The short story is that Non-gae died heroically. The story is part fact, part legend, and romanticized endlessly.
2003. Chin Ju is a tourist spot now. From the vantage point of a brightly colored pavilion (repainted recently, says a sign) I can see the fatal rock. There is a line of people there, entire families, cameras poised and ready to snap. Signs in Korean and broken English are littered everywhere I can see, trying to be helpful but failing miserably. I catch snippets of information here and there, and there's the tourist guide blathering somewhere in the background, but I only have eyes for that rock.
A girl smiles into a camera, fingers poised over her lips; the camera snaps her photo and she nimbly leaps away for someone else to take a turn. A few days later, she'll pin up the photo or pass it around. Maybe she'll write an essay for her class and include the photo as proof: "What I Did on My Vacation". The picture will show her standing awkwardly on a nondescript rock, against an expanse of blue sky and blue water merging imperceptibly with each other.
This place is just one stop, the last stop, of the many tourist traps littering South Korea's southern coast: the Suyeong fortress. After this, there is -- nothing; one must turn back and find the nearest airport to fly down to the ultimate tourist trap of South Korea, Cheju Island.
In this surreal, dizzying moment, I can't help but muse: To think, we all celebrate the fact that four hundred years ago on that rock, someone jumped.
1590. Toyotomi Hideyoshi rises to power in Japan and is locked into a bitter struggle with the feudal lords of western Japan. In a fit of (supposed) tactical insanity, Hideyoshi seizes upon the idea of invading China and requests Korea (Koryo) to aid his little endeavor in a diplomatic letter:
"Seeing how short life is, I am not content to sit quietly home in Japan but intend to reach out to wider worlds. Korea therefore must help clear my way to China. By doing so she will save her own soul and we shall be friends indeed."
Hideyoshi to King Seon-jo
King Seon-jo, made indecisive by the very real threat and the contradictory words of his council (the ambassador sent to Japan thought war was likely; the deputy disagreed), finally turns Hideyoshi's thinly-veiled threat down. Hideyoshi, who planned on using Korea as a foothold anyway, is angry and decides the best way to conquer China is by invading Korea in the process. Armed with matchlock guns imported from Portugal (the first country Japan dealt with from the West and one of the only few it continued to be willing to deal with), Hideyoshi's soldiers storm across Korea, ravaging it all the way to Manchuria. In the first run, the fortress Suyeong managed to survive the Japanese onslaught.
On the southern coast of Korea, the Suyeong fortress stands, perched high above the coastline. On the clear days, you can see past the rocky outcroppings to the water below, where ships bob in the harbor like seagulls... past that, the ghostly fog-enshrouded mountainous islands rise up in the distance from the ocean water. Southern Korea is warm, almost tropical; even in the dead of winter it is not truly cold.
Tactically, Suyeong is one of the entranceways into the Korean coast. With those beautiful, mountainous islands in the distance, invading ships have the perfect foil to keep them under cover until they are nearly at the shoreline; likewise, potential invaders do not know if they will be spotted until it is too late...
Non-gae is a kisaeng, what one would call a courtesan, perhaps, a hetairai, or a geisha... In the Confucius-dominated society of Korea, where chastity is raised to the highest virtue a woman can possess, Non-gae is the lowest of the low. She is not a chaste wife or an innocent girl, and she spends her time not giving birth to sons or bringing honor to her family, but, rather, singing and dancing.
Like most kisaeng, she is bequeathed to a government official; in her case, to the governor of the province of Chin Ju, Cho Kyong-ho.
She is nothing more than a lowly prostitute in Koryo's eyes, something to be amused by until it has no more use, and then tossed away. There is no romanticism in her lot in life; she is no Chunhyang, no daughter of a kisaeng with the manners and attitude of a Confucian aristocrat. She has no husband to wait for like Chunhyang; she has no Mong-ryong, secret government spy with his three horse medallion, with the power to change the world and the charge to rescue the kingdom from injustice. No, Non-gae was plucked from some poor family and raised to amuse generals and society with her skillful playing, her stories, and last but not least, her body. She is a commoner and she sings when they tell her to, and she dances when they tell her to, and she will lie in bed when they tell her to...
Nothing more, and nothing less.
1592. The fortress of Suyeong falls, finally, to Japanese soldiers, under Hideyoshi's orders. Sixty thousand troops overwhelm the fortress' ten thousand in a massacre that is evoked again and again in Asia by Japan.
The soldiers decide to celebrate for their hard work and hold a party in the very highest pavilion of the fortress. The kisaeng from the entire district is summoned - ordered, even - for this celebration; Non-gae is one of them. She might have even volunteered to come. Kisaeng, like most courtesans, are survivors. They are taken as prizes, perhaps, and they are abused and used, but they are, nonetheless, survivors. Still, the conquerors come as destroyers; there is hardly a temple or pavilion or palace in Korea today that escapes the label "burned during the invasion of Hideyoshi"...
She is nineteen.
At the very highest pavilion on a promontory, several of the commanders revel drunkenly, celebrating the fall of a fortress that had been a thorn to Hideyohi's pride. Non-gae is one of the many kisaeng on that pavilion, celebrating with them. She is young and fresh, lively with the beauty of youth; she is dressed in her finest: wearing a beautiful han-bok, long hair braided down her back, karakchi rings adorning her slender fingers. She may not have been traditionally beautiful, or she may have been heart-stoppingly so, but either way, she is captivating. Perhaps she sings prettily or she has a graceful step, but she catches the eye of one of the commanders.
Some stories say she was dressed as if she was a bride: a robe of green, yellow, and red. Others say she was dressed as if she was attending a funeral: white on white, the color of death. It is probably more reasonable to say that she dressed as if she was celebrating, as conquerors do not look kindly on mourning...
Non-gae, casting her lashes down demurely, asked this fearsome commander to walk with her. The man, said to be a commander named Rokusuke Kedanimura, captivated by her appearance and too drunk to pay attention, agreed.
The stories are never clear on this sort of thing; they are ever muddled affairs. Perhaps he asked her instead of she asking him. It would be an irony indeed if that was the case. But it is true that drunken revelry is hard on the body; perhaps this commander wanted a breath of fresh air and a chance to admire the breathtaking view in this warm, mild October day.
They walk a little bit away from the pavilion, perhaps chatting or in tranquil silence; they stop to stand at another promontory overlooking the Namgang River.
It is said that when the Japanese invaded and conquered the fortress, many women jumped to their deaths rather than let themselves be defiled by these foreign conquerors.
While the commander enjoyed the view of the sea and the lovely woman next to him, perhaps Non-gae thought of a friend, or a family member, who leaped into the murky waters below. The place where they stand is a frightening place; looking down, the water is very far away (perhaps a few hundred feet below) and the rocks jut up fearsomely. To be dashed against the rocks or to drown; neither one is an appealing option.
The fine commander thinks of neither; he now pays full attention to Non-gae, who embraces him suddenly, flirting coquettishly. Her arms entwine around his body, and he forgets everything, lost in her mysterious smile.
The interesting thing about the karakchi rings she wears is that they are always paired, one on each hand, and they have the curious property of locking together when the hands are clasped. Perhaps this is another facet to the curious virtue, that valued trait in women, of being chaste and faithful; another layer to the symbolism. But that is not here or now, and it is not the symbolism of the rings that we are here to pay attention to.
Her hands clasped around him, fingers locked by her rings, Non-gae throws all her weight against him. They fall and are dashed against the rocks. Their bodies float down the river.
Perhaps it is revenge. Perhaps it is patriotism. Perhaps it is that one, futile, gorgeous last breath that we all admire. But she is dead, and the Suyeong fortress does not overthrow their conquerors until Yi Sun-Shin, in a stunning display of naval tactics, overwhelm Hideyoshi's forces with his marvelous use of the iron turtle boats.
I, too, stand on line to take a picture on that rock, and I wonder if it was a day like this that she flew.
Sources, as usual:
Some of this is from memory; I visited the said rock, read the story there, heard it sung and played. I also happened to do a paper on Portugal's trading practices with Japan in 8th grade, so info on the guns/trading practices will be referenceless.
- Toyotomi Hideyoshi's Korean Invasions: the Bunroku Campaign (1592-93) (http://www.h4.dion.ne.jp/~room4me/korea/bunroku.htm): For some of the interesting history of Hideyoshi's attacks on Korea and basic background.
- Human Rights in South Korea: Confucian Humanism versus Western Liberalism (http://www.icasinc.org/s2002/s2002dph.html): More history on Hideyoshi, aside from being an interesting text on Korean Confucianism.
- Garth, James Scarth, History of the Korean People, Royal Asiatic Society, 1972, Seoul, p. 261. This reference is strictly for the Hideyoshi quote.