- Everlasting Empire
I was not really sure what to expect when I picked up Everlasting Empire, written by Yi In-hwa. The dust jacket introduces the novel as both a historical novel and a work of fiction, creating a somewhat oxymoronic concoction in my mind and raising both anticipation and confusion on my part. I knew this much: the book had been wildly successful in Korea (published as Yŏngwŏnhan cheguk in 1993) and was even made into a film. Thus, my interest stirred, I opened the book.
The plot takes place in but a single day in January 1800, the last day in the life of King Chŏngjo. The story, largely told through the experiences of Yi In-mong, a librarian of the Royal Library, begins with the discovery that the [End Page 309] royal book examiner has died during the night. This launches a chain of events centering on the power struggle between the king and the literati of the court who desire to preserve their waning political power. Adding to the intrigue, and indeed, mystery, are the philosophical stances of the opposing sides, the death of Chŏngjo's father nearly forty years earlier, and the skillfully intertwined appearances of historic personages such as the scholar Ch0ng Yagyong (Chong Yak-yong in the book). The author's descriptions of events and people are riveting and build to a fevered crescendo by the story's end, making me feel as if I had been transported back in time some two hundred years. All in all, it was difficult to put the book down once I began reading.
As a teaching tool, this novel is worthy of high marks. The fine introduction by Don Baker establishes a backdrop to the story and provides the necessary factual and historical foundations. The introduction directs the reader into the novel, putting him or her up-to-date on the situation the novel will cover. The complex political power struggles of the late Chosŏn period, based on both ideological differences and regionalism, are not easy to grasp, particularly for students without a solid background in the history of Korea. Everlasting Empire provides teachers an interesting means to demonstrate the complexities of premodern politics and the inner workings of the Chosŏn royal court.
Many students, both in Korea and abroad, seem to have the unfortunate perception of history books on Korea as being dull. They often complain of being overwhelmed by the complex layers of Neo-Confucian philosophy, the positions of the various factions, and the ideals behind court purges and depositions of monarchs from the throne. Perhaps they are right. Oftentimes, and particularly in undergraduate courses, the approach to history tends to be the time-worn method of memorizing names, dates, and events, which while necessary is not always interesting. This book, however, can entice students into seeing interest in things that can be difficult to approach and thus offers another means for teaching the "hows" of history.
Everlasting Empire can provide teachers another path for introducing the late Chosŏn period. Although it is a fictional work, as Baker states in the introduction, the events could have actually taken place (p. vii). The novel will capture the interest of students, certainly half of the battle in teaching about pre-modern times, and, one hopes, move them to learn more about the period. It seems an excellent way to open the door to further studies on late Chosŏn.
However, the work is not without flaws that detract from its overall value. First, I was quite disappointed to see the work did not follow the McCune-Reischauer system in transliterating Korean. The translator, Yu Young-nan, states, ". . . the breve and apostrophe were removed for technical and aesthetic reasons" (p. xv). I do not know what technical reason prevented the usage of the breve or apostrophe since other books, journals, and the like have no such problem. And to state that properly transliterated Korean...