If there’s a running theme for this year’s historical Kdramas, it should be the continuous appearance of unfortunate and ill-fated princes of Joseon. So far, we had Crown Prince Sohyeon (1612-1645) in Three Musketeers, Crown Prince Sado (1735-1762) in Secret Door and another addition to the club: Gwanghaegun (1575-1641) in the recently premiered King’s Face. If tales about the fighting consorts of the kings and the drama in the harem were once popular among the viewers, stories about these unfortunate princes who faced difficulties during their days serving as the nation’s heir to the throne are gaining popularity among the youth viewers nowadays. Although the dramas are made with several tweaks here and there for the sake of dramatization, the history behind these princes is still worth reading, for those who are curious about the real historical figures.
Perhaps, some of us who come across the stories about these ill-fated princes have this question lingering on our minds: what would have happened if they made it to become the next king? Or in Gwanghaegun’s case, what would have happened should he continue to rule without being deposed by the Westerners? There are many ‘what ifs’ that appear on my mind while reading about them and to list them down might take days. Although it is just a curious mind at work, comparing what could have been with what happened is another weakness of us as human beings, who cannot possibly live without feeling any regret over what we have done every single day. Perhaps, the people who made the decisions that caused the lives of these princes might have wondered, for one split second, if their actions were right.
Gwanghaegun was the oldest among those three princes, being born in the 16th century, while Crown Prince Sohyeon and Crown Prince Sado were born in the 17th and 18th century Joseon, respectively. Gwanghae’s background was a fascinating read and I feel it won’t be complete without mentioning his father, the 14th king of Joseon, King Seonjo. After the long line of succession consisted of the legitimate heirs, Seonjo was actually the first king whose lineage came from the illegitimate issues of the previous king. His father was the son of King Jungjong with one of his concubines, Lady Ahn Chang-bin, and Seonjo was adopted by the childless King Myungjong and given the title Prince Haseong. When Myungjong died without any heir, Prince Haseong was made the next king with the court’s agreement. The fact that he was of illegitimate descendant of the previous king haunted him and it might be one of the reasons for his insecurities throughout his reign, which lasted for about 32 years. In the drama King’s Face, Seonjo is portrayed to be in constant fear of people finding out that his face, which does not have the features suited for a king’s visage, is the cause of the misfortunes happening in the country.
It was also during Seonjo’s reign that the political factions first appeared in Joseon. Prior to that, the political arena of Joseon was dominated by the Hungu faction, whose history can be traced back as far as the beginning of Joseon Dynasty. They were the supporters of Yi Seong-gye, a general of Goryeo Dynasty who overthrew the Royal House of Wang and putting the thousand-year-old dynasty to its end before setting up the new Joseon. Led by Jeong Do-jeon, these meritorious subjects enjoyed great privileges passed down to several generations for being the contributors to the foundation of the dynasty and their power was unmatched by anyone. In order to control the Hungu faction’s power, Seonjo called the rival faction to fill in the government posts and the faction was no other than Sarim.
Sarim faction’s origin coexisted with Hungu, since they were the antithesis of Hungu. If Hungu faction was led by Jeong Do-jeon who swore allegiance to the newly founded Joseon, Sarim was led by Jeong Mong-ju, who believed that they should not serve two dynasties and decided to remain loyal to Goryeo. Sarim scholars experienced multiple purges during several king’s reign because of their attitude towards King Sejo’s act of deposing his own nephew, King Danjong. They experienced ups and downs throughout the years and finally presented with a chance to flourish under Seonjo’s reign. With Seonjo’s continuous support, The Sarim scholars landed themselves in various posts in Hanyang. Hungu faction continued to decline and Sarim seized the opportunity to become the main political faction that dominated the Joseon Dynasty.
Seonjo’s first son was born from his relationship with his favourite concubine, Lady Kim Gong-bin. His queen consort at that time, Queen Uiin, was childless, thus there was no legitimate heir to the throne for a long time. Although his court continued to persuade him into naming one of his illegitimate sons as the Crown Prince, Seonjo chose to delay the process. Was it because of the status of his sons, or he was just afraid of losing the support of his court to his own son?
Gwanghaegun, or Prince Gwanghae, was actually the second son of Kim Gong-bin. His older brother, Prince Imhae, was the king’s first son, but his wild attitude was deemed unfit for a future king. Gwanghae, on the other hand, was a capable young prince who showed promising talents for a future king. Seonjo favoured his other son, Prince Sinseong and this was the reason why Gwanghae was not appointed as the Crown Prince until Imjin War (Imjin Waeran) broke out in 1592. He was declared the Crown Prince in a haste and left to fend off the Japanese soldiers by himself, while Seonjo ran away to seek protection in Uiju. Gwanghae led the ministers to fight against the Japanese and he gathered the support from the officials. Although he was the Crown Prince and even acted as regent for Seonjo, his position was still unstable because of the birth of Seonjo’s legitimate son, Grand Prince Yeongchang.
During the war times, Queen Uiin, who had been a supporter of Gwanghae and also his adopted mother, grew weaker because of the constant journey she had to endure. She passed away three years after the war ended. Seonjo took in a new queen consort, Queen Inmok, and the queen gave birth to Princess Jeongmyeong and Grand Prince Yeongchang. Although Yeongchang was young, he managed to gain the support of a branch of the Sarim faction, the Northeners (buk-in). Sarim faction actually started to split into two branches: Easterners (dong-in) and Westerners (seo-in) during Myungjong’s reign, but of the appointment issue of Gwanghae as the Crown Prince before made the discord between the two new factions even worse.
Earlier in 1589, the Easterners brought up the appointment issue and Jung Cheol, the leader of the Westerners, turned the issue against the Easterners and accused them of slandering Prince Sinseong while ridiculing the king. He also grabbed the chance to accuse Jung Yeo-rip of planning a revolt. Jung Yeo-rip, a Westerner-turned-Easterner, retired from his post and established a Great Commons Society (daedong-gye), a group which anyone could join for a study and also military training. Despite the group’s success to block the continuous attacks from the Japanese pirates, the group’s focus of promoting equality regardless of social status was deemed treacherous and the group’s members were thought to be capable of organizing a revolt. Hence, Seonjo ordered the group to be wiped off and the Easterners were also affected; many of the members were purged in the event of Treason Case of 1589 (Gichuk Oksa) in that year. The Easterners fell out of power while the Westerners gained the king’s trust.
The scattered Easterners split into Northerners (buk-in) and Southerners (nam-in) before the Northerners divided themselves into Greater Northerners (daebuk) and Lesser Northerners (sobuk). Gwanghae was supported by the Greater Northerners while the Lesser Northerners allied themselves with the legitimate Grand Prince Yeongchang. Although Seonjo clearly favoured Yeongchang over Gwanghae at that time, he continued to put the matter aside. He grew weaker because of his illness and he had to appoint Gwanghae as the next ruler since Yeongchang was still young. Seonjo passed away in 1608 and it was believed, at one time, that he was poisoned and Gwanghae was under the suspicion of committing the act. Despite Queen Inmok’s objection, Gwanghae ascended the throne as the 15th king of Joseon. He became the king after spending 16 years on the Crown Prince’s seat. Little did he know that his reign would not last long and he would be deposed in a coup d’état.
Gwanghae was married to Lady Yoo, but the well-known female figure beside him was probably his concubine, Kim Gae-si. It was rumoured that the concubine was one of Seonjo’s court ladies and she even served him, but Gwanghae also fancied her and took her in as his own concubine after his father’s death. Kim Gae-si was said to be bestowed with a new name by Seonjo: Kim Ga-hee. King’s Face is using the motif of Kim for the character Kim Ga-hee. In the drama, Ga-hee is a noble lady with a twisted fate literally written all over her face: she will have to serve two dragons. Dragon was an expression used to describe the king, so to put it in simple words; she is destined to be two king’s woman. The drama Ga-hee is shown to undergo lots of inner transformation, from the kind-hearted lady in disguise to a cunning concubine of Seonjo, as suggested in the prologue. The real Kim Gae-si was more on the crafty side rather than a sweet concubine.
Although the details pertaining to her personal life were vague, Kim Gae-si was believed to serve in the court as a palace maid since Seonjo’s reign. She was a woman of beauty and Seonjo was attracted to her. It was said that her relationship with Queen Inmok was a strained one and Kim was rumoured to put a curse on the queen while she was pregnant with Grand Prince Yeongchang. She made use of her relationship with the king to expand her influence among the ministers, buying their allegiance with bribes. During Gwanghae’s reign, she was almost as powerful as a minister and together with Yi Yi-cheom, wielded great influence in the court. Kim Gae-si was said to receive bribery from the Westerners led to Gwanghae’s dethronement. She was killed during the coup to overthrow Gwanghae.
Once Gwanghae sat on the throne, the Greater Northerners began wielding their power in the court, leading to several events that marred the reputation of the king at that time. One can argue that Gwanghae did contribute to the restoration of the country after the devastating Japanese Invasion, such as rebuilding the Grand Palaces that had been destroyed during the war and maintaining the neutral relationship with the foreign powers – the weakening Ming and the thriving Qing – to avoid war, but the powerful Greater Northerners turned everything against the king in their attempt to consolidate their power. Prince Imhae was accused of treason and exiled to Gyodong. Gwanghae did not give in to his officials’ insistence to see Imhae being sentenced to death, but the prince eventually died during his exile, which was said to be the work of assassins sent by the Great Northerners. The justification of their act was to protect Gwanghae’s position from any threats, including people who might be eyeing the throne.
The next target was Grand Prince Yeongchang, whose legitimacy became the basis of Lesser Northerners’ support, but it became a source of threat in the Great Northerners’ eyes. The Lesser Northerners soon found themselves being accused of attempting to dethrone Gwanghae in order to put Yeongchang on the throne in the event of Treason Case of 1613 (Gyechuk Oksa); as a result, Queen Inmok’s father, Kim Je-nam, was sentenced to death by poisoning, while the young Grand Prince Yeongchang was stripped of his title and exiled to Ganghwa Island. Yi Yi-cheom, the powerful Greater Northerner, made it seem that the prince died in a fire on that island in order to completely get rid of him. Several royal relatives, including Injo’s younger brother Prince Neungchang, were exiled before sentenced to death in the pretense of being threats to the throne. The Great Northerners also concocted a plan to have Queen Inmok being deposed and Gwanghae agreed to it, causing the dowager to be stripped of her royal title and confined to a palace known as the Western Palace (Seo-gung).
The Westerners, who had been lying low for some time, decided that it was time for them to interfere in the Joseon court, seeing how Greater Northerners were out executing people left and right, putting Gwanghae in a bad light and painting him as a tyrant in the make. The Westerners planned the event several years prior and carried out the plan in the 15th year of Gwanghae’s reign in 1623. Led by Kim Ryu, Yi Gwi, Yi Gwal, and Choi Myung-gil, who were the hardliners of the Western faction, marched towards Changdeok Palace together with the future king, Prince Neungyang. Gwanghae escaped the palace and went into hiding, but he was captured shortly afterwards and demoted to the rank of a Prince before being exiled to Ganghwa Island, together with his wife, Lady Yoo, and his heir, Deposed Crown Prince Yi Ji.
Queen Inmok wanted to issue a death sentence to Gwanghae but the Westerners and the new king himself disagreed with her and decided to exile him. Gwanghae’s son and daughter-in-law tried to make an escape from the island but the attempt failed, resulting in the couple committing suicide after that. Lady Yoo passed away in the same year while in exile. Gwanghae was later sent to Jeju Island and it was rumoured that the First Manchu Invasion (Jeongmi Horan) in 1627 was the Later Jin’s reaction to Gwanghae’s dethronement, but Injo and the Westerners did not do anything, letting him live the rest of his life in exile. Gwanghae died in 1641 and did not receive any posthumous title for a king.
Prince Neungyang was Seonjo’s grandson through his issue with Lady Kim In-bin, Prince Jeongwon, and he was made the 16th king, Injo. Although he was the king after the Injo Restoration (Injo Banjeong) in 1623, he held little power as the country was practically ran by the Westerners who filled in the empty posts after chasing out Great Northerners out of their offices. These conservative Westerners were loyal to Ming and saw the Manchus of Qing as barbarians without realizing that the thriving power of Later Jin (later Qing) would make it possible for them to overthrow Ming. After the event in 1623, Yi Gwal, one of the key figures in the coup felt that he was under appreciated and organized a rebellion against Injo’s court. The scared king fled and left the capital under the Westerners’ care.
Although the rebellion was successfully quelled, several rebels escaped to Later Jin, including Han Myun. He was the person who instigated Later Jin to invade Joseon. Realizing that the country might be attacked, Joseon seek help from Ming’s military commander, Mao Wenlong, and the commander escaped the falling Ming to stay in Joseon. This made Later Jin even more eager to march into Joseon territory and 30,000-men army was sent to Joseon in 1627. Injo once again fled, this time to Ganghwa Island, together with his court. Mao was defeated and Injo had to sign a peace agreement with the Manchus despite the opposition by the anti-Manchu Westerners. The troop of Later Jin retreated after four months of expedition on Joseon land. But then, the relationship between Joseon and the newly found Qing worsened due to the Western hardliners in Injo’s court, who insisted that Joseon should not hold hands with Ming’s enemies.
With Joseon’s failure to conform to the terms in the peace agreement before and the bad treatment received by Qing’s envoys when they visited Joseon, Hong Taiji himself led his army to Joseon in the winter of 1636, nine years after the first invasion. In the event known as Second Manchu Invasion (Byeongja Horan), Joseon suffered great casualties from Qing’s attack. Injo was going to flee to Ganghwa Island to protect himself, but the Qing army seemed to have predicted his move as they went straight to Hanseong, the capital of Joseon, to stop him from doing so. The king managed to hide himself in the Namhan Mountain Fortress before he was forced to surrender to the the Manchus. The country was made a tributary state of Qing and the princes were sent to Qing as political hostages as a result of the invasion. Injo also suffered humiliation since he had to bow to Hong Taiji, showing a subject’s respect to his ruler.
The aftermath of the war put a figure in the limelight: Crown Prince Sohyeon, Injo’s heir who was forced to be a hostage in Qing. Together with his brother, Grand Prince Bongrim, the two princes and their families went to Shenyang, the capital of Qing at that time. The drama Three Musketeers is a fictional take of the life of Sohyeon prior to his detainment and it provides a light approach to the lesser known details of this historical figure. His name did make several appearances here and there, for example him being installed as the Crown Prince in the 3rd year of Injo’s reign in 1625 and his escape to Namhan together with his father during Second Manchu Invasion.
One interesting point about his life pre-Shenyang is the story behind his marriage to his wife, Crown Princess Minhoe from the Kang clan, or simply Princess Kang. According to an unofficial record, Sohyeon had set his eyes on a certain Lady Yoon and he was hoping that the lady would pass the selection process to become his wife, but there was a big hurdle to the young love: Lady Yoon’s relatives were involved in the rebellion organized by Yi Gwal and the Westerners did not find it suitable for someone like her to become the consort of the future king. They preferred to have someone among their faction, that was the daughter of one of them, and Lady Kang, daughter of a minister, Kang Seok-gi, was selected to become the consort two years later. The married couple’s relationship might have been affected because of the matter and Three Musketeers takes the inspiration to create the love triangle in the series involving Sohyeon, Princess Kang, and Lady Yoon with a twist.
Sohyeon’s stay in Shenyang was not without difficulties, as he often found himself sandwiched between the resisting Joseon and the demanding Qing. He had to become a peacemaker between the two nations and grew closer to the Qing ministers in the process. In order to soothe the Manchus who were upset with Joseon’s continuous resistance, Sohyeon had to spend a great amount of money to bribe the Qing officials. Together with Princess Kang, he seek various methods to secure the funds, such as hunting and farming. Princess Kang even learned how to ride a horse, an activity that she, as a Joseon woman, would never be able to do back home. This couple also rescued Joseon citizens who were brought to Qing as slaves and hired them to work on the land. Their effort did not end there; they also carried out business and trade with Qing as the new set up nation was in need of various necessities.
Crown Prince Sohyeon’s close relationship with Qing was like a thorn in the eyes of Injo and the Westerners, who could only thought about maintaining Joseon’s loyalty to Ming. They saw Sohyeon’s effort as an act of submitting himself to the barbaric Manchus without realizing his true intention, which was to prevent another war from happening. There were also talks about Sohyeon buying the Qing official’s hearts so that he could replace Injo as the new king and his position would be acknowledged by having Qing behind him. It became a great source of anxiety for Injo, who could not be even more anxious after what he went through. This was also due to the slanders coming from the venomous Lady Jo, Injo’s concubine who dreamed of putting her own child on the throne. Seeing Sohyeon and Princess Kang as the threats to her goal, she continued to feed Injo’s insecurities and painted a picture of Sohyeon deposing him for the throne.
Sohyeon was an open-minded man and it was proved through his encounter with Johann Adam Schall von Bell, or Adam Schall, the head of Imperial Observatory in Beijing at that time. The prince accompanied Dorgon and the young Emperor Shunxi to Beijing in 1644 and made a contact with Adam Schall, a German missionary. Adam was entrusted with the task of reforming the calendar system for Qing and he presented Sohyeon with documents related to astronomy. Sohyeon also learned about the Catholic religion and the Western culture through Adam. He returned to Joseon for good in the following year with the knowledge and urged for Injo to make a reform in order to make way for the Western influence, but his suggestion received cold response from Injo.
Being separated for almost eight years, the father and the son seemed to have grown further from each other. Injo was already haunted with the possibility of him losing the crown while Sohyeon came back with foreign knowledge without realizing that he was considered a threat to the throne. Injo did not respond well to his son’s suggestions and he was said to have thrown an ink stone brought from Qing at Sohyeon. As if Heavens were trying to protect the country, Sohyeon died a sudden death two months after his return. He was suspected of being poisoned based on the condition of his body but Injo ordered for his burial to be conducted in a haste.
When Princess Kang tried to bring up the matter again and again, Injo grew angry at her and the king’s wrath cost the princess her own life after she was accused of trying to poison the king. She was sentenced to death by poisoning but that was not the end to her family’s misfortune. Although Sohyeon’s eldest son Seok-cheol was second-in-line to the throne, Injo made his second son, Grand Prince Bongrim, as the next Crown Prince. Sohyeon’s young sons were exiled to Jeju Island and only the youngest, Seok-gyeon or Prince Kyeongan, returned alive.
Grand Prince Bongrim was invested as the new king after Injo’s death and ruled as the 17th king of Joseon, King Hyojong. Although the Westerners enjoyed immense power under Hyojong, another faction had been steadily on the rise: a branch of the earlier Easterners, the moderate Southerners (nam-in). Hyojong’s descendants became the next kings: his son Hyeonjong and his grandson, Sukjong. It was during Sukjong’s time that the political struggle between the factions became intense again and it would continue throughout the years even after Sukjong’s death. The beginning of the struggle could be traced back to Hyeonjong’s reign, where the Southerners and Westerners argued about the mourning period after Hyojong’s death. The argument occurred when they were trying to decide the duration in which Queen Jangryeol, Injo’s second queen consort, had to mourn for her second stepson. The dispute, known as Yesong Incident (Yesong Nonjaeng), again became a point of argument between the two factions when Hyojong’s queen consort, Queen Inseon, passed away. Sukjong banned any mention about the dispute after Hyeonjong’s death, putting the matter into rest.
It was not the end for the Westerners and the Southerners, because both sides were constantly at each other’s throats. Sukjong adapted the concept of ‘turn of state’ (Hwanguk) by changing government once in a few years. This became the battleground for the two factions since the losing side could end up suffering great loss, both in power and respected figures in the circle. Besides fighting over the administration issues, the factions were also involved in the matters pertaining to Sukjong’s consorts and concubines. The Westerners were supporting Sukjong’s second queen consort, Queen Inhyeon, while Sukjong’s favourite concubine, Lady Jang Hui-bin, got the Southerners on her side. Although the Southerners suffered setback with the accusation of treason which led to Gyeongshin Hwanguk in 1680, they soon found themselves presented with a chance to drive out the Westerners.
Lady Jang had given birth to Yi Yoon, Sukjong’s firstborn, and the king wanted to name the child as the Crown Prince. The Westerners objected to the decision and argued that Queen Inhyun was still young and it would be possible if she was to bear a son, although it had been six years since her marriage to Sukjong. The king was furious and drove out the Westerners before filling the empty posts with the Southerners in the event of Gisa Hwanguk in 1689. Lady Jang was invested as a formal consort of Sukjong and she was declared queen to replace the deposed Queen Inhyun. The Southerners’ happiness did not last long as Sukjong made another change of government few years later.
Sukjong started to be intimate with Lady Choi Suk-bin, an ally of Queen Inhyun and naturally having Westerners backing her up. The Southerners tried to accuse their rival faction of reinstating Queen Inhyeon, but Sukjong was enraged with the Southerners. As a result, Lady Jang was demoted to her original rank of a concubine, while Queen Inhyun was reinstated to the position of a queen in 1694 (Gapsul Hwanguk). The Southerners remained without significant power since the Westerners dominated the political arena and the latter split into Old Learning (Noron) and New Learning (Soron), making it harder for the Southerners to make a strong comeback, especially after the death of Lady Jang.
Lady Choi bore Sukjong a son: Prince Yeoning, and the branched Westerners showed different attitude towards the Crown Prince and Prince Yeoning. The Old Learning supported Prince Yeoning while the Young Learning preferred the Crown Prince. Sukjong’s death caused Soron to become the more powerful faction compared to Noron since the Crown Prince became the next king as Joseon’s King Gyeongjong. Unfortunately, Gyeongjong’s frail health made it almost impossible for him to govern the country and the Soron members had to suffer multiple attacks from their Noron counterpart.
Since Gyeongjong was sick and childless, the Noron members were eager to have Yeoning assuming the role of Crown Brother, a position where a king’s brother became the heir to the throne. They were soon accused of committing treason and their leaders were executed in 1721, causing Noron to lose power (Shinchuk Hwanguk). The execution did not stop there as Noron was accused of attempting to assassinate Gyeongjong in the following year (Shinim Oksa). Yeoning was made the Crown Brother but Noron only made their comeback in 1724 when the prince ascended the throne as Yeongjo. Soron was driven out of power this time, but they managed to attain government posts due to the Great Harmony policy (Tangpyeong) adapted by Yeongjo, who stressed heavily on balance between the factions.
Yeongjo’s mother, Lady Choi, was originally a palace maid, so it became a source of inferiority complex for the newly enthroned king. He was also pressured with the accusation that he killed his stepbrother Gyeongjong, which is included as a major plot in Secret Door. He was probably trying to shed the image of a ‘lowly servant’s son who became the king’ by working tirelessly to build a better Joseon and being extremely devoted to the people’s well-being. Yeongjo might have been haunted with the image of his brother being forced to accept him as the heir when he did not have any child and it was a source of worry for Yeongjo, who did not have any male heir after his first son, Yi Haeng’s death. His illegitimate son was formally invested as the Crown Prince in the following year after Yeongjo’s own coronation but died one year later in 1726. He was granted to posthumous title Crown Prince Hyojang.
His concubines gave birth to princesses before his second and last son was born in 1735. Yeongjo was already 42 years old at that time and his position was unstable without any heir. With the birth of the prince, Yeongjo was bestowed with an heir who would continue his legacy. The prince was Crown Prince Sado, born Yi Seon. Eager to establish Sado as his official heir, Yeongjo treated the young boy like a grown-up man. He placed Sado, who had not reached one yet at that time, in a separate residence, away from his parents. This was probably done to show that the country already got its future Crown Prince. Instead of growing up under his own parents’ care, he was left to be attended by the court servants, namely the palace attendants and the eunuchs. Yeongjo grew distant from his only son, and this might be the root cause for the tension between Yeongjo and Sado years later.
Sado was the youngest Crown Prince in the history of Joseon , being installed as a formal heir when he was merely two years old. Although Sado showed great potential as a bright child, he was extremely cautious and fearful of Yeongjo. His fear of his own father made it hard for him to show his real abilities, as he would hesitate to answer Yeongjo’s questions, afraid that his replies would be deemed unworthy by Yeongjo. Sado ended up being a boy with a lot left to be desired in his father’s eyes, although the Crown Prince was said to be a competent student by his tutors and the ministers. It was possible that he felt pressured with all the expectations his father, the king, had for him, and he thought that he could never match the perfect Crown Prince’s image painted by his father. Sado’s marriage took place when he was 10 years old and his consort was Crown Princess Hong, who would later become Lady Hyegyeong. His relationship with Yeongjo grew worse after he was invested as a regent in Yeongjo’s stead when he turned 15 in 1750.
By becoming a regent, Sado had the authority to make important decisions for the country, but Yeongjo, as the king, always had the end saying. Yeongjo’s temper grew worse with his age and he would not hesitate to admonish Sado and chide him with strong remarks in public, especially in front of his court. This might have led Sado into regarding Yeongjo as someone he could never please but he could not even express his own insecurity and fear. The bottled rage inside him seeped through his mind, slowly turning the prince into a man battling with his inner demons in his descent to mental illness. Although Sado managed to keep his composure in front of Yeongjo, he would attack his attendants once he went back to his residence. It was said that his killing spree made it a regular occasion for dead bodies to be carried out from the palace.
Noron was still the ruling faction during Yeongjo’s reign despite the political balance policy and Soron suffered several misfortunes one after another at the same time. This was caused by the hardliners of the New Learning, who still had suspicion regarding Yeongjo’s involvement in Gyeongjong’s death. In 1728, a revolt was organized by Soron extremists because of the issue but they were surpressed (Musin Revolt). In 1755, posters slandering the Royal House and accusing Yeongjo of assassinating Gyeongjong appeared in the district of Naju, where many of Soron members who were exiled stayed. This incident, known as Naju Poster Incident (Naju Byeokseo Sageon), led to the execution of Soron members in the event of Eulhae Oksa.
The drama Secret Door is focusing on the power struggle between Noron, Yeongjo, and Sado, borrowing the suspicion around Gyeongjong’s death to be included in its plot. The drama features Yeongjo as a man desperate for power and he was initially forced by Noron to sign a secret agreement to overthrow Gyeongjong, which led to the sickly king being assassinated and Yeongjo taking over the throne with Noron’s backing. Sado is shaped to be a prince whose ideas about the future contradict with Yeongjo’s belief. In the drama, Yeongjo is a king who is keener on maintaining the balance between the two factions on the surface, although he himself is still bound to Noron because of the secret agreement. Sado, on the other hand, departs from his image in the history; instead of a frustrated prince who had no say against his father, the onscreen Sado is actually very brave, engaging in several heated arguments with Yeongjo over the issues appearing in the drama.
Secret Door’s Sado is initially shown as an innocent player in the political games between Noron and Yeongjo. His idealism take on everything relegates him to the status of a pawn on the other two’s chess board, but he soon learn that there is more than what meet his eyes, evolving into a slightly crafty and multi-faceted Crown Prince, just like the drama’s Yeongjo. So far, there is no sign of the drama depicting Sado’s mental illness and the drama might take the route of putting him as a sacrificial lamb of the political struggle. He is portrayed to be a people-centered and politically savvy prince, just like the real historical figure before he fell victim to mental illness.
Sado’s killing spree reached Yeongjo’s ears but the king did not really take any action at first, maintaining his way of treating the Crown Prince. It was not until 1762, when Sado’s frequent trips outside the palace and his behaviour inside the palace became a source of worry for both Yeongjo and the court. Yeongjo decided to put an end to his son’s life after the officials sent several appeals accusing Sado of treason. He ordered Sado to climb into a rice chest and had it sealed. The prince died eight days later and Noron was believed to be the responsible party behind the event known as Imo Hwabyeon, which can be translated as The Misfortune of 1762. His legitimate son, Yi San, took over his position as the Crown Prince before sitting on the throne as King Jeongjo after Yeongjo’s death.
Sado’s death contributed to birth of two inter-faction groups: Party of Principle (byeokpa) and Party of Expediency (sipa). Regardless of their political faction before, those who supported Yeongjo’s decision to kill Sado were Byeokpa while those who were against it identified themselves as Sipa. His consort, Lady Hyegyeong, penned several memoirs during her lifetime and one of them described the details about Sado’s life before his death, including his mental illness and his relationship with Yeongjo. Even though the memoirs were regarded by some as Lady Hyegyeong’s way to justify that her natal family had nothing to do with Sado’s death, the records are valuable since all the mentions of Sado’s illness in the Annals of King Yeongjo was washed out by Jeongjo’s request in order to protect his late father’s image.
These Crown Princes endured the cruel fate in their lives, being denied the chance to become kings, except for Gwanghae, although he was later dethroned. While watching the dramas featuring characters adapted from these historical figures, it is hard not to wonder how different it would have been if their fate was slightly altered. But then, we might never be able to know Crown Prince Sohyeon and Crown Prince Sado if Gwanghae continued his reign without any problem, since the subsequent kings would be among his descendants. Perhaps, Sohyeon and Sado would never come into existence and today’s Korea can be wholly different from its current state. So much for the ‘what ifs’, huh?
History lesson aside, let’s just enjoy the shows without over thinking about the what could have been. I should do that!