The third memoir of Lady Hyegyǒng was written in 1802 and was addressed to her grandson King Sunjo in the hopes that Sunjo would fulfill her late son Jǒngjo’s wish that she and Sado be honored as his true parents. The theme of this memoir is really that of the Confucian virtue of filial piety, an extreme form of honoring one’s ancestors, parents and predecessors. This emphasis is to be expected since the Joseon Dynasty was founded on Confucian principles and downplayed earlier dynastic reliance on Buddhist philosophical justifications for their authority.
There are three levels upon which this theme can be seen in relation to this memoir: in the explicit, unrealistic plans of King Jǒngjo who was obsessed with vindicating his father Prince Sado; in the obsession that King Yǒngjo had with honoring his low-born mother as well as honoring his late brother and predecessor King Kyǒngjong; and in the deep desire of Lady Hyegyǒng to clear her father Ponghan Hong’s name from the calumny heaped upon him by the Kim clan, royal affines through Yǒngjo’s queen Jǒngsun.
Jǒngjo’s adoption by his deceased uncle Hyojang provided a legal way for him to take the throne after his father was declared a criminal and kept him from being likewise punished for his association with Sado. Having witnessed his father’s ordeal to some degree as a ten-year-old boy, Jǒngjo was understandably distressed by the situation and wanted to acknowledge both his dead father and devoted mother whose fortunes went quickly and shockingly from the assumption that she would one day be queen to becoming the wife of a criminal! Lady Hyegyǒng could not even be a part of her son’s reign as rightful Dowager Queen since she was no longer his legal mother.
Jǒngjo had to tread cautiously because of legal and factional dangers if he acknowledged Sado as his father, and he had to contend with how his actions would reflect on his grandfather, King Yǒngjo. He spent much of his reign building monuments to his father, tending to Sado’s tomb and even building a new city to move it to. His wacky plan was to abdicate in favor of his son Sunjo in 1804, when Sunjo would turn 15, so that Sunjo could issue an order making Sado a king posthumously, which would not detract from Yǒngjo’s actions during his reign. This would also confer the title of Queen on Lady Hyegyǒng. It should be noted that Jǒngjo died in 1800 under somewhat uncertain circumstances, and assassination was rumored to be a possibility.
This plan is interesting given the situation with King Yǒngjo, which is not actually touched upon in this memoir but will be discussed somewhat in the last memoir of 1805. The source for this information is mainly JaHyun Kim Haboush’s historical analysis The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yǒngjo and the Politics of Sagacity. Yǒngjo was a man of contradictions, at once a good king deeply concerned about his people who regularly studied the Classics to match his behavior to its prescribed norms, while throwing screaming tantrums or locking himself away refusing to eat in order to manipulate his uncooperative ministers.
One of the many interesting details of Yǒngjo’s reign is his obsession with having his mother, Lady Choi, who was a low-born secondary concubine, recognized officially as his mother. Because of the intricacies of the bone rank system discussed in the last post, her low birth and status as a secondary concubine haunted Yǒngjo; often sons of concubines outside of the royal family had limited career options among other sorts of social restrictions. Yǒngjo wanted to raise her status, and he was very sensitive to any potential insult to her by his ministers. He eventually did have her elevated, but it was a life-long concern of his (pp.59-60).
To a lesser degree, Yǒngjo was concerned about showing proper piety to his late brother King Kyǒngjong, mainly because the Soron faction had accused Yǒngjo of assassinating his brother and usurping the throne. He honored Kyǒngjong in order to tamp down those rumors when they flared up. As his reign continued, Yǒngjo became disgusted with the pressures of the kingship and felt some of his duties intolerable, so he concocted a plan to abdicate and put his very young son Sado on the throne to take up the question of his honor vis-a-vis Kyǒngjong as well as take over those duties Yǒngjo could no longer stand. This becomes a more prominent problem which we shall see when we examine the final memoir from 1805 next time.
Though it’s not particularly relevant to Lady Hyegyǒng’s memoirs, there is a historical K-drama that imagines what the life of King Yǒngjo’s mother was like, “Dong Yi,” a 2010 production by Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation:
Finally, Lady Hyegyǒng spends a considerable amount of time in this memoir trying to rehabilitate the reputation of her own father, Ponghan Hong. She and her father did everything they could to protect Jǒngjo and ensure he would take the throne after Yǒngjo, securing the throne against a crisis situation where there was no direct heir. As a result, in the eyes of some of the other ministers these choices looked problematic. A recurring accusation against her father was that he provided the rice chest Sado was executed in and even suggested the execution. But one new aspect that Lady Hyegyǒng explains in this memoir is the way her father and even to a lesser degree the rest of her family became targets of Queen Jǒngsun’s low-rent family, particularly her brother Kwiju Kim. The Kims were poor and unknown before Jǒngsun’s selection as the new queen, and as new royal affines, they felt insecure compared to the accomplished, powerful Hong family.
As Sado came closer to execution, the Kims licked their chops that they might have a chance at the throne by having Jǒngjo cast aside as a criminal’s son, even pushing Yǒngjo’s limits by telling him choice details of Sado’s bad behavior. The lack of an heir would mean Yǒngjo would select an heir to adopt, and as royal affines they would be in line to present such a candidate whom they could then control. Word of their schemes and rude discussions of the situation went around the palace, and rumor had it that they even had picked out which of their family should be Yǒngjo’s new heir. The Kims didn’t appreciate Ponghan Hong and Lady Hyegyǒng protecting Jǒngjo, and they did their utmost to get rid of Ponghan Hong any chance they got. Jǒngjo had the most actively political Kims banished when he took the throne in 1776, but the untimely death of Jǒngjo put the enemy Kim clan back in power with Jǒngsun’s rise as Dowager Queen to Sunjo.
Now with all of the backdrop filled in, all of the political players explained, the next and final memoir of Lady Hyegyǒng brings the long-awaited reveal of the taboo details of Sado’s decline and death.