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Uireung: Part One | Part Two

In my previous entry I wrote about the Joseon dynasty royal tombs located at Uireung and mentioned my desire to include information about the life of King Gyeongjong and his second lawful wife, Queen Seonhui. The main reason that kept me from doing this at the time is that so much of what happened during Gyeongjong's rule is the result of fighting between political factions -- with one of the groups involved splitting into two new factions during the same period. 아이고.

To start with, King Gyeongjong (1688-1724; r. 1720-1724) is the oldest son of King Sukjong, born during the fourteenth year of his father's reign. Sukjong's first wife was Queen Ingyeong (1661–1680) of the Kim clan. The two were married while Sukjong was still Crown Prince and she became queen in 1674 when Sukjong assumed the throne. Ingyeong had three daughters but all died during childbirth; when she was 20 years old Ingyeong showed signs of pox and died within eight days.

Following a year of mourning Sukjong married his second wife, Queen Inhyeon (인현왕후) of the Yeoheung Min clan, but she was unable to provide an heir for the throne. One of the king's consorts, Jang Okjeong, gave birth to a son in 1688 and as a result she was promoted to the position of Huibin ('Grand Concubine' and 'Royal Noble Consort' are the two English translations I've come across for this title). King Sukjong was so relieved to have an heir that he had the boy - Gyeongjong - named First Prince at two months old before later having him recognized as Crown Prince when he turned two years old.

However, Queen Inhyeon was still young (21 years old) at the time of Gyeongjong's birth and some members of the court felt that Jang Okjeong's promotion was unnecessary. This resulted in an ideological clash over power between members of the 'Southerners' (남인) and 'Westerners' (서인) that lasted until the Southerners lost power in 1694. Despite gaining power from the Southerners, a series of differences within the Westerner faction eventually led to the creation of two new political factions - the Noron (Old Learning) and Soron (New Learning) groups - at the start of the 18th century.

Jang Huibin's tomb - Daebin (대빈) - at Seooneung (서오릉) in Goyang (고양시)

Further complicating matters, Queen Inhyeon's father was associated with the Noron faction while consort Jang's older brother was a member of the Soron, which should give some indication as to how interested each lobbying group was in determining the choice of royal heir. Song Si-yeol, the court's secondary state minister and leader of the Noron faction, was particularly vociferous in his objections and was eventually banished to Jeju Island by King Sukjong. Queen Inhyeon refused to adopt Gyeongjong as her own son - a common procedure at the time - and was demoted from her position due to the political machinations of the time. This dispute led to not only the queen's removal but also a purge - by banishment and poisoning - of government officials (Westerners) that is known as Gisa Sahwa (기사 사화). Consort Jang Okjeong was promoted to a position as Queen / Grand Concubine Oksan (옥산 대빈) as a result of these changes and the Southerners regained power in the court.

From Homer B. Hulbert's History of Korea, Volume 1 (1905:157) comes the following statement from King Sukjong:

For a long time I have been aware of the queen's jealous disposition and evil mind, and I have borne with it patiently but now I can endure it no longer. Since I have taken the concubine Chang [Jang under the old Romanization system] it has been still more unendurable. The queen and the concubine Kim have been putting their heads together in an attempt to frighten me into putting away Chang, but I saw through the plan. Now what shall we do?"

As time passed King Sukjong grew to regret his decision and Queen Inhyeon was reinstated to her position in 1694 while Grand Concubine Oksan Jang was returned to her previous station as huibin in an event known as Gapsul Hwanguk (갑살 환국). Inhyeon was first moved to a small palace in Andong and then to the "Mulberry Palace" before finally returning to the main palace itself. Following Gapsul Hwanguk "a stringent law was made that henceforth no royal concubine should ever be raised to the position of queen" (Hulbert 1905:160). And then everything returned back to normal, right?

Not exactly.

An entrance to the queen's quarters, Changdeokgung Palace (창덕궁)

The Noron and Soron factions continued fighting for influence in the court; the Noron faction tried to persuade the king to kill Concubine Jang, while one of the concubine's servants stole a name tag (used for identification purposes during the Joseon dynasty) from the Noron leader's slave and buried it next to Jang's father's grave to suggest that witchcraft - using a fetish - had been involved in the Noron's rise to prominence. After some investigating, the king discovered the ruse and had several court advisers killed or banished.

In 1701 Queen Inhyeon grew ill and passed away soon after. Hulbert mentions boils in his account, but other sources only state that she died suddenly. To continue with another excerpt from History of Korea, Volume 1 (1905:160):

Four years passed without any events of importance, and then the queen became afflicted with boils and expired. The records tell us that that night the king dreamed that the dead queen came to him with her garments covered in blood. To his enquiries (sic) she made no answer except to point toward the apartments of the concubine Chang. The king arose and went in that direction, and his ears were greeted with the sound of laughter and merriment. Wetting his finger in his mouth he applied it to the paper window and soon made a peep-hole. There he beheld the concubine and a large company of sorceresses engaged in shooting arrows into an effigy of the queen and making merry over having done her to death by placing a fetich (sic) under her room
In spite of her being the mother of the Crown Prince, he poisoned her and killed all her sorceress companions. A host of the Nam-in party (Southerners) also met their death. The almost incredible number of 1,700 people are said to have met their death as a result of this disturbance.

Wooden name tags used for identification purposes in the Joseon dynasty, National Museum of Korea

Hulbert later adds (1905:162) that Concubine Jang told her son, the future King Gyeongjong, that if she was going to die he should die with her. He is reluctant to follow her demand and "she struck at him with an improvised weapon, a piece of wood. She succeeded only in wounding him, but it was in a portion of the body that rendered it impossible for him ever to have an heir." This incident is also brought up in the Cultural Heritage Administration book Visits to the Kings: A Journey Back to the 500-Year History of the Joseon Dynasty (2008:90), and in slightly more detail at that. (Presumably due to the 100 year gap between Hulbert's work and this more recent offering.)

When Royal Noble Consort Huibin from the Jang clan was killed, she pulled her son's penis, which made King Gyeongjong faint on the spot. This is said to have made him ill and eventually impotent. King Gyeongjong indeed suffered from ailments for 19 years after his mother died, thereby ascending to the throne only to die four years later without producing a single child.

King Gyeongjong assumed the throne in 1720 but only ruled for four years before coming to an untimely death. During this time the Noron faction pressured him to step down in favor of his half-brother Prince Yeoning, who would eventually rule under the name King Yeongjo. After Queen Inhyeon's death King Sukjong married a third time and his wife, Queen Inwon (1687-1757) adopted Gyeongjong and Yeoning, who was born by another concubine in the palace. The Norons sent memorials to the king to no effect while the Sorons used this to their advantage -- claiming the Noron faction were trying to usurp power and subsequently getting their rival faction removed from several offices. Members of the Soron faction then came up with an idea to assassinate the heir (Gyeongjong) under the cover of hunting for a white fox said to be haunting the palace (1905:163).

Despite these plans, Gyeongjong came to place great trust in the Soron party. Hulbert writes:

First, the king was so enamored of the Soron party that he took Mok Ho-ryong, their leader, outside the gate one night and sacrificed a white horse and, tasting its blood, swore that until time's end Mok Ho-ryong's descendants should hold high office under the government. Second, the Soron officials went to the shrine of the great Song Si-ryul (Also written as Song Si-yeol, remember him?) and tearing the tablet from its place, dragged it through the filth of a dung hill.

No love lost between the Noron and Soron factions, it seems.

Tomb of Queen Seonhui, King Gyeongjong's wife, at Uireung

Wrapping things up, King Gyeongjong was a somewhat ineffectual ruler before dying just four years into his reign. There was some speculation that his half-brother Yeoning had something to do with his sudden death due to the earlier attempt by the Noron faction to have him replace Gyeongjong on the throne. However, Hulbert has such an amusingly succinct description of the event (1905:164) that I want to quote him one last time:

But we may well doubt the truth of the rumor, for nothing that is told of that brother indicates that he would commit such an act, and in the second place a man who will eat shrimps in mid-summer, that have been brought thirty miles from the sea without ice might expect to die.

Following King Gyeongjong's death his half-brother assumed the throne under the royal title King Yeongjo. While it must be said that Yeongjo removed the factional division that had plagued the court during the rule of his predecessors, he also forced his son to commit suicide. But that's a story for another time ...


Hulbert, H.B.
    1905  The History of Korea, Volume 1.  Routledge Press.

Kim, Tae-joon
    2006  Korean Travel Literature.  Seoul: Ehwa Womans University Press.

Lee, Byeongyu
    2008  Visits To The Kings: A Journey Back to the 500-Year History of the Joseon Dynasty.  
        Seoul: Geomarketing TheBeetleMap.

Pratt, Keith and Richard Rutt
    1999  Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary.  Routledge Press


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 4th, 2010 06:05 am (UTC)
Thanks for the great story..
Can we have part 2? :)
Aug. 12th, 2010 04:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks for commenting. This entry was meant as part 2 and you can read part 1 here.

However, at some point I do still intend to write about King Yeongjo!
Jun. 5th, 2013 09:43 pm (UTC)
Writing about his mother would be cool too. I hear she was born a servant, so it is definitely an interesting story to hear as she grew up to be a mother of a King. I hear there is not much information on her and that she might not even have a name, but what do I know? You obviously know what you are talking about, and I don't. Anyways, great story, thanks.
Aug. 10th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC)
thanks for the accurate story (since you're using legit sources) about sukjong and jang hui bin. i've been watching a korean drama about them and i was curious about the actual events that occurred.
Aug. 12th, 2010 04:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you for the comment and compliment! What drama are you watching, and what do you think of it so far? If it's one you recommend I would be interested in watching it myself. Would certainly be a nice addition to all the text I've read about them!
Sep. 11th, 2010 07:59 pm (UTC)
the movie is Dong Yi
Oct. 1st, 2010 05:11 am (UTC)
What drama brought us here, you ask?
It's DONG YI. I found your excellent pages searching for historical accuracy about the time of King Sukjong. Then, you directed me to Hubert's work, which I happily found available as an e-book. I really appreciate your writings.

Oct. 5th, 2010 02:15 pm (UTC)
Re: What drama brought us here, you ask?
I'm glad to hear that my write-up was helpful to you, and it's great to know which drama people are watching about the time period. I have to admit that I hadn't heard of it myself, but I'll have to check it out now!

Google has sections of Hubert's work available online but I'm tempted to search for a copy of his work in an e-book format as it's a very interesting read.

Thank you for the comment and information. 감사합니다!
Oct. 11th, 2012 10:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you first for your great story. I have a request. can you email me the English Version of Hubert's book?
Oct. 11th, 2012 10:42 pm (UTC)
Thank you first for your great story. I have a request. can you email me the English Version of Hubert's book?
My email is saeed.hajizadeh1367@gmail.com
and one more question, if you can not do that, please tell me why queen inheyon is said to be one of the best queens of choseon dynasty?
Oct. 23rd, 2010 08:33 am (UTC)
Dong Yi
somebody was asking about soron and noron until I found your site and read about King Sukjong and am very happy to learn more about this King and it remind me of the drama Dong Yi. domo arigatou.
Jul. 12th, 2011 12:42 am (UTC)
noron and soron
I am watching a korean drama called Sungkyunkwan Scandal, and the word Noron and Soron has been mentioned lots of times. You stated "the Noron (Old Learning) and Soron (New Learning) groups" Do you have any idea what does it mean by the old and new learning groups? and also, why are they enemies? Thank You
Jul. 12th, 2011 12:48 am (UTC)
I am watching a korean drama "Sungkyunkwan Scandal" and the word Noron and Soron has been mentioned lots of times. You stated the Noron (Old Learning) and Soron (New Learning) groups". Do you perhaps know what do the old and new learning mean? and also, why are those two groups enemies? Thank You
Dec. 7th, 2011 07:12 am (UTC)
hi :)
umhhhn! i just feel like a little confused when it says there that "When Royal Noble Consort Huibin from the Jang clan was killed, she pulled her son's penis" is it really true that he pulled his son's own penis? :) i get a little confused. because i really thought that consort hui really wants to protect the crown prince :) and another thing, prince yeon ing became the successor to the throne right?
Jun. 12th, 2012 03:51 am (UTC)
That's what the sources suggest.
Jun. 8th, 2012 02:57 pm (UTC)
I ALWAYS LOVE KOREA!!when i learned DONG YI..it is been wonderful to learn new history and story!NICE oNE!
Feb. 25th, 2013 04:03 am (UTC)
thank you for your work.. my interests about korean history grew because of the movie dong yi.. i watched the whole episodes last year and untill now ive been searching about the real events during their time.. can you pls. give some full details about life of dong yi? since birth till its death? it is so much appreciated thank you so much..
Jun. 13th, 2013 05:44 pm (UTC)
why people wanted to be king/ queen / president/ prime minister? it such a hassle idea, they know that being one creats lots of enemies instead of friends. and during those ancient times most people don't have formal education. just listening to gossip and noproper investigation and greed, they think they made history great. what mentality. all I can say history repeat itself. the CORPORAL SINS.
We all die anyway, so what do you think, somebody will read history books? I doubt it.
Oct. 21st, 2013 04:53 am (UTC)
What's up, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this article.
It was funny. Keep on posting!
Dec. 26th, 2013 01:40 pm (UTC)
I just finished watching the drama Dong Yi. It has been very interesting to watch. I wonder how much is true in the drama such as did Dong Yi or consort Sook really help the poor? Can some one help me?
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )