History Personalized: Lee Jin by Shin Kyung-sook

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.1 Autumn 2008
  • byJung Yeo-ul
Lee Jin

Severe poverty and ‘barbaric’ customs plagued the late Joseon period when the nation was forced to open up to foreign forces. Shortly after Joseon pulled itself out of the grip of the Q’ing Dynasty, it had to grapple with imperial powers seeking to dominate the Korean peninsula. Unprecedented chaos, sparked by the imbalance between China, a declining empire, and Japan, a rising regional power, was the defining image that describes the turbulent period.

Shin Kyung-sook, however, has not bemoaned the disheartening fall of Joseon; instead, she has created a largescale odyssey in which a beautiful courtesan embarks on a journey in search of her true love. Shin’s writing doesn’t bring back to life a barren landscape saddled with poverty, but a shimmering myth about an individual who rises above the rubble of failed political decisions. This is an entirely new picture that goes beyond the typical descriptions of the trouble-laden period.

Shin weaves a moving tale of a real life figure that cannot be found in school textbooks; she has drawn her inspiration from a brief historical passage about a Joseon court dancer who left for Paris after falling in love with a French diplomat.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when diplomatic conflicts and economic confrontation prevailed, there was no room for the individual. Shin, however, attempts to revive the innermost state of a woman, Lee Jin, down to the finest details.

She does this in a way that proves the significance of a personal history in the context of broader social and political turmoil. Also restored in Shin’s novel is the lively and dynamic life of the Joseon people.

In the novel, a Catholic priest named Blanc, who offers a chance for Lee Jin to learn French, says he is deeply surprised by three facts about Joseon. First, this small country in East Asia has its own language and writing system. Second, the Joseon people, even its lower-class citizens, have a strong literary culture in which they borrow books from each other. Third, Joseon people tend to eat a lot. 

Author's Profile

Shin Kyung-sook is a writer. Born in Jeongeub, North Jeolla Province in 1963. She made her literary debut in 1985 when her novella "A Winter Fable" won the Munye Joongang Literary Award for Best First Novel. She is the author of seven short story collections, including The Blind CalfThe Sound of BellsUnknown Women, and Moonlight Tales, and seven novels, including An Isolated RoomLee JinPlease Look After Mom, and I'll Be Right There. She has received a number of prestigious literary awards at home and abroad, including the Yi Sang Literary Award, the Dongin Prize, the Hyundae Munhak Award, Prix de l'Inapercu, and the Man Asian Literary Prize.