The fourth and final memoir of Lady Hyegyǒng was written in 1805 and details the tragic decline and death of her husband, Prince Sado. She wrote it for her grandson Sunjo mainly because she was the last witness to the event still alive, and none of the others who had first-hand knowledge could ever broach the subject with him because it was too painful. This portion of the historical record was destroyed by Jǒngjo after getting permission from Yǒngjo shortly before the latter’s death, so once Lady Hyegyǒng passed away, there would be no way for Sunjo to know what had befallen his direct ancestor without her writing it out for him. It was her intention that this memoir be destroyed once Sunjo read it.
At this point, Lady Hyegyǒng was approaching seventy, and she is very blunt about both men’s weaknesses and the father-son conflict. Still, her candor is rather shocking to read, especially since she had earlier been warm in her assessment of her father-in-law. Rather than being a situation where the two men’s personalities clashed, it turns out to be something completely unexpected: a damning indictment of Yǒngjo as a private man and father. One wonders how Lady Hyegyǒng could handle the knowledge of Yǒngjo’s role in Sado’s death in her usual dealings with him, apart from her gratitude that he sheltered both her and her son when he could have destroyed their lives completely.
Sado’s troubles began nearly as soon as he was born. Yǒngjo had at least seven daughters and one son, Hyojang, who died young in 1728 at the age of 10. Sado was born in 1735, and he was immediately turned over to the attendants of the late King Kyǒngjong, the brother whom Yǒngjo was accused of assassinating, which raised some questions of how loyal those attendants would be to a man who may have killed their master. This also meant that young Sado would be put in the care of the eunuchs of the palace; in East Asian court politics, the eunuchs were usually the source of a lot of instability and intrigue, though Korean historical TV dramas don’t show this reality very much. Furthermore, Sado was relegated to a pavilion far from his parents that had a very evil reputation regarding a concubine who practiced black magic and caused the death of a former queen in the time of Sukjong, Yǒngjo’s father. [See K-Drama “Dong Yi” as mentioned in Part 4 for more details.]
Hyojang’s death is not explained in the memoir, but it is easy to see if other histories like Haboush’s The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yǒngjo and the Politics of Sagacity are taken into consideration that Yǒngjo did seem to have rather difficult relationships with any male in line to the throne until Jǒngjo when Yǒngjo was perhaps too old to be overly concerned with having his throne usurped. Yǒngjo was 69 years old when Sado was executed. While mortality rates were high in those times, it’s still hard not to wonder if something more was going on there since the two heirs who reached adulthood in Yǒngjo’s own time of vigor ended up dying with controversy and violence. This at the very least would suggest to me that Yǒngjo was seriously conflicted about succession and probably even abdication.
But clearly, Sado was a threat on many levels, even inadvertently. Yǒngjo’s actions at the time pushed the view that Sado was already an adult heir. He even had Sado appointed Crown Prince at 14 months of age when 8 years old was more typical. As discussed in the last post, Yǒngjo was tired of dealing with his ministers and wished to abdicate, not only to get out of the parts of his job as reigning king that he found distasteful and painful, but also to counter accusations that he murdered his brother to become king that surfaced at times. This constant pressure to make Sado competent enough to take over for him made him very short with and cold to his son, and Sado got more and more nervous around his father, particularly since Yǒngjo liked to publicly humiliate him and did so with increasing intensity until Sado’s execution. Such humiliations included holding annual criticism sessions on Sado’s birthday every year, angry outbursts about details of Sado’s clothing, an unwillingness to grant Sado permission to go to events involving people who mattered to him, even accusing Sado of all sorts of vices that he was not guilty of. When Sado was made regent, he never could do anything to Yǒngjo’s satisfaction; if he made decisions on his own, Yǒngjo was angered that Sado didn’t consult him, yet if Sado consulted him, Yǒngjo grew angry that Sado couldn’t make a decision on his own.
Otherwise, Yǒngjo’s main weapon of punishment was favoritism among his children. Yǒngjo loved two of his daughters, Hwap’yǒng and Hwawan, excessively and treated them with open favoritism, while he treated daughter Hwahyǒp and Prince Sado as unclean and inauspicious. He could barely stand the sight of Sado particularly, and he went out of his way to make Sado feel like every word out of his mouth was evil, to the point that Yǒngjo would even go through elaborate washing rituals merely at Sado’s greeting to get rid of bad luck! Yǒngjo was even a bit bizarre at the birth of Sado’s first son Ŭiso who died very early; Yǒngjo doted on the boy and took him into his own personal care once he determined the child was likely to be the reincarnation of his beloved daughter princess Hwap’yǒng who died the year before in childbirth. He even named the child Grand Heir at age 10 months, but Ŭiso died a year later. Yǒngjo only reacted normally when Jǒngjo was born in 1752.
The intensity of being in his father’s bullseye and having to do the most unpleasant, unwholesome tasks was coupled with the sad fact that many of Sado’s closest protectors and confidantes had died early on or were moved to locations beyond where he could see them, which continually left him isolated. Yǒngjo didn’t like Sado to live too close to his favored sisters since his bad luck would rub off on them. Yǒngjo’s ministers were dismayed by his treatment of Sado and tried to intervene or object at intervals, but to no avail. Yǒngjo couldn’t find enough to criticize Sado about, and as noted in The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yǒngjo and the Politics of Sagacity:
Sado loomed ever larger in his mind as an escape and a solution. In fact, Sado became almost an obsession. Whenever Yǒngjo found himself in a predicament, Sado was mentioned. (p. 157)
Yǒngjo’s false accusations had Sado on the verge of suicide and set him off into rebellion. His constant criticisms and humiliations pushed Sado to the point in 1760 where he started beating his servants and even killed his beloved concubine as a way of dealing with his anger at his father. It also caused Sado to develop an intense “clothing phobia” where he couldn’t select a pair of clothes in the morning and ended up burning many suits of clothes until he could pick one he felt comfortable wearing. Lady Hyegyǒng is mystified at the phobia’s origin, but it seems rather obvious that it was due to Yǒngjo’s constant picking at Sado’s appearance in public.
Intrigue with Yǒngjo’s new concubine left Sado at the mercy of the concubine’s brother, who had his cronies posted at Sado’s residence to help him spy on Sado and report his actions to Yǒngjo. However, Yǒngjo was rather mild in reacting to Sado’s murders, which escalated between 1760 and 1762, even promising to treat him better. But Sado predicted that things would end with his death on more than one occasion, and when some of Sado’s predictions came true in 1764, Lady Hyegyǒng was amazed at how clear-sighted he was. At the time, she thought it was Sado’s illness talking.
Two of the things Lady Hyegǒng partially blames for Sado’s violent behavior as the situation progressively got worse was his interest in martial subjects as well as his interest in Taoist magic, particularly a book called The Jade Spine Scripture, which made him afraid of a thunder god. Now, this is rather curious since in nearby Edo Japan, the ruling class were all samurai warriors for more than a century at that point, and certainly in both China and Korea there were classes of military men who were well-trained with no such implication of inappropriateness. In Korea, there was even a special military test men could take that was similar to the civil service exam of the literati. But somehow here this was some sort of degenerate activity that distracted Sado from his studies. Perhaps in the House of Yi, princes who were capable fighters were thought to be a threat to the throne more generally, or perhaps Confucianism was so strong it was thought military training inappropriate for a king or true scholar. In China, some forms of martial arts were strongly linked to Taoism and Buddhism, and Buddhism was disfavored and considered “corrupt” in the Joseon era. Certainly, Taoism was popular in China and not particularly thought of as something dangerous. So the unique Korean context made Sado’s interests problematic.
However, it seems that the concerns Lady Hyegyǒng raises, such as Sado’s murders late in his decline and his fear of the Taoist thunder god, more likely have roots in the cruel actions of his father. Yǒngjo forced Sado to sit through the worst sort of criminal trials, such as murder, that Yǒngjo himself didn’t have the stomach for, and he never let Sado attend more pleasant events that Sado was really interested in, such as archery competitions or royal excursions to ancestral tombs and the countryside. This would leave his son with very bad models of behavior with almost no good role models who were easily accessible to follow when the pressure got to be too great.
Sado’s fear of the weather more generally is repeatedly connected in the memoir to incidents when Yǒngjo attributed every natural occurrence, from droughts to “strange natural omens and calamities” to his son’s “insufficient virtue.” Well before the Taoist magic book became a factor, Lady Hyegyǒng reports, “if the weather was cloudy or if there was thunder on a winter day, the Prince-Regent instantly grew fearful lest he receive yet another berating from his father.” This is interesting because technically Yǒngjo was correct, these signs would be interpreted as the displeasure of Heaven according to Confucian doctrine, but toward Yǒngjo himself, not some peripheral figure in the court, even the regent!
Eventually, Sado could no longer stand to live in the palace and started to go on trips without permission, spending time with unsavory people. He even began to hallucinate in 1760 as Yǒngjo’s criticism of him intensified. Meanwhile, Yǒngjo kept Jǒngjo close to him and lavished praise and plans on the boy, which frightened Lady Hyegyǒng, who feared Sado would read about this in palace records and get upset. One of the final incidents that occurred in 1762 was at Jǒngjo’s wedding ceremony, which Sado very much wanted to attend from beginning to end. It worked out that the girl he preferred was selected, but he was sent away by Yǒngjo for most of the event because he was raging over Sado’s choice of cap in front of the whole assembly. Then when a former Prime Minister arrived back at court, he accused Sado of committing “ten heinous crimes,” and the whole court blew up. Sado’s mother, Lady Sǒnhǔi, realized things had gone too far and suggested Sado be executed.
JaHyun Kim Haboush’s book,The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yǒngjo and the Politics of Sagacity, looks at other historical records on the incident involving Sado’s execution and includes excerpts of those records in English that allows some comparisons of descriptions of the actual execution. She notes that the Sillok records that the king repeatedly asks Sado to commit suicide. But it is “The Diary of Yi Kwanghyǒn” that is even more damning of Yǒngjo than even Lady Hyegyǒng’s memoir! While it is of somewhat uncertain authenticity, it does echo enough of the Sillok’s account to be considered accurate. The king is clearly arbitrary, even deranged, in this account. In the diary, Sado actively attempts suicide a few times in King Yǒngjo’s presence in response to his threatening demands, but Sado passes out before he can successfully strangle himself. This form of execution was one of the few open to a member of the royal house, who could not be bodily disfigured, and taking the poison cup would have been an admission of criminality which would have condemned Lady Hyegyǒng and Jǒngjo as well. The rice chest was a last resort when Sado’s suicide attempts had failed. It is a riveting, emotionally draining account that certainly supports the general accusations Lady Hyegyǒng makes in this memoir.
As Lady Hyegyǒng says of Sado at one point in her narrative: “Even the most filial of sons and the most sane of persons would have been deeply hurt by such treatment.” While there are many modern theories that I could mention about how this tragedy came about politically and with the father-son dynamic, I think this statement from the memoir itself is the most accurate and personal. Sometimes in the sweep of academic theorizing, the fact that Sado was really victimized in this situation gets lost. But whatever the controversies surrounding Sado’s death, it is a testament to Sunjo that he never allowed Lady Hyegyǒng’s account to be destroyed for it is a very important missing piece to the historical record as well as a searing personal account of court politics.
Fifth of a five part series on the Hangjung Mallok.
Next time: Jingzi Wu’s The Scholars!