Publicize Opinions
      (pp. 100-120)

      The circular letter (t’ongmun) is a form of document written for the purpose of notifying the addressee of certain information or persuading the addressee of the sender’s opinions on public issues. In Chosŏn society, it was circulated among a group of individuals affiliated with private institutions. Private institutions here include family associations of the same lineage, resident associations of the same town, local schools, mutual benevolence groups, and private academies (sŏwŏn).¹ Circular letters were also called hoemun or hoet’ong, following the character hoe, which means “to circulate,” because circular letters were read in turn by all the members of the...

    • 9 Open Letters: Patriotic Exhortations from the Imjin War
      (pp. 121-140)

      The genre of writing known as open letters (kyŏksŏ or kyŏngmun) has a complex history. Open letters were written in times of military conflict or massive violence to declare the justice of one’s own position and to vilify the enemy. The open letter was used to mobilize an army or to persuade an army already formed of the justness of the cause for which they were fighting. Sent to one’s own army, it was meant to boost morale; sent to the enemy camp, it argued for the rightness of one’s own cause and the wrongness of the enemy’s and the...

    • 10 Manifestos During the Hong Kyŏngnae Rebellion of 1812
      (pp. 141-151)

      Whereas letters are a primary means of communication between two people, an open letter or manifesto (kyŏngmun) is written for wider circulation to invoke immediate support for a certain cause during domestic rebellions or foreign invasions. When written by rebels, as exemplified in the manifesto from the Hong Kyŏngnae Rebellion of 1812 translated in the following original texts section, manifestos are more like propaganda that justifies the causes of rebels and calls for support.¹ The government or reactionaries against the rebels also circulated manifestos to gather like-minded people to organize militias to suppress the rebellion. This type of document was...

    • 11 Chŏn Pongjun’s 1894 Tonghak Declaration
      (pp. 152-156)

      The roots of the Tonghak Rebellion of 1894 can be found in the early nineteenth century. The breakdown of the rural economy, worsening government finances, and official corruption exacerbated the existing bad conditions throughout the countryside, squeezing the already impoverished peasantry and contributing to a general decline in the standard of living. Numerous local uprisings broke out across the country throughout the nineteenth century in response to these conditions. During these uprisings, peasants, pressed to the limit from local graft and excessive and erratic taxation, attacked government offices, sometimes burning them down and killing the local magistrate. They lacked any...

    • 12 Letters to the Editor: Women, Newspapers, and the Public Sphere in Turn-of-the Century Korea
      (pp. 157-168)
      SE-MI OH

      Following in the footsteps of the Independence Club’s paper The Independent (Tongnip sinmun; 1896), a series of newspapers came into existence in 1898. The first daily newspaper, the Daily News (Maeil sinmun), was published on January 26, followed by the Imperial Post (Cheguk sinmun; August 10) and Capital Gazette (Hwangsŏng sinmun; September 5).¹ These newspapers played a vital role in educating the public with the ideas of civilization and enlightenment and in shaping the discourses about the nation.² In this context, letters to the editors of newspapers indicate active participation of readers who utilized the role of the newspaper as...

    • 13 Correspondence Between Scholars: Political Letters
      (pp. 171-183)

      Letters were the primary mode of communication among the educated in Chosŏn Korea; they were an integral part of the daily lives of scholar-officials, who seem to have written them constantly. Geographical distance, although it did diminish the frequency of correspondence, was not a barrier to the exchange of letters. Most members of the elite class had slave-servants who acted as their couriers, and if that method was not convenient, they would hire private couriers to exchange correspondence. The educated classes exchanged both formal and informal letters with various groups of people to discuss issues of concern and conduct practical...

    • 14 Scholarly Letters
      (pp. 184-190)

      Letters were the genre most widely used by literati to discuss scholarly matters. Korean scholars found Chinese precedents for this usage of letters as far back as the Former Han dynasty, when Yang Xiong (53 b.c.e.–18 c.e.) discussed through letters his work of dialectology, Regional Languages (Fangyan), with the bibliographer Liu Xin (?–23 c.e.). In Chosŏn Korea, letters became the prime locus for discussions of Neo-Confucian ideas. For example, the Collected Works of Song Siyŏl (Songja taejŏn), an eminent propagator of orthodox Neo-Confucian doctrines in Zhu Xi’s tradition, contains more than a hundred fascicles of letters spanning thousands...

    • 15 Friendship Between Men
      (pp. 191-196)

      One of the most intriguing types of epistolary writing is the correspondence between friends, as it offers a glimpse into the private thoughts and feelings of authors. In the premodern age, however, it was the public function of letters, transmitted in historical works, literary anthologies, and individual collected works (munjip),¹ that granted the form its survival, in contradistinction to the voyeuristic access to privacy provided by personal letters found in graves. Informal letters between friends were more likely to find their way into an author’s collected works in the less distant past (from about the eighteenth century onward), especially if...

    • 16 Friendship Between Women: One Man’s Consorts
      (pp. 197-203)

      During the Chosŏn dynasty women’s activities centered on the home, and therefore their attachments seem to have developed toward family members and relatives. As they did not leave home for school or employment except in the case of a very small number of jobs, opportunities to form friendships with people outside of their family circles may have been limited. Surely, one can think of various categories of people besides family members that women had contact with, such as childhood friends and neighbors, but there are few examples of letters written by women to persons not related to them. There were...

    • 17 Friendship with Foreigners
      (pp. 204-216)

      For nearly five hundred years, the Chosŏn dynasty sent several ambassadorial missions per year to China. On average, 2.8 Korean embassies arrived annually at the Qing court.¹ In addition to these missions to China, there were also the more rare envoys to Japan. Missions, especially those to China, were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for the scholars chosen to go on them to befriend literate men of the host countries, and letters were the only means of keeping these relationships alive upon their return.

      The trend of developing friendships with Chinese scholars became more pronounced in the eighteenth century, fostered by the greater...

    • 18 Letters of Greeting
      (pp. 219-225)

      The emergence of women as writing subjects after the invention of the Korean script not only brought about a reconstitution and realignment of literary culture, it also effected changes in women’s roles in public life, social etiquette, the concept of feminine accomplishment, family culture, and so forth. In previous sections (for example, chapters 2 and 5), we have already seen the ways in which women used writing in the Korean script in the political sphere, but the far more common usage of writing among women seems to have been the letters they exchanged with social acquaintances and family members. In...

    • 19 Letters on Everyday Life
      (pp. 226-234)

      The quotidian and material life of Chosŏn people has become a subject of popular and scholarly interest in recent years. Unlike official histories and literary writings by court officials and male elites, diaries and letters provide vivid and rich information on the everyday lives of ordinary people in the countryside.¹ The selections translated in this chapter are letters by Kwak Chu (1569–1617), a literatus living in Hyŏnp’ung in Kyŏngsang Province, to his wife Madam Ha. These letters were written in vernacular Korean and reflect various aspects and concerns of the life of the rural elite during the early half...

    • 20 Male Concubinage: Notes on Late Chosŏn Homosexuality by an American Naval Attaché
      (pp. 235-246)

      In general it is wise to approach what might be called the genre of “letters or reports home” by nineteenth-century foreign visitors to Korea with a certain degree of caution. Many fall into the category of impressionistic travelogues, written by well-meaning but often poorly informed amateurs who spent only a short time in the country and were generally ignorant of Korean history and culture, to say nothing of the language. George C. Foulk, the first American naval attaché to Korea in the late Chosŏn period, was in many ways an exceptional case. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in...

    • 21 Letters Between Spouses
      (pp. 249-261)

      Perhaps the most common and intimate of private letters are those between spouses. Married couples during the Chosŏn spent much time apart; hence, there are numerous spousal letters. Occasions of separation included when the husband took up residence away from home, to pursue his career, either by preparing for the civil service examination or serving in office, while his wife remained at a provincial home, when a husband was banished in punishment, when a wife visited her natal home, and war.

      Four sets of letters are presented here in chronological order. They represent the different moments and sentiments of spousal...

    • 22 Personal Royal Letters: Correspondence Between Monarchs and Their Children
      (pp. 262-268)

      The following examples of personal correspondence among members of the royal family of the late sixteenth to late seventeenth centuries represent a genre of Chosŏn epistolary writing that is often overlooked due to its brevity and ordinary content. Just as the personal correspondence of today’s public figures is of interest because of the interiority and truthfulness it is thought to reveal, these letters are noteworthy because they provide an intimate and “authentic” portrait of the royal family. The letters give new insight into these most public individuals outside of the formality and ceremony connected to royal life, and they show...

    • 23 The Sunch’ŏn Kims: Vignettes of Family Life Through Letters
      (pp. 269-276)

      The translated pieces in this chapter were chosen from letters excavated in 1977 from the tomb of Madam Kim of Sunch’ŏn, who is believed to have lived during the latter half of the sixteenth century.¹ A total of 192 letters were discovered, all written on single sheets of paper, and all, with the exception of three letters in literary Chinese, written in the Korean script. They date from the mid to the late sixteenth century and are among the earliest examples of letters written in the Korean alphabet. These letters contain exchanges among members of the Kim family and, in...

    • 24 Fathers’ Letters Concerning Their Children’s Education
      (pp. 277-286)

      Children’s education was one of the most pressing concerns for the yangban aristocratic elite during the Chosŏn dynasty, and thus letters addressing educational matters were abundant. The selections in this chapter represent only a fraction of the material in this genre. In this chapter, two letters concerning education are translated. The first one was written in literary Chinese by Yi Hwang (1501–1570) to his first son, Yi Chun (1523–1584), in 1551, and the second one is in vernacular Korean and was written by Kwak Chu (1569–1617) to his mother-in-law, Madam Hapsan (Hapsan taek), in 1612.

      Yi Hwang...

    • 25 Mothers’ Letters of Instruction to Their Children
      (pp. 287-294)

      Since Chosŏn society was gender segregated, and education was gender based, the roles of parents in educating their children were also divided by gender. The regimen specified in the Elementary Learning (Sohak), the most often studied primer, makes this clear: The mother’s role is more important than the father’s in a child’s early years. In fact, her education of her children commenced during pregnancy. The first section of the chapter on education is devoted to a prospective mother’s prenatal education of her unborn child.¹ The mother’s role along with those of other women such as wet nurses continued to be...

    • 26 Yi Ponghwan’s Letters to His Mother During His Trip to Japan
      (pp. 295-306)

      The following six letters were chosen from a collection of nineteen letters that Yi Ponghwan (?–1770) sent to his mother while he was traveling to Japan as a member of the official embassy of 1748.¹ Although there was tension between Korea and Japan after the Japanese invasion of Korea under Hideyoshi in 1592, the establishment of the new Tokugawa shogunate (1603) following Hideyoshi’s death enabled the Chosŏn court to resume peaceful relations with Japan shortly after the war. The Chosŏn court sent its first postwar embassy to Japan in 1607, followed by eleven more over the years; the mission...

    • 27 Daughters’ Letters to Members of Their Natal Families
      (pp. 307-312)

      Legislation concerning Confucian patriarchy and patrilineality in the early Chosŏn began to have a serious impact on family structure and social customs by the seventeenth century. Though presumably there was wide variation by region, family, and class, the native custom of uxorilocal marriage, which had remained common through the sixteenth century, was, with increasing frequency, replaced by virilocal marriage; by the seventeenth century it had become accepted practice for married women to move into their husbands’ familial residences. The Ha family correspondence, with which we are familiar by now (see chapters 19 and 21), shows that married daughters were living...

    • 28 Letters Written in Korean by Exiles
      (pp. 315-325)

      Anyone familiar with East Asian political life knows that banishment or exile to a distant place was a serious form of punishment second only to death. The intended purpose of banishment was to remove the guilty party from the capital—the political and cultural center—and subject him or her to isolation and hardship in the wilderness. The severity of the sentence was measured by the place of exile’s distance from the capital, its habitability, the degree of confinement, and the duration of the exile period. Distant islands and border towns in the north famous for their harsh living conditions...

    • 29 A Letter Written in Literary Chinese by Chŏng Yagyong While in Exile
      (pp. 326-335)

      Chŏng Yagyong (1762–1836), commonly known as Tasan, is widely recognized today as the preeminent scholar of the empirical school of thought (also called sirhak) of the late Chosŏn. A native of Kwangju County in Kyŏnggi Province, Chŏng was born into a family of scholar officials who had served the Chosŏn government for nine consecutive generations. Given his impressive family credentials and strict Confucian upbringing, Chŏng appeared primed for government service at an early age. In accordance with customary practice of the time, Chŏng Yagyong’s father, Chŏng Chaewŏn (1730–1792), took full responsibility for his son’s formative education, immersing him...

    • 30 Letters by Prisoners of the Imjin War
      (pp. 336-341)

      During the course of the Imjin War (1592–1598), especially in the second invasion, which lasted from 1597 to 1598, a large number of Koreans were captured and taken to Japan. The exact number is not known, but estimates range from twenty thousand to something over one hundred thousand, depending on the source.¹ Captives included all categories of people—men, women, children, scholars, officials, craftspeople, peasants, and slaves, though they were preponderantly young and of the nonscholar classes. Though the exchange of people was not completely in one direction—some Japanese and Chinese who participated in the war opted to...

    • 31 Letters Sent Home by Royal Hostages
      (pp. 342-350)

      Although taking hostages or being taken hostage in foreign countries was an uncommon affair during the Chosŏn, when the state enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with its neighbors, it was not unknown. Hostage taking happened most often when the region was undergoing large-scale reconstitution. After the founding of the Chosŏn, which in itself was part of a larger movement, there were two such periods—the first spanned from the last decade of the sixteenth century to the first half of the seventeenth century and the second was in the late nineteenth century. The first period began with Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea...

    • 32 A Letter Written Before Execution: A Condemned Man’s Last Thoughts to His Children
      (pp. 353-358)

      Writing a letter to loved ones just before one’s death was not an uncommon practice, but insofar as these letters were premised upon the writers’ knowledge of their impending death, the nature of the deaths they were facing was often not natural—political execution, religious martyrdom, or suicide. There were a variety of political executions—those associated with rebellion, sedition, and, most prominently, purges. Purges seem to have occurred most often during times of change. In the Chosŏn, two periods—the late fifteenth to early sixteenth centuries and the late seventeenth to early eighteenth centuries—produced violent purges. What are...

    • 33 Letters of the Catholic Martyrs
      (pp. 359-374)

      The great impact of Christianity on modern Korea requires no argument. At present, close to 40 percent of the people of South Korea profess themselves to be Christian.¹ Whereas most are Protestants, Christianity in Korea began with Catholicism in the late eighteenth century. This is not a place to discuss Catholicism in Korea at any length; suffice it to say that it had a most unusual history. It was unique in the annals of the Catholic Church in that it began without benefit of a missionary. The movement appears to have begun through the intellectual curiosity of Namin intellectuals; their...

    • 34 Madam Yi’s Farewell Letter to Her Son
      (pp. 375-381)

      The notion that a woman should remain chaste after her husband’s death reflected the entrenched anxiety of the state and the elite class over the preservation of Confucian virtue in the Chosŏn period and helped to reinforce the patriarchal and patrilineal system of the time. Although examples of “virtuous women” (yŏllyŏ) appear in works as early as Kim Pusik’s (1075–1151) History of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi), it was the establishment of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) that truly marked a turning point in attitudes toward female chastity. Eager to abolish the tradition of allowing widows to remarry, the...

    • 35 Daughters’ Letters of Farewell to Their Fathers
      (pp. 382-390)

      The following letters are examples of a daughter’s dedication to her father. Both were written by women from yangban aristocratic families: the first was written in the eighteenth century by an unmarried girl in the final stages of a fatal illness, and the second was written in the early twentieth century by a woman who committed ritual suicide after her husband’s death. Though different in language and content and the authors’ motivation and personal circumstances, these letters from daughters to their fathers unveil an inner world that is much more complex than that found in the conventional depictions of virtuous...

    • 36 A Wife’s Letter to Her Deceased Husband
      (pp. 393-397)

      The vernacular letter translated in this chapter was written to a deceased husband, Yi Ŭngt’ae (1556–1586), and buried along his body more than four hundred years ago by his wife, whose name is unknown.¹ This very private letter meant to stay with the body for eternity came to light in 1998 when Yi’s grave was unearthed in preparation for relocating the tomb from the Kosŏng Yi descent group burial ground in Chŏngsang-dong, Andong, North Kyŏngsang Province, because the area was to be developed into a residential district.

      The Ch’amp’an-gong branch of the Kosŏng Yi descent group began to live...

    • 37 Kwŏn Sangil’s Farewell to His Deceased Wife
      (pp. 398-400)

      Kwŏn Sangil (1679–1759), whose ancestral seat was Andong, was born near Sangju (northern Kyŏngsang Province) and was the scion of a prominent local descent group. He started immersing himself in the philosophical tradition of T’oegye Yi Hwang (1501–1570) at an early age, and he became one of the most prominent exponents of T’oegye’s learning in the first half of the eighteenth century. In 1710, he passed the munkwa (higher civil service examination), and over the years he briefly served in various capacities in the central and local bureaucracies. Most of his time, however, was spent at home in...

    • 38 Letters to Deceased Children
      (pp. 401-410)

      The following are two eulogies for dead daughters written, respectively, by a father and a mother. The first was written in 1701 by Kim Ch’anghyŏp (1651–1708) two days before the anniversary of the death of his favorite daughter, Un (1679–1700), who died of complications in childbirth. The second was written by Kim Samŭidang (1769–1823) for a daughter who died before reaching her first birthday. The date of writing is not clear, but presumably it was soon after the death of the infant in 1795. Unlike most women, who wrote in the Korean script, Kim Samŭidang left writings...

    • 39 Love Letters in The Tale of Unyŏng
      (pp. 413-418)

      In the literature of premodern Korean there did not exist a tradition similar to that of the epistolary novels found in Western literature. Korean premodern novels generally develop around a protagonist and retell his or her actions from either a third or first person viewpoint. Yet, letters served an important function in fictional works of this same period, as they provided a space where the emotions of a character could be clearly revealed to readers.

      Outside of fiction, there further was not a tradition of “love” letters exchanged between lovers in Chosŏn Korea, at least not one that can be...

    (pp. 419-432)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 433-448)