Posted : 2014-04-15 17:02
Updated : 2014-04-15 17:45

Autobiography of woman of Joseon literati family

"Gohaengrok," the autobiography of Lady Yi of the Hansan Yi clan is written on an enormously long scroll, measuring 584.2 centimeters in length and 34 centimeters in width. / Courtesy of Academy of Korean Studies

This is the eighth of a 20-part of Jangseogak
series in collaboration with the Academy of Korean Studies (AKS). Jangseogak houses Joseon Kingdom's documents. — ED.

Kim Bong-jwa
By Kim Bong-jwa

In the Confucius Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), life was not easy for women. They were confined to domestic life, with many restrictions placed upon them. Yet, within the household, they held a certain degree of authority. The wives of the literati families, and especially those of the eldest son, were not content with living a passive life merely as a wife or a mother.They took the reins managing the household, demonstrating great strength as a pillar of support for their family.

Let me introduce one such woman with a strong sense of self-awareness and tenacity who, as a wife of a Joseon scholar-bureaucrat or "sadaebu," managed to protect her family during hardship. Lady Yi of the Hansan Yi clan (1659-1727) was the wife of Yu Myeongcheon (1633-1705), a key figure of the Namin faction during the reign of King Sukjong. Although Lady Yi could only put the name of her family origin on the genealogical record and her first name is now known, her autobiography written in hangeul around the age of 60 helps keep her story alive for posterity.

The title she gave to her autobiography was "Gohaengrok," which roughly translates as "records of the unbearable plight of life." Lady Yi's life, recounted in her autobiography, can hardly be described as a smooth road. While she was able to enjoy noble glory and honor with her husband, she also had to take care of her husband living in exile for more than 10 years. Married to Yu who was 26 years her senior, Lady Yi received the title of Lady Suk of the major third rank ("Jeongsampum") at the age of 18. Four years later, she was promoted to Lady Jeong of the major second rank("Jeongipum") at 22 and finally became Lady Jeonggyeong of the major first rank("Jeongilpum").

Despite her high social station, she had a difficult life when her husband, who stood at the center of political turbulence, was sent into exile three times. As the daughter-in-law of the eldest son in the family, she had to fulfill the duty of continuing the lineage. This also proved to be difficult for her, for she lost all three of her babies soon after childbirth. The loss of her babies was just the beginning of her misfortune. She suffered from postpartum fever and all sorts of illnesses and nearly died several times. It was a difficult time for her both physically and mentally.

But, she was able to ensure that the family name would be carried on by adopting and raising the eldest son of her brother-in-law. When death took away her mother-in-law and her husband one by one, it left her heartbroken so greatly that she even contemplated taking her own life. Yet, she soon pulled herself together, fully realizing her responsibility as the head of the household. She led a calm and quiet life managing all household matters until the age of 69. One can agree that the "unbearable plight" is a quite fitting description of her weary life. But she never neglected her duty as the wife of the eldest son and preserved the Yu clan of Jinju.

In fact, writings by Joseon sadaebu women reflecting and recording their lives coherently are rare to find. Even when they were literate, women used writings mainly as a means of communication (personal letters to friends and family) or to express feelings in poetry and verse. The kind of writing deployed in Lady Yi's autobiography "Gohaengrok" that recounts major life events and her feelings following them requires not only a good command of language but also the ability to reason and think logically. Judging from the fact that she experienced a string of difficulties as soon as she married, it can be credited to the education she received at her parents' home.

A great-great-granddaughter of Yi Sanhae (whose pen name was Agye), Lady Yi grew up in a prestigious family. Therefore, we may assume that she learned hangeul and received basic literary lessons, as well as lessons on women's housework. That people in Joseon period paid attention to educating young women of marriageable age can be glimpsed from the "yeohunseo," or educational books for women compiled by the literati scholars. This is also reflected in a Korean saying from "Sasojeol" by Yi Deokmu that goes, "When you don't discipline your son, you will ruin your own family. But if you don't disciplineyour daughter, you will ruin another family."

The source of strength behind Lady Yi's perseverance to carry on the family name as the wife of the eldest son under many adverse circumstances may be traced back to her upbringing.

Lady Yi's autobiography "Gohaengrok" was passed down by the Yu clan of Jinju, the family name she firmly strove to preserve. It is now housed at the Jangseogak Archives of the Academy of Korean Studies. Since 1997, the Jangseogak has been storing about 50,000 donated and deposited old documents from prestigious families all across the country.

The writer is a researcher of the Academy of Korean Studies.

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