Filed Under Artwork

A Scene from a Lineage Novel

Jade Mandarin Ducks

This artwork depicts a scene in the lineage novel, Jade Mandarin Ducks. One of its themes is how the relationship between the father-in-law and the son-in-law affects the daughter-wife’s relationship with her family—in this specific scene, her son. Lineage novels are vernacular Korean texts that have been transcribed by elite Korean women. They then circulate within the family. Besides following the intricacies of the kinship system of the late Chosŏn Korean period, these novels explore the subject in how the structures of prescriptive kinship are emotionally internalized by individuals. One of the unique aspects of these lineage novels is the relationship between the father-in-law and the son-in-law. The father-in-law here is presented to be a petty and profit seeking man while the son-in-law is seen as honorable and morally right. In the late Chosŏn period, where patrilineality thrived, animosity between the father-in-law and the son-in-law meant that the two “most important” men in a daughter-wife’s life were in conflict, causing her to become a frigid mother to her son. In Jade Mandarin Ducks, the conflict between them is revealed to be a result of the father-in-law, following the usual path of lineage novels of being a treacherous and greedy official, had also tried to seduce son-in-law unknowingly when he was dressed up as a maid at his household “to avoid political persecution” (Chizhova 139). This encounter brought on the son-in-law's scorn for his father-in-law, which the daughter-wife did not understand. This continued mistreatment of the father-in-law resulted in the growing resentment within the daughter-wife, turning her into an emotionally unavailable mother to her son.

The first scene depicts a family of three; the son Ponghŭi, the father/son-in-law, Segyŏng and finally the mother/daughter, Hyŏnyŏng. We see Hyŏnyŏng gazing coldly at the father and son pair who are happily having a bonding moment over learning. She is also purposefully placed far from the pair to signify the distance between them. To further emphasize the distance, she is wearing a bit of a solemn color of purple, unlike the neutral color of blue that the father and son pair is wearing. 

In the next scene, Segyŏng just praised Ponghŭi for being able to identify all six of the Chinese characters on the page. Ponghŭi looks up to his mother for the same validation. This scene was not depicted in the novel. It is my interpretation of how Ponghŭi, growing up without parental comfort, would look up to his mother in this rare moment where he was noticed by his busy father. He had also wanted his mother to acknowledge him, but was met only by his mother’s hanging head and cold, distant visage. 

In the last scene, Segyŏng, who has noticed his son’s constant disappointment puts his hand on Ponghŭi’s back to comfort him. He then speaks to Hyŏnyŏng his son’s behalf and asks how she could treat their son this way. He questioned whether she actually had any maternal love for their son and if she did not feel the same joy as he did for their son’s accomplishments. 

This story taught the lesson of how the father-in-law and the son-in-law had to reconcile and make amends before Hyŏnyŏng could stop being a frigid mother. The only way for Hyŏnyŏng to be emotionally present for her child was for her husband Segyŏng to treat her father with respect. Only if Segyŏng performed his duty towards her and her father would Hyŏnyŏng be able to perform her duty towards her son, Ponghŭi.

I picked this particular story because reading it initially made a lasting impression on me. It confused me in a way that made me interested to learn more. The strained relationship between father-in-law and son-in-law affecting the daughter-wife relationship with her son and not just the son-in-law/husband gave me a different perspective I never thought of before. In my eyes the child did nothing wrong, so it was hard to wrap my head around the idea, which caused me to reflect on this story a lot.

Video

Scene from Jade Mandarin Ducks Animation Creator: Alison Lim Date: March 2024

Images

Scene from Jade Mandarin Ducks 1 of 3 Creator: Alison Lim Date: March 2024
Scene from Jade Mandarin Ducks, 2/3 Creator: Alison Lim
Scene from Jade Mandarin Ducks, 3/3 Creator: Alison Lim

Metadata

Alison Lim, “A Scene from a Lineage Novel,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed June 13, 2024, https://koreanhistory.humspace.ucla.edu/items/show/90.