A Korean in Belle Époque Paris: The Court Dancer by Shin Kyung-sook

  • onDecember 11, 2018
  • Vol.42 Winter 2018
  • bySuzanne Kamata
The Court Dancer
Tr. Anton Hur

Among readers of English, Shin Kyung-sook is best known for her gritty, melancholy novels of contemporary Seoul. The Court Dancer, her fourth novel to be published in English, was written before her international break-out bestseller, Please Look After Mom. While this story, too, is tinged with sorrow, it is a transnational saga, an operatic tale spanning decades, brushed with poetic flourishes.

“Based on a true story,” and ably translated by Anton Hur, the novel centers around Ewha, later renamed Yi Jin, an orphan from a mysterious background. She is taken in by a woman whose sister, Lady Suh, is a member of the last Joseon court. Lady Suh brings little Jin with her to the palace for the pleasure of the Dowager. Soon the girl, who has a delicate nature that “brought to mind a deer that would cry together with a child who was lost in the forest,” attracts the attention of the queen herself. The queen (known posthumously as Empress Min) feeds Jin pears by hand and looks upon her as a daughter. Jin is taught French and becomes the star court dancer. Later, after an assassination attempt upon the queen, she keeps Jin close as a trusted companion.

The novel shifts between points of view, including those of Victor Collin de Plancy, the French legate, who has been sent to help improve conditions for French missionaries. After a French priest established the country’s first orphanage, rumors had begun that foreigners were stealing children. Mistrusted by the Koreans, Catholics were persecuted—and executed.

During this tumultuous period in Korean history, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States pursued their own interests in the country. When the US merchant ship the General Sherman appeared in port, it was burned down by the Korean military (an ironic twist, considering that Sherman is known in the United States for having burned his way through the American South). For a time, the Korean government banned foreigners from the country, unlike China which held to the policy of “Chinese spirit, Western technology.” The queen, however, while opposed to Japanese influence was interested in Western culture.

Victor Collin de Plancy, possibly Korea’s answer to Colonel Pinkerton, falls in love with Jin after seeing her stroll the palace grounds. The next time he sees her, she is performing the Dance of the Spring Oriole. Everyone can see that he is smitten.

As a member of the court, Jin belongs to the king and is not allowed to marry. However, after a jealous shaman warns that the dancer will steal the king’s heart, the queen conspires to have her removed from the court. She convinces the king to let Jin become de Plancy’s wife. The legate takes her back to France where she is welcomed into Parisian society and mingles with the literati. She is a novelty in Belle Époque Paris and is often mistaken for a Japanese; many have never even heard of Korea.

In Paris, she meets Hong Jong-u, the first Korean to study in France. Unlike Jin, who wears the latest French fashions, Jong-u sticks to traditional Korean attire. Fiercely proud of his heritage, he is engaged in translating Korean stories into French. “The quickest way to make Korea known is to translate Korean stories into foreign languages,” he tells Jin, and invites her to help him. In the end, both return to Korea with tragic results.

Shin occasionally tosses in flashbacks of events which might have been better served as fleshed-out scenes. For example, an encounter between Jin and Jong-u which has great significance to the outcome of the story, is briefly recounted after the fact. There is plenty of drama, however, to carry the reader along.

This is the kind of book that sends readers to the internet, scrambling to see which parts are based on historical fact, and which are made up. The final days of the Joseon Dynasty are well-documented, of course; the king, queen, and Hong Jong-u have their own Wikipedia pages. A quick online search of Yi Jin, however, yields nothing in English. And maybe that is why Shin chose her as a subject. The contributions of women are often erased from history, after all, no matter what country they are from. It is possible that Jong-u had help from a woman with his work. In any case, Shin has richly imagined what might have happened, while illuminating a fascinating slice of history that is little known to most readers outside Korea.


by Suzanne Kamata
Author, The Mermaids of Lake Michigan (2017)

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.