- Lady Sa’s Journey to the South
A Romance in the Late Joseon Period
Believed to have been written specifically for the purpose of consoling his mother during the author’s exile, Kim Manjung’s (1637-1692) Lady Sa’s Journey to the South (hereafter Lady Sa), is a remarkable work of classical Korean fiction written in seventeenth-century Joseon and set in Ming dynasty China. Generally interpreted by Korean scholars as a fictional work intended primarily for women readership, it also contains many elements designed to meet the demands of popular entertainment. Unlike most works of vernacular fiction of unknown authorship, Lady Sa has been attributed to a single author.
During the unstable political climate under King Sukjong (r. 1674-1720) there were four major bureaucratic upheavals. At the beginning of the Sukjong period, the Western faction dominated government, but soon the Southern faction, the victors of the Rites Controversy, gained control. A Westerner, Kim Manjung was exiled at that time. In 1680, Heo Kyeon (? –1680), a Southerner was involved in corruption and executed as a traitor, thereby restoring the Westerners back to power along with Kim Manjung. After his consort Lady Jang (1659-1701) bore him a son, King Sukjong favored her so much that he wanted to appoint his one-year-old offspring as crown prince.
Kim Manjung along with the Westerners opposed the king on the grounds that Lady Jang was a consort, and Queen Inhyeon (1667-1701, the second wife of Sukjong after the death of his first wife, Queen Ingyeong) was still too young to bear a son. Infuriated, Sukjong sent Kim Manjung into exile for a second time to a remote place in Namhae. Bureaucratic control changed again from the Westerners to the Southerners. The Southerners supported Lady Jang since Queen Inhyeon was the daughter of a member of the Western faction. Queen Inhyeon was then dethroned and expelled. Eventually Queen Inhyeon returned to the palace and was restored as queen while Sukjong ordered Lady Jang to be put to death by poison in 1701. The Westerners once again held power, but Kim Manjung had by that time passed away while in exile in Namhae.
Lady Sa was written during Kim’s second exile. In the story, Lady Sa marries Master Yu, and their married life works out perfectly except that Lady Sa is not able to bear a son to the Yu clan. She suggests a concubine for Yu, Lady Kyo. After Lady Kyo bears a son, she frames Lady Sa for misconduct, expelling Lady Sa from the Yu clan. Lady Sa thus goes on a journey to the south overcoming many obstacles. Eventually she reunites with Yu after he finds out about the evil conduct of Lady Kyo.
The plot of the book resembles the story of Queen Inhyeon and Lady Jang; for that reason, there is speculation that Kim Manjung wrote Lady Sa based on the life of Queen Inhyeon and Lady Jang to make Sukjong realize his mistake. Through the text, readers will be able to experience the social, economic, and cultural aspects of the lives and roles of upper class women kept in the inner quarters. Kim also delineates clearly between goodness (seon) and evil (ak): behaving in accordance with ritual propriety will be rewarded while chasing after material goods and desires will be punished.
This didactic message is based on Confucian teachings that prevailed in Joseon society at that time. However, if the story was merely full of lessons, then perhaps it would not have earned the popularity among readers that it had. But Lady Sa is known as one of the most popular works of fiction in the late Joseon period. It was read as romance focusing on the love triangle among Master Yu, Lady Sa, and Lady Kyo. Its popularity continues today, having been adapted in many different forms of popular cultural media such as films and TV dramas. The following excerpt is from the scene when Lady Sa gets framed by Lady Kyo and her lover. Master Yu, at the beginning, does not believe in the misconduct of Lady Sa, but gradually his suspicion towards her grows because of Lady Kyo’s well-crafted scheme. Dark shadows slowly cast over Lady Sa’s life.
by Lee Seung-Ah
University of California, Los Angeles
Lady Sa’s Journey to the South
At that time, Master Yu was concerned about Jangju’s unusual symptoms, and now Lady Kyo complained of illness and refused to eat, her sadness increasing at night, so that he worried about her as well. One day, Napmae discovered a strange object while cleaning the kitchen. Master Yu saw it too, as did Lady Kyo, upon which his face clouded over and he became speechless.
Lady Kyo cried, “I joined your home at sixteen and never hurt a soul. Who’d want to harm me and my son like this?” Master Yu gazed at the object but didn’t say anything so Lady Kyo said, “My Lord, how will you handle this matter?”
Master Yu was silent for a while and then said, “It is indeed treacherous. But no outsider came into the house. Whom shall I blame? I think it’s better to just burn that malicious object.”
Lady Kyo pretended to mull this over and then responded, “You’re absolutely right.”
Master Yu then ordered Napmae to light a fire in the front garden and fed the thing to the flames, instructing her not to mention it to anyone.
After Master Yu left, Napmae asked Lady Kyo, “Why didn’t you encourage his suspicions? Your plan might fail.”
Lady Kyo said, “I just wanted to sow suspicion in his mind. If I push too hard, I might fail. He was already harboring suspicion so he might act on it.”
Lady Kyo had Dong Cheong inscribe the evil thing with Lady Sa’s handwriting. As soon as Master Yu saw it, he recognized Lady Sa’s hand. Things would get complicated if he pursued it further so he’d burned the paper immediately. But he thought, “Lady Kyo mentioned Lady Sa’s jealousy. I didn’t believe her then but how was I to know Lady Sa would do such thing? I accepted Lady Kyo on Lady Sa’s recommendation when she had no children but now that Lady Kyo has a son, Lady Sa is planning a poisonous scheme. She pretends to be humane and righteous on the outside, but is treacherous on the inside.” After this, his treatment of Lady Sa changed.
At that time, the Sa family sent a letter reporting Old Lady Sa had taken ill and asked whether Lady Sa could visit her sick mother. Lady Sa was aghast at the news and requested Master Yu, “My mother’s in serious condition. If I don’t see her now, I’ll regret it until the day I die. I ask for your permission to leave.”
Master Yu said, “If my mother-in-law is in serious condition, you should go and see her immediately. How can I stop you? I’ll also go and see her as soon as I get a chance.”
Lady Sa thanked him and summoned Lady Kyo to entrust her with the household affairs. She left taking Ina with her. She arrived at her family residence in the Sinseong district and saw her mother. They’d not seen each other in a long time so it was a great pleasure for both. Lady Sa realized, however, that her mother was gravely ill so she stayed back to nurse her. It wasn’t easy to return early and several months soon passed.
As a low-level official at the Hallim Academy, Master Yu didn’t have much to do. So he often visited the Sa residence in the Sinseong district. At that time, it was a lean year in the Sandong, Sanseo, and Hanam areas, and peasants scattered in all directions. The government appointed three renowned officials and sent them down to these regions to relieve the people’s suffering. Master Yu was one of those selected to go to Sandong but he didn’t get a chance to see Lady Sa before he left.
After Master Yu’s departure, Lady Kyo became more impudent. She spent her days with Dong Cheong without hesitation as if they were a married couple. One day, Lady Kyo said to Dong Cheong, “Now that the master is far away and Sa is out of house for an extended time, I think this is the time to proceed with our plan. What should we do to get rid of Lady Sa?”
Dong Cheong said, “I have a clever plan that’ll ensure Lady Sa doesn’t stay here much longer.” He explained his scheme to Lady Kyo.
Lady Kyo was delighted. “Even a ghost couldn’t see through my lover’s plan. But who’d be capable of carrying it out?”