There was an article I read few years back throwing this question: why does the kings portrayed on the screen become younger as compared to before? Looking back at it, I can understand why the article asked that question. As a fan of historical dramas, I was so used to see the kings in sageuk looking all grand with their beards and wistful eyes. But then, the birth of fusion sageuk gives way to the era of youthful kings and crown princes on the screen, all clean-shaven sans the iconic beards. While there are many reasons for the abundance of young kings and crown princes on our screen, the reality is quite sad for the characters based on the historical figures, especially those from the late Joseon.
If you make a quick search of a Joseon king’s name on Google, there might be chance for an actor’s picture who has portrayed the king’s character in a drama to appear at the top of the page. I had a good chuckle when I searched for King Taejong once…and the still cut of Yoo Ah-in from his Six Flying Dragons days came out. While it is a funny thing, I hope that people would not be thinking that he is really the king!
When compared to the older sageuk, where the kings were portrayed to be in their 30s and mostly became the side characters appearing in the background, the recent sageuk put the kings on the pedestal, making them the focus of the story and casting the light on the time when they are at the most fragile moment, which is when they are still young and inexperienced. While a king is the symbol of perfection, the act of putting the limelight on the king’s incompetency might not be totally detrimental at all; in fact, showing the king’s maturity and growth on the screen probably makes it easier for the younger audience who are struggling on their own to be able to relate to the king’s plight, and that he is also a normal human being.
Still, there is another heartbreaking reason for the characters to be portrayed in their youth, especially those kings and crown princes from the late Joseon Dynasty. Most of them met early demise in their lives, before they got to show their own potential and sometimes, before they even got to become a king. It is kind of ironic when King Yeongjo held the record for the longest reigning monarch of Joseon for spending 52 years as the ruler of the dynasty, but his descendants were not blessed with longevity like him.
(In case you need the family tree and the mental image, here you go:)
Sado, the Unfortunate Crown Prince
Most would recognize Crown Prince Sado as the Crown Prince of King Yeongjo who died tragically in a rice chest, but few people actually used his actual title given by his son: Crown Prince Jangheon, or later posthumous King Jangjo. Born as the second son of King Yeongjo, Sado’s birth was just at the right time after the death of Crown Prince Hyojang few years before. Right when Yeongjo was probably nervous about having no successor even after ruling for more that 10 years as the king, Sado’s birth was a celebrated occasion for him and the whole royal court. However, the promising young successor soon found himself under pressure to grow up to become the next king, under the guidance of stern King Yeongjo who wanted nothing but the best.
Made the adopted son of Queen Jeongseong merely 100 days after he was born and had to live separately from his birth mother Lady Yi Yeongbin, the young Sado was practically raised by nannies and eunuchs, far from the guidance of his own parents. According to Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, penned by Sado’s wife Lady Hyegyeong (or Queen Heongyeong), his residence was situated so far away from his parents’ quarters that it would require them to travel about 2 km just to visit their child. The frequency of their visits soon dwindled, and the young Sado was left to live on his own, surrounded by his attendants.
He was then invested as the Crown Prince when he was just a little over one year old, but he displayed promising qualities of becoming a good leader. He was a talented, bright child, but Yeongjo’s expectation was as high as a mountain he could not climb, which only made the relationship between the father and the son became worse. The unfortunate path for Crown Prince Sado seemed like an unavoidable one when he was made the Prince Regent at the age of 15. Yeongjo might have thought that as the successor to the throne, Sado should equip himself with the skills to run the government by experiencing it on a first-hand basis. Even Yeongjo’s father, King Sukjong, became the king at the age of 13 and ruled on his own after only 10 months of being assisted by the Prime Minister Heo Jeok through Minister Regency. In Yeongjo’s eyes, there was no excuse for Sado to be incapable of achieving the same thing, hence Prince Regency was what he deemed appropriate.
But then, Crown Prince Sado, who was already experiencing extreme anxiety around his own father, now had to made decisions in the court under the scrutiny of his father’s watchful eyes. Their discord grew deeper and Sado began to display strange behaviour, avoiding greetings and missing assemblies, not to mention the death of his attendants when he could not control his anger and emotional outbursts. The political situation was also not helpful, with the officials eager to take sides between Yeongjo and Sado. With the death of Queen Jeongseong and Queen Inwon in succession, there were no more people in the royal family that could help to dissipate the growing tension between the King and the Crown Prince. In the end, Yeongjo made the decision to lock Sado in the rice chest and leave his own son to die at the age of 27.
Jeongjo, the Son of Sado
One of the theories stated that the presence of King Jeongjo as the Young Crown Prince at the time of Sado’s death made it possible for Yeongjo to come to the decision to eliminate the problematic Sado. It was indeed a bitter reality to be swallowed, but Yeongjo made arrangements to remove the Young Crown Prince from being linked to his dead father. In order to ensure the continuity of the legitimacy to the throne, the Young Crown Prince was made the adopted son to Yeongjo’s eldest son, Crown Prince Hyojang. This removed Sado from the line of succession, at the same time justifying the Young Crown Prince as the next in line to the throne. When Yeongjo passed away, the Young Crown Prince ascended to the throne as King Jeongjo.
Just like his birth father, Jeongjo was an intelligent man ever since he was young. He was the apple of his grandfather’s eyes, unlike his father. Although he did follow Yeongjo’s intention and revered his adopted father, Crown Prince Hyojang, as the posthumous king Jinjong once he rose to the throne, Jeongjo did not forget to remind the court that was, after all, the late Crown Prince Sado’s son. His achievement in improving the lives of the citizens and providing equal opportunities to those with potentials regardless of their social classes were remarkable, to the point of him being regarded to be on the same level as his ancestor, the great King Sejong.
Despite the achievement, there lied the strong intention of a son who wanted to appease the unfortunate soul of his deceased father, while displaying his utmost respect towards his birth mother, who had to respect him as a king instead of treating him as her son. His lifelong wish was finally materialized through the planning and completion of Hwaseong Fortress, where Crown Prince Sado’s remains were moved to and honoured. Designed by Jeong Yak-yong, the fortress also hinted at the promising future of moving the capital from Hanyang to Suwon, where the fortress was located. However, the sudden death of Jeongjo at the age of 48 killed the plan altogether.
Sunjo, the Young King under Sedo Politics
Although both Yeongjo and Sado lost their eldest sons, both of them were soon blessed with another son who later contributed to the successive line to the throne. However, it was a difficult journey for Jeongjo when it comes to his successor; Queen Hyoeui did not give birth to any child, while Jeongjo’s selected concubines – who were brought in for the sake of conceiving the royal heir – failed to produce child. His favoured concubine Lady Seong Uibin did give birth to his eldest son Crown Prince Munhyo, but the young heir succumbed to early death in adolescence. It was not until another selected concubine was brought in when the royal court was finally blessed with a prince, and that prince would later become Sunjo, born to Lady Park Subin when Jeongjo was already 38 years old.
Jeongjo’s sudden death pushed for the Crown Prince to take over the king’s position, ruling as King Sunjo at just 11 years old. The young king had just been invested as the heir 6 months prior to the late king’s passing, hence it was deemed that he could use some assistance in managing the state affairs. Making use of the opportunity, Queen Jeongsun, Yeongjo’s second consort and Sunjo’s great-grandmother, became a Regent through the Dowager Regency, kicking off the long era of Politics by the Royal In-laws, or Sedo Politics.
Sunjo’s early reign was marked with the persecution of the Catholics led by the family of Queen Jeongsun, the Gyeongju Kim clan. Using the justification of the danger of the Western teachings, the Dowager’s clan operating under the Byeokpa faction attacked their political rivals Sipa through persecution of the Catholics, who were mainly Southerners (Namin). Even when Queen Jeongsun ended her regency after 3 years, the real power was then passed to Sunjo’s father-in-law Kim Jo-soon of the Andong Kim clan.
The power struggle between the Royal In-laws Family from three different clans – Queen Jeongsun’s Gyeongju Kim, Queen Sunwon’s Andong Kim, and the Crown Princess (later Queen Sinjeong)’s Pungyang Jo – reached its height during Sunjo’s reign. The era of Gyeongju Kim started to fade with the death of Queen Jeongsun, and Andong Kim clan seized the opportunity to push the Dowager’s clan to the sideline. Kim Jo-soon made use of the Border Defense Council (Bibyeonsa) by placing their family members in important posts and controlling the government affairs through the personnel in the capital, as well as in the provinces. This also contributed to various problems around the Three Taxes imposed on the citizens, which led to riots and rebellions organized by farmers who were dissatisfied with the failing, rotting system. Sunjo made use of his maternal family Bannam Park clan and the Crown Prince’s in-laws Pungyang Jo clan to counter the rising influence of the Andong Kim clan.
Hyomyeong, the Flickering Light against the Darkness
Crown Prince Hyomyeong was the son of Sunjo and Queen Sunwon. Born and growing up in the midst of weakening royal authority and the growing influence of royal in-laws, he was not excluded from the political struggle. In order to curb the power of his maternal family Andong Kim clan, Hyomyeong was set up to marry his consort (later Queen Sinjeong) from the Pungyang Jo clan. He was then made the Prince Regent when he was 19 years old to prepare himself for his role as the future king.
The Prince Regent proved himself to be someone who was brave to go against the powerful Andong Kim clan. Maybe this was Sunjo’s intention from to beginning, putting his son on the pedestal and giving the Crown Prince an opportunity to fight on his stead. Crown Prince Hyomyeong appointed personnel from various clans across the board, including his in-law’s clan and even the Soron who were ousted after the Yi In-jwa’s rebellion almost 100 years prior. His effort made people anticipate on what he would do to further consolidate the royal authority against the Andong Kim clan. However, the flickering hope was suddenly cut short with the sudden death of the Prince Regent at the age of 22.
Heonjong, Fighting against the Destiny
The death of Crown Prince Hyomyeong was also followed by his sisters’ passing, which greatly saddened Sunjo. In the end, Sunjo breathed his last breath when he was 45 years old, leaving the throne to his grandson and Crown Prince’s son, ruling as King Heonjong. At the time of the late king’s passing, Heonjong was only 8 years old, so this called for another regency. Queen Sunwon, the wife of Sunjo and Heonjong’s grandmother, was made the regent through the Dowager Regency. Although the young king eventually reigned on his own stead after 7 years of Queen Sunwon’s term as a regent, it was not easy for him to escape the influence of Andong Kim clan which only grew stronger with Queen Sunwon’s backing and her brother, Kim Jwa-geun’s control over the government. Plus, there was also the political strife between Andong Kim and Pungyang Jo clans, both being the royal in-laws’ families.
The difficult lives of the citizens because of the failing system and the corrupt government led to rebellions and attempts to replace the king by appointing a distant royal relative, Prince Hwepyeong, who was Crown Prince Sado’s great-grandson through his son Prince Euneon. Although it was an unsuccessful attempt, it was a glaring proof that the hardship pushed the desperate people to try to change the fate of the country. The persecution of Catholics also continued during Heonjong’s reign, with major persecutions taking place in 1839 and 1846 (Gihae Persecution and Byeongo Persecution, respectively).
Heonjong’s years of sitting on the throne was spent fighting against the Andong Kim’s powerful grip on the government and the throne itself, but his effort eventually succumbed to the Kims. He suggested for the reform of provincial magistrates’ appointment and tried to exile Kim Heung-geun, but the sentence did not go through; Heonjong grew weak because his illness and passed away without leaving any heir at the young age of 23, 15 years after being the king.
Cheoljong, the King from the Island
Scrambling to find an heir to inherit the throne, Queen Sunwon was the most senior member of royal family at that time needed to appoint someone of royal blood for the position of the next king. At that time, most of the close royal relatives within the 6-chon degree of relationship with the late King Heonjong were non-existent; hence, someone who was actually Heonjong’s distant uncle but younger than the late king was brought into the palace, and that someone was the Ganghwa’s Young Master, Cheoljong.
Growing up in a family who were embroiled in treason cases one after another, Cheoljong, then Yi Won-beom, was just a farmer living his life in poverty while in exile because of his brother, Prince Hwepyeong’s treason case. He was crowned king at the age of 19 after made the adopted son of King Sunjo and Queen Sunwon, but without any formal education or any kingship lesson, it was deemed appropriate for Queen Sunwon to act as a regent again. Hence, the second term of Dowager Regency by Queen Sunwon began, and the condition only grew worse; corruptions going rampant everywhere and the citizens were squeezed to death trying to pay the taxes imposed on them.
Even after the regency ended, the power to make decision was not Cheoljong’s; the Andong Kim clan still went around pressing high taxes and selling government positions to those who wanted to have it, while appointing their own family members in high positions in the central government. The citizens’ movement for riots and rebellions were fuelled through the Donghak doctrine, contributing to the large-scale Imsul Peasant Revolts in 1862. Cheoljong set up the Bureau of Reform for the Three Taxes System (Samjeong Ijungcheong) in the same year, but the bureau was an empty shell without any action taken even after its founding.
Plagued with illnesses, Cheoljong spent months on his sickbed, before he eventually succumbed to his sickness at the age of 33, 14 years after becoming the king. Since Cheoljong’s son did not survive infancy, there was no one who could inherit the throne. The most senior member of the royal family at that time was Queen Sinjeong, King Heonjong’s birth mother and Crown Prince Hyomyeong (posthumously honoured as King Munjo). She chose a distant nephew of Cheoljong who was also the second son of Yi Ha-eung (later Grand Internal Prince Heungseon) to become the next king, ruling as King Gojong at the age of 13. The death of Cheoljong also marked the end of the long line of kings who were descendants of Crown Prince Sado. Although Gojong was made the adopted son of King Munjo and Queen Sinjeong, his lineage was traced back to the third son of King Injo, Grand Prince Inpyeong, while Crown Prince Sado was the descendant of Injo’s second son, King Hyojong. In conclusion, all the kings after Injo were descendants of him.
The Rise of Women’s Influence in the Royal Court
The short-lived kings and crown princes of the late Joseon were indeed unfortunate, especially to the fate of the nation which hung on by the thread towards the end of the dynasty. The early death of the kings and the crown princes also meant that there were many consorts who were left behind to continue their lives by themselves, protecting the royal family as Dowagers and senior members of the royal court. If the earlier kings had to take in second (or even third) consort when their queens passed away before them, the late Joseon saw many dowagers residing in the palace at one time, to the point rearranging the titles to refer to the dowagers according to their rank and seniority.
Although a Queen Consort could not hold real power when the King was alive, it was a different thing once her husband passed away; in the event of sudden death of the King, the Crown Prince might be too young to make decision on his own as the new King, hence his mother, now the Queen Dowager, would have to step in to act as a Regent through the Dowager Regency.
These Dowagers also acted as the extension of their natal clan in the royal court, providing support to their relatives from behind the screen. They were also the key figures behind the Sedo Politics, standing behind the young King to guide him as her clan members acted as her eyes and hands outside the palace. From Queen Jeongsun of Gyeongju Kim to Queen Sunwon of Andong Kim and then Queen Sinjeong of Pungyang Jo clans, the power changed hands over 60 years of Sedo Politics in late Joseon. It was not until Gojong’s era that the royal authority found its footing again thanks to the effort of Heungseon Daewongun, but there were also issues with regard to how he dealt with foreign forces which were all eager to enter Joseon. The king’s birth father also found his greatest rival in his daughter-in-law whom he thought was harmless: Queen Min, later known as Empress Myeongseong.
The abundance of youthful kings and also crown princes on the screen these days might be a deliberate move to attract younger audience into watching historical dramas, which used to be regarded as a genre made for older generation, hence the portrayal of the kings being of older and wiser. But then, the time has changed and the historical genre itself is changing: fusion sageuk and even sageuk with a mixture of genres have found its own following. Another thing that I like with the focus of the historical dramas being on the late Joseon is the abundance of female characters in those productions. They are not just supporters of their husbands and children, but they also played a part in dictating the history. Just like how the kings’ actions could have both good and bad effects, the queens’ decisions could also build or break the nation’s future.