- Chugŭm ŭl nŏmŏsŏ: sun’gyoja Yi Suni ŭi okchung p’yŏnjiby 정병설 Chŏng Pyŏngsŏl
The few Catholic-authored writings from the ‘‘Great Persecution’’ of 1801 include two letters that offer a rare glimpse into the life and mind of a young Chosŏn woman facing execution for following the ‘‘evil doctrine’’ of Catholicism. In a letter to her mother and a second to two ‘‘sisters,’’ Yi Suni recounts her arrest and imprisonment, expresses concern for family members, and reassures her family that she and her recently executed husband remained faithful to their unusual vows of perpetual virginity. In both letters she voices her anticipation of martyrdom, and how it will bring spiritual glory, reunion with loved ones, and union with God. In their circumstances and content, Yi’s letters are unlike [End Page 185]any other women’s writings from the period. Hence, Chŏng Pyŏngsŏl’s book, volume 5 of the Seoul University Humanities Lecture Series, offers a welcome mainstream addition to books on Yi Suni, until now represented by short monographs published by Catholic presses for a mostly Catholic audience.
A professor of Korean literature at Seoul National University, Chŏng is known for his monograph on the writings of kisaeng, 1and was drawn to Catholic history and the letters of Yi Suni by his interest in peripheral cultures of the Chosŏn period. The sparser records of peripheral histories often constitute the tips of entities that were much larger than suggested by more coherent, complete, or officially sanctioned records. In his preface, Chŏng thus advocates that early Korean Catholicism, although represented by a small minority in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Chosŏn, be included in any study of Korean culture, and recommends Charles Dallet’s Histoire de l’Eglise de Corée(1874) as essential reading for students of Chosŏn literature. In the body of his book, Chŏng succeeds in demonstrating that various contextual details relating to Yi Suni and her letters are like pieces of a puzzle that is far from complete, largely due to the intentional neglect or obscuring of records associated with people criminalized by the state. The reader cannot help but wonder about the puzzle’s missing parts, and imagine that they constitute a picture much larger and more complex than that offered by the state’s official records, or even by Catholic records, limited to sources that survived the state’s repeated purges, and, in turn, selected for preservation as representative of Catholic history.
Chŏng begins his exposition with the date and location of the execution of Yi Suni and four others, and notes that, despite the fact that these were members of a prominent yangbanfamily executed for ideological reasons, very little remains in terms of an official record of the event. He then pieces together a typical scene of arrest, trial, torture, imprisonment, and execution of Catholics with the help of several sources, including a letter written to the bishop of Beijing in 1811 by surviving members of the Catholic lay leadership. The second chapter fills out additional details relating to Yi Suni’s family and her in-laws, all victims of the persecution, and to various related events, such as the torture and death of her uncle Kwŏn Ilsin in 1791 and the likely impact this had on Yi’s anticipation of future persecutions of Catholics. [End Page 186]
Throughout his study, Chŏng makes a number of corrections or clarifications about dates and identities, including the date of Yi Suni’s birth year, the names and identities of Yi’s family members, and the possible identity of one of the ‘‘sisters’’ to whom she addresses her second letter. For dating issues, Chŏng frequently refers to the aforementioned 1811 letter to Beijing, arguing that it presents a more authoritative source on certain details than does Dallet’s Histoire, the most frequently referenced source for...