Posted : 2014-03-11 17:01
Updated : 2014-04-04 16:47

Forgotten story of Princess Gyeonghye

The story about Princess Gyeonghye was dramatized to be aired in 2011 by KBS TV. Actress Hong Soo-Hyun acted as the princess. / Korea Times file

This is the third of a 20-part of Jangseogak series in collaboration with the Academy of Korean Studies. Jangseogak houses Joseon Kingdom's documents. — ED.

An Seung-jun
By An Seung-jun
Chief researcher at the Academy of Korean Studies

If the tragic death of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (1542-87) touched the hearts of many in Britain, a century earlier in Korea there was another tragic protagonist in the royal court of the Joseon Kingdom.

This was Princess Gyeonghye (1435-1473), daughter of the fifth king of the Joseon Kingdom, King Munjong, and granddaughter of King Sejong the Great, the creator of hangeul, the Korean alphabet system. The story of her life was turned into a drama on KBS titled "The Princess' Man."

King Sejong favored his eldest son Munjong, who was bright and showed little desire for power. After Sejong's death, Munjong succeeded to the throne.

Yet, it seems that not even the king could change his own destiny. Munjong died in 1452, only three years after taking power. After his death, the Joseon court became engulfed in a bloodbath over who would succeed to the throne.

Princess Gyeonghye assumed the responsibility as guardian for King Danjong, and with the help of General Kim Jongseo, who loyally served two previous kings, Sejong and Munjong, she devoted herself to strengthening royal authority. However, her efforts were brutally crushed by the armed force employed by her uncle, Grand Prince Suyang, and his followers.

In 1455, Munjong's brother Suyang (later King Sejo, the seventh king of the the Joseon Kingdom) dethroned his young nephew Danjong and sent him into exile to a remote area in Yeongwol, Gangwon Province. As if this weren't enough, Sejo eventually sent a government official to have him killed in exile. Princess Gyeonghye was the slain King Danjong's older sister.

The princess attempted to restore her brother to the throne, together with her other uncles, Grand Prince Anpyeong and Grand Prince Geumseong, but this, too, failed.

The princess married Jeong Jong (Birth date unknown — 1461, of the Jeong family from Haeju) married in 1450. He was given the title of Yeongyangwi and was appointed to the high-ranking position of Minister of Justice. But after he was involved in the movement to restore King Danjong to the throne in 1455-56, Jeong was exiled to Gwangju, Jeolla Province, despite the fact the he was King Munjong's only son-in-law.

A will written by PrincessGyeonghye that remains at the Jangseogak at the Academy of Korean Studies inBundang, south of Seoul.

After a failed attempt to confront King Sejo's authority with Buddhist monks in 1461, he was sentenced to "death by dismemberment." Princess Gyeonghye was found to be guilty by association and was demoted to "gong nobi" or public slave, a social class that was a part of the lowest class of commoners, "cheonmin" or "vulgar commoners."

In the midst of these misfortunes, there was a silver lining: the princess became pregnant with a boy during her short exile of less than a year. Jeong Mi-su (1455 -1512) was the son the princess bore during her exile.

The murdered King Danjong's wife, Queen Jeongseon (1440-1521) of the Yeosan Song clan, suffered a similar fate. When women in the royal family were widowed or divorced, or when their husband fell from power, they were sent to the Jeongeobwon, the official royal convent. Jeongeobwon was a religious institution, but it also served as a place of political exile for disgraced women to live a religious, apolitical life.

Princess Gyeonghye's stay at Jeongeobwon was full of frustrations, but she had a single-minded determination to carry on the ancestral rites for her father Munjong, the direct descendant of King Sejong.

The princess believed that as the only surviving direct descendants of Munjong, she and her son Jeong Mi-su should perform proper ancestral rites to King Munjong, her father and her son's grandfather.

In a Confucian country like Joseon, performing ancestral rites was considered the primary duty of descendants, for it was believed that if not given the proper ancestral rites, the spirits of the dead wound up in restless misery, forever wandering around the underworld. Therefore, the princess wanted to pass on this responsibility to her son Jeong Mi-su.

Just before her death, she left a will asking her son to build a shrine for her father Munjong and to faithfully perform ancestral rites. She was only 39-years-old when she died.

"Dec. 27, 1473: I bequeath my estate to my son, Jeong Mi-su. Unfortunately, I became ill. I haven't yet married you, my only son, but my illness has become worse and my life is at risk. As this has come too suddenly, I have not enough time to list slaves one by one. I bequeath you the house in Jeongseon-bang, Seoul that is bestowed upon me, and the farmland in Tongjin, Gyeonggi-do. After I am gone, build a shrine and perform ancestral rites to your grandfather. And hand down the estate to posterity forever."

This document reveals the sorrow, the resentment and the tenacity she had as the daughter of a short-lived king, and as the sister of a deposed king.

The tragic narrative of a young king (who was dethroned and killed by none other than his own uncle), his wife and his sister, Princess Gyeonghye, spread among the people and still remains very much alive and breathing in our collective memory to this day.

The writer is chief researcher of Korean Studies at the Academy of Korean Studies.

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