Queen’s image remains a mystery

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Queen’s image remains a mystery

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It began with an old photograph of a Korean couple clad in royal garb, shot at the turn of the century. It became a public dispute when Terry Bennett, an English collector of 19th century Korean photographs, stated that the lady in the picture, which had a simple caption reading “A murdered queen” in German, could have been Queen Min, also known as Korea’s last empress. The queen was assassinated by Japanese soldiers in 1895.
After she was murdered on the royal palace grounds, her corpse was burned in a nearby pine forest. In 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea, beginning its 35-year rule over the peninsula.
Given that the face of Queen Min, seen as a tragic heroine of modern Korean history, is still unknown, Mr. Bennett’s public release of the photograph quickly grabbed the Korean media’s attention. Though pictures of other members of the royal family are available in historical documents, the queen apparently never had her picture taken.
The lady from the photograph, however, turned out to be a courtesan. The picture was determined to have originally come from the Korean collection of a national museum in the United States; it was titled “Korean Serving Woman in the Palace” and taken by the photographer PL Jouy.
It’s not the first time, however, that a photograph suspected of capturing Queen Min stepped into the spotlight.
In 1990, the National Institute of Korean History, which is responsible for creating Korean history textbooks, published what it said was a photograph of the queen in a middle school history textbook.
Seven years later, in the revised version of the textbook, the portrait was replaced with an image of the site where the queen’s corpse was found, as the historians continued to debate where the picture came from ― many thought it might have come from a book of photographs, titled “Corea, Coreane,” shot by an Italian diplomat to Korea in 1904.
Indeed, the frequent confusion over photographs concerning royal characters in Korea’s palaces is a critical problem in research on modern Korean history, since the photographs from the period were taken mostly by foreigners who lacked historical insight into the royal structure of the Joseon Dynasty.
The public fuss over the appearance of Queen Min also owes to her depiction in numerous period dramas on television, in films and in operas. Played by some of the country’s top actresses, the character has always been beautiful and charismatic.
“The Last Empress,” a lavish production and Korea’s first original musical, was staged at the Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater in 1997. It starred the opera singer Lee Tae-won in the role of the empress.
In the recent film “Hanbando,” a fictional story revolving around royal seals lost during the colonial regime, the director Kang Woo-suk depicted the late queen as a woman with astounding beauty and wisdom, confounding Western diplomats.
In her time, however, the queen’s appearance was not always so praised.
Yun Bae-young, the granddaughter of Prince Deokon, the third daughter of King Sunjo, recalls her elders in the family remembering Queen Min as “a woman with an oval face, sharp nose, full lips and slanted eyes.”
But because she had “thread-like veins in her eyes,” Ms. Yun said, her elders were able to predict the queen’s unfortunate fate. That could partially explain the discontent in the royal family when the queen joined the royal clan by marrying King Gojong ― that, and the fact that she came from a common family.
Lady Bishop, a daughter of an English missionary in Korea, recalled in her book “Korea and Neighboring Countries” her encounters with the queen, describing her as a “thin woman slightly over 40 with an elegant aura. She had skin so clear that it looked as if she had sprinkled pearl powder on her face. She had sharp eyes, full of wisdom. When conversation began, her face shined with intelligence.”
Other accounts, however, were not so positive.
“Hearing from my old aunts in the family, Queen Min was never fond of being under the public spotlight,” says Lee Hye-won, an advisor of the National Palace Museum of Korea and a grandson of King Ui-chin. “They told us she had spots on her face from smallpox. But you couldn’t tell whether that was true either, because even the older aunts also heard the story from their elders in the family.”
It’s highly plausible that Queen Min never had her photograph taken while she was alive. She might have been content to leave the world wondering who she really was.
Her character, real or fictional, remains an emotionally charged public figure who encapsulated the tragic history of modern Korea.


by Park Soo-mee, Bae Young-dae
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