[Inkstone] Kinship in the Bedroom: The Remarkable Reunion of Jade Mandarin Ducks

  • onMarch 13, 2020
  • Vol.47 Spring 2020
  • byKsenia Chizhova


In the society of late Joseon Korea (1392–1910), kinship constituted the crucial foundation for one’s identity, social network, and access to economic resources and education. The fleshing out of the Joseon patrilineage has been amply documented by social historians, who identified the ritual, institutional, and ideological underpinnings of this practice. Taking shape around the late seventeenth century, patrilineal kinship streamlined the transmission of property and ritual roles along the male line according to the principle of primogeniture. In terms of its philosophical foundations, this form of social life was inspired by the Confucian view of ideal human bonds, arranged through clear prescriptive hierarchies. In practice, these philosophical provisions laid guidelines for strategic action for the Joseon elites, who secured their credentials and privilege by impeccable adherence to the Confucian rites and social fundamentals. But apart from its institutional aspect, kinship is what people do in everyday life and how they view the world. The negotiation of the lived, everyday, domestic, affective dimension of Joseon kinship practice unfolded in an archive of its own: the vernacular Korean lineage novel (gamun soseol) that thrived in the domestic quarters among elite female audiences. These lengthy texts—spanning tens and even hundreds of manuscript volumes—circulated in vernacular Korean manuscripts from the late seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Coeval with the emergence of the patrilineage, these texts capture the affective realignment engendered by the transformation of kinship practice.

Articulating the gap between the social norm and the person, lineage novels achieve a delicate balance between conduct-book prescription and subversive commentary. Confrontations between the protagonists’ wills and characters erupt in a variety of domestic conflicts, which paint kinship, and particularly the dimension of its domestic experience, as a site of continuous contestation. At the same time, the happy-end resolutions of these texts that depict the succession of ever new generations of a given lineage institute kinship values as the highest horizon of moral human life: while kinship norms are exacting and often difficult to manage, they are deemed to embody the fundamental ethical way of life.

Lineage novels describe a variety of contested kinship bonds—between stepmothers and stepsons, fathers- and sons-in-law, wives and concubines, to name just a few. The central bond that ensures lineage perpetuity—marriage—also receives a great deal of attention. Marriages figure especially prominently in lineage novels that are centered on a “remarkable encounter” (gibong): a predestined meeting between the spouses, which leads to marriage over the course of all sorts of complications. A bond of immense social significance, marriage in the lineage novel is depicted as an intensely personal relationship, aggravated by the spouses’ tempers and the circumstances of their encounter. A novel that zooms into the minutest details of the conjugal bond is The Remarkable Reunion of Jade Mandarin Ducks (Ogwon jaehap giyeon), known to have been in circulation in the eighteenth century. Like other lineage novels, Jade Mandarin Ducks is an anonymous text, and its rich manuscript history, unfortunately, exceeds the scope of this essay. The jade mandarin ducks referenced in the title are charismatic nuptial tokens, which signify the connection between the spouses.

The narrative revolves around the contested relationship between So Segyeong and his wife, Yi Hyeonyeong. The couple’s betrothal, arranged at an early age, reflects the long-standing connection between the Yi and the So lineages. The links of friendship and patronage notwithstanding, the marriage pledge is reneged upon by Yi Hyeonyeong’s father as soon as So Segyeong’s father falls into disfavor at court. Fleeing political persecution, So Segyeong dons a maid’s dress and enters service in the house of his prospective father-in-law. His charge, ironically, is his betrothed, Yi Hyeonyeong, who quickly grows fond of her new maid, who appears distinctly refined against all the domestic servants Hyeonyeong was used to.

Needless to say, the titillating bodily proximity runs as a red thread through the relationship of the couple, bonded through marriage pledge, but separated through life’s vagaries. Changing settings, locations, outfits, and roles, So Segyeong and Yi Hyeonyeong encounter each other time and again, until they are properly married and settled into their roles of husband and wife. By introducing the possibility of choice, attraction, and the drawn-out coming to terms of the two predestined (and prearranged) spouses, the lineage novel locates the bedroom—the inner domestic space of intimacy—as the crucial site for negotiating the norms and values of kinship. The titillating, intimate aspect of Hyeonyeong and Segyeong’s encounter casts no shadow on the purity of the two, especially not on Hyeonyeong, expected to follow the strict code of chastity prescribed for all Joseon women. But if the prospective spouses unwittingly share occasional intimate scenes, the mildly scandalizing aspect of these fortuitous, often flustering encounters is certainly directed at the reader, who is introduced to the intimate dimension of kinship life in a manner that transforms the prescriptive bonds of Confucian sociality into life worlds, spaces for living.

The very first encounter of Segyeong and Hyeonyeong that takes place in Hyeonyeong’s room leaves Segyeong discomfited. After paying compliments to Segyeong’s distinguished appearance and comportment (and here he appears in a maid’s guise), Hyeonyeong articulates her desire for strengthening the mistress-servant bond and in a gesture of good will offers Segyeong some of her clothing. Segyeong accepts the gift reluctantly, and he is soon perplexed by another offer from Hyeonyeong—to sleep at her feet. While Segyeong succeeds at contriving a morally sound excuse from both propositions, Segyeong hardly appears to be at his best advantage—dressed as a woman, and positioned as inferior to his betrothed, which reverses the accepted male-female hierarchy.

The second encounter between these prospective spouses takes place after both Segyeong and Hyeonyeong flee from her father’s house: Segyeong is pestered by the amorous advances of Hyeonyeong’s father, enthralled by the maid’s charms, while Hyeonyeong escapes an unwanted marriage arrangement, pursued by her father out of greed for political advancement. In a roadside encounter, Hyeonyeong and Segyeong’s roles are reversed. It is Hyeonyeong now who hides her true appearance donning male garb. At a glance, Hyeonyeong realizes that Segyeong was the one who pretended to be her maid, although she is still unaware that the two are betrothed. Hyeonyeong orders Segyeong to his knees to acknowledge his wrongdoing, as no man is allowed to transgress the space of a woman’s boudoir (a serious crime from the perspective of the chastity ideal), and even goes so far as to throw a knife at Segyeong. To get his own way with her, Segyeong drags Hyeonyeong into an adjacent room and says that she should abandon her pretenses and just marry him, although he does not disclose that the two have long been betrothed. Hyeonyeong stays faithful to her ideal, and at the first opportune moment she throws herself into the river, leaving Segyeong quite impressed by her upright spirit. But it is not just her moral character that stands out: Dressed in the stately male garb, her exceptional beauty emanated all the more exquisitely.

Fast-forwarding past further incidents, magical interventions, and fortunate coincidences, we find Segyeong and Hyeonyeong in the bedroom once again. Now, they are husband and wife. A tender scene follows the birth of Segyeong and Hyeonyeong’s second child. Segyeong’s gaze scans over the body of his wife, who feels unwell, and this intimate process of looking appropriates Hyeonyeong’s body into the privatized space of intimacy:

Because of his restless thoughts, Segyeong could not fall asleep, and propping himself on his pillow he looked [at Hyeonyeong, his wife]. The light flowed from the crescent moon into the window. Seated close by, Hyeonyeong was stuck in the position in which the nurse had put her [on the bed]. The elusive fragrance [of her body] excited [Segyeong’s] nostrils, and her posture was not at all like that of an ill person. Hyeonyeong’s slender waist, drooping head, and chiseled shoulders were all so exquisite as to make cranes and wild geese rise in a dance. This indeed was a beauty balanced with proper cultivation. Any man lying in the same room would have his good senses excited. Segyeong thought to himself, “Her appearance is indeed not like that of a sick person, so why does she have so many ailments? The Book of Rites mentions five types of women unfit for marriage, and among them is the sickly woman. The only son who must continue his family line, I ended up with this sickly woman only because of her lofty virtue and noble character. Since she has given me her body, I cannot throw her out on the account of her sickness. Although [I] cannot use her body, her eyes and ears are sound, and her speech clever, so with her exquisite beauty and wisdom she was my good companion. How did it happen that she became so ill? Even without thinking of the old days I am saddened and full of pity, but now when I look back I am overcome with regret and grief, as though my own body was ailing.”

The last two lines situate the script of desire (Any man lying in the same room would have his good senses excited) and the script of duty (Segyeong’s pondering on the continuation of his lineage) in the very body of Segyeong, who feels as though his own flesh is failing him.

By transforming lineage bodies into surfaces of intimacy and unmediated, nonritualized contact, the lineage novel opens up alternative spaces for kinship experience: the intimate economy of bodily proximity and the inner rooms of domestic, everyday living quarters. The husband-wife relationship, one of three fundamental human bonds, is here rethought as a relationship of intimacy, and mutual coming to terms, even while lineage novels steer clear of the notion of socially exfoliating, romanticized desire. The setting and the final horizon for this delicately wrought relationship between two spouses is continuity of the lineage.


Ksenia Chizhova
Asst. Professor of East Asian Studies
Princeton University