Friday, July 28, 2006

The Last Empress

(purported photo of Empress Myeongseonng)

"The Korean Empire Viewed Through Photographs"

The above and all the following are photos from a photo gallery on Daum that I stumbled across. It's supposed to be a tie-in with an exhibition going on back in Seoul at the Seoul Museum entitled "마지막 황실, 잊혀진 대한제국" ("The Last Royal Court, Forgotten Korea"). One photo drawing particular that gets a lot of attention is the picture of a woman that is supposedly Empress Myeongseong. She was assassinated by the Japanese as Japan tried to solidify its hold on Korea and the Joseon Dynasty pretty much withered out of existence.

I'm not sure what to think of Wikipedia's seemingly random comparison of Empress Myeongseong with Marie Antoinette. I guess it was added in an attempt to show the sort of controversy and popularity surrounding her, but at the same time, besides a few kind of not so intriguing coincidences ("Wow, fixed royal marriages where the couple didn't consummate the marriage on their wedding night because they don't know or maybe even *gasp* hate each other? How interesting and utterly unheard of!"), it seems very throwaway. Not to mention the fact that Marie Antoinette and Myeongseong were very different figures when it came to their involvement with the state. Whether the "Let them eat cake" statement really was uttered or not, you can't compare Marie Antoinette's sheltered out-of-touch relationship to the country that was limited to the high school drama of court life with Myeongseong's genuine interest in academics and actual political influence and activeness.

But images that are supposedly of Empress Meyongseong have been floating around for a while. Unfortunately, there have not been any clearcut way to identify her. Here is a very interesting eyewitness account from the night of the empress' assassination by a Russian citizen employed by the Korean court.

(photo of royal family. According to original article on Daum, from l-r: Crown Prince Yeong Chinwang, who at the age of eleven was taken to Japan under the "for his education," but eventually married to a Japanese princess under as part of Japan's plan of assimilating Korean royalty; Sunjong, the last emperor of the Joseon Dynasty; Emperor Gojong; Princess Consort Sunheon, mother of Yeong Chinwang; Princess Deokhye, the last princess of Korea.)

(Princess Deokhye, photographed in kimino since this was while she was attending Gakushuin. Also eventually married off to a Japanese nobleman.)

These are some pretty interesting set of historical photos because not only do they show Korean royalty, but also some of life post Royal family.

The above photo of palace women in mourning really caught my attention because it reminded me of a story my mom told me of my great grandfather who was, if I remember correctly, a nobleman or a palace official. I'm kind of fuzzy on details, but my mom's family used to be involved with the royal court, and in fact my mom used to rave about a family member of hers (her great aunt or something like that) who used to cook fantastic spreads based on what she learned from the palace.

Anyhow, the story was that at one point in abolishing the royal court, the Japanese were forcing palace women (many who were either concubines or cohorts or ladies in waiting) to marry. They gathered them up and told them to choose a husband (some were married off to Japanese too), one of the women chose my great grandfather. My mother's not sure because she heard this story secondhand from an aunt when she was young herself, but either there was an affair or a one night stand or some sort of contact between my great grandfather and this woman previously that made her pick him. Unfortunately, my great grandfather was married. The court lady already knew this of course but basically her utlimatum was if it was not my great grandfather, she would not marry anyone else.

So instead she became a Buddhist monk, and my great grandfather built her a temple (which still stand in Korea, by the way) and she lived her days out there. My mother said she vaguely remembers meeting this woman, who by all family accounts was extremely beautiful. She does remember visiting the temple as a little girl, because that was where she first heard the story. She remembers her aunt leading her by the hand and telling her about how this temple was built by her great grandfather and meeting a very nice woman who was a Buddhist priest.

This was the same great grandfather who got the super young second wife, but that's a whole other story involving bad blood between the two sets of sons and whatnot.


Blogger A Seoulite In Seattle said...

Wow, what a story about your family. Late 90's in NY, a Korean musical piece, "The Last Empress" was brought to the city, which was about the empress Myeong Seong and her tragic death. I have not had a chance to see this musical. Have you seen it?

2:27 AM  
Blogger nabiya said...

I actually have not seen that musical yet though it's been around for a while.

3:28 PM  

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