Neglected memoirs and old palaces
Millions have visited a Danish castle populated with an imaginary ruling family destroyed by greed and insanity. Seoul possesses a palace with real tragedy that eclipses that of Hamlet, but its power remains untapped.
The ``Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong” ties Changgyeonggung (Changgyeong Palace) to the riveting story of a woman trapped there for nearly her entire life. Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1815) wed Crown Prince Sado when they were both nine. He became, she wrote, ``not one person but two”: a tender father and loving husband and a raving madman, who could beat a concubine to death or barge into his wife’s chambers with the severed head of a eunuch.
Bitter but emboldened, she relived the horror of his death in her last memoir: ``There are two versions of the incident of that year. Both are equally narrow, one-sided and untrue. One is that the decision of King Yeongjo (Prince Sado’s father) was noble and just. The other version is that, though the ill-fated prince had no illness, His Majesty listened to slanders and committed that terrible excessive act. Both versions are defamatory to the three generations, and neither is factually correct in any way.”
On Seoul National University Hospital’s campus is a small Joseon-era gate, part of a shrine built after Prince Sado’s body was unceremoniously buried outside the palace walls. At age 27, broken and frightened, he obediently followed his father’s order to climb into an empty rice chest brought out from the palace kitchen. The prince, whose many neuroses included fear of thunder, slowly starved to death over eight hot days that ended on a night of torrential rain and lightning.
The details of this incident and the impact it had on the Joseon Kingdom add gravity to Changgyeonggung’s buildings and obliterate the ignoble aura lingering from the zoo Japanese colonizers built there and the amusement park that the South’s dictators later added. Once the story is known, an otherwise routine hall like Sungmundang becomes the spot where King Yeongjo ordered Prince Sado to explain his murderous rages.
``I am sad that your majesty does not love me and terrified when you criticize me. All this turns to anger,” Sado confessed. Fine print in the old palace brochure reported, ``It was on May 13, 1762, that the courtyard in front of Munjeongjeon witnessed the most tragic incident of the century. It had been reported to King Yeongjo that Crown Prince Sado was mentally ill and behaving erratically. Furious with the prince, his father ordered him sealed alive in a large rice chest. It is believed that Crown Prince Sado was a victim of a conspiracy by his political adversaries.
The latest brochure cuts the hyperbole and every detail about Sado’s murder. Tour guides allude to it but still blame the plotting. Lady Hyegyeong’s insight seems more believable. She diagnosed mental illness long before schizophrenia was recognized in the West. She lacked enough information to analyze Yeongjo’s reasoning, but her translator uncovered answers in court records and succeeds in raising respect for this royal family and their home still further: Had Sado been found guilty of a crime, his immediate family would have met similar fates under Joseon’s system of collective punishment, and the contrived adoption of Sado’s son Jeongjo made it easier for him to inherit the throne. As for the rice chest, ``the Yi royal family custom forbade the killing of a member by a method which would disfigure or dismember the body.”
Lady Hyegyeong (Queen Heongyeong, posthumously) and Jeongjo’s commitment to Sado’s rehabilitation proves that he, like his father and son, was a complicated personality with endearing traits. The main characters in this tragedy are alternately inspiring and disappointing ― altogether human. Their saga is worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage. Whitewashing or desecrating it with one-dimensional characters is the literary equivalent of putting a rollercoaster over palace grounds.
The author, a former writer/editor at Korea.net and Yonhap, devotes time to bringing more attention to lesser-known Korean assets. More information at unlockingkorea.blogspot.com.