Lady Sa’s Journey to the South

  • onMarch 28, 2017
  • Vol.35 Spring 2017
  • byKim Manjung
Lady Sa’s Journey to the South

Translator’s Note


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


Chapter Four

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?”

Dong Cheong said, “I have a confidante named Naeng Jin. He’s quick and capable so I’m sure he’ll succeed. But it won’t be easy to get our hands on Lady Sa’s most precious belonging.”

Lady Kyo thought about it for a while and said, “Lady Sa’s servant Seolmae is Napmae’s younger sister. We should use her to get it.”

She then made Napmae bring Seolmae to her quarters when no one was around. Lady Kyo treated Seolmae well, and by showering her with gold, silver, and jewelry, she coaxed her into compliance. Seolmae said, “My Lady’s jewelry box is in the room, but it must be opened by a key. I don’t understand why you need it.”

Napmae said, “Don’t trouble yourself with such useless questions and don’t mention it to anyone else. If you say anything, both of us are dead.” Then she gave several keys to Seolmae saying, “Try opening it with these keys. What I want is the master’s favorite thing.”

Seolmae immediately took the keys and entered Lady Sa’s room. She opened the box, took the jade ring out, put the box back, and scurried out of the room. She gave the ring to Lady Kyo saying, “This is a treasure of the Yu family that has been passed down for many generations. Lady Sa thinks of it most dearly.” Lady Kyo was so delighted she gave Seolmae many gifts. She then asked Dong Cheong to proceed with the plan.

At that time, Lady Sa’s servant who’d followed her to the Sa residence returned to inform them of Old Lady Sa’s passing and said, “Young Master Sa is still too young to conduct the funeral and there are no close relatives so Lady Sa will conduct it by herself. She asked the master to oversee the household affairs.”

Lady Kyo sent Napmae to convey her condolences and urged Dong Cheong to work on the plot.

At that time, Master Yu arrived in Sandong and went to a restaurant and ordered food and wine. A young man came in and bowed to him. Master Yu reciprocated and then sat down observing the young man. His appearance was so striking Master Yu asked his name. The young man said, “I’m Naeng Jin from the south. May I respectfully ask your name?”

Master Yu didn’t give his real name but gave someone else’s name instead. He then asked Naeng Jin about the situation in Sandong and he replied brightly so that the master was very pleased and thought, “This man is exceptionally handsome.”

He then asked, “Where are you headed? You said you’re from the south but you sound like a man from the capital.”

Naeng Jin said, “I’m a loner. I float around from east to west like clouds in the sky and have no place where I want to settle down. I spent several years in the capital. This spring, I went to the Sinseong district and spent half a year there, and now I’m headed to my hometown. I’m happy to have a companion for a few days.”

Master Yu said, “I’m also happy to have you as a companion since I’m lonely.” He then suggested wine. They ate, drank, and stayed at the inn together. The next morning, when they were about to leave, the master saw a jade ring tied by a string to Naeng Jin’s inner garments. The master thought it very strange. He looked at it carefully and realized it looked very familiar. Suspicious, he said, “I met a man from Seoyeok and learned to distinguish fine jade. I think your jade ring is very extraordinary. Would you let me have a look at it?” Naeng Jin hesitated for a while as if reluctant to show it to him, then untied the ring and handed it to him.

Master Yu examined it carefully and realized the color and the pattern on the ring was exactly the same as Lady Sa’s. He looked at it again and saw a one-hearted knot of blue thread, a symbol of eternal love, which made him even more suspicious. He asked the young man, “It’s very precious. Where did you get it?”

Naeng Jin pretended to be sad. He didn’t answer and slipped the ring back into his inner garments.

The master, desperate to find out, asked again. “There must be a story behind your ring. What does it matter if you tell me?”

Naeng Jin replied after a while, “Someone I knew gave it to me when I was up north. What do I care? There’s nothing special about this ring.”

Master Yu found his words were even more suspect. The ring must be Lady Sa’s, and he said he came from the Sinseong district. The master suspected one of the servants had stolen the ring and sold it to Naeng Jin. After thinking it over, he decided to travel with Naeng Jin for several days to find out more. They became very close and Naeng Jin said, “We’re very close now, so I guess there isn’t any harm in telling you. It’s about my beloved, so please don’t laugh at me.”

Master Yu said, “If you love her that much, why don’t you live together with her instead of going to the south?”

Naeng Jin said, “Even good things can be jinxed and the creator is an envious god, so you have only one chance to have a beautiful relationship in life. There’s an old saying that goes, ‘Entering a great house is like entering the deep ocean,’ and I’m nothing more than a pedestrian. How can I not lament over this?” Naeng Jin seemed very sad.

Master Yu said, “You’re very tenderhearted.” They then drank together and enjoyed themselves all day long, and went their separate ways the following day. Who’s to know the true nature of the young man and what would become of Lady Sa’s misfortunes?

On the way to the Sandong, the master kept thinking about the jade ring. He’d seen the ring but couldn’t figure out why it was in the young man’s possession. He suspected, “We don’t know many things about this world. I wonder whether the servants stole it.”

With tens of thousands of thoughts, the master felt uneasy and was consumed with worry. He fulfilled his official assignment within half a year and returned to the capital. Lady Sa had already returned home. Master Yu and Lady Sa tearfully exchanged words over Old Lady Sa’s death and then he met with Lady Kyo and his two sons. As he suddenly recalled Naeng Jin’s jade ring his face started to change color. He asked Lady Sa, “Where’s the jade ring my father gave you?”

Lady Sa said, “It’s in my box. Why do you ask?” The master said, “A strange thing happened, so I’d like to see it.” Lady Sa also thought it strange and ordered a servant to fetch the box. She opened it and looked inside carefully. Everything was there but the jade ring. Lady Sa said in astonishment, “I’m certain I put it here. Why is it not here?”

Master Yu’s face darkened and he didn’t say anything. Lady Sa said, “Do you know where the jade ring is?”

The master said in anger, “You have given it to someone else and now you ask me?” Feeling ashamed and indignant Lady Sa couldn’t say a word. At that moment, a servant came in to tell him, “Lady Du is here.”

Master Yu hastily received her and bowed. He was happy she’d returned safely. He told her, “I wanted to speak to you about something.”

Lady Du was surprised. “What is it?”

Master Yu told her about Naeng Jin. “I thought it very strange, so I asked to see the jade ring when I got home. But it wasn’t there as I expected. It’s a huge calamity for our house. What should I do?”

Lady Sa was frightened out of her senses after she heard this and wailed, “I believe I must’ve behaved improperly before that you should suspect me now of such vile behavior. I can’t face you. It’s up to you whether I live or die. The ancients said, ‘A humane gentleman doesn’t believe slander and throws the slanderers to the wolves and tigers.’ I wish My Lord will investigate this thoroughly.”

After hearing this, Lady Du was angered and addressed Master Yu, “How do you think you’d compare to your late father?”

Master Yu replied, “How could I compare myself to him?”

Lady Du said, “Your late father knew how to select the right person and knew everything about worldly affairs. He always praised Lady Sa saying, ‘My daughter-in-law is the most faithful woman in the world.’ He also entrusted you to me saying, ‘Yeonsu is still young. Please teach him so he commits no wrongdoing.’ He told Lady Sa, ‘There’s nothing at all to admonish you about.’ It means he understood Lady Sa to be beautifully behaved and pure of virtue. With your cleverness you should also know this. How can you suspect your jade-like wife by criticizing your late father’s assessment and falsely criticizing your wife’s upright behavior? Someone in the house must’ve stolen it from her. You should investigate it thoroughly instead of talking nonsense.”

Master Yu said, “Your instructions are just.” He then ordered implements of punishment to be laid out to severely punish and cross-examine the servants in the house. Those who knew nothing swore to their deaths. Seolmae, fearing she might be killed if she confessed, denied everything. In the end, Master Yu couldn’t uncover the truth. Lady Du returned home and Lady Sa declared herself a criminal since she could not disprove the accusation. Master Yu heard so much slander he couldn’t completely quell his suspicions, much to the approval of Lady Kyo.


Chapter Five

Master Yu discussed the matter of Lady Sa with Lady Kyo. Lady Kyo said, “Lady Du’s right, but she’s also biased. She praises Lady Sa too much and causes you to lose face by threatening you. There have been many cases where even the ancients were deceived. Although your late father was a renowned man, he died soon after Lady Sa came into this house so how well could he have known her? His dying wishes were for you to be cautious and to give Lady Sa encouragement. Now Lady Du uses his words as a pretext to make you consult Lady Sa in all affairs. I believe Lady Du is biased.”

Master Yu said, “Lady Sa always behaves well, so I never thought such thing would happen. I still can’t believe what she has done even though I witnessed it myself. The other day, when Jangju fell ill, I recognized the writing on that wicked paper to be Lady Sa’s hand. I thought she might’ve been framed, so I burned it right away and told you not to breathe a word of it to anyone. How can I trust her now?”

Lady Kyo said, “How’ll you deal with her?”

Master Yu responded, “What can I do without any clear evidence? Also, my father favored her greatly as my aunt continues to do. It’s very difficult. What should I do?”

Lady Kyo said nothing.

She then became pregnant again and ten months later bore a son. Master Yu was delighted and named him Bongchu. He loved Jangju and Bongchu like the jewels in his hand.

One day, Lady Kyo invited Dong Cheong to her quarters when Master Yu was gone and schemed with him. She said, “Your plan was excellent, but the master said some things the other day. The old saying goes, ‘If you want to get rid of grass, you should remove its roots.’ Lady Sa, along with Lady Du, is trying to find out the truth about the jade ring. If she finds out, it’ll be a great disaster.”

Dong Cheong said, “I’m sure Lady Du’ll delve deeply into this so you should slander Lady Du to the master by all means necessary so that aunt and nephew don’t get along.”

Lady Kyo said, “I also considered this but the master always treats Lady Du as if she were his mother. He doesn’t contradict her and always listens to her. I believe this plan won’t work.”

Dong Cheong said, “I can’t think of anything else for now. Why don’t we discuss this more later?”

At that time, Lady Du assigned a man to investigate the jade incident on behalf of Lady Sa, but she couldn’t uncover the truth. She believed it was Lady Kyo’s doing but she had no proof. She worried and couldn’t sleep. One day, her son, Du Eok, was appointed as judge in the Jangsa district so she was poised to leave for Jangsa with him. Although she was happy about this, on the other hand, she was concerned Lady Sa would be alone. She couldn’t set her mind at ease.

Lady Du selected the day to leave for Jangsa upon which Master Yu invited her and her son to a farewell banquet. Lady Du noted Lady Sa’s absence at the banquet. Displeased, she spoke to the master, “Since my brother passed away, I wanted to live out my days by your side but unexpectedly we’re to be parted by ten thousand ri. How could I not feel remorse? I have a favor to ask you. Will you hear it?”

Master Yu kneeled down immediately and said, “I’m just an ordinary man. How can I not listen to what you have to say?”

Lady Du said, “It’s about none other than Lady Sa. Her virtue is as bright as the sun and the moon. I regret you don’t see it despite your intelligence. If anything happens again while I’m away, please ignore the lies and don’t be carried away by rumors. If anything happens, send me a letter and don’t manage it with such severity that you’ll regret it later.”

Master Yu said, “I will do as you say.”

Lady Du then summoned a servant and asked, “Where is Lady Sa now? Take me to her.” The servant escorted Lady Du to Lady Sa. Her hair was uncombed and her jade-like face was pale. She was so feeble and weak that her robes looked too heavy for her. When Lady Du saw her appearance, she felt as if she had been stabbed in the heart.

Lady Sa greeted with her courtesy, “Your son is venerable! You came to visit on this happy occasion for which I should’ve gone out to greet you. But I’ve been accused of a great crime and was unable to go out. It fills me with endless regret. But now you’ve come unexpectedly and seen me like this. I’m terribly sorry.”

Lady Du shed tears saying, “Though my brother’s dying words entrusting my nephew to me still linger in my mind, I wasn’t able to guide him well and I put you in this horrible situation. All of it is this old woman’s fault. How can I face his parents when I reach the afterworld? Please don’t worry too much. The time will come when you will be cleared of this accusation. Since ancient times, all heroes and faithful women had to face bad times. Think about this deeply and don’t cause yourself harm. The Yu clan is known for its loyalty and filial piety but has lost its power to petty men. Up to now, it had faced many calamities but never had any problems within the house. Now that my brother has passed away, strange things have happened. It’s because of the wicked concubine and servants in the house who instigate my nephew. I realized that of late, my nephew’s behavior isn’t like before. The bright spirit within him is gone and he rarely discusses household affairs. Even our relationship seems distant now and I worry about this very much. You brought this on yourself when you agreed to your husband having a concubine, so whom can we blame? I believe this is heaven’s will so please don’t grieve too much.” She then told a servant to bring in Master Yu.

When he arrived in the hall, Lady Du adjusted her expression and with a serious look said, “These days you look like a man who has lost his mind, so I’m very concerned. How sad! When your father left this world, he entrusted me with all the affairs of the house and those words still ring in my ears. These are bad times and because of your narrow mind, Lady Sa’s conduct has been questioned though it’s as clear as jade. What stupidity! Now I must go far away and won’t be at ease, so I ask you, in the future if anyone in this house attempts to accuse Lady Sa, please don’t discredit her lightly until I return, even if you observe something terrible. Lady Sa is a faithful woman and she will never behave inappropriately. My feet will not take another step if Lady Sa is in danger so please be careful not to believe wicked words.”

Master Yu frowned and didn’t lift his head. He listened to Lady Du with his head bowed. Lady Du sighed and repeated several times for Lady Sa to take care of herself and then left. Lady Sa became even more saddened when Lady Du finally left for far away.

Lady Kyo had always felt uneasy because of Lady Du and so she was delighted to see her leave. She said to Dong Cheong, “Lady Du was an obstacle for us. Now she has gone far away after her son. This is the time for us to get rid of Lady Sa.”

Dong Cheong replied, “I have a clever scheme that will allow no one in the world to forgive Lady Sa. I only worry you won’t agree to it.”

Lady Kyo said, “How can I not listen to you if it’s indeed a clever scheme?”

Dong Cheong brought out a book and showed it to her saying, “The scheme is in this book. Would you like to try it?”

Lady Kyo said, “I’m listening.”

Dong Cheong explained, “This book is a history of the Tang dynasty. According to what’s written here, the Emperor Gaozong (r. 650-683) favored the concubine Wu Zhaoyi who wanted to defame the empress but found no opportunity to do so. Zhaoyi bore a daughter, who was very beautiful. Gaozong loved her very much, as did the empress who often came to see the baby. One day, the empress put the baby on her lap and cuddled her for a while before leaving. As soon as the empress left, Zhaoyi immediately pressed her baby to her bosom, killing her, and then wailed, ‘Someone killed my daughter!’ Gaozong then cross-examined everyone in the palace and everyone said no one had gone into the chamber except the empress. The empress couldn’t defend herself and finally Gaozong had her dethroned and crowned Wu Zhaoyi as empress. She’s the infamous Empress Wu.” 


pp. 43-58

Translated by Lee Seung-Ah