Chapter six presents events that those watching the drama would already be familiar with. However, you may notice one major difference that would change the course of these two works. My thoughts at the end…
As Hwon drinks with Yeom, his face stiffens as he remembers those days long ago.
Seven years and six months ago, Crown Prince Hwon was bored of the repetition in his daily life and sought joy in playing pranks on his teachers. One day when one of Hwon’s teachers felt overwhelmed by the stress of teaching Hwon and moved to the countryside, a new teacher was personally selected by the king and brought in to teach Hwon.
Hwon was excited to learn who his newest target will be and had a petty official do a background check on him. But the official was reluctant to report his findings.
“Why aren’t you saying anything? Were you unable to find out who will be coming?”
“It is not that, but…”
“Speak now! Who is he?”
After much hesitation, the official explained, “It is a fellow named Heo Yeom, and he was the top scoring scholar at the recent civil service exam.”
Hwon became shocked. It was truly a radical promotion for a newly passed examinee to be promoted to the rank of being given the responsibility of teaching a Crown Prince.
“Did you learn anything else?”
“That is… his age…”
“Age? How old is this Heo Yeom fellow?”
“He is 17 years old as of this year.”
Hwon shouted with anger. “If he is 17, he is just merely a year older than me!”
Most teachers were in their 30s and 40s. Hwon’s pride was hurt at the thought of being taught by someone just a year older than himself. But he also became curious. People who passed the civil service exam were typically around 25 years old, with some even being over 40 years old. To have passed the civil service exam at 17, and moreover as a top scholar, signified that this Yeom fellow was simply a genius. And so Hwon looked forward to his first class with Yeom, although he was determined to kick him out within the first few days.
On the first day of class, Hwon put his plan to practice, even refusing to get up from his seat and bow in return to greet Yeom, as was the proper manner to show his teacher. But as soon as Hwon saw Yeom’s face sitting across from him, he became astounded by the beauty before him. So mesmerized was he that he almost forgot his plan to kick Yeom out. Once Hwon recovered, he continued to sit disapprovingly, his hat lying crooked on top of his head.
But Yeom’s reaction was different from any of Hwon’s past teachers. No matter how long Hwon waited, Yeom did not lecture him to sit properly or tell him to show respect to the teacher. Instead, Yeom just sat upright and smiled gently without saying a single word. Hwon grew tired of sitting crookedly, and his back and his arms started to feel sore. But Hwon was too stubborn and refused to make the first move. Finally the 45 minutes passed and a bell rang alerting them that the class was over. As soon as the bell rang, Yeom smiled and took his leave, but once again, saying not one word.
Hwon was amused. All his past teachers nervously lectured the Crown Prince that he must show his proper manners to his teachers, and so fell right into Hwon’s trap. But Yeom was the first teacher to just sit there and smile. And this continued the next day and the day after that.
Hwon grew tired and also became curious to find out Yeom’s voice. And so after a few days of this silent battle, Hwon finally bowed three times to Yeom as his teacher and sat upright in front of him. But this was not because Hwon actually accepted Yeom as his teacher. Instead, he had now moved to a different attack tactic.
Hwon had been studying Zhongyong (“Doctrine of the Mean“) with his prior teacher until Yeom was assigned to take over. And so Hwon prepared it in advance in order to stump Yeom. But on their first real class, something unexpected happened. Instead of Zhongyong, Yeom announced that they should study the Thousand Character Classic, a primer used to teach Chinese characters to children and other beginners. Hwon became dumbfounded. He had already mastered the Thousand Character Classic when he was four years old. But before Hwon could shout in anger, Yeom had already called the librarian over to bring them the Thousand Character Classic.
Once Hwon recovered from the shock, he shouted, “How dare you! I am presently learning Zhongyong and Zizhi Tongjian (‘Comprehensive Mirror to Aid in Government’)! And you present to me Thousand Character Classic!”
But unlike Hwon, Yeom spoke calmly, never losing his gentle smile. “Your Highness, I have never taught anyone before. And so when I was assigned as your teacher, I had declined. But His Majesty told me to just teach as I had been taught.”
“But what does that have anything to do with Thousand Character Classic?”
“People first start their studies with Thousand Character Classic. But before you learn any literature, the first step is to have the attitude to learn. Your Highness has mastered this attitude over the last few days, and so the next step is to learn Thousand Character Classic. I am merely doing as I have been taught.”
Hwon was angry, but he could not think of anything to say in retaliation. And meanwhile, the librarian returned with the book and laid it on top of the table.
Yeom opened the book and read, “天地玄黃.”
But Hwon had his lips sealed tight and only eyed angrily towards Yeom.
“Your Highness, you have said you mastered these Chinese characters. If so, what is 天?”
“It means heaven!”
“Then what is heaven?”
Hwon could not readily answer. At Yeom’s sudden question, Hwon found it difficult to exactly define what is heaven.
“You have said you were learning Zhongyong. Then how is heaven represented in Zhongyong?”
Hwon knew he learned this, but he could not answer. Yeom spoke first.
“It is said that heaven is the source of truth/enlightenment. That which is ordained by heaven is called 性 (nature), and acting in accordance with this nature is called 道 (principle), and cultivating this principle is teaching. It is said that when mean (中) meets harmony (和), heaven and earth take their proper places and the things of the world are nurtured thereby.”
Hwon was flustered to learn that not only did he not fully master the first character “heaven” to appear in Thousand Character Classic, but that he has not fully comprehended what he has learned recently in Zhongyong either. Hwon made a feeble attempt at an attack.
“Then what do you think is heaven and earth?”
“That’s not for me to answer, but for Your Highness to learn through your studies of the classics.”
“And it’s not that you can’t explain?”
Yeom smiled as he nodded. “I too continue to study the classics so that I may learn. According to Liezi, pure and light energy rise to become heaven, and the heavy and impure fall to become earth. The harmony of the energy between heaven and earth is human. The human mind is received from the heaven, and his body from the earth.”
This was the first time that Hwon learned of Liezi. He found himself taken in by Yeom’s teachings.
“Is that so? Is that why when a man dies, his soul returns to heaven and his body to earth?”
Yeom smiled brightly. “What Your Highness just said is in Liezi as well.”
“Hmm… I should find that book and read it once.”
Before they knew it, 45 minutes had past. Hwon had long forgotten his plan to give Yeom a hard time and instead found joy in his daily lessons. Most of the things that came out of Yeom’s mouth were new to Hwon, but even the things that he already knew felt new to him. And for Hwon to succeed in stumping Yeom, there were too many things that Hwon still did not know. With the new goal of stumping Yeom just once, Hwon studied hard everyday. As Hwon studied the Thousand Character Classic with Yeom, he also learned the teachings from many other books. And like that, Hwon took a liking to Yeom like he never did with any other past teachers.
The class always felt so short to Hwon, and so whenever Yeom stood to leave, Hwon always had Yeom stay longer to have dinner together. But seeing Yeom leave early every night, Hwon felt hurt and one day asked, “I wish to play with you longer, but why don’t you ever stay late with me?”
Yeom explained apologetically. “Although that too is my duty, I am still young and find it difficult to stay at the palace for too long. But…”
“But? There is another reason?”
“I have a younger sister. Because of her…”
“But you have your parents. You shouldn’t have to look after your sister.”
“It’s not that, but I wish to spend time with her.”
Hwon frowned at the idea that he wished to spend time with his sister. Hwon thought Yeom to be strange, but Yeom’s face brightened at the thought of his sister.
“I love reading with my sister.”
“Reading together? Your sister reads books? With you?”
“Yes, Your Highness. Although I am teaching her…”
“But didn’t you say earlier that I am the first person you’ve ever taught?”
Yeom looked flustered and hesitantly explained, “That child is different. Though I am teaching her, I learn from her.”
“How old is your sister?”
“She’s 3 years younger than me, and is 14 years old.”
“That means she’s two years younger than me. And yet a genius like you learn from her? What do you mean?”
“Typically, people say that you teach someone one thing, and he understand ten. But when I teach that child one thing, she asks me back ten questions. In order to answer her questions, I study even more. And I enjoy that. My sister is the most important teacher in my life.”
No matter how much he thought about it, Hwon was fascinated to learn about a girl who reads and studies.
“I too have a younger sister. Princess Minhwa… Although you might have never met her, you must have heard about her.”
“Ah! I’ve seen her once. Not too long ago, right in front of me. Although I’ve not seen her face.”
“Is that so? Anyway, Princess Minhwa is three years younger than me, but she is so spoiled and does whatever she wants. The only letters she knows is the first sentence from the Thousand Character Classic. How can a 13 year old girl and a 14 year old girl be that different?”
Suddenly, they heard a young girl crying outside and before they knew it, Princess Minhwa bursted into their room, wearing a servant girl attire.
Hwon shouted, “What are you wearing? And how dare you come in here?”
In tears, she approached Hwon and started hitting him.
“I hate you, orabeoni*! I hate you!” [*Orabeoni is an archaic term for oppa, a term used by a female to address or reference an older brother.]
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You spoke poorly of me! And of all people, how can you badmouth me in front of him? I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”
Although Hwon shouted in anger, Minhwa continued to hit Hwon. Lady Min belatedly followed in to retrieve the princess, but Minhwa quickly moved towards Yeom. As it was against the law for him to look directly at the face of any member of the royal family without their permission, Yeom quickly put his head down. But Minhwa grabbed his face in her hands and forced him to look at her.
“It’s not true. Everything His Highness said is all untrue. I am not spoiled, but I am a refined lady. I am close to learning all the thousand characters. And so…”
Before Minhwa could finish, she was dragged away by the court ladies.
Yeom and Hwon sat there dumbfounded by what just transpired, and Hwon finally broke his silence by asking the attending eunuch. “What’s wrong with her? Where did she steal the servant girl’s dress, and why did she come in here. So immature.”
The eunuch remained silent and just merely looked at Yeom and smiled. Due to Minhwa’s interruption, they dropped the conversation about Yeom’s sister.
But just a few days later, she was brought up again. Before every class, snacks were prepared for Hwon as it was believed to help keep the Crown Prince more alert during class. That day, black yeot (taffy candy) imported from China was brought in as Hwon’s snack. Hwon saved the yeot to share with Yeom, but Yeom merely stared at it.
“Why aren’t you eating? Do you not like it?”
“It’s not that… But I just thought that my sister would have liked it…”
“Ah! That sister who asks many questions? It seems you adore your sister a lot. Isn’t it a little excessive?”
Yeom merely smiled. Looking at Yeom’s beautiful smile, Hwon suddenly became curious about his sister.
“Does she look like you? If so, she must be very pretty.”
Yeom just smiled, but at his smile, Hwon thought he could feel his sister’s charm as well. As if he has seen her himself, Hwon’s heart started to flutter.
“What is your sister’s name?”
“Pardon? I can’t tell you that, Your Highness. She does not even have a dangho* yet.”
[*It was not proper to call a girl from a noble family by her given name, even though she was still young. It was the law to call her by her dangho (lady’s name). And further, it was difficult to call her (an unmarried girl) by name in front of Crown Prince.
“I’m merely asking for her name, so what’s the big problem? Since your family name is Heo, hers must be as well. And her name is…?”
Yeom had his lips sealed and refused to say anything. But Hwon was dying to know, and so he threatened Yeom.
“Hmph! If I wish to find out your sister’s name through other means, I can. But wouldn’t that cause a bigger problem?”
“Yeonwoo… her name is Yeonwoo.”
“Yeonwoo… As in fine rain?
“Yes, Your Highness. She uses those Chinese characters.”
Hwon repeated that name in his head over and over again, and thought, “What a pretty name. I can imagine that she would be pretty in appearance as well. I wish I can see her once.”
When Yeom got ready to start the class, Hwon quickly whispered into the ears of the eunuch standing next to him. The eunuch left the room and returned when the class was over with a small container for Yeom. He looked up quizzically, and Hwon explained, “Since you weren’t eating, I prepared black yeot. Enjoy them with your sister.”
Until then, neither Hwon giving the yeot nor Yeom taking it home with him thought much of it. But later that night, Hwon felt strange at the realization that as the Crown Prince of this country, he had given a gift to a woman. And moreover, they were both unmarried. Dying of curiosity to find out how Yeonwoo reacted to his gift, Hwon could not sleep that night. Hwon spent a restless night thinking of a girl whose face he did not know.
Book Club discussion
After watching the premiere of the drama The Moon That Embraces the Sun, I complained to everyone who would lend me their ears on why they shouldn’t have changed that one aspect of this story that I found so endearing. Yes, unlike the tv show, Hwon and Yeonwoo never met in their childhood years! They fall in love by finding a deep connection between them in their intellectual discourse that transcends anything of this world.
True, I’ve gotten “over” it and moved on, and even came to appreciate the drama for its own. But I really would have LOVED to see Yeo Jin Goo as the Hwon of the novel. (Okay, fine… I just want to see Yeo Jin Goo in anything!)
Please share on what you like or don’t like about the changes made so far.