- Epistolary Korea: Letters in the Communicative Space of the Chosŏn, 1392–1910
JaHyun Kim Haboush's Epistolary Korea, a collection of letters from the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), is a welcome addition to the body of literature from early modern Korea available in English. Haboush has carefully edited an eclectic collection of thoughtfully selected writings, translated from classical Chinese and vernacular Korean, that explore the practice of letter writing in Chosŏn Korea. While the concept of "letter writing" and its many subgenres may seem foreign to many of us, especially as we have become increasingly reliant on electronic communication, this anthology introduces a vast [End Page 565] array of writings broadly categorized as "letters," and shows the importance of epistolary practice in early modern Korea.
Haboush's decision to define the genre of "letters" very broadly is the key to this collection's ability to add to our historical understanding. In this case, Haboush describes her inclusive framework as an approach intended to accommodate the "extraordinarily diverse and active epistolary practice of Chosŏn" (1). Such an expanded definition of epistolary genres, which includes any writing that addresses the intended receiver(s) directly, suggests different ways of thinking about epistles and the communicative space of Chosŏn society. The result is a wide variety of writing—ranging from personal correspondence between family and friends to ceremonial proclamations and public communiqué (e.g., royal edicts)—that not only introduces readers to the vibrant culture of letter writing in Chosŏn Korea, but also evokes vivid images that illuminate an equally wide range of early modern Korean society. From quotidian aspects of family relationships to the dramatic social transformations of the late Chosŏn period, each letter lets us view the familiar from a fresh vantage point.
The anthology is divided into eight sections grouped by a number of different unifying themes. In some cases the organization is based on the spatial and social relationship of the letter producer and consumer(s), while in others the occasion or events described in each letter provide the underlying association. Starting with the realm of widely shared communication, the volume begins with "Public Letters," which includes royal edicts, memorials and petitions from officials, individual petitions from ordinary subjects, and manifestos of rebel leaders. Moving into a more personal and intimate space, the next three sections, "Letters to Colleagues and Friends," "Social Letters," and "Family Letters," include correspondence between scholarly colleagues, friends of the family, parents and children, and spouses. If these groups of letters show the ordinary and mundane everyday life of the Chosŏn period, then the next few sections, "Letters Written Away from Home," "Deathbed Letters," and "Letters to the Dead," explore the dramatic transformation of the late Chosŏn society through letters from prisoners of war—both the Imjin Wars (1592–1597) and the Manchu Invasions (1627, 1636)—as well as through the letters of the Catholic martyrs, killed during the Catholic persecutions of 1801 and 1827. The last section is titled "Fictional Letters," and it introduces the roles various types of letters played in fictional writings as devices used to expose inner thoughts of literary characters.
Throughout Epistolary Korea, JaHyun Kim Haboush seeks to explore the spatial dimension of letter writing—the connective space between sender and receiver—as well as the layered discursive space of linguistic variance—classical Chinese to vernacular Korean. The theoretical possibilities posed by [End Page 566] Haboush, especially the notion of "socio-textual community" (2), and comparisons to other East Asian societies, are quite interesting, and although she touches on some of these issues in her introduction, they certainly warrant further in-depth study.
This project was a significant undertaking, involving numerous scholars who work on the Chosŏn period. With so many contributors it was unavoidable that the selections would represent varying degrees of translation skill and consequent ease of reading; and for the same reason the introductory essays that precede each letter lack consistency when taken...