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  • Introduction to the Translation of Record of the Virtue of Queen Inhyeon, Lady Min
  • Minsoo Kang (bio)

Record of the Virtue of Queen Inhyeon, Lady Min (Inhyeon seongmo Minssi deokhaeng rok) is one of a cluster of closely related texts under the different titles of Story of Queen Min (Min jungjeon jeon), Record of the Virtue of Queen Min (Min jungjeon deokhang rok), and Record of the Virtue of Queen Inhyeon (Inhyeon wanghu seongdeokhaeng rok), which are collectively referred to as The Story of Queen Inhyeon (Inhyeon wanghu jeon). They tell the story of the second queen to the nineteenth ruler of the Joseon dynasty King Sukjong (r. 1674-1720), especially in the years from 1681, when she married the monarch, to 1701, when she died after a long illness. The centerpiece of the plot is her sudden loss of the king's favor and subsequent ouster from her position as queen in 1689, her sufferings that followed, and her equally sudden reinstatement as queen in 1694. The general chronology of events depicted in the story matches that in the official annals of the royal court (Sillok, "Veritable Records"), but the work should not be read as a historical or biographical text that aims at an objective accounting of past events and the people involved in them. Record of the Virtue of Queen Inhyeon, Lady Min is a creative work of fiction "based on actual events" but one that also invents, exaggerates, distorts, and hides many elements from history in order to, first and foremost, tell an entertaining story of absolute [End Page 263] good and evil. Its importance to Korean culture lies not only in its status as a premiere example of classic (i.e., pre-modern) historical fiction but also its enormous influence in the modern era. Even the vast majority of Koreans who have never read the actual text are familiar with the story of the virtuous Queen Inhyeon and the wicked Consort Jang Hui (Jang Hui Bin) from countless film and television adaptations that have made the characters household names as well as archetypes of female goodness and evil.

The protagonist of the narrative, referred to by her posthumous title Inhyeon ("benevolence manifested"), is represented as a figure embodying all the qualities of ideal womanhood as imagined in the late Joseon period.1 She is kind, wise, just, and learned, and devoid of vanity, ambition, greed, and frivolousness. Her character is severely tested when she becomes the subject of slander in the royal court and subsequently loses her position as queen. Even when she must live under difficult circumstances after being ousted from the palace, she bears her ordeal with equanimity, never blaming anyone or lamenting her fate as she strictly maintains her virtue and abides by the terms of her condition as a condemned woman. Her character is contrasted with that of Consort Jang Hui,2 the villain of the story who embodies all the negative qualities of a wicked woman. She is ambitious beyond what is fitting for her lowborn status, conniving, mendacious, vain, and jealous of the queen to the point of engineering her initial downfall and then plotting her death through poisoning and sorcery. An essential value of Record of [End Page 264] the Virtue of Queen Inhyeon, Lady Min for modern scholarship is its revelation of the Joseon dynasty view of womanhood in the depiction of the idealized and demonized characters. They represent the traditional Korean version of the Madonna/whore dichotomy of the West.

King Sukjong is the third character in the triangular relationship. He initially adores and reveres Inhyeon but then falls for the charms of Consort Jang Hui, who was originally a lowly palace maiden. He believes the false rumors spread by the consort about the queen's misbehavior and her desire to murder the crown prince (Consort Jang Hui's son and the future King Gyeongjong), leading the king to condemn and oust the queen. Five years after he deposed Queen Inhyeon and raised Consort Jang Hui to the position of queen, he comes to suspect the truth about past events. He summons Inhyeon back to the royal palace and reinstates her as queen after demoting...