A Prince Forgotten: Sohyeon by Kim Insuk

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.8 Summer 2010
  • byYi Soo-hyung

In the early 17th century, with the Ming and Qing (Manchu) fighting for rule over China, pro-Ming Joseon was invaded twice by the Manchu. Defeated in the second invasion of 1636, Joseon was annexed by Qing and forced to send its two princes, Crown Prince Sohyeon and Prince Bongrim, to Qing as hostages. Kim Insuk’s Sohyeon depicts the tragic life of Crown Prince Sohyeon, who was kept hostage for nearly 10 years in the enemy capital, Shenyang, and died shortly after his return to Joseon in 1645.

The story of Sohyeon strikes a particularly resonant chord with Koreans, who were left behind in the era of industrialization and suffered under decades of Japanese colonial rule in the early 20th century. The dilemma whether to stay loyal to the declining Ming, or more realistically cooperate with the rising Qing, evokes the late 19th century dilemma of choosing between upholding tradition or embracing modernization. Sohyeon, furthermore, is known to have studied modern subjects under a Jesuit priest he met in Beijing.

Was Sohyeon assassinated by conser-vatives in the court? Would Joseon have been more open to modernization if Sohyeon had survived to become king? These are the questions that are usually asked by later generations, but the author of Sohyeon focuses on the solitude the prince must have felt while living under such tumultuous conditions. The following excerpt is an example of this approach:

“The Crown Prince went out to the yard and stood facing the sunset. That was where the King was. It was also where he would return someday. Bongrim must be there as well, so the Crown Prince felt better just facing that direction. Word had it that Bongrim had received the blank missive. The Crown Prince knew that Bongrim must have read much more in the letter than words could possibly say. He also knew that that was his sorrow and solitude.”

The author speaks of the sorrow and solitude written in the “blank missive.” In the words of one of the book’s characters, it may be likened to the sorrow of one who has endured so many grievances that the words cannot fit on his tombstone but must be left blank. Indeed, such is the depth of sorrow and solitude depicted in Sohyeon that the book may be likened to a “blank missive” as well.