Secret Door: History Bits (Part 3)

This is the last part of the history bits column (?) about Secret Door on this blog, so I hope that these lacking translations can give rough ideas on the history behind the leading figures featured in the drama. There’s another one article related to Sado’s effort to conduct a reform on the state examination and I will translate that one when I have the time to do so. For now, enjoy this post!

Yeongjo’s Intimidator Kim Taek? There Was No Real Historical Figure As Such

There is a powerful figure that puts the pressure on Yeongjo and Crown Prince Sado’s father-and-son relationship in SBS Mon-Tue drama, Secret Door. He is willing to kill someone and even sacrifice his own son’s life if that’s what it takes to protect his faction and his own power. That person is Noron’s leader, Kim Taek (Kim Chang-wan). He uses the maengui, the acronym for the document of Great Reunification, to put the pressure on Yeongjo. The document was co-signed by Noron and Yeongjo for the sake of eliminating Gyeongjong and it becomes Yeongjo’s weakness, which is utilized by Kim Taek to order him around.

Kim Taek is a well-mannered official on the outside, but when he’s alone with Yeongjo, he does not hesitate to use informal language with the king. For instance, in the 3rd episode of the series, Kim Taek called Yeongjo using the latter’s given name, Yi Geum. That’s not all; he even threatened the king: “If we die, you’ll die too!” Yeongjo is the ace in public but Kim Taek is the ace between those two. The man has the confidence to replace Yeongjo with a new king at any time, should Yeongjo fail to listen to his words. His source of confidence lies within the power he has to select the king as a kingmaker. If that power is a guitar, the guitar plucked by Kim Taek could make Mt. Bugak behind Gyeongbok Palace rumble or rise.

Kim Taek’s power is evident from his name itself. The Hanja characters of his name presented in the drama are金澤. The character taek (澤) is not something that can be explained easily, but the character’s pronunciation suggests that it has something to do with the character taek in taekgun (擇君). It seems that his name itself gives off his status as the kingmaker in the drama.

The reason why Yeongjo’s intimidator like Kim Taek did not exist

Kim Taek is not a real historical figure and the character itself is purely fictional, made for the drama. However, one cannot help to think about the real figure who has spurred the idea to create a character like this one. Despite Yeongjo’s effort not to give exclusive authority to one faction during his political Great Harmony policy, Noron was still the most powerful faction at that time and it is worth finding out whether there was any possibility of a Noron leader like Kim Taek who would dare to pressure Yeongjo at that time. But then, if we are to pay close attention to the political scenario at the end of Gyeongjong’s reign until Yeongjo’s era, we reach at the conclusion that the probability of having a figure like Kim Taek was practically impossible.

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In the drama, Kim Taek is portrayed as the leader of Noron before and after Yeongjo become the king. He got Yeongjo involved in the power shift before the later becomes the king, and after Yeongjo becomes the king, he pressures him in order to maintain Noron’s position in the court. But then, if we are to follow these conditions, there were no politicians in that era who could meet the conditions; in fact, there was no possibility for such figure to exist. Before Yeongjo ascended to the throne, there were four leading figures of Noron who worked hard to secure his status. They were the First State Councilor Kim Chang-jip, Second State Councilor Yi Geon-myung, ex-Second State Councilor Yi Yi-myung, and ex-Third State Councilor Jo Tae-chae. These four Noron ministers played the important role as Yeongjo’s kingmakers.

However, these four ministers were sentenced to death due to accusation of treason before Yeongjo became the king. They tried to strip Gyeongjong of his power in order to secure Yeongjo’s position as the next king. This made Soron, the ruling party at that time, come to a decision that was to execute the Noron ministers. There were temporary leaders of the Noron party after that, but there was no figure who managed to maintain his influence after Yeongjo’s ascension. Thus, there was no one like Kim Taek before Yeongjo’s era as a king. How about the people under Yeongjo’s reign? There might be someone who was as influential as Kim Taek during that time, but in reality, there was no such person.

At that time of Yeongjo’s ascension to the throne in 1724, the current ruling party was not Noron, but Soron. Although Soron was in charge during Gyeongjong’s era, Yeongjo tried to avoid drastic political changes which could cause confusion among the citizens by joining forces with the moderates from Soron in order to run the country. Hence, there was no Noron leader who could exercise his power freely before and right after Yeongjo became the king. But then, Yeongjo granted power to Noron, who made it possible for him to become a king, before ordering the political restructuring in the event of Jeongmi Hwanguk in 1727, by pushing Noron to the sideways and joining forces with Soron once again. Noron’s power was unstable during Yeongjo’s early reign and it was hard for a figure like Kim Taek to appear in the political arena.

If we are to have a look at the people who became a hindrance to Yeongjo’s Great Harmony policy, the policy was a blow for both Yeongjo’s supporters and opponents since it was a product of Yeongjo’s effort to control both Noron and Soron from being too powerful. Comparing it with the modern setting, it was to prevent to ruling party to win with a big majority in a particular election, which would become a source of headache for the king. With the policy in practice, even with the ruling party’s landslide victory, the opposition party would have the king’s silent support behind them. By staying neutral between the two factions to keep them in check, Yeongjo managed to make the moderates from both parties to become his people. Since Noron adapted a hostile attitude towards the less hardcore faction Soron, the latter supported the Great Harmony policy and contributed to its success. The moderates of both parties were won over by Yeongjo and he made them to core group behind the development of the policy. There was no particular Noron member who held immense power like Kim Taek in the real history.

Noron, the most influential faction even under the Great Harmony policy

During the Great Harmony era, Noron was still the most influential faction at that time. In terms of wealth and social standing, they were the best in Joseon. Majority of Yeongjo’s supporters came from the moderates of Noron. Even with the Great Harmony being adapted as the nation’s fundamental policy to govern the country, there were many instances where the national policies were somehow related to Noron’s interests. Noron’s influence can be illustrated as being stronger than the conservatives during Roh Moo-hyun’s reign but weaker than the conservatives of Yi Myung-bak’s era.

However, 26 years after his ascension to the throne, from the year 1750 onwards, the political arena witnessed a change in the leading force. The people who were related to the Royal House by marriage ties or those who were related to those people became the strongest support group for Yeongjo’s policy. One of them was Hong Bong-han, Yeongjo’s in-law. Only with the current reign in power could they maintain their positions, hence these Royal in-laws made Yeongjo’s power even more stable than ever.

In the drama, Yeongjo had been sitting on the throne for more than 30 years. Yeongjo’s in-laws were the leaders of the politics under the name of Great Harmony policy during that time in history, thus it was harder for someone as powerful as Kim Taek to exert his influence on the government.

The proof showing that it was hard for Kim Taek to appear

Thus, it has been proven that a powerful Noron member who held immense power continuously since the years before Yeongjo’s ascension to the throne until he became a king did not exist. The Noron leader who supported Yeongjo was sentenced to death by poisoning before his coronation and Yeongjo’s control over his court made it difficult for Noron to exert their power without any restraint.

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Even if we are to disregard the historical context, the fact that it would have been difficult for someone like Kim Taek to appear can be understood using our common sense: if there was indeed someone who had gotten hold of Yeongjo’s weakness and used it to order him around, it would have been impossible for Yeongjo to adapt his policy, which was harmful to Noron’s political interest. If there was indeed a Noron member who could pressure Yeongjo into protecting Noron’s interest, then the Great Harmony policy would have been a vain attempt from the beginning.

After Yeongjo adopted the policy, the mentions of factions in the appeals and by the officials when the king did not ask anything about it were both prohibited by law. This was the reason why the policy, although without imperfections, showed its effect to some extent, while making it difficult for Noron to establish its absolute influence in the court. Hence, Kim Taek is only someone who appears in the drama, as there was no Noron politician who could make Mt. Bugak rumble or rise in Yeongjo’s era.

Falling for a Palace Maid: Sado’s Descent into Obsession

Sado’s lover, Bing-ae, has finally made her appearance in the drama Secret Door; however, these two’s relationship was not depicted just like in the history. In the drama, Bing-ae was originally a young novelist, Seo Ji-dam, who was also a daughter of a illegal book lender. They met under the circumstance of a murder case: a painter Shin Heung-bok, whose death was connected to the king, Yeongjo, and his supporters from the Noron faction. During the course of them playing detectives and avoiding the prying eyes of Noron, Ji-dam’s family fell into ruins and thinking that Sado had betrayed her beliefs to secure his political interest led her into severing ties with the prince before she disappeared.

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Fast forward to three years later, Sado ran into Ji-dam, who had become a courtesan at the courtesan house. By that time, Ji-dam had been living under the identity of Bing-ae. The appearance of a new Bing-ae also caused the change of actress, where the child actress Kim Yoo-jung was replaced with Yoon So-hee, who played the adult Ji-dam, or Bing-ae. Sad had also brought Bing-ae secretly into the palace and this development will likely make the palace as the background for their relationship in the second part. Those things are what have happened in the drama so far.

Bing-ae in the history: a palace maid who worked as a seamstress in the first place

A chapter of Park Bing-ae and Sado’s story appeared in the memoirs penned by Lady Hyegyeong, Hanjungnok. The memoirs was written with the aim to prove Lady Hyegyeong’s innocence and deny any of her involvement in her husband’s death, hence it was mostly filled with the exaggerated account of Sado’s mental illness and scandals. But then, not all things mentioned in the book were lies. For someone who lived her life close to 70 years inside the palace since she was 10 together with countless people, it was not possible for Lady Hyegyeong to make her life story full of lies. Hence, the memoirs can be regarded as ‘a record possibly with a lot of exaggeration but also a considerable amount of truths’. There is no way to check the precision of the record but it can be used to understand the events happened in the history, or instance the love story of Crown Prince Sado and Park Bing-ae.

According to the memoirs, Park Bing-ae was originially a palace maid working for the sewing department and belonged to Queen Inwon. If Bing-ae in the drama was a writer, the real Bing-ae was a seamstress. Most of the palace maids entered the palace before they were 10, but for the maids working in the three elite departments: jimil (attendants), subang (embroidery), and chimbang (sewing), they entered the palace even earlier than that in order for them to receive special training. Bing-ae was among them. Sado started to have his attention directed towards Bing-ae in 1756, six years before his death. However, it was not easy for the 22-year old prince to date Bing-ae despite her status as a palace maid. This was because she belonged to Queen Inwon.

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Queen Inwon was Yeongjo’s legal mother, which made her Sado’s grandmother by law. Be it the king or the crown prince, it was prohibited for them to take palace maids who served the people above them as their concubines. It was a tradition, since the act could bring dishonour to the people above the king and the crown prince. Thus, Sado was only able to look at Bing-ae from afar. It was around this time Sado became lovesick; according to Lady Hyegyeong, a disease that was almost at psychotic level. Lady Hyegyeong’s vision might be exaggerated and her sight might have been clouded with the fact that her own husband was completely bewitched by another woman.

Sado, seducing and building a relationship with Bing-ae

After that, Queen Inwon passed away in the year 1757 at the age of 71. Sado probably thought, “This is the moment!” and approached Bing-ae. Lured by the prince, Bing-ae was brought to the Crown Prince’s place and started having a relationship with him. It was merely five months after Queen Inwon’s death. Hiding a palace attendant in his own room, which was a crime punishable by law, no one coud imagine the fear of the people protecting these two and Bing-ae’s feelings herself.

This matter reached Yeongjo’s ears two months later. The relationship between the father and the son was bad anyway, and the news further angered Yeongjo, who summoned Sado and sternly admonished his son. Hanjungnok recorded the event as follows: Yeongjo chided Sado, who dared to commit such act of forming a relationship with his own grandmother’s palace maid. Sado could not provide any excuse to this and Yeongjo ordered for Bing-ae to be brought to him. Sado could not disobey his father’s order since it was an order from a king. Hence, he did not have any other choice than handing over Bing-ae. The case was closed for the time being.

Frankly speaking, the case was not really concluded but it was only made to be seen as such. Yeongjo did not know how Bing-ae looked like and thought that the person sent by Sado was the real Bing-ae, without realizing that his own son had tricked him. The real Bing-ae continued to stay inside Sado’s room while Sado persuaded another palace maid to pose as Bing-ae. She lived inside the Crown Prince’s quarters and gave birth to her children there: Prince Eunjeon Yi Chan and Princess Cheonggeun. Living in hiding while giving birth, that was the life of Park Bing-ae.

A tragic closure to their love in the end

Sado was more aggressive in promoting the Great Harmony compared to Yeongjo and Jeongjo, and he was known as a righteous politician. If we are to consider this fact, his relationship with women was against one’s common sense. He did not only abandon his own dignity as a Crown Prince, but led to his own wife, Lady Hyegyeong’s neglect of proper decorum.

Sado continued to receive political threats from Noron and Yeongjo. He failed to endure all the pressures and suffered from a serious mental illness. He saw his lover Bing-ae as his sole outlet to hide from his problems and treated him as his psychological hideout. Although their love was passionate, that love did not last long. In less than two years’ time, it met a tragic end. Lady Hyegyeong recorded that Bing-ae fell victim to Sado’s rage when he lost control over himself and ended up dead in his hands. The year 1760 witnessed the tragic ending to these two’s love story.

It was a possibility that Lady Hyegyeong’s testimony about Bing-ae killed by Sado might be an exaggeration, since she might have thought that it was better if Bing-ae met her demise like that and her memoirs reflected her innermost desire. But then, we can still witness Sado and Bing-ae’s love and the tragic ending to their story. Bing-ae’s love was similar to the flames during the last moments of Sado’s life. After her death, Sado was sealed in a rice chest after he returned from a ‘suspicious trip to Pyeongan-do’, an act which was deemed treason. He died in 1762. 137 years after Sado’s death, his descendant Gojong elevated him posthumously to the rank of an emperor in 1899. Bing-ae was also honored and posthumously declared as an official concubine: Lady Park Kyeong-bin. Of course, that could not release her from the injustice of her miserable death, but the love story of these two became a beautiful record known by the people in Gojong’s era. Although Hanjungnok painted a negative view on these two’s love in its records, it is possible for the world to view it from the other side as well.

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8 thoughts on “Secret Door: History Bits (Part 3)

    1. Hehe I actually published this post privately because it wasn’t complete, but decided that it would be better to publicize it ^^v

      Can I send the PDF file to your email? I don’t have the exact link to the document on the internet…

  1. @muchadoboutlove Could you also please e-mail me the memoirs? It is in English I hope? I’ve just started watching & am past halfway of Secret Door!

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