Life As A Princess in Joseon Korea

There is no tree that does not fall after ten blows. 

–Korean proverb,
Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong 

Hi Guys,

Lately, in addition to the usual Buddhist stuff, I’ve also been delving into a book I bought a while back, but had no opportunity to read until now: The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. This book is a fascinating collection of memories by Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1816) who was the wife of the infamous Prince Sado, son King Yeongjo of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea. I wrote about King Yeongjo in a previous post, but I didn’t delve much into the tragedy and madness of his son, the designated heir of the throne.

The Memoirs is divided into four memoirs at different stages in Lady Hyegyeong’s twilight years: 1795, 1801, 1802 and 1805. The first three focus on the innocence of the Hong family amidst the conspiracies in Court that led to the wrongful execution of her father and brother. They are pretty circumspect about Prince Sado’s madness and death. The prince was compelled by his father the King to climb into a tiny rice chest to die from suffocation and heat Confucian norms at the time for id any bloodshed of the Prince. Lady Hyegyeong was very attached to her husband, even after the tragic events, and evidentially didn’t stop caring for him long after he died. The 1805 memoir though goes into much more detail about the curcumstances leading up to Prince Sado’s demise. Decades after his death, it was still a taboo subject at court, so few other records from the time are available.  

The Memoirs are also interesting becausethey show life in the Joseon court, which was highly regulated by Neo-Confucian norms to the point that Court life became very rigid. It’s amazing the number of social rules, and how strict the rules of filial piety were. Even the calendar years were carefully organized along the sexagenary cycle imported from China, while advancement in Court often hinged on the Confucian civil service exams and intimate knowledge of the ancient Chinese classics.  

Finally, it’s fascinating to see how difficult life at the court was. Lady Hyegyeong had many obligations as a noble woman in the Confucian Joseon court, but to make matters worse, the throne was being torn apart by obnoxious infighting and factionalism. It’s amazing the lengths the different factions would go to undermine one another by manipulating the Confucian bureaucracy for revenge or gain.1  The factions themselves were often based on hair-splitting differences in interpretation of Neo-Confucianism and details about who should inherit the throne. Further there were power plays against Lady Hyegyeong by Prince Sado’s power-hungry sister Princess Hwawan and also from the rival Gyeongju Kim clan under one Kim Kwiju who sought to undermine Lady Hyegyeong’s venerable Pungsan Hong clan. Other, more obscure clans occasionally had vendettas against the Hong clan as well due to grievances in generations past. 

The proverb above was frequently quoted by Lady Hyegyeong to describe the relentless assault on her family.  Rivals in the Court would often fabricate charges of sedition against Lady Hyegyeong’s father and third brother which would tie up the legal system and cast their loyalty in doubt, even if proven innocent. Over the years, as the charges mounted, it was harder for King Jeongjo (Lady Hyegyeong’s son) to protect them from a hostile Confucian bureaucracy until they were eventually executed.   

As a 9 year old girl, who had to marry into Joseon Court and adjust to life there, it was a great shock and adjustment for her, and the Memoirs have her looking back on the frustrations, plots against her family and trauma she and those around here frequently underwent. It’s a fascinating, though frequently tragic read.

1 For reference, the Hong family was part of the “Noron” faction by Lady Hyegyeong’s admission in the 1801 memoir.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

One thought on “Life As A Princess in Joseon Korea”

  1. So,mit seems like viewing an exotic flower. I suppose the cultivation ouch beats memorizing on yom, kun yomi kanji readings. Korea seems to me to be a tough place in previous centuries, as it was always having to keep villi gent eyes on their neighbors, inside and outside.The inbreeding of vices you mention here is probably a warning to those who think constructing high walls around their own tribe is the way to go.


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