As avid fans of Korean dramas (or Asian dramas in general), modern dramas have certainly made us swoon with numerous portrayals and depictions of one true love. But then, when it comes to historical dramas, the king would always be depicted to have a number of royal concubines on his side, apart from his primary wife that is the queen consort. Some of us would wonder, “Why?” The answer might be simple in the eyes of us the dwellers of modern world, but back in those times, there was the rules, regulations, and traditions which governed this practice of taking concubines among the Joseon Kings.
Perhaps, most of drama viewers have been influenced by the common notion that the concubines are crafty and deceitful, stopping at nothing to outdo the other concubines and even the queen in gaining the king’s love and attention. This is thanks to the dramatic portrayals of royal concubines onscreen, with the most famous characters being the extremely jealous Deposed Queen Yoon (Seongjong’s wife who was originally his concubine) and the infamous Lady Jang Huibin (Sukjong’s concubine). Still, the original intention of the practice of taking in royal concubines was not to gather the ladies in one place and fight for the king’s attention. It was done in order to ensure the prosperity of the royal family, in the form of producing many children through the king.
From the early founding of Joseon Dynasty, there were studies made to find a suitable system from the ancient texts to be adapted in Joseon’s royal concubinage system. As mentioned in the Book of Rites and The Rites of Zhou, the son of Heaven (aka the Emperor)’s Empress (hu) is to have 6 palaces (gung), where there would be 3 wives (buin), 9 concubines (bin), 27 consorts (sebu), and 81 royal mistresses (eocheo). However, these numbers were actually for an Emperor of an Empire, and Joseon at that time was a State with a King as its ruler. Hence, the third king of Joseon, King Taejong, set a system of 1 concubine with the title Bin and 2 mistresses with the title Ing, which came into usage when he took in 3 concubines in 1411, giving the title Bin to one of them (Lady Kim Myungbin).
Since the system itself was based on the purpose of procreation of the royal family, in early Joseon, even the kings with a considerable number of children could not escape the responsibility of taking in royal concubines. Right after he finished the three-year period of royal mourning for his father Taejong, Sejong, the fourth king of Joseon, was persuaded by his court to take in concubines in order to allow the royal family to further flourish with the blessings of more children. At that time, Sejong had already bore six children through Queen Soheon, but he could not go against the system set by his late father and the practice of the ancestors. Hence, he selected three royal concubines with one of them given the title Bin (Lady Kim Yeongbin).
This practice did not only apply to the king only; even the apparent heir to the throne or the Crown Prince was also subjected to the duty of ensuring the continuity of the future heir of the throne, hence there was also a system for the titles of Crown Prince’s concubines (for more information on this, click HERE). Seeing how the Crown Prince (later King Munjong) was having trouble with his consort the Crown Princess, Sejong selected three concubines for his son in order to ensure that a future heir would be born as soon as possible. Although the primary consort was expected to understand and accept the system in the name of responsibility towards the crown and the nation, it was not the case for the Crown Princess at that time, Lady Bong. She was jealous of the Crown Prince’s attention towards the concubines and when one of them was declared pregnant, the Crown Princess even hoped that the child would not turn out to be a prince, fearing that she would be ignored later. This only invoked Sejong’s wrath, plus with her actions later, she was then deposed from her position.
Royal concubines in early Joseon, particularly the selected concubines (gantaek hugung) who came in through official selection, enjoyed particularly high position within the court and the society. This was also due to their family background, mostly coming from the aristocrats and the noble families. Unlike the favoured concubine (seungeun hugung) who had to bear the king’s children before they could receive official rank, a selected concubine was granted a title (sukui) right after she entered the palace. In the event of the death or deposal of the primary consort, the selected concubines also had more chance of being promoted to the primary consort. Munjong’s consort Queen Hyeondeok was his royal concubine during his days as the Crown Prince, and she was picked to become his Crown Princess since she already given birth to Princess Gyeonghye. She also had Danjong later, but unfortunately, she passed away after contracting postnatal disease. Even her status as the Queen was actually posthumous, and Munjong did not take in new consort afterwards.
Another way of taking selected concubines was through proclaiming the final candidates of queen selection as concubines. When the young King Danjong rose to the throne, he was yet to be married, hence a selection was held for the queen’s position. Queen Jeongsun turned out to be selected as his consort, while the other two final candidates (Lady Kim and Lady Kwon) were made the royal concubines and given the title sukui.
The practice of promoting royal concubines to primary consorts continued until King Seonjo set the precedent of taking a new queen after the death of his first consort, Queen Uiin. Despite having a number of royal concubines and princes, the king was also bound to the emergence of new studies of rites and etiquettes, including the strong ideology of primogeniture (jeokjangja) or the right of firstborn legitimate male heir to inherit the throne. The legitimacy of the heir to the throne became the main focus, hence it was only deemed right for Seonjo to take in a new consort, Queen Inmok. When Queen Inmok later gave birth to Grand Prince Yeongchang, the situation became complicated since Seonjo already had declared Prince Gwanghae as his Crown Prince in haste during the war. With the presence of Grand Prince Yeongchang as the legitimate male issue of Seonjo, the issue of legitimacy haunted the crown until Seonjo’s death and Prince Gwanghae’s ascension to the throne, leading to Gwanghae’s deposal from the throne ultimately.
With the issue of legitimacy at bay, the practice of having selection for concubines also dwindled from the mid-Joseon onwards. The kings rarely took in selected concubines and sometimes did not even have any favoured concubine in the lifetime (King Hyeonjong), but the throne was deemed stable since legitimate heirs were produced one after another. However, problem ensued during King Sukjong’s reign, when his first consort Queen Inkyung passed away without any male issue and his second consort Queen Inhyun did not bear any child. It was only through his favoured concubine Lady Jang that he had his firstborn son, but the legitimacy of the child did not sit well with his courtiers, even more when Sukjong declared the young son his heir while Queen Inhyun was still young and alive. The king was adamant with his decision and even deposed Queen Inhyun at one time to make Lady Jang the queen, but he soon retracted his decision and reinstated his second queen. Perhaps, he took a page from King Seonjo to take in a new consort (Queen Inwon) after Queen Inhyun and Lady Jang’s death instead of promoting his existing concubines, even if most of them already rose in ranks and even bore children for him.
Although the legitimacy of the heir to the throne was the most important thing, it seemed that fate had different plan for the future kings. Sukjong’s successor King Gyeongjong failed to bear an heir in his lifetime despite marrying twice, and the throne went to his half-brother King Yeongjo. Even Yeongjo did not produce a legitimate heir through his two consorts Queen Jeongseong and Queen Jeongsun; still, he was considered lucky to have Crown Prince Sado, although the tragic ending of the unfortunate Crown Prince did not bode well for the fate of the throne. But then, another lucky thing in Yeongjo’s life was to have the young Crown Prince who was bright, who would later take over the throne as King Jeongjo.
Jeongjo had married Queen Hyoeui early on when he was still in the young Crown Prince (aka the Crown Prince’s son) position, but they did not have any child together. Hence, a selected concubine was brought in for the reason of producing a successor to the throne. The royal concubine, Lady Hong, was granted the highest title Bin, and received the treatment that was slightly below the queen, showing her status in the royal family. The title Bin itself was frequently used for selected concubine in late Joseon, as compared to the initial title of sukui for the selected concubine in early Joseon. Despite the good intention, she unfortunately passed away less than a year after entering the palace. Lady Yoon Hwabin was the next selected royal concubine, with three stages of selection process held for the purpose. However, she too failed to produce an heir. It was Jeongjo’s only favoured concubine Lady Seong Uibin who bore his firstborn son, Crown Prince Munhyo. Unfortunately, the young Crown Prince passed away when he was just five years old, two years after he was made the heir to the throne. To make matters worse, Lady Seong also passed away few months later while still in pregnancy.
Lady Park Subin was the next selected concubine, and she was the only selected concubine of Jeongjo who managed to give birth to a son, who survived into adulthood and reigned as King Sunjo. Still, the number of king’s issues had greatly dwindled compared to the kings of early Joseon Dynasty, and Sunjo was not an exception. He had a legitimate heir through his consort Queen Sunwon, but his son Crown Prince Hyomyeong died before him, leaving the young Crown Prince to inherit the throne as King Heonjong after Sunjo’s death. Heonjong himself was unlucky when it comes to children, since he could not produce an heir despite taking in a selected concubine as well. With the thinning succession line of the royal family of Joseon, legitimacy was formed through the adoption of members of royal family in the cases of King Cheoljong and King Gojong.
Joseon Dynasty’s royal concubinage system was not without imperfection, as the ending could be a far cry from the intended outcome. Although the initial reason was to ensure the prosperity of the royal family in particular and the nation in general, the practice of selecting and taking royal concubines underwent changes throughout the dynasty. The prospect of attaining the highest female position as the Queen was there for selected concubines of early Joseon, but there was only title and rank for the concubines in late Joseon, and perhaps the prestige of being the King’s birth mother despite being treated second to his legal mother, the Queen Dowager. Still, a woman’s status back then was determined by her family, her husband, and her child; perhaps, the concubines themselves did not have a say in determining her own fate.
For more information on royal concubines, check out these older posts:
- Royal Titles of Joseon Consorts
- Royal Titles and Styles in Joseon Dynasty
- Royal Ranks in Joseon Dynasty
- Women of the Joseon Dynasty (Part 1)