Heo Gyun was a scholar official in the mid-Joseon period. The scholar of Wang Yangming School was considered something of a literary genius who was proficient in poetry and prose.
He was the author of The Tale of Hong Gildong, a novel that criticized the absurdity of Joseon society. It is undoubtedly one of the literary masterpieces representing the Joseon Kingdom. His works include Gyosansihwa (The Story of Gyosan(교산)’s Poetry) and Hanjeongrok (The Record of an Idle Mind).
Heo pursued a freewheeling lifestyle and advocated unconventional ideas in his studies. Let’s explore the turbulent life of this prominent writer and politician.
Born in Prominent Political Family
Heo Gyun was born in one of the most prominent political families of the time. His father, Heo Yeop(허엽), was a scholar official. Today, the city of Gangneung is famous for its chodang tofu, and the name originated from Heo Yeop’s penname “Chodang.” Heo Gyun’s older brother served as the Minister of the Board of Personnel and the Minister of Defense. His older sister was famous poet Heo Nanseolheon.
The Revised Annals of King Seonjo, which chronicles the history of the 14th ruler of the Joseon Dynasty, describes Heo’s family as follows.
“Heo Yeop’s three sons, Seong, Bong and Gyun, and sons-in-laws, Woo Seong-jeon(우성전) and Kim Seong-rip(김성립), were all in government service as scholar officials and helped one another improve their abilities. So people said the Heo family was more successful than any other political family.”
Freewheeling Lifestyle, Turbulent Life
Heo Gyun started his public career in 1594 when he passed the highest civil service exam. He rose to the post of governor of Hwanghae Province but he was soon dismissed.
He was accused of bringing his followers and even a courtesan from Seoul and doing whatever he wanted. He was also accused of habitually asking for special favors.
Heo was exceptionally free-spirited. He was friendly to Buddhism and he interacted with a number of Buddhist priests. He also associated with children born of concubines rather than primary wives. At the time, the lives of these unfortunate people were harsh due to their humble origins and social restrictions.
Heo also communicated emotion with female entertainers or courtesans. When his favorite courtesan Maechang(매창) died, he wrote a poem of condolence for her.
The Tale of Hong Gildong, First Novel Written in Hangeul
Heo Gyun’s work, The Tale of Hong Gildong, is the first novel written in the Korean alphabet of Hangeul. It carries great significance in the history of Korean literature. The novel fully reflects the author’s own life and thoughts.
In his anthology Seongsobubugo(성소부부고), the purpose and authenticity of learning is discussed in a section called “The Theory of Learning.” Another section in the book, “The Theory of Defense,” stresses the need to build up national defense by arranging the military system.
In a book entitled Yujaeron (The Theory of Abandoned Talents), Heo maintained that God allowed the births of talented people because they were meant to be used properly in their times, so abandoning those people is an act of disobeying God. In this book, Heo expressed his frustration that gifted people were often deserted just because they were the children of concubines or because their mothers remarried. The book is believed to have best expressed the author’s views.
In 1618, the tenth year of King Gwanghaegun’s reign, a royal investigation was held in front of the gate of Injeongjeon(인정전), a main hall of Changdeok Palace. Investigators were looking into Heo Gyun’s rebellion conspiracy allegation. Heo was charged with preparing to set Prince Yeongchang, the son of King Seonjo, on the throne.
In regards to the suspicion of Heo’s plotting treason, The Gwanghaegun Journal later recorded that members of the governing faction at the time conspired to eliminate Heo Gyun. On the day of investigation, Heo never admitted that he was guilty and he eventually met a tragic death.
Heo led a freewheeling, turbulent life and left behind a novel that still has huge literary significance.