[Inkstone] The Mourning Cries of Two Royal Women: Hanjungnok and Ai tư vãn

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byThi Bich Phuong Tran

A classic prose text of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), Hanjungnok (Records written in silence) chronicles the depths of one’s innermost heart. The work, which is also available in English as The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, is an aching recollection of the singular experiences in the life of its author, Lady Hong Hyegyeong. As a whole, the text echoes with the fitful mourning cries of Her Majesty, who was first-hand witness to the volatile and painful period of history transpiring behind secluded palace gates.

Upon reading Hanjungnok, I naturally recalled the Empress of the Northern Palace (Bắc cung Hoàng hậu), Lê Ngọc Hân, and her book Ai tư vãn (Songs of grief). The life and work of Lê Ngọc Hân bear remarkable similarity to that of Hyegyeong.

Lady Hyegyeong was daughter to the senior official Hong Bong-han, and a descendent of King Seonjo’s daughter, Princess Jeongmyeong. At nine years of age, Hyegyeong was selected to be the legal wife of Crown Prince Sado. Though Crown Prince Sado was killed prior to taking the throne and Lady Hyegyeong never ascended to Queen, she did eventually become the mother of King Jeongjo (r. 1776–1800), and later grandmother of King Sunjo (r. 1800–1834). After King Yeongjo and his successor Jeongjo passed away, Lady Hyegyeong lost her position in court due to the shift in power to Queen Consort Jeongsun, second wife to King Yeongjo. But in time, Lady Hyegyeong was able to regain her position in the royal family and left a great influence on that period of the Joseon dynasty.

As for the Empress of the Northern Palace, Lê Ngọc Hân was the daughter of Emperor Lê Hiển Tông of the Lê dynasty, and later ordained Empress of the Northern Palace as the concubine to Emperor Quang Trung of the Tây Sơn dynasty (1778–1802). After Emperor Quang Trung passed away, Lê Ngọc Hân was cut off from the court as power shifted to the maternal relatives of Emperor Cảnh Thịnh, son of Emperor Quang Trung and his legal wife. But this period of isolation came to an end when Lê Ngọc Hân’s sister by the same father, the Princess Lê Ngọc Bình, became the Main Empress of Emperor Cảnh Thịnh. And thus, Lê Ngọc Hân gradually reclaimed her influence over the Tây Sơn dynasty.

In terms of stature, Lady Hyegyeong and Lê Ngọc Hân were both of noble birth and exerted great influence on the royal court in their times. And it is not only for this reason that the lives of the two empresses bear uncanny similarities. After Crown Prince Sado’s execution in a large wooden rice chest, Lady Hyegyeong was made to leave the imperial palace and return to her parents’ house with her ten-year-old son, the future King Jeongjo, and her two daughters, eight-year-old Princess Cheongyeon and six-year-old Princess Cheongseon. Likewise, after Emperor Quang Trung’s death, the Empress of the Northern Palace also left the imperial palace, but not to return to her parents’ house. Rather, Lê Ngọc Hân went to Kim Tiên1  pagoda near the Đan Dương2 palace in order to mourn her late husband and raise their two young children who at the time were still very small: Princess Nguyễn Thị Bảo Ngọc was two, and Prince Nguyễn Quang Đức was just a year old.

Though both women left the imperial palaces after the deaths of their husbands, only Lady Hyegyeong was able to eventually return as mother and then grandmother of the King. Lê Ngọc Hân died when she was twenty-nine years old, leaving behind her ten-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son, both of whom also died young due to the vengeful hands of the Nguyễn dynasty.3 This is the main difference in the lives of the two.

However, the most important and fundamental point of similarity between Lady Hyegyeong and the Empress of the Northern Palace Lê Ngọc Hân is their immortalization through outstanding works of literature that they themselves wrote. Though perhaps not intending to compose such works of poetic beauty, both left behind works that contributed a star to their national literary constellations. Lady Hyegyeong wrote Hanjungnok for her descendants to express the incomparable pain of her loss. Empress of the Northern Palace Lê Ngọc Hân wrote Ai tư vãn to mourn her husband and share her tormented sadness.

Hanjungnok is a memoir composed of four sections, each composed at a different time with a different purpose. The first part, My Life, was written in 1795 following the request of her nephew who wished for her to leave behind writing for the family. The subsequent parts, In Defense of My Family; Records Written in Tears (1802) and In Defense of My Family; Additional Record of 1806, provide accounts of her family to clear their names. My Husband, Crown Prince Sado, started in 1802 and completed in 1805, sheds light on questions regarding the incident of 1762, the year of her husband’s execution. In this last section, Lady Hyegyeong deftly chronicles the events surrounding her life of misfortune, as well as the wretched history of Crown Prince Sado. The work is flooded with agony, choked out in sobs amid life’s tempests and thorns. She has described her experience of writing Hanjungnok with a “fitful mind and disheveled insides, my tears flooding every word and sentence.” Hanjungnok is a profoundly touching text, each word written as if pulled from the depths of Her Majesty’s secluded soul.

Differently motivated, Ai tư vãn was written as a tribute to Emperor Quang Trung—the illustrious hero and beloved husband of the Empress of the Northern Palace whom she respected and trusted throughout her life. Ai tư vãn is thought to have been composed in 1792, not long after the Emperor Quang Trung’s sudden demise.4 It consists of 164 lines of the traditional Vietnamese seven-seven-six-eight form (song thất lục bát) and can be divided into four parts. Part One (lines 1–8) details the Empress of the Northern Palace Lê Ngọc Hân’s sorrowful situation upon her much adored husband’s death. Part Two (lines 9–40) recalls the couple’s serene and happy memories, Lê Ngọc Hân’s caring devotion to her sick husband, and the utter shock of his sudden departure. Part Three (lines 41–156) imparts the bleakness of bottomless lamentation for Emperor Quang Trung, the hero from humble beginnings who, with gracious humanity, built an illustrious career and formidable reputation among his enemies. In the concluding Part Four (lines 157–164), Lê Ngọc Hân mournfully returns to her turbulent life of vicissitudes as she sobs to the heavens asking for mercy on the deceased. A few researchers have claimed that the rhythmic artistry in Ai tư vãn does not reach that of Cung oán ngâm (The complaints of an odalisque) or Chinh phụ ngâm (Lament of the soldier’s wife).5 Nevertheless, the author’s tragically raw state transports her words into the very depths of readers’ hearts:


So exhausting, the unjust machinations of fate

In a blink, clouds swallow His blessed chariot

A gathering, a parting, a tear, a laugh, oh ephemeral life!

I’ll tell you: it was years we had together

Fate of the floating fern, of the cloud

Our serendipity clipped—that’s it. But who will catch this body’s collapse?

A whole sleepless night, a darkened day

But who can extinguish this pain?

I wait and wait myself into a dream

Of visions vague, my stunning stupor!


Like HanjungnokAi tư vãn is the mournful, heart-wrenching wail of someone facing life’s “vicissitudes.” It is not the flowery rhymes but the feelings surging in the chest and rising to the tip of the pen that enable these two works to burrow into readers’ hearts and withstand the test of time.


Thi Bich Phuong Tran
Thang Long University