The first Korean
to visit France, the translator of the first Korean
tales to be published in the West, as well as the
assassin of the reformer Kim Ok-gyun, yet relatively
little reliable information about Hong Jong-u is
available in English. The main source of information
about him is a Korean volume 그래서 나
는김옥균을 쏘았다 (So I
shot Kim Ok-gyun) by 조
재곤(Jo Jae-gon) and published by 푸른역사 (Pureun yeoksa) in 2005. The page
numbers in the following text refer to this volume.
There is a
summary of the main contents (in Korean) in
Yonhap News .
Hong's mother died in the 3rd lunar month of 1886. By this time he was married to a woman from the Jeonju Yi clan born in 1855. According to Régamey, they had one daughter. It was probably only after his return in 1893 that Hong discovered that his wife had died in the 11th month of 1892 (or May 1893, according to his note to Régamey from Kobe). At some later date he married a daughter of Park Haeng-ha who was much younger than himself, born in 1876. They had two sons and a daughter. The elder son, Hong Sun-bok, was born in 1897 and the second, Hong Sun-jin, in 1903. The daughters later married, their husbands’ names being Kim Kyu-seok and Park Gwang-rim, and the name of Hong Sun-jin is found once among the members of a church in Wando island in 1926. Beyond that nothing is known of the family’s further history. [page 253] In the autumn of 1899, Hong arranged for the reburial of his mother, father and first wife together in graves located in what is now Yeoksam-dong in Gangnam.
death of Hong Jong-u is recorded in the family
jokbo) as the 2nd day of the first lunar
month 1913. There are differing, unreliable reports of
his final years, and nothing certain is known of where
he died; Mokpo and Incheon are both mentioned. Several
reports claim that he died of starvation.
Equally significant is Régamey's summary of Hong's basic political positions: (1) Korea should be completely independent of China, Japan and Russia; (2) the barriers that isolate Korea from the outside world should be done away with. On this second point, Regamey adds that Hong had been a friend of the first Minister Plenipotentiary sent by Joseon to Washington, Park Jeong-yang. He mentions that Park was recalled at the demand of China for failing to respect the Chinese wish that he should be subject to strict Chinese control, since this was a time when China was asserting its right to treat Korea as a vassal state. Hong seems also to have expressed bitter resentment at the British support for the Chinese position in not allowing Jo Sin-hui (조신희), the ambassador the Korean king had sent to Europe, to leave Hong Kong "for 2 years" (1887 - 1890).
Hong seems to have decided to visit France in hope of receiving the same inspiration for democratic reform that Meiji Japan had received. In order to earn the fare, he went to Japan in 1888, after obtaining a Korean passport dated 1887 authorizing his visit to France (quoted by Régamey). He worked in Osaka as a typesetter for the Asahi Newspaper and raised funds by giving lectures etc. [page 64] He studied French and Japanese and read much about the outside world while he saved the money he earned. Régamey reports that Hong received a letter of introduction to Georges Clemenceau from the Japanese politician Itagaki Taisuke.
Félix Régamey was inspector of drawing in the schools of Paris at that time but, more important, he had accompanied Émile Guimet on a journey round the world in 1876-1877, where he was particularly struck by Japan, and he published a number of books inspired by it during the rest of his life. It is an interesting fact that he was involved in the Paris Commune of 1870 and as a result had to go into exile in London for a time. In 1872, he provided financial help for Rimbaud et Verlaine when they in turn arrived in London, and made drawings of them at that troubled time in their relationship. Félix Régamey says he first met Hong Jong-u only a few days after his arrival. He says Hong could speak no French, and when a Japanese interpreter was brought in, Hong very soon showed signs of strong Korean pride and anti-Japanese feeling. The impression of caged fury displayed then impressed Régamey, reminding him of a captured tiger he had seen in Malaysia. Hong claimed that he had come to learn French law and French customs, but he also told Régamey that his ambition was to become leader of a group of young people like himself, currently residing in Russia and the US, who wished to lead Korea in the same direction as Japan’s Meiji reforms, an independent, modernizing transformation. He was, it seems, especially interested in the French political situation. Régamey at once invited him into his home and says that they lived under the same roof “for months.” Later he seems to have lived in 'hotels' in rue Serpente (near the Sorbonne) and quai des Grands Augustins.
Throughout his time in France, Hong always wore Korean dress. Régamey (and others) tried to find some benefactors for him, but it is clear that few were forthcoming. There was a fruitless visit to the aged Ernest Renan. Perhaps more significant was the meeting with François George Cogordan, who had been France’s Minister Plenipotentiary in Beijing and had come to Seoul to sign the treaty with Korea only a couple of months after signing the Treaty of Tianjin with China. Deeply moved to see someone he had seen in Korea, Hong threw himself on his knees to kiss his hands, which might have surprised him. However, the official French attitude toward Korea at this time was oddly indifferent; after the signing of the 1886 treaty, it was not until 1888 that Victor Collin de Plancy was sent to be the first French consul in Korea. Cogordan refused ever to meet Hong again, which must surely have humiliated him.
In that same year, 1888, the amateur ethnographer Charles Varat arrived in Korea, intending to undertake a study of the country and collect many artifacts from it. That was also the year in which Émile Guimet opened the Musée Guimet in Paris. Many of the objects collected by Varat came into the museum. It was only natural, then, that Hong Jong-u should be asked to help catalogue the Korean items in the new museum, thanks to the help of Régamey, as a way of earning his keep. At the same time, he somehow managed to learn enough French to prepare translations of three Korean texts.
The first of these, Printemps parfumé (Perfumed springtime, a translation of the name of Chunhyang, the main character) was published in the the “Petite Collection Guillaume” in 1892, and has the name J.-H. Rosny as the sole author, although the name of Hong is mentioned in a footnote to the Preface. J.-H. Rosny was the pseudonym of the brothers Joseph Henri Honoré Boex (1856–1940) and Séraphin Justin François Boex (1859–1948), both born in Brussels. It seems that Printemps Parfumé was in fact the work of Séraphin since La Convention littéraire de 1935 (designed to distinguish between the share of each in the jointly published works) attributes it to J.-H. Rosny Jeune.
In 1895, after Hong’s return East, Le Bois Sec Refleuri was published in the Bibliothèque de vulgarisation, a division of the Annales du Musée Guimet. This time, Hong’s name stands alone as the author / translator. He must have prepared the book for publication before leaving with some care, since it includes an exchange of dedicatory messages with Hyacinthe Loyson, who mentions visits by Hong to his family home in Neuilly. “Father Hyacinthe Loyson” (originally Charles Loyson) was a particularly celebrated figure in religious circles and one can only wonder how Hong came to develop such a deep friendship with him. The dedicatory messages have little or nothing to do with the contents of the book, being on both sides concerned with mutual respect and questions of faith. Loyson had been a Catholic priest, a Carmelite, and fron 1865 preached the lenten Conférences at Notre Dame de Paris for several years. His modern ideas led to his expulsion from the Catholic Church in 1869. Some years later he married an American widow and they finally settled in Neuilly. He gave frequent lectures and was associated with various “Old Catholic” groups but was essentially an independent, spiritual man with a radically open mind.
The truly interesting aspect of Hong’s dedication is the concern he shows to formulate precisely his religious ideas, in a way that clearly reflects his conversations with Loyson. He mentions how deeply struck he was on reading Loyson’s book (Mon testament : Par Hyacinthe Loyson Père Hyacinthe. Ma protestation. Mon mariage. Devant la mort) which was only published in 1893 (an English edition appeared in 1895). Hong stresses in a rather un-Confucian way his conviction that there is a God: “I believe that a single God has given us life. He is not a strange being dwelling far, very far away in the depths of ethereal space in a fantastic palace built beyond the stars. He is the Soul of our souls, the Life of our lives, our true Father, He in whom and by whom we all are. We are all brothers, for we are all issued from him; but how much more do we feel united as brothers since we both believe in him, even though our faith is expressed in different ways.” His letter ends with the indication that he is about to leave France and return home; the last lines are a beautiful indication of his deep affection for Loyson: “When you see passing in the sky white clouds coming from the East, think of the faithful friend who is thinking of you, far away on a distant shore, and who is talking about you to all the clouds and all the birds heading West-wards, in the hope that some of them, docile to his voice, may come and revive in you heart the memory of his friendship.”
The third work translated by Hong was very different, an astrological treatise of divination, Guide pour rendre propice l'étoile qui garde chaque homme et pour connaitre les destinées de l'année, only published in 1897, again in the Annales of the Musée Guimet, with the name of Henri Chevallier added to that of Hong as author / translator. In a preliminary article about this book, published in Volume VI (1895) of T’oung pao Henri Chevalier explains that the book had been brought back from Korea by Charles Varat and Hong had begun to translate it at the request of Guimet. His departure interrupted the project and Chevalier had taken it over. Chevalier was originally an engineer who worked for some time in Japan, who later developed an interest in oriental languages.
Hong must have moved out of Régamey’s house at some point, since Régamey says they only met again shortly before Hong’s departure, when he needed money for the journey home. His description of Hong’s extreme reserve when they parted suggests that he was deeply hurt that Hong expressed no gratitude for all his help and friendship.
As we read Régamey’s description of Hong in Korean robes being driven away, smoking a cigarette and not even looking back to wave goodbye, having spent 2 years cataloguing Korean artifacts, and translating Korean texts, it becomes clear that he had made no attempt to learn about French law or politics. Instead, during those years, Hong had focused on aspects of his own culture, and may well have become more strongly aware of the imperialism of France and the other western countries, realizing that Korea would not be able to rely on outside help from any quarter. Where Kim Ok-gyun looked to Japan as a model for Korea’s future, accepted Japanese financial help, had taken a Japanese name and seemed unwilling to recognize the threat Japan’s colonizing intentions posed to Korean independence, Hong had moved in the opposite direction.
Hong was quite easily able to meet the refugees and join their gatherings on the basis of his family clan identity. He is said to have gained Kim’s trust especially by preparing delicious food in the French style for him and his Japanese friends in Tokyo. At the time, Kim Ok-gyun had been living In Japan for nearly ten years and was not sure that the Japanese would go on protecting him indefinitely; at the same time, he seems to have abandoned his strongly negative attitude to China and begun to formulate a vision in which Korea, China and Japan would best ensure their separate independent status by combining to resist attempts by the western powers to dominate them. Meanwhile the Japanese were already preparing to wage war with China and take a more complete control of Korea; it began to seem to them that the death of Kim in China at Korean hands might serve a useful purpose. This would explain why Japan did nothing to warn or protect Kim after receiving a report written by Nakaga Kotaro (中川 恒太郎) its consul in Hong Kong on January 1, 1894, describing words spoken that day by Min Yeong-ik, the Korean Queen’s nephew, to a group of his supporters there, advocating the assassination of Kim Ok-gyun etc. and even telling them that in Osaka Yi Se-jik [sic] with a Korean recently returned from Europe, named Hong Jong-u, were actively engaged in a plan to that effect. [page 106].
Indeed, the Japanese government had always been less than enthusiastic about the presence in Japan of the Gapsin leaders and it is not always realized that Kim Ok-gyun was humiliated by being forced to spend some 3 of the 9 years he spent in Japan detained in the Bonin Islands and Hokkaido, far from Tokyo. Moreover, he was reduced to political silence, his days were spent eating, drinking and playing Baduk with a few friends. He quickly understood that Korea could expect nothing good from Japan and in mid-1886 had already written to the Korean King warning him against the ambitions of Japan and China. But for the Korean government he was a traitor, nothing more. Finally, Kim seems to have decided to explore the possibility of a visit to China; he had been living with the Japanese name Iwata Shusaku (岩田 周作) but now changed that to Iwata Miwa (岩田 三和). The use of the character for “3” symbolized his new vision of a reconciliation between the three nations of the region. Kim decided to travel to China to meet the great Chinese politician Li Hongzhang. He had been close to Li’s adopted son (his nephew) Li Jingfang (李經方) while he was Chinese Minister in Japan 1890-1892 and there might have been some preparatory correspondance between them.
Many of Kim’s associates urged him not to go, some did not trust Hong although Kim Ok-kyun seems to have rejected their warnings. So he and Hong traveled together with Kim’s servant and a translator from the Chinese legation. They reached Shanghai on March 27, 1894, and lodged in separate rooms of the Towa yoko 東 和洋行Japanese-run ryokan in Shanghai. The following day, Hong went out to change money, then returned while Kim was resting in his room during the afternoon and shot him three times with a revolver. Kim died almost instantly. That was just after 4 pm. Hong then fled and was arrested the following afternoon. He changed into Korean robes before killing Kim.
Questioned by the police, he said he had killed Kim, first, because he and the other Gapsin conspirators had caused the deaths of many innocent people; second, that he was obeying a royal command. The third reason was that Kim was a threat to the peace of the region, as well as a traitor. Li Hongzhang decreed that Kim had been a Joseon traitor and Hong a Joseon official, so both should be sent back to Joseon at once. Newspaper reports about this are quoted at the end of the article by Félix Régamey, who finds himself at a loss to understand what Hong had done. On April 12 Hong and the corpse arrived at Incheon, where they transferred to a boat for Seoul. During the journey, Hong had written on a banner the characters 大逆不道玉均 (Traitor Ok-gyun). The body of Kim was left at Yanghwajin, down-river from Mapo at what is now Hapcheong, where it was beheaded, the hands and feet removed, and the trunk mutilated. The parts were sent around the country for display. There is a photo of the head with Hong’s banner. Other measures were taken to punish surviving and dead participants in the 1884 coup, while the families of those officials killed by the conspirators celebrated. In Japan, the press launched a campaign acclaiming Kim as a hero and denouncing Hong as a monster.
The list of his promotions and career changes from 1898 until 1902 shows how powerful Hong became in the early years of the Korean Empire. Especially interesting is the “Hong Gil-dong” team of Hong Jong-u, Gil Yeong-su and Yi Gi-dong, three men who had all risen from extreme poverty to the height of power and for a time had unlimited access to the King.
One reason for Hong’s final downfall is easily summarized. He was completely unable to understand or sympathize with the growing demands of the international business community and opposed many financial and administrative measures which others judged essential.
One episode from this period is of special interest. In 1899, Hong Jong-u was presiding judge of the high court known as the Pyeongniwon. This was the time of the conservative crackdown on the members of the Independence Club at the end of 1898 and among those on trial was a young student, Yi Seung-man, better known in later times as Syngman Rhee. As the head of the Hwangguk Hyophoe (Imperial Club), he and Rhee were diametrically opposed. At that time, Rhee might easily have been sentenced to death, yet Rhee later wrote how amazed he was to find Hong determined to save his life; instead he was sentenced to 100 blows on the buttocks and life imprisonment. He also wrote that Hong gave orders to be gentle when the beating was performed, so that after the 100 blows his skin was not even broken.
There was, however, no resisting the slow increase of Japanese control and the rise of officials prepared to work with Japan. The result was his appointment in January 1903 as 牧使 (moksa, magistrate) of Jeju Island. Dealing with the aftermath of the violent disturbances of 1901, focused on issues of taxation and involving the Catholic community with its French priests, might have been one reason for his appointment, but he seems to have understood that it was a kind of exile, the beginning of the end. There are indications that he demanded bribes and made no attempt to help the population in times of poor harvest; he was probably mainly intent on securing funds for a bleak future. In the spring of 1905 he resigned from the position and went to live in Muan-gun near Mokpo. He was still residing there early in 1909, and after that there are no reliable records of his final years. According to his clan register, he died on the second day of the first month of 1913, but there is no record of where. Rumors say that he starved to death