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Posted : 2010-02-19 18:15
Updated : 2010-02-19 18:15

Life of Joseons Last Princess Revisited



By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Japan's annexation of Korea. Countless innocent victims and heroic fighters who suffered Japanese colonial atrocities are remembered on this occasion, and so is the ill-fated royal family of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

King Yeongchin (Crown Prince Uimin), the seventh son of King Gojong, was taken to Japan on the pretext of studying at the age of 11, and obligatorily married Princess Nashimotonomiya Masako. He was only able to return to Korea long after the liberation and only when he was in his later years.

Princess Deokhye (1912-1989), the last princess of the Joseon Kingdom, was also one of the fateful royal heirs but forgotten in the people's memory.

Her tragic and untold life story comes into the spotlight in the new novel ``Princess Deokhye'' written by Kwon Bi-young.

The rising author was inspired to write about her sad fate after she visited Tsushima Island where the last princess married Count So Takeyuki, the heir to the So clan whose ancestors had ruled the island for a long time.

The story begins with a scene in which Bok-sun, the princess' court lady, assisted by some Korean independent activists, helped Deokhye escape from a Japanese mental hospital to Korea.

Deokhye was born in 1912 in Changdeok Palace in Seoul as the youngest daughter of King Gojong and his concubine. She was particularly beloved by her father who was in his 60s when she was born.

He established the Deoksu Palace Kindergarten for her in Jeukjodang, Hamnyeong Hall in order to protect her from being sent to Japan like her brothers.

To save her from the Japanese scheme to sever the line of royal heirs, King Gojong had his daughter secretly engaged to Kim Jang-han, a nephew of Kim Hwang-jin, a court chamberlain.

But the powerless king suddenly and suspiciously died and she was taken to Japan with the excuse of continuing her studies.

In Japan, the young princess suffered ostracism from the Japanese nobility and even involuntarily married Count So Takeyuki who was by no means powerful or influential.

The marriage demonstrates that Korean royalty fell to the same level as the local Japanese aristocracy and the Japanization of the ex-royalty under close supervision, as the colonial government was afraid that the Joseon royal family could become a focus for the independent movement.

Takeyuki was nice and gentle to her but she didn't open her heart as her mental health was seriously hurt by the solitude, and the homesickness for her homeland.

Takeyuki was an author of numerous poems dedicated to his Korean wife and their daughter and a gifted and popular teacher.

Despite his efforts to make a good marriage, she finally developed a mental illness and was diagnosed with ``precocious dementia.'' But amid this, she gave birth to a daughter who was named Masae, or Jeonghye in Korean, in 1932.

Deokhye dreamed of bringing her daughter back to Korea and raising her as Korean not Japanese. But as the daughter grew up, she suffered from an identity crisis ― being half Korean and half Japanese and harbored anger against her mother.

In 1945, finally the liberation came and Japan's imperial ambitions were shattered. But Jeonghye's agony and trauma gripped Deokhye whose obsession with her daughter grew stronger.

Her husband sent her to a ``mental hospital'' and her daughter went missing after leaving a note hinting she committed suicide. After an unhappy marriage, her grief exploded with the death of her only daughter. Then, her condition deteriorated, and she finally divorced her husband in 1953.

While trapped in the hospital for 15 years, Deokhye became a miserable, forgotten woman nobody cared about or recognized. But her childhood fiance, Jang-han, went to save her with help of her lady-in-waiting, Bok-sun.

At last, 37 years after leaving Korea, she returned home at the invitation of the Korean government in 1962. She cried when she arrived in her motherland, and despite her unstable mental condition, she accurately remembered court manners.

The princess lived in Nakseon Hall, Changdeok Palace and died in Sugang Hall on April 21, 1989, also in the palace.

``I had to write the story about Deokhye once I knew her. I couldn't stop thinking about the princess who was born to a royal clan but couldn't live a noble life and was forgotten in history,'' the author says in her book.

Kwon said that there is only one book about the princess that was translated from Japanese into Korean.

``Readers can find the princess who struggled not to lose her royal identity and her nation and endured all the repression and humiliation but didn't lose her dignity as the last princess of Joseon. Deokhye's last words, 'I missed my motherland even while I was in my country,' say everything,'' the author said.

``She was too smart and harbored a forbidden longing for her motherland as the princess of the country. Now she is a forgotten woman and even her nation had neglected her while she suffered in the cold hospital room. Who remembers her name?'' she said.

The writer adds dramatic elements to some characters around the princess while keeping a balance between fiction and historical facts.

The novel seems to be more tear-jerking because she actually lived such a miserable life longing for her country.

The book has topped the best-selling list for four consecutive weeks in major bookstores, pushing ``1Q84''by Haruki Murakami, which had been on the top of the list for 19 consecutive weeks, to the third spot.

chungay@koreatimes.co.kr

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