[Inkstone] Imagining Eternity: The Prison Letters of Yi Suni

  • onSeptember 1, 2019
  • Vol.45 Autumn 2019
  • byDeberniere Torrey


The textual sources from Joseon (1392–1910), Korea’s last monarchic period, include a category that represents a development that was not only peripheral to mainstream culture but targeted for elimination: the introduction of Catholicism. Despite official persecutions of Catholics and attempts to destroy Catholic literature after the movement’s birth in the 1780s, Korean Catholicism survived in the historical record because the use of texts were central to the movement itself. The Joseon state’s aggressive suppression of Catholicism involved the creation of edicts and trial records linked to Catholics, and the Catholic community, though forced underground, was never eliminated. Thus, the writings of and about Catholics from this period offer a view onto a striking variation in the cultural landscape of Korea leading up to its opening to the modern world in 1876.

Yi Suni Ludgarda, executed in 1802 near the end of the first large-scale persecution of Catholics, was one of a handful of Joseon Catholics who left writings of a more personal nature. An erudite daughter of a yangban family, Yi may have written many things, but what survives are two letters she wrote from prison: one to her mother and another to two female relatives. These letters provide additional clues about the subjective experience of being Catholic in Joseon. Comparable in some ways with other Joseon women’s writing, Yi’s letters also reveal a self-identity positioned beyond the social orientations of her Joseon milieu.

In her letters, Ludgarda describes her arrest, asks after the welfare of family members, and expresses her fears. She also apologizes for not being a better daughter, encourages her loved ones to remain strong in the face of tragedy, and reminds them that her sacrifice will bring honor to the family. In these respects, she behaves like a proper yangban daughter: filial to parents, patient in hardship and encouraging others to be likewise, concerned about virtue and honor, self-effacing and sacrificial. The sacrifice, however, is her imminent martyrdom for being Catholic, a category that separates Ludgarda from her non-Catholic peers. For a traditional Joseon woman, sacrifice and honor were linked primarily to being a filial daughter and a good wife and mother. Ludgarda addresses her mother with love and respect, and her devotion to her husband, imprisoned in another jail, is clear in several passages. But Ludgarda’s main concern is with her and her family members’ individual soul salvation, which transcends the traditional gender-specific categories of virtue. As Ludgarda reminds her loved ones, remaining faithful to God until death will grant them heaven, where they will be reunited with each other. In Catholicism, each human soul was equal before God, and the fundamental requirements of faithfulness were the same regardless of family, social status, and gender, the primary demarcations of identity in Joseon society.

On this foundation, Ludgarda could circumvent some of the duties imposed on Joseon women, such as the bearing of children to carry on the family line. In fact, Ludgarda defied this requirement directly by adopting an old Catholic tradition in which a married couple would renounce sexual relations for the sake of devoting themselves to spiritual work. Ludgarda had wished to remain a virgin consecrated to God, but since Joseon customs dictated that a healthy young woman from a good family should marry, this choice would have attracted harassment. The priest secretly ministering in Joseon at the time offered Ludgarda the solution of marrying Yu Jungcheol Yoan, who was similarly inclined. Thus, three years before the start of the persecutions, the two were married under the unusual vows of perpetual virginity. In both letters from prison, Ludgarda reassures her loved ones that, during the intervening three years, she and Yoan had remained faithful to their vows despite many instances of temptation. Such a marriage freed Ludgarda from birthing and raising children, which would have sealed her traditional female role. Furthermore, the couple’s united goal of remaining chaste for God indicated an equality of purpose absent in a traditional Joseon marriage, where faithfulness was required only of the wife. Indeed, Ludgarda confirms this equality when she writes, “Although others say that Yoan is my husband, I say that he is my faithful friend.” According to the Confucian mores of Joseon society, friendship was the only non-hierarchical relationship. Ludgarda alludes again to this spiritual equality between men and women when she reminds her brother’s wife, who has just lost her husband, of their future reunion in heaven: “In this life you are husband and wife; in eternity you will be partners.” In heaven, the final home of the Joseon Catholic, partnership would replace the hierarchical gender relationship.

In earthly terms, Ludgarda was still limited by her female identity. After all, it had compelled her to settle for a celibate marriage rather than remain single, and her vows had to be legitimized by a male priest. Nonetheless, being Catholic enabled a sense of self that was fundamentally different from that of her non-Catholic peers, as further indicated in Ludgarda’s lament over her human moral frailty.

Lament was a mode of expression common enough in Joseon women’s writings—letters, memoirs, and gasa (long narrative or instructive poems)—for scholars to classify a subcategory of “women’s lament” literature that featured complaints about the hardship of being a woman living under the oppressive customs of late Joseon society, with the blame usually placed on fate: “Oh, if only I had been born a man!” Ludgarda also laments, but never about being a woman. Her most immediate lament is about the violence of the persecution and the suffering of her loved ones. However, another dominant theme in both letters is her concern about soul salvation, linked to a recurrent lament about her own weakness. Ludgarda writes that when the persecutions started, “I resolved in my heart to die for the Lord at the right opportunity.” Martyrdom would be the most noble expression of her devotion and would allow her direct entry into heaven. Hence, despite her sorrow over the human tragedy of persecution, she sees arrest and imprisonment as an opportunity: “But it happened as I had wished. . . . My one desire is fulfilled.” Yet Ludgarda also voices anxiety about possibly giving in to temptation. This would be the temptation to recant her faith to avoid death, or to entertain sinful thoughts at the moment of death, thus missing the chance to “die in grace.” Even when rejoicing that she will soon be reunited with loved ones in heaven, she follows with, “But an exceedingly sinful person such as I can only hope, for such a thing is not easy.”  Elsewhere she mentions her prayers for the family’s reunion in heaven, but again laments, “What if I live and fail to fulfill this wish? I fear this, so even if I die, do not be sorrowful.” Unlike the lament voiced by Ludgarda’s non-Catholic peers, where fate is to blame for making one a woman, Ludgarda suggests that she is to blame for the difficulty of attaining heaven. Although Ludgarda’s Catholic identity allows her to transcend some of the burdens of womanhood, she accepts a new burden of the possibility that her choices will result in eternal suffering.

Paradoxically, Ludgarda’s self-flagellation links to a certain agency. Suffering in this life might be out of her control, but suffering in eternity is a matter of making the right choice. And just as apologizing for lacking in filial piety might itself be a sign of filial piety, humbly lamenting one’s sinfulness was a mark of a faithful Catholic. Thus, in voicing her fears, Ludgarda also exercises an agency that she holds over her eternal fate. In a broader sense, Ludgarda sees herself, not merely fate, as responsible for some part of the tragedy of being, and faces this responsibility in order to save herself from evil.

Ludgarda’s Catholicism facilitated a transcending of certain gender-based boundaries and an individuality that made her voice from prison unique among the voices of Joseon women. A small subset of writings by Joseon women similarly shifts away from generic female discourse to highlight more individual experiences over the duties and the burdens of womanhood. But Ludgarda’s awareness of her impending execution, joined to her belief in the soul’s immortality and the eternal consequences of her actions, extended her self-consciousness to another psychological level. The result is an unusually autobiographical and emotionally vivid utterance marking the discursive landscape of Joseon.


1  Ludgarda is a Portuguese variant of Lutgarde, the name of a thirteenth-century Flemish saint. At baptism, each Joseon Catholic received the name of a Catholic saint

2  Themes from this essay are also discussed in the author’s following articles: “Transcendence and Anxiety in the Prison Letters of Catholic Martyr Yi Suni Ludgarda (1779–1802)” (Religion and Literature 47.3 [2015]: 25–55); “Between Heroism and Despair: Opportunities and Barriers for Women in the Early Korean Catholic Church” (Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 23.4 [2017]: 421–441). For an excellent Korean-language introduction to Ludgarda’s letters, see Jung Byung-sul’s Jugeum eul neomeoseo: sungyoja Yi Suni eui okjung pyeonji [Beyond death: the prison letters of martyr Yi Suni] (Seoul: Minumsa, 2014).

3  Apologizing for not being a better daughter was a typical expression of filial piety.


by Deberniere Torrey
Assistant Professor
World Languages and Cultures
The University of Utah