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The Ancient Sage’s Teaching Fulfilled: The Resolution of Confucian and Folk Tensions in “Student Yi Peers Over the Wall”

About the Author: Julia M. Walton '21

Julia M. Walton '21 is an English concentrator at Princeton University. She is also pursuing certificates in Humanistic Studies, East Asian Studies, and Creative Writing. Her academic and creative work has appeared in Questions: Philosophy for Young People, Scholastic's Best Teen Writing of 2016, Through the Looking Glass, The Nassau Literary Review, and Tortoise: A Journal of Writing Pedagogy. She is from Berwyn, Pennsylvania and intends to pursue graduate studies in English.

By Julia M. Walton '21 | General Essays

The romance “Student Yi Peers Over the Wall,” written by monk and scholar Kim Si-Sup in 15th century Korea, bears a remarkable similarity to “Ying-ying’s Story,” an account probably based on a true story (Yu 183) written by the politician Yuan Zhen in the Tang dynasty of China. Due to its psychological depth, “Ying-ying’s Story” marked a key point in the development of Chinese fiction—Gu argues that with it, Chinese fiction came of age (82)—and became so popular it inspired countless other works in the Chinese tradition, including the famous Yuan dynasty Romance of the Western Chamber. “Student Yi,” written during an early, China-influenced period of development for Korean fiction, likely was similarly inspired by “Ying-ying’s Story,” as the heroines Miss Ch’oe and Ying-ying share a last name (Ch’oe and Cui being different pronunciations of the same surname). Beyond this, both stories involve a romance between a studious young man and a beautiful, well brought-up younger girl who secretly meet with the assistance of the girl’s maid. Both couples’ passions for each other also conflict with the clearly Confucian rules of their daily lives. Despite these similarities, both stories conclude in vastly different ways. In order to explore some interests of early Korean fiction, this paper will examine the stories’ various points of departure and the religious systems they reflect, arguing that—unlike “Ying-ying’s Story,” in which tensions are messily done away with when Zhang abandons his lover to pursue his career in the capital—the tensions in “Student Yi Peers Over the Wall” are resolved through the couple’s re-adherence to proper Confucian practice. In the story’s unique second arc, the two also refrain from transgressing supernatural laws, more folk in nature than Confucian. We will discover that as a result of these re-adherences, the couple are rewarded for with a happy marriage, and even at the story’s “tragic” finish, unlike “Ying-ying’s Story,” “Student Yi Peers Over the Wall” reaches an unambiguously moral conclusion. I suggest these changes to the original story have to do not only with an emerging preoccupation in the Korean tradition with upholding Confucian practice, but with Kim Si-Sup’s sensibility, beyond the bounds of Confucianism, that love and duty can be maintained together.

These lovers—Yi and Miss Ch’oe, Zhang and Ying-Ying—occupy a world unquestionably imbued with Confucian rules and roles. Like Student Zhang from “Ying-ying’s Story,” the “Student Yi’s” eponymous main character is “a student at the National Academy” studying for the national examinations (“Student Yi” 79), which were based on knowledge of the Confucian classics. Further, and more centrally, both stories introduce parent-figures to which the main characters have filial duties, the central tenet of Confucian practice. These duties are made apparent through the action of the stories themselves. Ying-ying’s maid Hong-niang suggests, “Given the gratitude Madam Cui feels toward you, why don’t you ask for her [Ying-ying’s] hand in marriage?” (“Ying-ying’s Story” 542), indicating that involving Ying-ying’s mother in the relationship would be the “proper” way for it to move forward (an idea Zhang impatiently ignores). In addition, when Yi and Miss Ch’oe begin their affair without the involvement of their parents, after three days following their first passionate encounter, Yi chastises himself for not being properly filial and honest, quoting Confucius, “‘While father and mother are alive, a son does not wander far afield. If he does, he should let them know where he goes.’ . . . This is not the way of a son” (“Student Yi” 85). Yi’s father also reproaches Yi, reminding him how he has strayed from the proper Confucian path: “Your leaving in the morning and returning in the evening was to study the way of goodness and righteousness as taught by the sages of the past. But now you go out at dusk and return at dawn” (86). He also adds, “everyone will blame me for not raising you strictly . . . [and] your reckless behavior will sully her reputation and bring censure down upon you” (86), indicating that Yi’s misstep in etiquette and filiality—forgetting his studies and family and losing himself to his love affair—will bring dishonor to himself, his lover, and his family. Finally, when Miss Ch’oe falls ill after Yi’s forced departure to his family farm-estate and must reveal herself to her parents, she says, “I did not guard my chastity and so I am mocked by those close to me” (86). Miss Ch’oe’s words indicate that chastity, more so than truthfulness, is part of Confucian expectations for women, and her lack of chastity marks her as unfilial, perhaps “soiled,” and delinquent in this decidedly Confucian world.

Despite the parallels between the two main characters and their conflicts, “Student Yi” and “Ying-ying’s Story” quickly follow separate paths; in fact, “Student Yi” transcends every heart-wrenching misstep “Ying-ying’s Story” seems unable to avoid. In “Ying-ying’s Story,” the author writes that Ying-ying “wanted [Zhang] to proceed to regularize the relationship” (544), but Zhang does not. Instead, tensions only increase when Zhang abandons Ying-ying to return to Chang’an and his career, resulting in interpersonal disorder. Despite Ying-ying’s pronouncement on their last night together, “And with this, our lifelong vows are indeed ended” (545), which carries a sense of finality, the couple cannot seem to end their relationship satisfactorily, nor can they forget each other. The tragic letter Ying-ying subsequently sends to Zhang—in which she processes her love, grief, and resentment—is so conflicted it seems opposed to any natural order. For one example, she writes, following the logic of Miss Ch’oe mentioned above, “Since I suffer the shame of having offered myself to you, I may no longer serve you openly as a wife,” but she still continues that she hopes to marry him (546). As for Zhang, despite his former passion for Ying-ying, he tells a friend disdainfully and rather shockingly, “All such creatures ordained by Heaven to possess bewitching beauty will inevitably cast a curse on others if they don’t do the same to themselves” (548), which justifies his abandonment of her. Yet, though they both marry another, he shows her letter to others and later even tries to see her, indicating his continuing attachment to her. Finally, although Ying-ying refuses to see him, she still composes a poem to him at the conclusion of the story (549). This ending leaves the reader almost as heartbroken as Ying-ying. The reader is convinced at the unsuitability of this outcome for her, if not also for Zhang, and is perhaps baffled at Zhang’s actions. Zhang’s peers’ diversity of opinions about the couple’s tortured estrangement in the story (549) mirrors that of readers throughout time, which also points to the story’s unsatisfying, ambiguous conclusion. “Student Yi Peers Over the Wall,” on the other hand, avoids this messiness completely. It completely resolves every tension introduced in the story, though these tensions vary in both nature and “resolution.”

First, Yi and Miss Ch’oe’s “secret,” extramarital affair is regularized according to Confucian marriage practices. Both Yi and Miss Ch’oe’s parents are brought back into the picture and un-deceived, to reverse the couple’s sin of lack of filiality, as seen when Miss Ch’oe’s parents’ concern for their daughter leads to Miss Ch’oe’s confession to her affair (“Student Yi” 86). This revelation grants Miss Ch’oe’s parents the agency to be involved in Miss Ch’oe’s relationship, allowing them to hire a matchmaker and arrange a marriage with Yi’s family after a proper discussion among the parents (87). Here, unlike Zhang, who is unwilling to marry, Yi is “beside himself with joy” (87) when he hears the marriage has been arranged. Miss Ch’oe also writes a poem that begins with, “Bad ties have become good” (88), indicating the moral re-orientation of the relationship according to Confucian codes. Finally, the two are married, and the story states, “After becoming husband and wife, they loved one another deeply but still accorded one another the respect that a host might accord a guest” (88). This is reminiscent of the proper relations between husband and wife described in the Confucian “Admonitions for Women,” which states, “Now for self-cultivation there is nothing like respectfulness. . . . The correct relationship between husband and wife is based upon harmony and intimacy” (823); this passage tells us that it is not only the marriage itself that regularizes the relationship according to Confucian practice, but also how the couple live out their relationship, remaining devoted, loving, and courteous to one another. Such values lead the couple to a joyous, happy marriage. They also maintain mutual respect while Yi studies for his exams, and he subsequently passes and becomes successful (88), which can be viewed as the couple’s reward for bringing their relationship back into its expected Confucian boundaries.

In “Student Yi”’s second arc, several additional resolutions are also introduced and subsequently resolved. After an invasion of bandits in the capital, Ch’oe is captured and quickly slain, choosing to die rather than giving in to rape (“I’d rather be food for a wolf than the mate of a dog or pig!” [88]). Despite this, Yi discovers Ch’oe wandering the rooms of their home, resurrected as a kind of physically-present ghost. Her presence is a reward for her loyalty, constancy, and martyrdom, though her miraculous “resurrection” also occurs so that she may “fulfill [their] vows [to a lifelong union]” with Yi “for a time” (89). With a Buddhist addition to the world-logic of the story, Ch’oe also says, “You and I are bound by the karma of three lives and I wish to make up for our long separation” (89). With this resurrection, Yi and Ch’oe are able to gather the remains of their parents, who perished in the raid, and bury them in the proper Confucian ritual fashion (“They . . . buried them side by side . . . . They planted trees, offered sacrifices, and completed the rites” [89]). The story seems to reach another equilibrium with these details resolved; however, Ch’oe cannot remain in the human world as a ghost forever.

If Ch’oe’s resurrection from the dead goes against orderliness, it is not only according to Confucian logic, which focuses on social relations and etiquette. The resurrection also causes a breach in nature according to folk beliefs concerning the supernatural. Because of his joy at his wife’s reappearance, Yi “did not seek office,” “took no interest in daily affairs,” and “shut the gate to relatives and guests who came on ceremonial occasions,” ignoring his public life and responsibilities toward family and friends to spend as much time as possible with her (89-90). This is certainly an unseemly way for a man to behave in the eyes of a bureaucratic, hierarchical, ritual-based Confucian society. The resurrection itself, though, does not merely cause disorder among the living. The reader finds that returning from the dead—the territory of folk spirituality, since Confucianism does not consider the afterlife—is also intrinsically disordered. Ch’oe explains to Yi, “I cannot escape the underworld. The Heavenly Emperor, knowing that our ties were unbroken and that I had not sinned in the previous life, allowed me to return here to share your sorrow for a time. But . . . [t]o persist in my love for a mortal would defy the laws of the underworld” (90). Ch’oe’s resurrection, then, upends the natural order of life and death overseen by the Heavenly Emperor, master of the afterlife. As “the laws of the underworld” are meant to keep living people and the deceased in their proper places, it follows that the lovers would be punished—by the Heavenly Emperor or by bad karma—if the laws were broken. Therefore, Yi and Ch’oe refrain from transgressing the appointed rules of their respective positions for too long: after this final sad farewell at the end of her Heavenly Emperor-authorized allotment of “several years” (90), Ch’oe disappears, returning to the underworld and righting the breach in etiquette and nature her resurrection had opened.

Even though Ch’oe’s departure is tragic, propriety and order in “Student Yi” are restored, and both Yi and Ch’oe fulfill their duties to each other and their world in the midst of their love. In fact, Yi tells his wife before she goes, “You have fulfilled the ancient sage’s teaching through your inborn filial devotion and deep humanity” (90). The same can also be said of him, as afterward, Yi gathers Ch’oe’s remains and buries them beside her parents (90), signifying not only the end of her life, but the completion of all outstanding duties in the story. Thus the narrator reports, “hearers of the story were all moved by it, and by the couple’s constancy in particular” (91). This amazement on behalf of the couple’s peers signals that Yi and Ch’oe were moral to the end, so much so that even their initial heedless passion is admirable, since they resolve every conflict they face according to the moral structures of their world. Unlike Ying-ying and Zhang, whose messy relationship Zhang’s peers recognize as “remarkable” (549) but inspires conflicted reactions among them, Yi and Miss Ch’oe are unquestionably filial, honest, and devoted to the roles that apply to them, all while maintaining their love.

Perhaps the narrative arc of “Student Yi Peers Over the Wall” is much more concerned with the resolution of its tensions than “Ying-ying’s Story” because of an emerging preoccupation in Korea at large, beginning in roughly the 12th century (Richey 26), with being “Confucius’s true inheritors, especially at times when the Confucian heritage in China seemed to be in jeopardy” (23). Even outside the bounds of Confucianism, Kim Si-Sup’s story suggests an argument that love and duty are not only mutually compatible, but when combined offer the rewards of happiness and respect. Given Kim Si-Sup’s works’ later popularity, “Student Yi” undoubtedly not only reflected, but furthered this moralistic sensibility. Perhaps in Kim Si-Sup’s effort to “fix” his Chinese inspiration, though, he also strove to make “Ying-ying’s Story” satisfying in a more human sense, even as he is concerned with upholding morality in romantic matters. The tangled nature of the tragedy of “Ying-ying’s Story” is itself a suggestion that it is not imagined, but merely a faithful telling of true events—Yuan Zhen refrains from following any of the forks in the road which could have led to a happy ending, such as an initial proposal by Zhang to Ying-ying through her mother Madam Cui and a marriage broker, a desire in Zhang to marry Ying-ying even after seducing her, loyalty to and undying love for her even when in the capital studying for the examinations, or perhaps a surprise proposal to Ying-ying after he passes. Kim Si-Sup, on the other hand, seems to have intentionally written “Student Yi Peers Over the Wall” so that Yi and Ch’oe avoid each of the all-too-human missteps Zhang and Ying-ying make. Readers of “Student Yi” and “Ying-ying” must agree that “Student Yi” does make for a more joyful, complete story. After finishing “Student Yi,” the reader feels satisfied that all is well and has been done right.

Works Cited

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Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century. “Early Yi
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Bloom, Irene and W. M. Theodore de Bary. “Ban Zhao: Admonitions for Women.” Sources of
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Gu, Mingdong. “The Aesthetic Turn in Chinese Fiction.” Chinese Theories of Fiction, SUNY
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Richey, Jeffrey L. “Confucianism in Korea.” Confucius in East Asia: Confucianism’s History in
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Yu, Pauline. “The Story of Yingying.” Ways with Words: Writing about Reading Texts from
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