This post was brought to you by the ambitious me last year, trying to dig into more information regarding the titles used by the queens, consorts, and concubines from Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties until Korean Empire and comparing them with Chinese Dynasties’ concubine and consort titles. I soon realized that I severely lacked information about Goryeo and decided that maybe it would be better for me to focus on the changes Joseon went through with the titles. I also deemed it more appropriate to address my personal questions (more like doubts) about certain titles, so here it is, the product of my on-and-off reading throughout this year.
Royal Titles of Joseon Consorts: History and Changes throughout the Dynasty
It does not take one day to build a country, and everything did not simply fall into place when Joseon was founded in 1392. The new country was built on the ruins of Goryeo by those who worked for the previous dynasty, thus many of the practices from late Goryeo were implemented in early Joseon. This period, also known as Late Goryeo and Early Joseon (여말선초, 麗末鮮初) was when the new country took its first step in setting up the nation, which included making use of what was left of Goryeo and reassessing the need to change. One of the visible changes was through the titles used by the royal family of Joseon.
Wangbi (왕비, 王妃), literally ‘King’s Consort’ was the title bestowed to the consort of a reigning monarch of a vassal state. Sometimes simplified into Bi (비, 妃) or Consort, Early Joseon saw the usage of sobriquet Byeolho (별호, 別號) when they were still alive as an alternate title for the queen consort. The practice of giving the title Originated from Goryeo’s Seongjong ‘Four Consorts’ (귀숙덕현비), but with more freedom to it: a phrase describing the Queen’s disposition or aspiration for her would be used as her sobriquet. It was only granted to the first four Queens of Joseon during their lifetime and one posthumous Queen before the practice was abolished by King Sejong in 1432. The titles granted to them were:
- Faithful Consort, Jeolbi (절비, 節妃) – Queen Sinui (posthumous)
- Illustrious Consort, Hyeonbi (현비, 顯妃) – Queen Sindeok
- Virtuous Consort, Deokbi (덕비, 德妃) – Queen Jeongan
- Serene Consort, Jeongbi (정비, 靜妃) – Queen Wongyeong
- Frugal Consort, Geombi (검비, 儉妃) to Courteous Consort, Gongbi (공비, 恭妃) – Queen Soheon
The Queen Consort would later would be honoured as Wanghu (왕후, 王后) posthumously, with the eulogistic posthumous title Jonho 존호(尊號) consisting of the eulogistic name Hwiho 휘호 (徽號) and the posthumous title Siho (시호, 諡號), ending with ~왕후. Although the title Wanghu was reserved for an independent state or a kingdom (왕국), Joseon was spared despite the country’s allegiance to Ming (and later Qing) as a tributary state (제후국). Its status as a tributary state by right would only allow the queens to be addressed as a mere Wangbi posthumously while the king simply as Wang, like what happened to the late Goryeo rulers ever since the country was made the son-in-law state (부마국) of Yuan and subsequently a tributary state of Ming. Perhaps, Ming was being lenient since they did not use the title for an empire (황제국), which would constitute the posthumous title of Hwanghu황후 for the consort of the emperor. Posthumous title was a must for the consorts of reigning and posthumous kings; even dowagers would eventually be honoured with their posthumous title ending with Wanghu after their deaths instead of Wangtaehu used in Goryeo.
The position of Dowager would be occupied when the reigning King passed away or abdicated the throne to the heir. In both cases, a courtesy title or Jonho (존호, 尊號) was given to the Dowager, who could be the new King’s mother, grandmother, or aunt.
Royal Queen Dowager or Wangdaebi (왕대비, 王大妃) was given the courtesy title as the title they were referred to during their lifetime in the position, different from Hwiho and Siho. The first case of the title Wangdaebi was given to Queen Jeongan after King Jeongjong abdicated the throne, with the dowager title Royal Queen Dowager Sundeok (순덕왕대비).
Grand Royal Queen Dowager or Daewangdaebi (대왕대비, 大王大妃) used the same concept with Wangdaebi, but this title was only used by the most senior dowager in the palace. The first in history was Queen Jeonghui, bearing the dowager title Grand Royal Queen Dowager Jaseong (자성대왕대비).
The issue of the title and rank of Queen Sohye (widely known as Queen Dowager Insu), birth mother of King Seongjong, was a good example of the dowager rank. She did not get to become a queen consort since her husband Crown Prince Uigyeong died before he got to become the king. Crown Prince Uigyeong’s younger brother took over his position as the Crown Prince after his death and went to rule as Yejong; however, Yejong soon passed away a little over a year after his ascension, leading to succession issue. Since Yejong’s sons were too young for the throne, the late Crown Prince Uigyeong’ and Queen Sohye (then known as Crown Princess Su 수빈 (粹嬪))’s sons were taken into consideration by Queen Dowager Jaeong (Queen Jeonghui) and Prime Minister Han Myeong-hoe. The oldest Prince Wolsan was deemed unsuitable to be made king, and the second Prince Jasan ended up becoming the king and ruled as Seongjong. Prince Jasan was made the adopted son of his uncle Yejong to ensure the legitimacy of the succession to the throne, hence Crown Princess Su could not be treated as his mother since the position legally belonged to Yejong’s consort, Queen Ansun (at that time known as Queen Dowager Inhye).
Still, out of consideration for her being the birth mother of the king, Crown Princess Su could live inside the palace and became known as Lady Subin (수빈궁, 粹嬪宮). Seeing how she could not even receive the greeting from her own son the king because they were practically a subject and a king, the court discussed the matter. Another issue came out: whether to make Crown Prince Uigyeong a King without the temple name or Myoho (묘호, 廟號) so that she would be known as Wangbi, or to honour the late Crown Prince as a posthumous king with the temple name so that she could get the title Wangdaebi. But then, the court decided on the first option and Crown Prince was given the title King Uigyeong (의경왕, 懿敬王), hence she was known as Queen Insu (인수왕비, 仁粹王妃), citing the reason for it being the way to differentiate between her and Queen Dowager Inhye. In practice, the posthumous title of wang is given to the ruler of a vassal state and the consort would be known as Wangbi. However, Joseon adopted the titles used by independent state: Daewang for a passing king together with the temple name, while the consort would bear the title Wanghu. In this case of Queen Insu, the status of Crown Prince Uigyeong could be regarded as a lesser king compared to the ruling king, since he had never ruled on his own while he was alive.
But then, the matter was still far from being solved; although Seongjong could now pay respects to his mother, the title Wangbi itself was obscure in this context. The title was reserved for the king’s consort, but now, it’s the king’s mother who held the title. No matter how it was, Queen Insu should be made the Royal Queen Dowager. ANOTHER issue crept up: if she was to become the Royal Queen Dowager, who should have the higher rank between her and Royal Queen Dowager Inhye? Apart from the two Dowagers, there was also Grand Royal Queen Dowager Jaseong (Queen Jeonghui) who was the most senior elder in the palace. Some stated that since Queen Dowager Inhye rose to the position earlier when Queen Insu was still known as Crown Princess Su, it was more appropriate for her to be treated as the second-in-command after Queen Dowager Jaseong. But then, some argued that Queen Insu had held her position and received royal rank way before Queen Dowager Inhye, so the order should follow the order of the birth of the husbands, therefore putting Queen Insu above Queen Dowager Inhye.
It was Queen Dowager Jaseong’s statement which provided the decisive ending to this matter: there was no doubt that Queen Dowager Inhye occupied the Dowager’s position earlier than Queen Insu, but Queen Insu was also entrusted with the task of protecting Yejong by the late King Sejo, implying her seniority above both the late Yejong and Queen Dowager Inhye. Thus, it would be more appropriate to place Queen Insu above Queen Dowager Inhye. Thus, Queen Insu, who never became the queen consort herself, had a higher rank compared to Queen Dowager Inhye, who did become one in her lifetime but ended up being pushed to the third highest position among the dowagers. With Queen Insu becoming a Royal Queen Dowager, Crown Prince Uigyeong was posthumously honoured as the king of Joseon with the temple name Deokjong (덕종, 德宗), formally acknowledging them as Seongjong’s birth parents. As for Queen Dowager Insu, she received the posthumous title Queen Sohye (소혜왕후) after her passing.
In late Joseon, where there were many dowagers living at one time, Queen Dowager or Daebi (대비, 大妃) was an additional rank that was lower than Royal Queen Dowager. It came into usage when Cheoljong was made the king of Joseon Dynasty. At that time, there were three dowagers: Sunjo’s consort Queen Sunwon (Grand Royal Queen Dowager Myeongkyeong), Crown Prince Hyomyeong or Munjo’s wife Queen Sinjeong (Royal Queen Dowager Hyoyu), and Heonjong’s consort Queen Hyojeong (Queen Dowager Myeongheon). Although Wangdaebi was used for those dowagers below the Grand Royal Queen Dowager (who was the most senior), the title Daebi (Queen Dowager) was given to Queen Hyojeong since she was ranked below Queen Sinjeong as the latter’s daughter-in-law. Prior to this, the title Daebi was used as a contraction for Wangdaebi, but afterwards, it had its own rank which was one rank lower than Wangdaebi. The other queen who held the title Daebi was Queen Cheorin (Queen Dowager Myeongsun) after Cheoljong’s death and the title was vacant after that because of the proclamation of Korean Empire.
The King’s Royal Concubines
Taejo’s concubine Consort Seong (성비) the only concubine to be awarded with the title Consort. But then, there were different views on the title: it was said that the title was given due to Taejo’s status as the King Former (상왕) after he abdicated; another opinion was because she was regarded as Taejo’s closest companion and on the same level as a formal consort after the death of Queen Sindeok. But then, there was no record of Taejo acknowledging her as a queen consort, hence there was discord with regard to her status. It was assumed that the conferring of the title was made following the custom of the previous Goryeo Dynasty, which gave title of Consort to the concubines, in addition to the lack of definite system for ranks and titles of consorts and concubines in early Joseon. Another interesting point is that she was widely known to disguise herself as a man whenever she accompanied Taejo on excursions outside the palace; this was something commonly done by concubines. This led to her funeral rites being made to match that of a royal concubine’s status, and her tombstone was marked as Concubine Seong (성빈) instead of her real title Consort Seong.
The Development of Royal Concubines’ Titles and Ranks
Joseon Dynasty picked up from what was left of Goryeo, incorporating the previous dynasty’s titles into the current government. Early in its founding, Joseon’s King Taejo used the titles Ongju (옹주, 翁主) and Gungju (궁주, 宮主) for his concubines, but the system was not clearly set up in place and there were concubines who did not receive any title at all. Hence, the first movement of creating a rank and title system for ladies of the palace, which included the royal concubines and the palace attendants, was suggested by Jeong Do-jeon and Jo Joon to King Taejo in 1397, consisting of the following titles for the concubines:
|Hyeonui (현의, 賢儀)||1 of Sr. 1, 1 of Jr. 1 rank|
|Sukui (숙의, 淑儀)||1 of Sr. 2, 1 of Jr. 2 rank|
|Chandeok (찬덕, 贊德) *only used by Lady Joo, Taejo’s concubine||1 of Sr. 3, 2 of Jr. 3 rank|
|Sunseong (순성, 順成)||1 of Sr. 4, 2 of Jr. 4 rank|
Although the effort was made, the titles were not actively used by Taejo and the king only used the titles of Gungju, Ongju, and in one rare case, Bin for his concubine, Princess Jeonggyeong (정경궁주) prior to her being awarded the title Ongju. It was during King Taejong’s reign that the concubines’ titles got into deeper discussion, thanks to the king’s discord over his concubine with his wife, Queen Wongyeong. Taejong was infatuated with a palace maid under Queen Wongyeong’s care, which made her lost her temper over the matter. He then seized the opportunity in 1402 to order for a study of the concubinage system of Chinese Dynasties’ Three Kingdoms and Goryeo Dynasty. There were a few practices which were highlighted but one made it into the spotlight: ‘the ruler could take in 9 wives but could only get married once’, implying that there should be only one legal/primary wife for the king or emperor and the rest would be considered the secondary wives, or the concubines. There was no exact rule set in stone yet at that time and Taejong still used the titles of Ongju and Gungju for concubines from both selection and royal favour routes. In 1405, the titles for the royal concubines were listed as follows: Hyeonui (현의, 賢儀), Sukui (숙의, 淑儀), Chandeok (찬덕, 贊德), and Sundeok (순덕, 順德). However, there were no ranks stated this time.
In 1411, the Ministry of Rites presented another finding from Book of Rites (예기, 禮記) with regard to the system, which concluded that the 8 concubines were to be divided into two groups: 3 as Sebu (세부, 世夫) with the title Bin (빈, 嬪) and 5 as Cheo (처, 妻) with the title Ing (잉, 媵). But then, Taejong decided on the system of 1 Bin and 2 Ing (1빈 2잉) for the royal concubines, although it was apparent that there was no clear cut rule in regulating the number of the royal concubines, only the titles. Taejong did take in 3 concubines from noble families two months after adapting the new rule, where he awarded the title Myungbin to Lady Kim while granting the titles Sohye Gungju and Sukgong Gungju to Lady Noh and Lady Kim, respectively. The practice of awarding the title of Gungju to selected royal concubines from noble families continued until King Sejong’s reign, and the last of this was recorded in 1424, with the titles of Jangui Gungju and Myungui Gungju given to Lady Park and Lady Choi, respectively. When Sejong revamped the ranks and titles in 1428, both were given the title Gwiin.
In Sejong’s 10th year in 1428, the revamp was welcomed to fix many weaknesses in the previously set system, drawing clear distinction between the royal concubines and the palace attendants in ranks and titles. The titles and ranks for palace matrons and maids were modified, along with the royal concubines’:
|Bin (빈, 嬪), Gwiin (귀인, 貴人)||Sr. 1|
|Soui (소의, 昭儀), Sukui (숙의, 淑儀)||Sr. 2|
|Soyong (소용, 昭容), Sukyong (숙용, 淑容)||Sr. 3|
|Sowon (소원, 昭媛), Sukwon (숙원, 淑媛)||Sr. 4|
It was unclear when the rank for the titles was changed, but later in the National Code of Joseon (경국대전), the ranks and titles were as follows until the fall of Korean Empire:
|Bin (빈, 嬪)||Sr. 1|
|Gwiin (귀인, 貴人)||Jr. 1|
|Soui (소의, 昭儀)||Sr. 2|
|Sukui (숙의, 淑儀)||Jr. 2|
|Soyong (소용, 昭容)||Sr. 3|
|Sukyong (숙용, 淑容)||Jr. 3|
|Sowon (소원, 昭媛)||Sr. 4|
|Sukwon (숙원, 淑媛)||Jr. 4|
The Crown Princess and the Crown Prince’s Concubines
Early Joseon saw the alternative titles in the forms of sobriquet or Byeolho bestowed by the king upon the crowning of the Crown Prince’s consort, or simply the Crown Princess. The Crown Princess would have the specific title ending with ~빈(嬪), for instance the title Gongbin bestowed to Queen Soheon when she first became the Crown Princess. Just like how the practice of using alternate titles for the current living queen consort ceased during Sejong’s reign, the same concept was applied for the Crown Princess. Later, a honorary title or Jakho (작호, 爵號) would be given to the Crown Princess in her lifetime only if the Crown Prince died prematurely before he got to become a king. If her husband happened to be posthumously honoured as a king, then the widowed Crown Princess would be regarded as a Queen Consort and received courtesy title or Jonho. If not, she would receive a posthumous title or Siho ending with ~빈.
A fun fact about the title of Crown Princess: Crown Princess Minhoe (민회빈), the wife of the unfortunate Crown Prince Sohyeon, was a well-known Crown Princess in Joseon, but interestingly, she only had a posthumous title. After her husband’s tragic death, she called for his death to be investigated, leading her already feeble position in the royal family to be further weakened when she was reduced to a commoner and her children sent into exile. It was only after her death that she received a title befitting her original status.
As for the Crown Prince’s concubines, there were no specific titles for them until King Sejong made the effort in studying the practice used by Tang Dynasty in assigning titles to their Imperial Crown Prince’s concubines. According to The Great Six Codes of the Tang (당육전, 唐六典), the Crown Prince’s concubines were classified into 5 levels: Yangje (양제, 良娣) of the Sr. 3 rank, Yangwon 양원, 良媛) of the Sr. 4 rank, Seunghwi (승휘, 承徽) of the Sr. 5 rank, Sohun (소훈, 昭訓) of the Sr. 7 rank, and Bongui (봉의, 奉儀) of the Sr. 9 rank. Sejong decided on the titles in the same year 1430, foregoing the lowest ranked title while raising the other ranks one above those used by Tang:
|Yangje (양제, 良娣)||Sr. 2|
|Yangwon (양원, 良媛)||Sr. 3|
|Seunghwi (승휘, 承徽)||Sr. 4|
|Sohun (소훈, 昭訓)||Sr. 5|
The titles were used for the first time when Sejong picked 3 concubines for his son, King Munjong (then the Crown Prince) in 1431. All the selected concubines received the title Seunghwi because they were all from noble families, and the practice was maintained when another concubine, Lady Ryu, was selected in 1438. When the Crown Princess’ seat was empty in 1436 after the previous two occupants were deposed, Sejong decided to pick Lady Kwon, who was already granted the title Yangje after giving birth to two daughters, over Lady Hong, who was still holding the title Seunghwi despite being Munjong’s favourite. The titles remained the same but the rank was brought down one step below when the National Code of Joseon was published:
|Yangje (양제, 良娣)||Jr. 2|
|Yangwon (양원, 良媛)||Jr. 3|
|Seunghwi (승휘, 承徽)||Jr. 4|
|Sohun (소훈, 昭訓)||Jr. 5|
The Princess Consort
In early Joseon, the Prince and Princess were not distinguished by their mother’s status, and the same concept was applied to their consorts as well. All the princes were granted the title Gun (군, 君) and received their princely title Gunho (군호, 君號) as well. Their consorts would be assigned with the title Ongju (옹주, 翁主). For instance, once King Taejo became the ruler, he bestowed the title Prince Jeongan (정안군) to his son Yi Bang-won (later Taejong) and Princess Jeongnyeong (정녕옹주) to his daughter-in-law (later Queen Wongyeong). However, the status of the princes soon became a hot topic, especially during Taejong’s reign, as he worked hard to segregate the status and legitimacy according to a prince’s birth mother. The new title for legitimate son from the queen was Grand Prince or Daegun (대군, 大君), while the illegitimate son from the concubine would be Royal Prince or Gun (군, 君). Their consorts would be known as Samhanguk Daebuin (삼한국대부인, 三韓國大夫人) and ~ Hanguk Buin (~한국부인, ~韓國夫人), respectively. Although at that time in 1417, the princely title Gun was still used as a honorary title or Jakho (작호, 爵號) for meritorious subjects, the titles for the consorts were distinctive enough, although there were overlapping titles used concurrently by the Princess Consort and the Queen’s mother.
Another change to the titles of the Princess Consort was made in Sejong’s 14th year, 1432. The officials called for the revision to be made in line with what stated in The Great Ming Code (대명률, 大明律), which required for Joseon as a state to ensure that its titles are two ranks lower than Ming as an empire. For that reason, the ‘국’ phrase in the Grand Princess Consort’s title (which means ‘country’) was replaced with ‘부’ or ‘prefecture’ that symbolized the highest administrative division in Joseon at that time. The ‘대’ phrase (meaning ‘great/grand’) was removed altogether, producing the new title Bubuin (부부인, 府夫人). As for the Royal Princess Consort, the ‘군’ phrase (‘county’) was used since it was one rank lower than 부, hence bringing about the new title of Gunbuin (군부인, 郡夫人). Both titles required for the town name of the bearer (or the clan branch title), Eupho (읍호, 邑號) to be added in front of the title in order to distinguish the owner, for instance Grand Princess Consort Seungpyeong (승평부부인), wife of Grand Prince Je-an (제안대군). The Princess Consort was actually ranked lower than the Princess; the royal daughters was without any rank (무품), which put them at the top of the rank, while the king’s daughters-in-law would be or Sr. 1 rank.
I am not sure if this post have quenched your thirst about whatever brought you here in the first place, since I believe many of the readers stumbled upon this blog through searching for keywords they are curious about. As for me myself, I have found the answers to my questions and doubts, therefore I am glad to be able to finish this one before the year ends and keeping it here for future reference. Check these posts out if you want to know more 🙂
- Royal Titles and Styles in Joseon Dynasty
- Royal Ranks in Joseon Dynasty
- Women of the Joseon Dynasty (Part 1)