I chanced upon several articles discussing the history behind Secret Door, and thought that the mix of history and the author’s view on the current politics in South Korea are worth the time spent to read them. I realize that the author, Kim Jung-sung, also wrote a series of articles (one of them can be found here) in response to the historical drama airing in 2011, Tree with Deep Roots. One thing that I like about historical dramas is that they have the power to generate the public’s interest in the history used as the settings. As a foreigner, this is an opportunity for me to gain more insights regarding the fascinating history of South Korea.
These articles seems to be a part of an ongoing series since Secret Door is still airing, currently in its fifth week, and I am hoping that I can follow the articles until the end. A friendly reminder: I am not a fluent Korean speaker and I rely on my limited vocabulary, as well as the friendly dictionaries I have, including the amazing naver dictionary. I would appreciate it if you can provide additional tidbits about the points raised in the articles. Sharing is caring!
Being the most dramatic yet heartbreaking relationship between father and son recorded in the history, Yeongjo and Crown Prince Sado’s story is being adapted into a drama again. Secret Door, which recently aired its first two episodes, depicts the alliance as well as the discord between Yeongjo and the ruling party, Noron. It is a rather impressive portrayal of Yeongjo, showing another side of him, the king who is trying to pave the path for his heir while juggling his personal agony.
The main character, Yeongjo (Han Suk-kyu) is the main figure behind the political policy of Great Harmony, or Tangpyeong. During his grandson’s reign and also his own reign, although Noron (or the Old Learning faction) was considered the main player in Joseon’s political arena, in reality, the distribution of power between the factions was quite balanced. However, it is not easy to understand Yeongjo’s Great Harmony policy at a glance. Although he was the one who made the policy, he also made use of the factional fights happening between the parties. In fact, Noron was the main benefactor for Yeongjo to rise into power as without them backing him up, it would be impossible for him to become the king in the first place.
Noron actually came into the picture of Joseon’s politics together with Soron (the New Learning) during Sukjong’s reign. Both were originally under Seoin (Western Party). When Sukjong was the nation’s ruler, the Westerners drove out Namin (or Southern Party), which had kicked out Dongin (Eastern Party) earlier; however, the Westerners themselves later split into Noron and Soron.
[For those who are familiar with the dramas set around Sukjong’s consorts, Westerners supported Queen Inhyun while Southerners were supporting Lady Jang Hui-bin. Since Lady Choi Suk-bin was Queen Inhyun’s people, she also received support from Westerners. Southerners were mostly wiped out when Lady Jang was executed, but at that time, Sukjong already designated her son, Yi Yoon, as the Crown Prince.]
Why Yeongjo, who had Noron behind him, pursued the Great Harmony Policy?
The reason for the Westerners splitting up was because of the difference in their beliefs: Noron supported Yi Geum (Yeongjo) while Soron was Yi Yoon (Gyeongjong)’s supporters. After Sukjong’s death, Yi Yoon ascended the throne and Yi Geum faded to the background of the history. However, Noron, who was desperate for their own stability, escorted Yi Geum and used Yi Yoon’s frail health to make Yi Geum as his half-brother’s heir, since the king did not have any son.
Noron soon showed their true colors, demanding forYi Yoon to make Yi Geum the regent while he himself refrained from getting involved with political matters. The political struggle between the two factions intensified when Soron raised the injustice regarding the issues of heir and regency, to the point of charging Yi Geum for treason. Those issues became a source of political hindrance for Yeongjo long after it happened, as well as planting the seed of complexity deep in Yeongjo’s heart. In the midst of all the things happening in the court, Yi Yoon, or King Gyeongjong, suddenly passed away at a young age of 25, leaving the throne empty without any young heir. Thus, Yi Geum rose to the throne, becoming the king we knew today as Yeongjo.
It would be hard for Yeongjo to become Joseon’s king without Noron’s support. He did not only owe them a big favour, but without them, Yeongjo won’t be able to achieve anything. However, as soon as he assumed his position as the nation’s ruler, he started to pursue the policy and completed the framework four years into his reign. What was the secret behind Yeongjo’s policy, which seemed to be his act of defying the relationship he had with Noron?
Great Harmony: every king’s dream and hope
Was it because Yeongjo’s strong will for Great Harmony? It could be so, but that is still an incomplete answer. Of course, every ruler wants to be remembered by his subjects. No one wants to be remembered only as a ruler of a political party, thus it can be said that harmonious reign is a shared dream between every country’s sovereign. President Park (Geun-hye) also promoted unification recently and she had never stopped promoting harmony since the presidential election in December 2012. There is no leader who does not wish for a harmonious reign, President Park included; however, it is still hard to explain Yeongjo’s policy of harmonious reign.
Most of the leaders wish to rule in harmony but in the end, they lost since their power was inferior, compared to the ruling party’s influence. The leaders would want to lead the whole nation, but the ruling party would exert their control, pressing the leaders to rule their own people. This kind of domination often turns the ideal harmony into a far-fetched dream. Looking at this point, it was a question mark on how Yeongjo’s policy affected the influence of Noron. What did Yeongjo do? Did he manage to gain the support of Soron?
A part of Soron did support Yeongjo but their general stand was against him. They were still suspecting him of poisoning Gyeongjong, leading to the late king’s death. Because of this reason, Yeongjo found it difficult to form alliance with Soron. Then, what was the reason for Yeongjo to continuously push for the policy? Throughout the reigns of Sukjong, Gyeongjong, and Yeongjo, there were several events that need to be focused on.
First, the radical political reforms during Sukjong’s reign, known as Hwanguk, happened frequently throughout the years. This was the rare time where Joseon witnessed the consolidation of the royal authority, together with the powerful East Asian countries: Tang Dynasty of China and Japan. Possessing unique character since he was young, Sukjong pursued a rather unusual idea, breaking the tradition of Joseon’s politics, which relied more on the retainers’ power rather than the royal house’s influence.
Sukjong’s intention of exerting the royal house’s power received cold response from the factions and some even left the offices. That did not stop the king from carrying out his daily duties as he made decisions after consulting with those who were present in the court. Factional fights often occurred and the power switched from one side to another throughout the years. The intense confrontation caused the factions’ power to be weakened over the years and this became a good setting for Sukjong’s son, Yeongjo, to push through with his policy. It could be said that the Great Harmony Policy was a success thanks to Sukjong’s legacy.
Yeongjo – cutting his own flesh for power balance
The second thing to be focused on was Yeongjo’s way of achieving his goal. Yeongjo pursued his goals aggressively because of his political complex and it would be visible when the factions refused to go along with his harmony policy. It all started during Gyeongjong’s reign, where Soron worked tirelessly to remove Yi Geum from his position. His appointment as the heir and the regent were accused as the acts of high treason by Soron and they were charged with treason by Noron when Yi Geum became the king. Worried that it might dampen his harmony policy, Yeongjo planned something which could possibly put his own supporters Noron at disadvantage, and that was handing over the government administration to Soron, who questioned his own legitimacy as the nation’s ruler. This event was known as Jeongmi Hwanguk, happening in the year 1727, three years after Yeongjo’s ascension to the throne.
At one glance, Yeongjo seemed to deviate from his own ideology of harmony by giving the power to Soron, but it was actually a move which made the policy possible to be accomplished. By doing so, Noron’s power weakened due to the pressure from Soron, which paved the way towards achieving his goal. Yeongjo actually sacrificed his own flesh for the sake of maintaining power balance between the factions. Although they were eventually cast aside, Soron’s constant criticism disturbed Yeongjo, but he was willing to show them his weakness at the beginning of his reign, for the sake of his dream policy.
The exceptional king who gave birth to the 18th century Joseon
Yeongjo had his own way of dealing with the crisis and this is the base for the third point. In his fourth year of reign, Soron launched an uprising to revolt against him. This event, led by Yi In-jwa, was also known as Musin Revolt, taking place in the year 1728. The base of the rebellion was the claim accusing Yeongjo of poisoning his half-brother Gyeongjong and taking over the throne. The group received support mainly from the southern provinces, namely Chungcheong, Jeolla, and Gyeongsang. The troops even took over the fort in Cheongju, insisting that they wanted to overthrow the current government administration.
Yeongjo had his own way of dealing with the crisis in front of him. Since Soron was the one behind the revolt, it would be natural for the king to turn into Noron. However, Yeongjo was different; he entrusted the duty to suppress the rebellion to the moderate members of Soron. This came out a surprise for the rebellion troops and became the reason for the Soron members to fall apart, leading to the success of quelling the revolt. The event did not only benefit Noron, which was looking for a chance to strike, but also marked the beginning of Soron’s support for Yeongjo. Besides suppressing the rebellion army, Yeongjo made it possible for his policy to find a stable ground because of his decision.
Yeongjo’s policy of Great Harmony was not a simple thing be achieved. Of course, it would be impossible if not for the legacy left behind by Sukjong, but the policy was undeniably a product of Yeongjo’s unyielding spirit. Using his own weakness against his opponents while mobilizing the people against him to suppress the rebellion, he managed to put the powerful factions under his control. He also cut his own flesh and risked his political influence for the sake of the Great Harmony Policy. That was the reason why the man was the exceptional king, who gave birth to the 18th century Joseon.
Secret Door is the drama where Han Suk-kyu shows off a different side of Yeongjo. Early in the drama, a pledge known as maengui was made by Yeongjo and Noron right after Gyeongjong’s death and became the center of the plot. Under the pressure of Noron, whose aim was to push Gyeongjong out of power, Yeongjo was forced to sign the agreement in order for him to become the next king after Gyeongjong’s death. In the present, the document fell into the hands of a royal painter Shin Heung-bok, who met his demise because of Noron on his way to deliver the document to Crown Prince Sado (Lee Je-hoon). The Crown Prince is set on unraveling the truth behind the murder while both Yeongjo and Noron are trying to stop him at any cost. The drama also shows another person besides Yeongjo and Noron who tries to stop the prince: Princess Hyegyeong, Sado’s wife.
The present setting of the drama reflects the pressure that eventually forced Sado to face his death while being sealed in the rice chest. The pressure, embodied by Noron and his in-laws, not to forget Sado’s father Yeongjo and his wife Princess Hyegyeong, is being portrayed dramatically in this series. But then, there was another figure besides those people, who drove Sado into his own death. It could be that because of this person’s existence, it was easier to get rid of Crown Prince Sado. If this person was not there in the first place, the prince might not be killed easily.
The figure was no other than Sado’s own son: Yi San, or widely known as Jeongjo. No one could match his sadness after Sado’s death and no one could beat his desire to reinstate Sado to his rightful position, but he might be the prime reason for Sado to meet his demise at such a young age.
Yeongjo, a 42 year-old king without an heir
Yeongjo became the king amidst the political feud with Gyeongjong but he continued to be disturbed over the suspicion of poisoning his half-brother. In such situation, if he happened to fail in producing a son and another royal member was appointed as his heir, he would face greater risk of losing his position. Putting his own son as an heir to the throne made it possible for Yeongjo to safeguard his position as the nation’s ruler. However, it was not an easy journey for him to make his son as his heir. One year after his own coronation, Yeongjo made his firstborn son Crown Prince Hyojang, who was six at that time, as his official heir in 1725. Hyojang was his son with Lady Yi jung-bin, but three years later, the prince passed away. Yeongjo was 35, and he was left without any male heir for the next seven years.
At the age of 42, Yeongjo was in his eleventh year of reign, yet the king had no heir. This became a source of anxiety for Yeongjo, not to mention his constant worry of losing his position because of the suspicion pertaining Gyeongjong’s death. But then, in 1735, his concubine Yi young-bin gave birth to a son: Yi Seon, who became Crown Prince Sado we knew today. Maybe because he was too happy to have a son, Yeongjo decided to make Seon as an official Crown Prince in the following year. It was a rare occurrence for such a young boy to be formally invested as an heir. Yeongjo probably made that decision because of several reasons: he wanted to make the son he finally had with great difficulties as the formal heir of his position, as well as consolidating his own position and protecting the young prince.
At this point, both Sado’s in-laws and Noron were looking for ways to establish a stable ground for themselves. The discord started in 1744, when Sado was merely 10 years old. They raised their guard against the prince and continued to be offensive, but they were still mindful that the young prince was their future king. This was probably due to the fact that Crown Prince Sado was still without a child at that time. Hence, no matter how much they wanted to push him away, they had no options other than him. That made the in-laws and Noron on the same side as Sado, since they were the same people who set up the base for Yeongjo’s legitimacy, and to put Sado in a dangerous position would be a disadvantage for them.
Thus, during Sado’s term as a regent from 1749 to 1762, both Yeongjo and Noron were only watching over him while he conducted state affairs in Yeongjo’s place. Yeongjo realized that the conflicts betwen Sado and Noron could be a threat to his own position, but he could only hold himself back since he had no alternative other than Sado. That was the reason why the prince could last as long as 13 years as a regent and if the situation did stay like that, Sado’s death would be an incident that could be avoided.
The Appearance of an Alternative: Yeongjo’s Protractor and Jeongjo’s Entrance
However, an alternative appeared. The birth of Sado’s substitute who became Yeongjo’s protractor; who was as outstanding as Sado: the Grand Heir Yi San or Jeongjo. Ever since the son of Crown Prince Sado began his formal education as an heir, it marked the beginning of him being Yeongjo’s collateral in prolonging his reign and at the same time, the start of Sado’s further downfall into a dangerous pit.
Royal princes usually started out their formal education early, and by the time they reached the age of ten, they were able to display intelligence far superior that the normal boys of their age. There were several cases of young princes in their early teens becoming a king with the Queen Dowager as a regent. Such thing was possible, since they possessed adequate awareness to become the king. People around Sado were just waiting patiently for Jeongjo to grow up in order to make him an official heir. Yi San was made the Grand Heir at the young age of 8 and three years later, those same people made their move, when the Grand Heir was merely 11 years old. In the year of 1762, they got rid of their source of trouble by forcing Sado into the rice chest, which eventually killed him, and 14 years later, following Yeongjo’s death, Jeongjo ascended to the throne left by his grandfather.
If Jeongjo was not an outstanding substitute to Sado and made Yeongjo view him as his savior, that unfortunate event could have been avoided. Of course, it happened against Jeongjo’s will, but his presence did contribute to the tragedy that happened to his father. Sado had predicted it, as recorded by Lady Hyegyeong in her memoirs. As if he could foresee the tragedy in front of him, Sado said to Lady Hyegyeong, “It seems that I won’t be able to save myself. What should I do?” Hyegyeong replied, “What can he (His Majesty) possibly do?” “He treasures the Grand Heir. With his dearest Grand Heir here, will he even bat an eye if he is to get rid of me?” Sado added when Hyegyeong was still unconvinced, “You don’t know. His Majesty hated me and it’s getting worse. He can depose me and make Grand Heir an adopted son of Crown Prince Hyojang.”
After Sado’s death, Yeongjo made Jeongjo a posthumously adopted son of Crown Prince Hyojang, just like what Sado had predicted before. His words became a reality not long after he said it and it could be that he foresaw his death as he watched his son grew up. Jeongjo was not the only contributing factor behind Sado’s execution; in fact, it was unfortunate for a young Jeongjo to take over his dead father’s position as the heir. It was not his intention and it can be said that fate made him an undutiful son.
One of the leading themes for the drama Secret Door is Yeongjo’s sin. That sin was being responsible for Gyeongjong’s death and signing a secret agreement with Noron to make it possible for him to become a king after his half-brother’s passing. While Yeongjo wants to escape from the so-called sin, Noron wants to tie him down using the same sin at any cost. Meanwhile, Yeongjo’s son, Crown Prince Sado, is digging around Shin Heung-bok’s death and he happens to approach the subject without realizing it as Yeongjo cautiously watches over him, building up tension in the drama.
A symbolic description of Yeongjo’s sin was shown in the 6th episode. Yeongjo, who is dissatisfied with the Prime Minister, Kim Taek’s way of handling the government matters, offered Kim Taek a bowl of ginseng drink and said, “That was the ginseng drink both of us offered to the late king (Gyeongjong) in Hwanchwi Pavilion back then!” Hwanchwi Pavilion was the building in Changgyeong Palace, which was Gyeongjong’s place of death. Kim Taek was slightly disturbed, but he replied, “How can this humble subject accept the drink offered to Hwanchwi Pavilion?” Yeongjo then furiously reminded him to take care of matters properly if he did not wish to accept the drink. Their conversation was alluding that the ginseng symbolized poison and the drink offered by Yeongjo to the sick Gyeongjong could be intended to cause the late king’s death.
Did Yeongjo really cause Gyeongjong’s death?
Did Yeongjo really cause Gyeongjong’s death as suggested in the drama? No one can provide the answer since there was no conclusive proof. The judgement has to wait until there is enough clues to fill in the blanks. Gyeongjong and Yeongjo’s relationship was a complicated one, caused by their intertwined fate. Gyeongjong was Lady Jang hui-bin’s son, while Yeongjo was the son of Lady Choi suk-bin, who contributed to Lady Jang’s death. Their mothers were enemies, but Gyeongjong and Yeongjong’s relationship was good since they were young. Although Gyeongjong’s heart was filled with hatred towards Sukjong and Lady Choi, he embraced his half-brother with warmth. They were on good terms with each other but after Gyeongjong became the king, things started to take the worst turn between them. The minority Soron supported the king while the powerful Noron started to support Yeongjo ever since Gyeongjong sat on the throne.
Noron pressured Gyeongjong into making Prince Yeoning (Yeongjo) as his heir, and brought up absurd requests, like telling the king to step back and let Prince Yeoning assume his task as the nation’s ruler. This triggered the beginning of Gyeongjong and Yeongjo’s complicated relationship and led to the suspicion of Yeongjo killing the sick Gyeongjong. In his fourth year of reign, Gyeongjong fell sick. He was plagued by illnesses from the start and although he was merely in his thirties, being 36 at that time, he was a sickly king. He was diagnosed with heat and cold illness and his condition showed little improvement despite various medicines prescribed by the royal physicians. Gyeongjong succumbed to his illness and died in the Hwanchwi Pavilion in 1724.
Sickly Gyeongjong’s marinated crab and Yeongjo’s suggested persimmons
When Gyeongjong moved into Changgyeong Palace, his condition got worse. Not only his heat-related illness, he also suffered from diarrhea and had digestive problems. His weak body grew weaker and it was not helping at all when he did not eat well. This made it harder for the royal physicians to prescribe any medicine since it would not be effective on an empty stomach. Even the most skilled physicians of the palace could not cure the king and members of the royal family began to raise the voice, including Prince Yeoning. Despite the physicians’ protest, he decided to take care of the king’s meals. He put marinated crab on the king’s dining table with the reason to induce Gyeongjong’s appetite with his favourite dish. It was a successful move as Gyeongjong’s appetite returned after he ate the dish, and Yeongjo recommended for him to take persimmons as dessert.
In the book Compendium of Materia Medica, written by Li Shi-zhen two centuries prior, it stated that, “Crab and persimmons, when eaten together, could cause stomachache and diarrhea.” The medical book was a well-known reference among Joseon’s physicians since Ming Dynasty’s medical teachings influenced that of Joseon. With the knowledge about the incompatible dishes, the royal physicians opposed the dishes brought by Prince Yeoning. It was like feeding something to a patient that could make his condition worse, but they could do nothing since their opinion was considered inferior compared to the heir to the throne.
Gyeongjong did regain his strength for a while, but it was only for a short time. From that night onwards, he started complaining about pains he felt in his chest and abdomen. His condition deteriorated and the physicians suspected that it had something to do with the king’s dishes. They fed him various medicine but the situation got worse: Gyeongjong’s stomachache and diarrhea worsened, putting him in a half-conscious state.
Gyeongjong, Who Passed Away after Drinking the Ginseng Tonic offered by Yeongjo
Yeongjo once again butted heads with the physicians after his brother’s condition got worse. He suggested for a ginseng drink to be used, but the royal physician insisted that the drink would be incompatible with the medicine he fed the king before. Besides, the physician was already worried about the aftereffects from the crab and the persimmons. Yeongjo refused to hear his words and insisted, “I don’t have any medical knowledge but I know this much.” He went ahead with his idea and fed Gyeongjong the ginseng drink. The king seemed to be fine for a short while, just like how his condition improved after eating the marinated crab. This time too, was temporary, and Gyeongjong passed away on the following day in 1724.
The only thing left was what happened before Gyeongjong’s death. There were the truth against Yeongjo and the truth in favour of him. He did admit that he had no medical knowledge in his discord with the physicians, but he still insisted on carrying out his suggestion and ignoring the physicians intentionally. His insistence caused the late king to lose the opportunity to receive suitable treatment from the physicians. But at the same time, his argument with the physicians was a proof that he did participate in the effort to treat the late king and Yeongjo did not try to kill him. There was no confirmation that a secret or private political assassination did take place.
We could not be sure if Yeongjo’s discord with the physicians was a coincidence or intentional, leading to the king’s weakened state and eventually his death. Maybe if a physician had prescribed such treatment, it would be marked as a murder, but since it was coming from a person without any medical knowledge, only desperate to save his dying brother, it was hard to rule it as a murder. This ambiguous problem put Yeongjo under public scrutiny and caused him to be troubled throughout his years as the king, just like in the drama.