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Aging in Four Parts: A Dynastic History

By: Tiffany Chang

Art by: Sam Paisley

We’re at the end of the 16th century, and we have barely survived the war.

War was never new to us, though we never considered that the tiny island to the East — a land of barbarian swordsmen and fierce customs — would encroach so heavily upon our borders. It was never new to us, though we never expected that the celestial dynasty to our North would fall and be replaced with a people so utterly unlearned. We have no choice. Let the commoners join our ranks — let them pass our tests! Let our mass of soldiers swell until it becomes greater than a wave, let us make use of all we’ve learned from our scholars. But first, separate them out — with tests for those of the commoner class, and tests for those born into military lineage. For the first, we shall test them with combat; for the second, we shall test them with military texts and the Confucian canon. For every man their place, and we promise, despite what the war may bring, we shall not compromise the honor of the warrior class.[1]

War became hereditary: an honor bestowed upon men who had never seen the battlefield and a status promotion offered as a death sentence to commoners. Still, new heroes grew from the waves, building warships that were stronger than ever before. Who saves the dynasty in its hour of need?

There’s a scene in the Tale of Lady Park, an old Korean folktale, in which the King thanks Lady Park for saving the country: “If Lady Park had been born a man, what fear would I have of any barbarian horde? [...] She makes their generals kneel down and revitalizes the spirit of Chosŏn.”[2]

We know where to turn when we need a war won by our faith in the social fabric that ties noble blood together. The status of the child is determined by the status of their mother — from yangban women come yangban lords and from nobi women come nobi children. They will always be ours. Marry, birth, grow, expand, possess. Endlessly.

I recently translated an excerpt of a Korean novel in which a woman named Yeonghee is institutionalized by her family because she refuses to eat meat. She endures unspeakable acts of violence committed by the men in her own family. One day, her sister visits her and begs her to eat. They argue, and her sister blurts out the ultimate threat as a last resort:

“You! You know I’m being like this because you could die!”

Yeonghee turned her head and looked at her blankly as if she was a stranger. Soon afterwards the question that slipped out shut her mouth for good.

“Why, is dying not allowed?”[3]

It’s not that the rest of us want to die. But whether we live or we die, it seems we have no choice in the matter at all.

We survive, but for whom?

We’re at the end of the 17th century, and we have barely survived famine.

We die, for nothing.

Meteors blaze in the sky and snow buries our crops. Earthquakes ravage the land. All eight provinces starve. Half the population dies in the South and a quarter in the North, from disease and hunger. The people can’t go on like this.

We’re at the end of the 19th century, and we have barely survived revolution.

From one side, Tonghak philosophers embraced Mencius to become one with God. On the other, peasants and Northern elites turned violent to correct the failings of the monarchy. Rebellion is brewing, but do you remember our birth? Neo-Confucianism wasn’t just a Chinese import. Joseon was born from land reforms, the reformulation of class hierarchy, the redistribution of Buddhist wealth. You rebels, you think you’re something new, but are you really? Even the best of ideas grow old, just as a soldier’s bones creak with age.

A promise: to serve Heaven and nourish our better natures. Tonghak leader Haewol commands his followers to “Do filial duty to your parents…respect your husbands…love your children.”[4] Ah, there it is, there we go again. The Confucian relationships that tie us together can’t be severed all that easily.

What about something stronger, more revolutionary? We have a new prophecy for you. Have you heard of the Chonggamnok? The Apocalypse will come. After malse sasang, the Yi family will fall at the hands of a man named Chong. We will have a new dynasty. Our rebel leaders are “more clever than even Zhu-ge Li-ang,” a minister from the “Three Kingdoms Period in China” and “more skilled than Zhao Zilong,” a famous Chinese general.[5] With such a worthy cause, we could never lose. The Seoul yangban have grown soft with their indulgences. It should not be difficult to take back what is rightfully ours.

We’re at the start of the 20th century, and we have fallen.

Queen Min is dead. The Yi family has fallen, but not by one of our own. What will become of us? I’m tired of being on the losing side, tired of everything we think up made useless because we don’t have the fucking guns to force our way.

The day after, the year after, many years after, the humiliation refuses to fade for the men who thought they knew everything. They make excuses for their defeat.

It starts with Yi Gwangsu’s “What is Literature”:

“Our feebleminded ancestors became slaves to Chinese thought, thereby weakening their own culture…Chosŏn, a country of Koreans, remains an empty substance, a mere imitation of China…a new Western culture is flooding our land. It is beyond dispute that Koreans must shed their old clothes for new, and wash away the accumulated dirt. We must bathe in the light of the new, and be ready to freely build a new spiritual civilization…After the annexation, our cultural domain has been completely renewed by a new civilization.”

“In short, Korean literature is born anew: it has no past, only a future…An honorable task awaits the youth who has the will to help build Korean literature…” [6]

This invention of modern Korean literature, pioneered by a man who cheated while spouting nonsense about birthing modernity from wise Korean mothers and good wives, who colluded with the Japanese after spending the critical years of his youth as an independence author, continues.

Most Koreans hate him, and for good reason. I hate him, too, but the way I’d hate someone I know too well. The older I get, the more I realize that everyone once thought they’d be young forever. The Joseon dynasty was conceived in a flash of heat lightning and Neo-Confucianism was the revolution to end all strife. Then came Japan, then came the West, then will come whatever next new thing we’re searching for.

Yi Gwang Su’s earliest stories were stories of same-sex love. He studied abroad and he found ideas which felt fresh; he returned home and hated what he saw. He became the opposite of who he could have been, but would it have changed anything if he’d stayed the same?

I’m kept up at night, too, by thoughts of keeping up with the times and by worries that I’ve become preoccupied with concerns that’ll be irrelevant to the future. Loving women, not wanting kids, maybe it’s reactionary, maybe it’s fate. Ignorant mother, bad wife — perhaps in the future, that’s all we’ll need to be.


[1] Hwang, Kyung Moon, Beyond Birth: Social Status in the Emergence of Modern Korea (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2004), 17–41, 106–160, and 106–328.

[2] Anonymous, The Tale of Lady Pak (circa. 17th century), 99.

[3] 한강. 채식주의자. South Korea: Changbi, 2007.

[4] Setton, Mark, “Confucian Populism and Egalitarian Tendencies in Tonghak Thought,” East Asian History 20 (2000), 140.

[5] Karlsson, Anders, "Challenging the Dynasty: Popular Protest, Chŏnggamnok and the Ideology of the Hong Kyŏngnae Rebellion," International Journal of Korean History 2 (2001): 269.

[6]Yi, Kwang-su, and Jooyeon Rhee. "What Is Literature? (Munhak iran hao)." Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature & Culture 4 (2011): 293313. doi:10.1353/aza.2011.0012.


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