The Red Sleeve – History, Her Story, and Their Love Story

So…yeah, my friend Gia has directed me to this one blog post in Korean with thoroughly written content about King Jeongjo and Lady Seong Uibin’s history and love history. It is such a detailed post, combining almost everything I have seen around the Internet including the extra notes and side stories of people around them. This is just my humble attempt at translating whatever I can from the post, although there are just way too many details about the family background of the other figures that I had to put aside for now…because I just want to make everyone cry with me. Behold, the raw and unedited translation of mine; not proofread, just pure tears.

Original post in Korean HERE!

WARNING: LONG CONTENT AHEAD! PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

THEIR FIRST ENCOUNTER

Although there were a lot of records about Seong Uibin by Jeongjo himself, the government officials working at the court at that time, and even in the Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, there was no record of when they exactly met each other. However, it could be estimated despite the difference between the records, and it is clear that they first met before the first confession, when Jeongjo was 15 and Uibin was 14. As soon as he was officially allowed to take in a concubine, he proposed to Uibin.

A normal wedding would have the couple going through a capping/coming-of-age ceremony around the age of 14-15 before completing the wedding ritual. The coming-of-age ceremony would mean that the person was considered adult, hence the ability to take in concubines as well. However, in a royal member’s case like Jeongjo, who had been married when he was 9 years old, the wedding ceremony would only be considered as complete when he went through the coming-of-age ceremony, for him to consummate the marriage during the first night ritual. This was the case for Crown Prince Sado and Lady Hyegyeong as recorded in her Memoirs. But then, it was a totally different case for court maids, who had to go through the special coming-of-age ceremony only for court maids after 15 years of their entrance to the palace.

Theory 1: Jeongjo first met Uibin during his early years (before he was 10) when he was at his mother, Lady Hyegyeong’s house.

Jeongjo used to visit the House of Hong family (his maternal grandfather, Hong Bong-han’s house) from time to time and spent a few days during each visit there in his early years. He used to play there and was close with his cousin Hong Su-young, the son of Lady Hyegyeong’s eldest brother Hong Nagin. So, it could be concluded that he was pretty close with his maternal family when he was young. There was a letter written by a young Jeongjo addressed to his maternal aunt, asking her to give his socks to his cousin since they were too small for him.

Uibin’s father Seong Yun-woo used to be Hong Bong-han’s house steward, and the family of the house steward normally stayed together inside the same house compound with the owner’s family. Hence, there is a huge possibility for a young Uibin to have grown up in the Hong family’s house. Her older sister would also become a concubine of Lady Hyegyeong’s relative, Hong Nak-seong, which was just one of the many ties Uibin had with Lady Hyegyeong.

Theory 2: Uibin entered the palace when she was 10 years old and met Jeongjo there for the first time.

When the calamity in the year 1762 happened (Sado’s death), Jeongjo did leave the palace temporarily to stay at the Hong family’s house, hence there were possibilities of them meeting each other as Uibin was still staying at the same house. After Lady Hyegyeong and her children were called back by Yeongjo to return to the palace in the same year, she would later send Jeongjo to live beside Yeongjo and her daughters, Princesses Cheongyeon and Cheongyeon later got married. Lady Hyegyeong probably felt lonely to be left by herself, so she brought a young girl around her children’s age – who was no other than Uibin – for her to raise inside the palace. Uibin entered the palace in 1762 after the tragedy.

At that time, Jeongjo and Lady Hyegyeong did not stay in the same palace complex (Jeongjo at the Gyeonghui Palace where Yeongjo was staying while Lady Hyegyeong in the Changgyeong Palace) and it was almost impossible to meet face-to-face, only exchanging letters for 3 years. Still, he would sometimes visit from time to time to offer his greetings to his mother and probably saw Uibin around his mother for the first time then. According to Jeongjo himself, he described Uibin as ‘someone who was thought to be a young lady from a noble house by the royal relatives’. It seems that he was already aware of her existence when she was 10 and he was 11..and it was probably love at a first sight for him.

Map of Joseon Palaces

PROPOSALS AND REJECTIONS

First Proposal and Rejection

Jeongjo first confessed his feelings to Uibin when they were 15 and 14 respectively. From what he wrote, it seems that he proposed to her personally rather than using a messenger. Normally, when a court maid is about to receive the king’s grace, the court lady working for him would be informed about the king’s intention for the court maid to be escorted to the king’s bedchamber to serve him. But then, since there was no record or whatsoever of what happened right after the proposal until Jeongjo himself decided to tell the world about it, he probably waited for the chance to meet her himself without anyone around, only to end up hearing her rejection. It was not known whether Lady Hyegyeong or her daughters ever knew about Jeongjo and Uibin’s close relationship at that time.

The official reason for rejection: Queen Hyoui had not given birth to a child yet, so she would not dare to receive his grace.

But then, in history, Sado’s outrageous relationship with the court maids during his days as the Crown Prince was the reason for Yeongjo’s wrath. Plus, for someone who was close like a daughter to Lady Hyegyeong, having to hear the proposal itself was already a difficult thing for Uibin. Both Lady Hyegyeong and Queen Hyoui were her superior, with Lady Hyegyeong being Jeongjo’s birth mother and Queen Hyoui being his official consort. From Uibin’s point of view, it must have had been tough for her to suddenly be at the receiving end of a proposal from someone who waited until he was 15 to ask them to be together.

Still, rejecting a king or a crown prince’s request would mean death to that person, but in this case, Uibin could have noticed Jeongjo’s feelings towards her since they had known each other since a long time ago, hence she might have trusted Jeongjo not to kill her when she rejected him. Well, only Uibin herself would know the real reason for her decision. A court maid was considered the king’s woman regardless of her receiving the king’s grace or not and she could never get married to another man. It was almost impossible to find a court maid who had rejected a king or crown prince’s advances, not to mention one with her personal reason being the ground for rejection.

With Jeongjo’s high status, it was possible and permissible for him to force his way on her.  Jeongjo decided to take a step back, because he either cherished Uibin so much, or that he decided to respect her intention.

“I understood your intention, so I didn’t press the matter further.”

(There were also a lot of kings who did not take in concubines when they were still the crown prince so that they wouldn’t offend their superior, the reigning king at that time. Sejong did not take easily take in favoured concubines recklessly when his father Taejong was still alive and only proceeded to have a lot of favoured concubines after Taejong’s passing. Even the great Taejong himself only took in a number of concubines after he became the king; prior to that, he only had one concubine and already had a lot of children. This was in the early Joseon Dynasty, so imagine how difficult it was in late Joseon, where rites and rules were the top priority for the kings and the crown princes.

As for Sukjong, who was able to take in Lady Jang Huibin as his concubine despite her belonging to his superior was due to the approval by the superior herself, Queen Jangryeol (also known as Queen Dowager Jaui, Injo’s second consort and the main figure of the Yesong Dispute) due to Huibin’s family background as a Southerner. Of course, the plan fell through at first because of the opposition coming from Sukjong’s mother Queen Myeongseong, who was a Westerner.

It was actually taboo for one to covet something or someone belonging to his superior since it was considered unfilial, and this was the reason for Yeongjo’s anger; Sado was obsessed with Bing-ae, a court maid who served Sado’s legal grandmother, Queen Inwon. Plus, in theory, at that time of Jeongjo’s days as the Crown Prince, all the court maids and court ladies were considered the king (aka Yeongjo)’s women.

There was no way for someone so learned about Confucianism like Jeongjo to be unaware of that fact, yet it was quite surprising to see how frank he was when he proposed to Uibin right after completing his coming-of-age ceremony. It could be that he was blinded by love at that moment, although his life was not necessarily a bed of roses during that time. He depended on his one and only lifeline, Yeongjo.

When Jeongjo was surrounded by enemies, Yeongjo was the one who protected him. In other words, Jeongjo would drop everything in a beat just for Yeongjo, and that was what he mostly did in Yeongjo’s latter years. When Yeongjo fell sick, Jeongjo would personally take care of his grandfather, to the point of studying medicine since he wanted to cure Yeongjo’s ailment..and Jeongjo did publish a book himself about medicine later when he became the king. Even if Yeongjo cherished his grandson, there was no way of knowing his reaction should the thing happening to Sado repeating again. At that time, Yeongjo’s impression of Jeongjo was: this kid knows nothing outside studying and he won’t even go outside for sightseeing when the flowers bloom. It’s not that he’s intentionally doing that, it’s his second nature. Little did he know that his grandson was different from what he thought….

Regardless of that, even if Lady Hyegyeong happened to give her permission, would Uibin still accept it? But then, looking at the events before, Jeongjo probably did not even tell his mother anything about his feelings. Love really brings out one’s side unknown to others, and it was even more fascinating in Jeongjo’s case. Still, if Uibin did happen to accept the first proposal and become a concubine early on, she would probably end up as Jeongjo’s one and only, first and the last concubine, provided that there was no misfortune afterward. It was clear, judging from Jeongjo’s whole life; he did not really pay much attention to the other concubines.

Second Proposal and Rejection

There was no way of knowing what exactly happened between them after the first proposal. But then, there were traces of what was happening around them afterward. Jeongjo weathered so many happenings in between the first proposal and his enthronement at the age of 25, while Uibin continued to serve as a court maid and even transcribed a novel with Jeongjo’s sisters, Princesses Cheongyeon and Cheongseon.

Jeongjo’s life at that time was full of ups and downs:

  • Being trapped as the object of obsession of his aunt, Princess Hwawan.

If you wonder how extreme the obsession was, it was to the point of her being jealous of the books he loved. While Jeongjo was living apart from his mother Lady Hyegyeong in order to stay by Yeongjo’s side, Princess Hwawan played the mother part, to the point of driving a wedge between Jeongjo and Queen Hyoui’s relationship, hence being the reason why Queen Hyoui did not have a good marital harmony with Jeongjo. Plus, she even monitored him closely, waiting to catch if he happened to look at the court maids and find a liking in any of them. At first, Jeongjo just followed suit, but Princess Hwawan overstepped her boundaries; moreover, Jeongjo disliked her adopted son, Jeong Hu-gyeom, which made him and his aunt drift apart in the end.

  • Growing close with Hong Guk-young, Kim Jong-su, Seo Myeong-seon, and Jeong Min-si (aka members of Dongdeokhoe).

Hong Guk-young was Jeongjo’s right-hand man and was like his brother, being 4 years older. Meeting as a teacher and student, they grew closer. To the lonely Jeongjo who spent his whole life studying and alienating himself from the outside world, Hong Guk-young was like Jeongjo’s eyes, hands, and legs. Hong Guk-young was an intelligent man with handsome features, coupled with his gift of eloquence and his quick wits, which earned him the adoration of Yeongjo himself.

  • Growing distant from his maternal family.

Especially Hong In-han, who was the step-brother of Hong Bong-han, Lady Hyegyeong’s father. Hong Bong-han himself incurred Jeongjo’s hate when he admitted that he was close with his step-brother. Jeongjo was also displeased upon learning that Lady Hyegyeong’s younger brother Hong Nagim was close friends with Jeong Hu-gyeom. (This was explained by Lady Hyegyeong in her Memoirs. According to her, she was the one who ordered Hong Nagim to approach Jeong Hu-gyeom in order to gain the trust of Princess Hwawan, the closest person to Yeongjo at that time. That was done in order to protect Jeongjo himself. Lady Hyegyeong also said that her father Hong Bong-han used to be close with the family of Queen Jeongsun before, but the two families became enemies once Queen Jeongsun became Yeongjo’s consort. In the end, it was also thanks to Queen Jeongsun’s brother, Kim Kwi-ju’s endless impeachments that Hong Bong-han ended up being pushed off his position in the court. Even Lady Hyegyeong and Queen Jeongsun’s relationship was not that great either…) Jeongjo himself used to be close with Kim Kwi-ju as well, but they grew distant after Kim made a comment against him when Jeongjo was going to wash off records pertaining Crown Prince Sado in the Diary of the Royal Secretariat.

  • Sending his half-brothers into exile on multiple occasions.

The names of Princes Euneon and Eunshin would be mentioned so many times in the records and it was a painful time for Jeongjo. He tried to brush it off and even protected Prince Euneon until the end. (Jeongjo had four brothers – Lady Hyegyeong’s eldest son Prince Uiso, and the concubines’ children Princes Euneon, Eunshin, and Eunjeon – but Uiso passed away before Jeongjo was born.)

  • Being the object of scrutiny and feeling the immense pressure of having Sado as his father, bearing him the title of ‘the criminal’s son’.

People might have viewed Jeongjo’s reaction to the attacks he received during his Crown Prince days and early reign as overly sensitive, but one can only imagine how stressful it was for Jeongjo at that time, with the legitimacy of the Joseon throne hanging on his head. The title of ‘Sado’s son’ was both a plus and minus point for Jeongjo until the end of his life. Even in this modern world, the name Crown Prince Sado is still like a hot potato. Was there any other king of Joseon with a tragic family history like Jeongjo? He grew up witnessing his mentally unstable father and his mother who was a victim of domestic abuse ever since he was younger. When he was 11, he had to witness his father’s death with his own eyes.

When Jeongjo moved Sado’s tomb and made his bow, he almost passed out from too much crying. His endless effort to honour his late father was not only because of his filial piety; among so many theories surrounding Sado’s death, Jeongjo was well aware that one of them being his mere existence as the alternative to his father. Perhaps, he saw himself as being indebted to his father.

  • In Jeongjo’s first year as the king (1776)
    • He ordered for Princess Hwawan to kill herself
    • He sent Jeong Hu-gyeom into exile before sentencing him to death by poisoning
    • He also did the same thing with Hong In-han (these people were not punished under the account of treason but for being a hindrance to Jeongjo’s ascension to the throne. Princess Hwawan did not commit suicide and Jeongjo did not press the matter further, leaving the punishment as exile.)
    • He interrogated his maternal uncle Hong Nagim himself under the suspicion of conspiring with Jeong Hu-gyeom. (Hong Nagim was freed of his charge)
    • He sent Queen Jeongsun’s brother Kim Kwi-ju into exile
    • His maternal grandfather Hong Bong-han was denounced by Kim Kwi-ju multiple times and by the time Jeongjo ascended the throne, his influence was almost gone; he removed himself from the government and passed away in 1778.
  • Hong Guk-young exerting influence on the court using his status as Jeongjo’s right hand man.

His action caused him to be driven out in Jeongjo’s third year of reign before he died in his early 30s. There were different opinions on what happened between them, like Jeongjo making use of Hong Guk-young as a part of his plan to do a thorough clean up in order to break through the political influence and strengthen the royal authority, or Hong Guk-young grabbing the chance while leading Jeongjo astray for a short while. Maybe Jeongjo had noticed early on that Hong Guk-young was overstepping his boundaries and Jeongjo was only waiting for the right moment to strike him off. Even the appeal written by Kim Jong-su suggesting Hong Guk-young be kicked out was Jeongjo’s idea..

In order to maintain his influence inside the court, Hong Guk-young even stopped the treatment for Queen Hyoui’s infertility issues so that he could send in his own younger sister as Jeongjo’s concubine with the purpose of producing an heir. His sister was made the highest-ranked concubine Bin, which caused a conflict between him and Queen Hyoui. Even the title he chose for his sister ‘Won’ (meaning the first) was disrespectful to Queen Hyoui as the legal consort of Jeongjo. After his sister’s passing, Hong Guk-young tried to make the son of Jeongjo’s half-brother Prince Euneon, Prince Sanggye, as his sister’s adopted child. His ambition was unrivaled.

  • Growing closer again with his maternal family after ousting Hong Guk-young.

According to the Memoirs, Jeongjo’s relationship with his maternal family turned out better after Hong Guk-young was gone. He even exchanged letters and helped them. His cousin Hong Su-young was also given an official post and he also had a cordial relationship with Hong Nagim. However, Lady Hyegyeong’s natal family lived in solitude away from any attention.

  • The selected concubines

Hong Guk-young’s sister, Lady Hong Wonbin, was Jeongjo’s first selected concubine, but she died in 1789, less than a year after she entered the palace. Lady Yoon Hwabin was the second selected concubine, entering the palace in 1780. Both of them were chosen through official selection and had a royal wedding ceremony.

All the selected concubines during Jeongjo’s reign were of the highest ‘rankless’ Bin rank..in other words, it was like having another queen consort who received the treatment as a concubine. If they got pregnant, the Delivery Office set would be on the same level as a queen ‘sansilcheong’ instead of the one reserved for other concubines ‘hosancheong’ (like what was set up for Uibin during her pregnancies). There were even discussions about the Delivery Office later but Jeongjo forbade further discussion, probably to protect Uibin’s humble background. Even Sukjong, who was known to hate his selected concubine Lady Kim Yeongbin, treated her befitting her status as a noble..but that might be politically related as well.

Even after her death, Lady Hong Wonbin continued to be honoured; her tomb was given the name ‘won’, which was reserved for a concubine who had given birth to the next king, which was second highest after the tomb name ‘reung’ reserved for the king and queen. However, her tomb was later reduced to the status of ‘myo’. The ‘rankless’ Bin simply implies that the titleholder would be the person to give birth to the next reigning king. Of course, with that kind of title, there would be a full-fledged royal wedding ceremony going on as well, so one could only imagine how pissed off Queen Hyoui was when the unprecedented Lady Hong joined the Inner Court. As for favoured concubine who was of court maid origin, the highest rank they could attain would be the senior first rank of Bin, which was already so high that not many had achieved that in their lifetime.

When the second selection for the concubine was about to be held, Jeongjo voiced his reluctance to give his permission, but with the issue of heir at bay, he could not avoid allowing the selection to take place. Lady Yoon Hwabin was a relative of Jeongjo’s courtier, Shin Myeong-seon, and she entered the palace in 1780. There was rumour about Uibin being a court maid of Lady Yoon at that time, but there was no way of confirming the truth. If it was indeed true, it was like painstakingly selecting concubines, only for the king to end up with a court maid and even had the much-sought heir through their relationship.

Jeongjo proposed to Uibin for the second time in 1780, so it was clear that despite the first rejection, his intention to make her his concubine and his feelings towards her never changed. Both of them would be considered middle-aged in a few years’ time since in that era, crossing 30s would be as the same as people who have reached 40s.

Uibin was 12 years older than Hwabin. So, it wasn’t that Jeongjo liked her because she was young or that he had any unnecessary ambition, but it was because of strong love which made him unable to forget Uibin despite the rejection. But then, this second time around, Uibin rejected Jeongjo again. How could she accept him, when there was a concubine who was carefully selected with the aim of producing an heir recent? From her point of view, she was still in the same conflicting position as the first proposal.

“But he was no longer the powerless Grand Heir. He was, after all, the most influential and the wealthiest man, the King of Joseon. Be it the mighty or crawling courtiers, their lives could end with one word from him. In the end, he was still unable to change the heart of the person he loved and made him punish her servant.”

From a modern point of view, it might appear strange for someone who had waited for over 15 years for a woman, but in the end, resorted to using his influence to make her his, but the huge status difference between a king and a court maid was already a strange point for his immense love towards her. Even the mighty Jeongjo who could curse at the courtiers had the experience of being ignored..even someone like him grew weak in front of the person he loved.

Finally, Uibin did receive his grace. (Rumour has it that Lady Hyegyeong played a significant part here. Well, it was natural if she ever found out at that point, since it would be so out of blue for Jeongjo to suddenly punish a maid’s servant without any reason..)

Jeongjo was rejected twice by a court maid and he had to wait for 15 years until he accepted her. From Jeongjo’s point of view, his status would enable him to take in a woman he liked as a concubine forcefully, but the fact that Uibin made him wait for that long without being punished only proved how deep his love was for her. She was the only woman Jeongjo chose willingly in his lifetime.

According to the Rough Drafts of Master Ijae (pen name for Hwang Yun-seok, an official during Jeongjo era; this draft was considered a valuable source of history of late Joseon Dynasty due to its accuracy in dates when compared with the official records), in the 12th month of 1780, Lady Yoon Hwabin was expected to give birth in the 2nd month of 1781, while Uibin (at that time was just a special court lady, the title for a court maid who received the king’s grace but had not received an official title for concubine) was also few months pregnant. Hwabin was married to Jeongjo in the 3rd month of 1780. But then, the Rough Drafts probably had some error in calculation, since Veritable Records of Jeongjo mentioned Hwabin’s due date was in the 1st month of 1781.

Even when Uibin gave birth to Crown Prince Munhyo in 1782, the Delivery Office set up for Hwabin’s supposed delivery the year before was still established (normally, the Delivery Office was a temporary organ and would be dissolved about a week after the birth of a royal baby) and the Delivery Office for Hwabin was in operation for 30 months..

From this, it could be implied that Uibin received Jeongjo’s grace after the 4th or 5th month in 1780.

For Uibin’s personal name (written as Seong Deok-im by Ijae) and the details of her relationship with the king to be included in the personal diaries and records written by officials who held office like the Rough Drafts, it was enough to show that she was being the talk of the court at that time. It was a rare occurrence for a royal woman’s personal name to be recorded. Of course, there were no personal names in the veritable records, but only the names of Uibin (Seong Deok-im) and Lady Jang Huibin (Jang Ok-jung) made it into the records penned by courtiers. Lady Hyegyeong also mentioned the real name of Sado’s concubines in her Memoirs, although in Sado’s lifetime, there was only one of his concubines who was officially given a rank.

It was surprising to see so many people at that time being so interested in the king’s private life. But then, they probably had the grounds to do so, considering that the king was almost a middle-aged man but still without any heir yet and it was a pressing matter deserving of the worries of the court. Even in the edict from Queen Jeongsun for the marriage ban during the concubine selection precisely stated that the king was not interested in any court maid and did not have any interest in producing an heir. It was a huge issue and even Hong Guk-young himself made use of that to make himself the royal in-laws. Prior to Munhyo, there was no record of any concubine bearing Jeongjo’s child, save for Hwabin’s supposedly false pregnancy. (Still, it’s funny to imagine how Jeongjo, known as the stone-cold king who wouldn’t even look at women, would end up having his heir through a court maid Seong Deok-im…Jeongjo and his big picture.)

Jeongjo and his secret love…the one he thoroughly protected and kept hidden from other people’s attention was no other than Uibin.

‘The heir everyone was waiting for was finally bestowed by the Heavens in the 6th year of Jeongjo’s reign through the court maid Lady Seong. This was also the first mention of Lady Seong in the Veritable Records. Jeongjo was always reserved and did not even approach any woman before, and unlike other kings, he did not even take in any favoured concubine of his own. All his concubines before Lady Seong was concubines selected from noble families, with the aim to produce an air for the royal family. But then, there was no exact record of when Lady Seong exactly received grace and most people only found out about her relationship with Jeongjo after she gave birth to her child. It was a special thing indeed.’

Maybe Jeongjo wanted to protect Uibin, the person he loved, as much as he could. In order not to bring over any issue regarding the heir, he did not even lay a hand on other women after Uibin became his concubine. While Uibin was still alive, Jeongjo did not even have any other woman in his heart.

From Rough Drafts of Ijae:

  • Lady Seong soyong’s name was Deok-im. Her father was Hong Bong-han’s steward, and it was through this connection that she entered the palace as Lady Hyegyeong’s court maid. Lady Hyegyeong adored her, and the king too loved her. She was allowed into the king’s personal space in the palace and later got pregnant. When Lady Hyegyeong informed her son Jeongjo about this news, the king smiled silently.
  • The birth mother of the Prince Royal (Crown Prince Munhyo) was Lady Seong soyong. Her father used to be Hong Bong-han’s steward and also the father of Hong Nak-seong’s concubine. He later got a management post at the district office but was swept under the suspicion of embezzlement and he almost died in the process. Lady Hyegyeong then took the young Lady Seong under her wings and Lady Seong started to serve her. Lady Seong grew up and Jeongjo started to pursue her seriously. She also lost her father around that time, while her brothers held office as a petty military officer. It was a fortunate thing that both Jeongjo and Queen Hyoui were gentle and warm around her.
  • The heir was born, but the officials could not ask for the heir to be named out of consideration for Hwabin, who still had not given birth at that time. But then, once the officials made their plea, Jeongjo agreed to it.

The family background of Uibin was written in detail in the Rough Drafts, and even her personal name was mentioned there.

Looking at various records, there was no mention of Jeongjo showing interest in or bestowed his grace upon any court maid. Even during his later years, Jeongjo expressed himself that there was no woman in the palace who could receive his love:

‘I don’t have any court maid I’m interested in; this was not an embarrassing matter to previous kings who were wise, so members of the court should take heed of my words.’

‘I don’t have any interest in things like music, pleasure, or hunting. I don’t really like the eunuchs or concubines by nature; even when I don’t distance myself from them, I naturally grow distant from them. Other than books, nothing can cheer me up during my free time.’

The Rough Drafts written during Jeongjo’s early reign showed that no court maid had caught his attention. But then, the record of a pregnant court maid suddenly appeared in 1780. This would be the first unofficial record about Uibin. She was also the only concubine who had a king personally write down his love story for her and confess his undying affection for her..  

THE HAPPIEST DAYS OF JEONGJO’S LIFE

The death rate of children was high in Joseon, contributing to the low average age of people in Joseon. It was probably both a huge blessing and proof of the favour she received for Uibin to be pregnant right after she was graced by the king.

1780 – pregnancy (miscarriage)

1781 – pregnancy (miscarriage)

1782 – the birth of their first child Crown Prince Munhyo

1783 – the birth of their second child, a princess

1784 – death of the princess and Crown Prince was formally invested as the Crown Prince

1785-1786 – another pregnancy …

She spent 2 years as a special court lady before she received an official rank for a concubine after giving birth to Munhyo. When her son was invested as the Crown Prince, she was raised to the senior first rank of Bin. (Uibin’s life right before her passing was a repetitive cycle of pregnancy and childbirth…unlike selected concubines or the queen, whose sleeping arrangements with the king had to be calculated and scheduled, concubines of the court maid origin did not have that privilege…so the king would be free to visit his favoured concubine every single day. Jeongjo, you also had this side too (^^;;) He was releasing all the feelings he kept bottled up from his teenage days…

When Munhyo was born:

“I am beyond elated to be able to hear the word father at last. I am sure that this occasion will continue to happen In the future as well.”

Jeongjo probably thought that Uibin would continue to give birth to their children after Munhyo and they would live happily ever after…

If you wonder how far Jeongjo would go to show his love for the son from his most loved concubines, Jeongjo ordered for the construction of the future residence of Munhyo one day after his son was born. The building would later be known as Junghui Hall in Changdeok Palace.

7th day of the 9th month – Jeongjo was happy with the birth of Munhyo

8th day of the 9th month – Jeongjo bestowed workers and land for the construction of Munhyo’s future residence.

Jeongjo expressed his delight after gaining himself a son in front of his courtiers in several instances. His happiness brought back the image of a younger Jeongjo, which was a rare sight to behold. Holding a son in his embrace at the age of 31, gaining the title of a father; the much-awaited prince was born in the 9th month of the year 1782.

(A story of a jujube tree beside Jonhyeongak Hall in Gyeonghui Palace, where Jeongjo spent his years as the nation’s heir.

There was a jujube tree planted beside Jonhyeongak by Injo’s father, Prince Jeongwon (posthumously honoured as Wonjong). One day, this tree suddenly withered. Time passed by and years later, during Hyeonjong’s reign in 1661, the tree suddenly came back alive and flowers even bloomed. Hyeonjong soon welcomed the birth of his son, who would later become Sukjong. 60 years had passed by for the tree to bloom again, this time during Gyeongjong’s reign in 1720, and his brother Prince Yeoning (later Yeongjo) was made his heir. 60 years later, the same tree bloomed during Jeongjo’s reign in 1782, and Crown Prince Munhyo was born in the same year. Jeongjo considered the tree to share a close fate with him and took care of that tree. Whenever there was a huge occasion in the royal family, the tree would come back to life like magic and flowers would bloom. )

‘Two months after being born, Munhyo was officially declared Prince Royal (wonja – early title for future Crown Prince). His birth mother Lady Seong was later bestowed with the rank Bin with the title Ui, hence to be referred to as Uibin. Her title Ui was personally chosen by Jeongjo himself. Uibin soon became pregnant with a child again and gave birth to a princess in 1784. It was a happy occasion for Jeongjo to have a daughter after gaining a son, which made him complete as a father. But then, tragedy soon befell the family when the young princess passed away two months after being born. At that moment, Uibin was away to nurse her health back to normal after giving birth, but that unfortunate thing happened. It was painful for both Uibin and Jeongjo to lose their daughter. In order to console Uibin, Jeongjo gave her presents and in the 7th month of the same year, he officially installed Munhyo as his heir. Even after that, the relationship of Jeongjo and Uibin continued to be good, which resulted in another pregnancy in 1786.’ 

Jeongjo made Munhyo his official heir right after the princess’ death, unlike the declaration of the Prince Royal title; at the time of Munhyo’s birth, Jeongjo was also dealing with the issue of Hwabin’s Delivery Office, so the declaration was pushed to two months later. Despite that, the fact that Jeongjo swiftly ordered for the construction of the future residence of Munhyo a day after the birth proved that it was just a matter of time for the Crown Prince’s title to be bestowed upon Munhyo. The young prince indeed grew up under the expectation and blessings from his father and the whole nation.

The proof of Jeongjo’s love for Munhyo was evident in the way he constructed a new building just for him. In the Changdeok Palace complex, there were two areas that were used as the residence for the Crown Prince: Jeoseungjeon Hall and Simindang Hall. The latter was destroyed in a fire during Jeongjo’s 4th year of reign, while the former used to be the place where Crown Prince Sado carried out his duties as a Prince Regent. After Sado’s death, Jeoseungjeon was left unattended for many years.

Jeongjo probably wanted to avoid using the site where a building once burned down or a place that held a painful memory for his son, so he chose the location for Junghui Hall to be constructed near Seonjeongjeon Hall, where he oversaw his official duties and held meetings with his courtiers.

Even without the construction of Junghuidang, there were still a lot of other residences to choose from inside the palace. Of course, a new building construction could be a necessity, but it was also a way for the king to express his love. For instance, Kyungmogung, the shrine Jeongjo built for his father Sado was the biggest among the shrines, and he also built the Jagyeongdang Hall for Lady Hyegyeong in Changgyeong Palace. He also moved his father’s tomb to Suwon and the place later was developed to be the Hwaseong Fortress. Sukjong built Chwiseondang Hall for his concubine Lady Jang Huibin, while Crown Prince Hyomyeong constructed Yeongyeongdang Hall for his father Sunjo. Heonjong also built Nakseonjae for the residence of his beloved concubine Lady Kim Gyeongbin and his grandmother, Queen Sunwon. Jeongjo himself showed his love towards Munhyo by building Junghuidang.

‘Munhyo’s residence was situated in the middle of the Changdeok Palace. In order to make it possible for his son to continue learning as he grew up, Jeongjo even installed observatory equipment in the vicinity. The installation ceremony of Munhyo as the Crown Prince was also held in Junghuidang. According to the records, rehearsals were held thrice before the actual ceremony. Meat and rice were distributed by Jeongjo and the court to various departments. In order to make the happy occasion memorable, taxes were reduced so that the citizens could also be happy and celebrated the new Crown Prince.‘

In order to properly understand the relation between Seongjeonggak Pavilion and the East Palace, one needs to look at the Painting of Eastern Palaces (Donggwoldo). Seongjeonggak was a pavilion attached to the East Palace and the place where the Crown Prince would be studying. It was used by the Royal Infirmary (Naeuiwon) at one time. In the map, there is a huge building with the widest compound situated nearby the Rear Garden (Huwon) of Changdeok Palace. This is the Crown Prince’s residence, Junghuidang. Seongjeonggak is one of the annexes of this hall.

With the exception of those related to Suwon Hwaseong Fortress, every single Uigwe or Royal Protocols produced during Jeongjo were directly or indirectly related to Crown Prince Munhyo. Royal Protocols are the documents produced in order to record the important events and ceremonies happening in the royal family, containing detailed and exquisite paintings of the events while they were taking place. The Royal Protocols for the Procession to Hwaseong Fortress was one of the splendid documents detailing the event.

One of the Royal Protocols related to Munhyo was the document for his investiture ceremony as the Crown Prince in 1784 held in Junghuidang. He was among the youngest to be made the Crown Prince, following the likes of Gyeongjong and Crown Prince Sado. This is just another proof of Jeongjo’s love and anticipation for his son. This was the only Royal Protocols detailing the investiture ceremony for a Crown Prince in Joseon Dynasty. Other Royal Protocols produced by Jeongjo for Munhyo were:

  • The first ceremony of greeting the royal tutors (1784): Also the only one of its kind, the document was a record of the splendid event which was supposed to be attended by eunuchs and the royal tutors, but Jeongjo insisted on joining it. The ceremony was a way to elevate Munhyo’s status, as well as strengthening the royal authority.
  • The ceremony in the year of 1785: Produced for the bestowing of courtesy titles to elders in royal family in conjunction of the Crown Prince’s birthday, the event was also held in Junghuidang.
  • The procession for the royal funeral of Crown Prince Munhyo (1786): Produced during the process of constructing Munhyo’s tomb.
  • The enshrinement of the spirit tablet at Munhyo’s tomb: The first protocols detailing the process of enshrining the spirit tablet after the burial. After the completion of the 3-year mourning period, Munhyo’s spirit tablet was enshrined together with Uibin’s tablet in her shrine. Jeongjo personally visited the site to oversee the construction of the site and met with the person in charge himself.

Jeongjo’s second son (later Sunjo) was born after that in 1790, but his investiture ceremony was held when he was already 11, unlike the usual practice of investing a Crown Prince at the age of 8 or 9. Sunjo was also a precious son born when Jeongjo was already 40, and he remained as Jeongjo’s only surviving son until Jeongjo passed away. Sunjo was made the Crown Prince merely a few months before Jeongjo’s passing. There were no records of protocols made for events related to Sunjo or any special building erected for him. Even Princess Sukseon, Sunjo’s younger sister and Lady Park Subin’s daughter, did not get her title until Jeongjo’s death, although she was already 7 at that time. She only received her royal title when Queen Jeongsun acted as the Regent through the Dowager Regency during Sunjo’s reign.

The most extraordinary thing about Jeongjo and Uibin had to be the fact that Jeongjo himself chose the title ‘Ui’ for her.

Jeongjo had a total of four royal concubines; Lady Hong Wonbin, Lady Yoon Hwabin, Lady Park Subin, and Lady Seong Uibin.

Selected concubines would be chosen among the harmless illustrious family. Some humble scholar families would portray themselves as commoners, but they were still the noble family who would no longer be the humble scholars once they entered the palace as the king’s in-laws, gaining power and influence in the process to become the influential royal-in-laws.) Being noble in Joseon was not only about inheriting the status but maintaining it.

The highest status a court maid could achieve was to become the middle class. With the exception in the likes of Lady Jang Huibin, who was the daughter of a wealthy interpreter, court maids were normally from ordinary commoners’ households. Based on Jeongjo’s records, Uibin’s family was a ruined middle-class family, which made her and Jeongjo two people from different worlds. Without any backing, a mere court maid could end up dying without anyone noticing. Sado himself went on a killing spree, killing eunuchs and court maids, but because of his status as the Crown Prince, everyone was too busy turning a blind eye and covering the disaster. Selected concubines would hold higher rank than favoured concubine when they first joined the royal family. Although the concubines were under the jurisdiction of the Inner Court, when it comes to a favoured concubine, it was the king’s decision to make her one of his wives. Selected concubines were like spouses chosen for an arranged marriage. Of course, it was only natural for a king to prefer someone he personally chose instead of the selected concubines, who might appear as his duties to marry.

A concubine’s title would normally be suggested by an official. The title of the concubine would be recorded along with the name of the person who suggested it. However, there was no name recorded in the Veritable Records of Jeongjo for the person who suggested Uibin’s title. But the trace was found in the Diary of the Royal Secretariat. Jeongjo asked for suggestions from his courtiers and they did give him some, but in the end, he decided on it himself. The word ‘ui’, carrying the meaning of beauty, harmony, precious, appropriate, mild, and gentle.

Among the suggested titles by the courtiers, one of them was Subin, who would later be given to Jeongjo’s next concubine. The person who suggested it was Kim Jong-su, the minister who was given the power but not Jeongjo’s trust. Kim Jong-su was also the same person who wrote the appeal to impeach Hong Guk-young per Jeongjo’s request.

The special treatment for Uibin did not end there.

  1. Concubines would not be able to meet their relatives who did not work in the palace, but Uibin was allowed to meet her family.
  2. Her poor brothers were given money among other things.
  3. Her family tombs were moved because of the unsuitable location.

However, Jeongjo himself wrote that Uibin refused to accept everything he offered above; she also did not accept his offer to posthumously honour her parents and Jeongjo’s suggestion to give position to her brothers. Although she was known to be generous, she did not dare to distribute the wealth she gained through her rank as a concubine to her family members. She probably tried to protect people around her as much as she could while serving her superior Queen Hyoui with modesty and respect. Despite receiving immense love from the king, Uibin probably had so many things she had to watch out for, hence her status does not necessarily mean that she could be totally content with it. Perhaps, she herself had her own share of worries unbeknownst to anyone.

‘Uibin had two brothers who were so poor that it was difficult for them to survive. Hence, I thought of helping them. But then, Uibin said to me, ‘Official positions were not something to be given carelessly in the first place.’’

‘Uibin is always grieving, so I bestowed upon her warm meals, silk, and cotton; despite that, she was unwilling to accept them. I followed her intention to be frugal, but she would always be generous towards people in the palace who were poor and living difficult lives.’

 Each level of the rank for the concubines had their own task at hand, the responsibility which came with the stipend they received. If Jeongjo happened to abandon Uibin after she received his grace, then she would never rise to the rank of Bin ever. Her rise through the ranks, despite being formally declared as a concubine after three years, was still considered a fast route. Without the king’s intention of raising her status, a favoured concubine would not have any guarantee for her rank in the system. For someone who received immense love from the king and even gave birth to children in succession, Uibin probably took her own initiative of being frugal and modest. Jeongjo probably loved Uibin even more because of her personality like this, but he would feel bad for her..

  • Her residence needed to be repaired, but she refused it.

“I need to be frugal with luck so I can pass it on to Crown Prince Munhyo.”

This “be frugal with luck” would also become Jeongjo’s life motto. Jeongjo was staying at Yeongchunheon, a building so small and old that it was in a worse condition than an ordinary noble house. Even if the building was so old, Jeongjo only allowed for minimal repairs to be carried out. Lady Hyegyeong and the courtiers even proceeded to request for a new building to be constructed instead of carrying so much repair works, but Jeongjo refused to do so.

“Upholding simplicity is not about saving your wealth in a box; it’s about being frugal with your luck.”

Maybe it was something he liked after listening to Uibin while talking with her, or it could be that they just happened to influence each other, ending up sharing the same sentiments which translated into similarity in action and words.

Although Uibin’s family is a ruined middle-class people, her close relatives did not get to hold significant posts in office, but her relatives ended up becoming concubines to noblemen. (Her parents passed away when she was young; her mother died when she was around 4-5 years old, while she lost her father before she turned 20.) Her older sister became a concubine of Hong Nak-seong, relative of Lady Hyegyeong. He would later become State Councillor when Uibin was still alive. It was not a sudden promotion for him since he already held office prior to Uibin becoming a concubine, but he was also the First State Councillor when Crown Prince Munhyo was officially designated the heir. Hence, one could not help but to wonder if his promotion was indeed thanks to Uibin’s influence.

Uibin’s aunt became a concubine of a nobleman named Jeong Bang, and this man would later become the Minister of Works after Uibin became a concubine. Even his nephew received a government post after that. Since it was a sudden promotion to this family, there were people talking about this.

This might be different from the assumption that Uibin’s family did not receive decent treatment, but it could be that Uibin kept refusing Jeongjo’s offer and he still wanted to do something for her family, hence the promotions offered to her slightly distant relatives. Maybe it was also a way for Jeongjo to protect Uibin and Munhyo from scrutiny, since it would make people talk if he happened to raise the status of her immediate family.

Having royal-in-laws suddenly coming into power would only translate into jeopardy. For the middle-class family of Lady Jang Huibin, it was a totally different level from those of noble birth like Lady Hyegyeong’s family and Queen Jeongsun’s family. In the end, her family lost everything to the Westerners after Gapsul Hwanguk (where Lady Jang was demoted back to her concubine position from the queen’s seat, Queen Inhyeon regaining her status, Southerners losing their power to Noron, and the end was not pretty for Lady Jang…)

It was a widely known fact that Uibin’s brother was removed from his position after she became a concubine, but not many people realized that he was appointed as an internal officer during Munhyo’s investiture as Crown Prince.

When Uibin gave birth to Munhyo, she first received the title of soyong. The courtiers appealed for a formal congratulations to be offered to Jeongjo, but they had to be mindful of Hwabin since she was expected to give birth around that time. Hwabin’s family was visited by so many people due to their status as royal-in-laws. This would later backfire on them; her relative who was also the manager for her Delivery Office was sent into exile, and those who were affiliated with the office were also punished. This took place few days after Munhyo’s birth.

Uibin’s Delivery Office (hosancheong) was lower than that of Hwabin (sansilcheong), but hers was actually planned one month from her expected delivery date. Normally, even the queen’s Delivery Office would be set up on the due date itself. Her residence Yeonhwadang Hall was the second highest in status (the name ‘dang’ was below king’s residence ‘jeon’ in status) and she actually began living there from her days as special favoured court lady. Jeongjo was very strict when it came to difference in status according to Confucianism, but this was a very huge discrepancy. Normally, the matters of residence for concubines would be decided by Inner Court (Dowager/Queen) but for this kind of special treatment, it was impossible without the king’s approval…so it was Jeongjo who decided on it.

Yeonhwadang was situated right beside Seonjeongjeon Hall, where Jeongjo would oversee his official matters. In 1784, Jeongjo would spend most of his time in Yeonhwadang, carrying out morning lectures and meetings with courtiers there. But then, other than Jeongjo, there was no record of kings who made use of this building. The name was derived from the character ‘yeon’ for banquet and conversation in leisure and ‘hwa’ for harmony. With the location of the building just beside the king’s office, it was probably named with the intention of being a space where the king could be drinking comfortably with his officials while having conversation. It was dismantled in 1907.   

Yeonhwadang and the neighbouring buildings

Looking at Jeongjo’s words, it was clear how happy his life was with Uibin; they would have a lot of conversations, and it seems that Uibin would always be there to talk with him, laughing and having a good time together. They also drink together frequently and celebrated Uibin’s birthday with a banquet. They would rely on each other during difficult times. These days might be the happiest for Jeongjo, when he was living in pure bliss. The person he wished to spend his life with was now beside him, and the birth of his son solved the issue of heir plaguing his court.

Uibin seemed a good partner in conversation with wit and humour, making it fun to talk with. Maybe this was also how she became a reason for Lady Hyegyeong to cheer herself up during her difficult days before; a younger Uibin would be playing around with the other court maids and spent time with the princesses transcribing novels. Unlike ordinary noble ladies, she seemed to be happily running around at the same time growing up to be a lady with clear thoughts. Hence, it couldn’t be helped for someone so strict as Jeongjo to fall in love with her, the person he wouldn’t be able to forget for the rest of his life. Simply speaking, Uibin was a tenacious person with a clear mind, at the same time being a weak-hearted human who clearly showed her emotions like happiness and sadness…

In Jeongjo’s eyes, Uibin was no different than a goddess lol but people around her also adored her, due to her generous and thoughtful self. Jeongjo described her as being perfect in everything; from her unforgettable face to her mood, energy, competence, values, behaviour, and relationship with other people, to her conduct, natural qualities, and intelligence. He would wonder how someone amazing like her was born in a humble family like hers (…because she was your ideal type, Jeongjo). Even Lady Hyegyeong herself praised Uibin’s beauty. One could only imagine how precious and intelligent Munhyo would be, being the son of Jeongjo and Uibin…

DEATH: A TRAGEDY

 Unfortunately, their bliss did not last forever.

Crown Prince Munhyo passed away after contracting measles at the age of 5. When he first went down with the illness, a special infirmary was set up to cure him and he actually got better, hence the office was disbanded and the officials rewarded. However, Munhyo’s condition took a turn for the worse and he did not survive. On the funeral day, Jeongjo cried while sending his young son off. He was there at the burial site, together with Uibin. Seeing Uibin cried sorrowfully at their child’s tomb, it was just the beginning of Jeongjo’s lifelong effort in studying and implementing policies to combat measles among the citizens.

After Munhyo’s passing, Uibin was devastated. It soon manifested into an ailment itself and she was bedridden; in the end, she had to be sent outside the palace to recover from her illness.

“My wife’s heart has grown weak and shows symptoms of heart ailment. She becomes seriously ill from the 5th month onwards and she was sent to the main palace for a respite.”

Munhyo’s death became a huge blow to Uibin mentally, to the point of her becoming seriously ill. She spent her time in respite at the Gyeonghui Palace. After staying there for two months, she returned to Changdeok Palace in the 9th month. At that time, Uibin was heavily pregnant with a child. Her body was so weak that it left people wondering about the possibility of her giving birth in that state. In order to ensure Uibin’s recovery, Jeongjo spent his time beside her. When it was time for her to take the medicine, he would personally inspect the medicine and even took care of the medicine bags and bowls himself.

Jeongjo was recorded to visit Gyeonghui Palace himself during the time he was living away from Uibin. He even watched over her when she washed.

But then.. a few months after Munhyo’s death, Uibin succumbed to her illness and passed away in Junghuidang while she was still pregnant. There was no exact reason for her death and people were actually talking about it. Even in the Veritable Records, her cause of death was only written as an unknown illness. There were talks about toxemia being the cause, but there were also views that she was mentally shocked with the death of her children. There was also suspicion of poisoning. In the end, Jeongjo lost the person he loved the most in his entire life to an unknown illness.

After Uibin’s death, Jeongjo completely lost his will. He only ordered for the funeral to be conducted following the rites used for Lady Seonhui (Yi Yeongbin) in the year 1764. The burial was carried out two months later, and the records were mostly empty around that time. Lady Hyegyeong expressed concerns for Jeongjo’s health after Uibin’s death in her Memoirs and the Rough Drafts also mentioned Jeongjo crying sadly and the courtiers consoling him, pleading for him to take care of his health.

‘Unlike kings preceding him, Jeongjo did not mention much about his Queen or his concubines (compared to King Sejong who mentioned Queen Soheon affectionately and expressed his warmth towards his concubine Lady Kim Shinbin). Maybe it was because of the environment he grew up in, where his parents Crown Prince Sado and Lady Hyegyeong’s discord filled his early years. Jeongjo began to treat women coldly after that. Among the women around Jeongjo, Uibin was the most mysterious one, yet she was the most loved by him. She was also the person who gave birth to Jeongjo’s first child. The way Jeongjo described her death as ‘losing a place to depend on when it comes to nation’s fate’ showed how huge the blow was to him. If Uibin’s son Crown Prince Munhyo did not die, he would have grown into a teenager by the time of Jeongjo’s death; unlike Sunjo, whose reign opened the path to Sedo Politics, Munhyo would ascend the throne to rule in his own stead and the fate of Joseon could have led to a different future.’

Jeongjo was widely known as the king who never showed his emotions and even his own courtiers did not have an inkling of his innermost thoughts. Even the modern scholars did not know about his true nature until the appearance of his secret letters exchanged with Shim Hwan-ji, which were discovered in 2009. Except for his devoted filial piety towards his parents, there was no mention of his emotions in his official records (Veritable Records and Diary of the Royal Secretariat). The only mention of his feelings toward a woman was only about Uibin. Losing Uibin also meant losing a place for him to lean on inside the palace.

Jeongjo personally prepared the written prayers and epitaph for Uibin. What Jeongjo wrote for Uibin was probably the one and only of its kind; words of a king not from the viewpoint of history but from his heart, about the woman he loved. Not only he wrote the entire love story of him in the epitaph for her, but he also wrote down himself, the word ‘I love you’ in it. As someone who knew best the importance of record-keeping, Jeongjo might had wished that her memories of Uibin in his heart would not just disappear, hence he left behind numerous writings containing records of Uibin. Even if it could turn out to be his weakness, he did not even mind about it.

 It was a very rare occurrence for a king to personally write an epitaph for his concubine. In addition to the epitaph and the written prayers, Jeongjo would write something on the memorial of her death anniversary. They were not official but rather him pouring out his heart, words one couldn’t help but tear up reading them: ‘I used to smile while looking at you, but now there is only silence inside the palace.’ ‘Why are you there, buried in a place where there is no one around? Please come back to the palace.’ Even after the 3-year mourning period ended, he continued to do so. Even after her death, Uibin continued to be received the treatment reserved for a concubine who gave birth to a king. She was the only concubine in the entire history of Joseon to receive that honour. When Jeongjo finally welcomed another son, Sunjo in 1790, he even told Uibin about that through his writings…

He could not even follow her to death. That was how broken Jeongjo was, longing for the only person he could love without any political motive behind it.

AFTER THE PARTING

After Uibin’s death in 1786, Lady Park Subin was the selected concubine brought into the palace with the intention of bearing an heir for the nation. She entered the palace at the age of 16; the selection was just a formality as she was picked through an internal decision. Her natal clan Bannam Park was an illustrious one. In other words, her family was at a better situation compared to Queen Jeongsun (Gyeongju Kim) and Lady Hyegyeong (Pungsan Hong) at the time they joined the royal family.

(Subin’s family was related to Queen Jeongseong (Yeongjo’s first queen consort) and Queen Jeongsun’s family through marriage, so that could be the reason she was chosen for the position. Queen Jeongsun was also close with Subin. She was the one who bestowed the royal title to Princess Sukseon, Subin’s daughter and specifically noted that the princess was to be ‘regarded as a higher status than the ordinary princess (ongju) but slightly lower than Royal Princess (gongju – queen’s daughter). The treatment was also influenced by the political situation at that time. When Queen Jeongsun carried out her Dowager Regency during Sunjo’s early reign, Subin’s family members were promoted in the court, and Subin was respected like a Dowager herself. Lady Hyegyeong herself recorded in her Memoirs that Subin gained immense influence from her position as the king’s birth mother.)

When Uibin was still alive, Jeongjo was thinking of having only her as the mother to his children. However, after her death, Jeongjo might had grown closer to Queen Hyoui per Uibin’s wish on her deathbed. Because of this, Queen Hyoui showed signs of pregnancy in 1787 and Jeongjo was elated; however, it turned out to be a false pregnancy and the rumour of her being infertile might be true. But then, she was already in her mid-30s at that time. Subin was already a concubine around that time. Hwabin was still alive in the palace, but there were so many issues regarding her family. Judging from her death, which was recorded to be inside the palace too, she was not forced to leave the palace, but rumour has it that she was confined to her palace (similar to being in house arrest). After the record pertaining to the issue of her pregnancy and Delivery Office, there would be no further record of Hwabin until the mention of her death. Even the Memoirs did not mention her name.

After that, Jeongjo seemed to have given up on the hope of seeing a child from Queen Hyoui. Maybe everyone involved just decided to let the matter go, from how they were said to be living in peace with each other…

Hence, for Jeongjo who had no intention of being close with any court maid (for a favoured concubine to be chosen), the only way left to bear an heir would be through the selected concubine. For a king like Jeongjo in his mid-age, the lack of heir was truly a worrying issue. But then, there was no sign of heir until the reinterment of Sado’s tomb to Suwon in 1789 and the birth of Sunjo by Subin in 1790. Jeongjo thought of Sunjo as the son bestowed upon him by his father, Crown Prince Sado.

Yeongjo’s reaction towards Sado’s death was a mixed one. He showed regret after the death and restored Sado’s status to the Crown Prince, yet the funeral rites for Sado were conducted following that of an ordinary Prince. When Jeongjo was carrying his Prince Regency term, he visited Sado’s tomb and he could not hide his distaste over the poor condition of the place. He was determined to do something about it, but the political situation and the financial issues made him postpone the intention.

Jeongjo believed that the reason for the tragedy in 1786 involving Munhyo and Uibin’s death was due to the bad location of Sado’s tomb. He shed tears while reading the plea suggesting the reinterment from his official when he reached the part mentioning Sado’s death.

‘Jeongjo showed his obsession when it comes to the matter of honouring Crown Prince Sado. He needed t get rid of the talks regarding his legitimacy first before he could proceed with the effort to strengthen the royal authority. His final goal was to abdicate and leave the matter of honouring Crown Prince Sado to the next king, and this plan was to be carried out in the year of 1804.’

Subin gave birth to a princess (Sukseon) and this would the last of Jeongjo’s children. The 7-year gap between the princess’ birth and Jeongjo’s death was a huge one, but strangely, there was no other child in the royal family. The previous kings even had children during the time they were unwell, but it was a peculiar thing for Jeongjo. He did not even have any serious illness to the point of him lying down (but even during the healthiest years in his 10s and 20s, he did not have any child).

From the letters he exchanged with his trusted subjects in his later years, it seemed that Jeongjo only switched between working and studying all the time, even forgetting to sleep every day. He did not eat much and did not want to spend his free time doing nothing. Even when he was so busy with his official duties, Jeongjo would always read books and celebrate finishing a book by requesting meals to be prepared by his mother. Aside from that, he would be writing book summaries and exchanging letters. How could it be possible for someone to do so many things at one time like him?

Although it was second nature to him, Jeongjo only grew even more workaholic in his latter years, The only fun thing he did in his spare time was probably gathering the courtiers for an endless round of drinking alcohol until everyone nearly passed out. Perhaps, Uibin’s empty place was too huge for him to fill in and he just lost his free will. He already looked so old when he was still in his late 30s, growing white hairs. It was said that when he passed away, he looked more aged than the courtiers who were clearly older than him. He never had someone to rule in his stead throughout his reign, yet he was enthusiastic to achieve so many things in his lifetime. Maybe it is a wishful thinking, but if Munhyo survived and Uibin did not pass away, Munhyo would already be 19 at the time of Jeongjo’s death and he would be more than ready to rule on his own; hence, the Sedo Politics would never happen.

Things that Jeongjo did after Uibin’s death:

  1. The place where Uibin passed away, Junghuidang (which was supposed to be the Crown Prince’s residence for Munhyo), was not given to the next Crown Prince; instead, Jeongjo himself continued to use the building as his work office. The name would be mentioned so many times in the records over the years since Jeongjo would meet the officials there too, and the last mention of Junghuidang was few days before his death.
  2. Jeongjo held a memorial for Uibin together with the people he wanted to honour. (Yeongjo’s lifelong complex was about his birth origin, hence he spent his life honouring his birth mother, Lady Choi Sukbin. One of Jeongjo’s life goals was to honour his father Sado, and the honouring of Lady Yi Yeongbin (Sado’s birth mother was also a much-needed task at hand. Jeongjo included his wife Uibin, who had never given birth to a king, in the memorial service held for his grandmother Yeongbin and his great-grandmother Sukbin. This special treatment would not be possible without special permission from the king himself. His son Sunjo too would continue to honour Uibin himself, knowing that she was a precious person to his father.
  3. It was impossible for a Crown Prince and a royal concubine to be interred in the same area, but Jeongjo built Munhyo and Uibin’s tombs next to each other. Munhyo was considered a royalty, while Uibin was of the Sr. 1 rank, lower than him. Even the naming system for members of the royal family and the consorts varied according to their status. But then, Jeongjo buried them beside each other and planted so many trees to turn their tombs into a splendid area.
  4. The spirit tablets of Crown Prince Munhyo and Uibin were enshrined in the same shrine, which was as the above situation, would not be acceptable in ordinary situation considering their difference in status. Munhyo’s shrine was supposed to be built together with Sado’s shrine, but the sudden death of Uibin caused the change of plan. Jeongjo intented to let the mother and son to protect each other in the afterlife by letting them rest eternally in the same place. In order to build the shrine for Munhyo and Uibin, Jeongjo paid a hefty price to buy the land between Changdeok Palace and Gyeongbok Palace, where two of his officials were staying at. The reason for him to spend so much money was for him to put their tablets at a place nearby Changdeok Palace so that he could visit them regularly.
  5. Jeongjo visited their tombs too frequently, to the point of having the path he took to reach the place being called ‘Royal Procession Pass’. The name is still used until today for a road nearby the area.
  6. Jeongjo did visit the tombs until few months before Sunjo’s birth, but the visit stopped after that. Maybe Jeongjo wanted to avoid the sentiment of Sunjo being regarded as his second son. But then, the memorial he carried out for Uibin was following the rites for a concubine who gave birth to a king…
  7. Even if he could not personally visit them, Jeongjo would personally write the words he wanted to convey and ordered his official to visit on his stead. Their tombs were mentioned nearly 200 times in the Diary of Royal Secretariat.
  8. Jeongjo mentioned Uibin’s shrine for almost 300 times in the Diary and more than 100 times in the Diary of Self-Reflection.
  9. He even spent the night at Uibin’s shrine in 1790.

To think that Jeongjo spent 14 more years living while achieving so many things before he himself succumbed to death…only he knew what it feels to lost people he truly cherished one after another, after a short moment of bliss. The king loved his concubine, but did the concubine love the king? Only Uibin knew her real feelings…

37 thoughts on “The Red Sleeve – History, Her Story, and Their Love Story

  1. I want to read this post so badly, but I don’t know if it would be best to read it before or after the drama ends…

      1. Mimi, In the end, I was so impatient that I read it in one blow, before watching the finale.. 😂

        All of these information is so interesting and this post was more than enough to cure my curiosity over their history😁😍

        A big thanks, Mimi, for your effort to translate this wonderful post and to your friend for sharing it with you!!!

        Happy New Year with health and hapiness!!😊

  2. Ever since this drama began I have become obsessed with this couple. Thank you and thank Gia, for the blog and the translation. It is long (good disclaimer) and it is fascinating. Even with all the clarity of these explanations, I am still confused :))

    Thank you for the explanation about his marriage at age 9 to the Queen (the official consort, I was confused about that in the show as she is not mentioned, or I missed it).

    In any case this was extremely thorough and so very helpful!

    1. Thank you~! There are lots of other tidbits but I was afraid it would tire people reading it ^^;

      The drama treats San’s Queen as invisible in the drama..although if I’m not mistaken, there is a mention of her in the conversation San had with the Dowager (while playing the baduk) regarding his second concubine selection.

  3. You’ve worked hard, @Mimi. Thank you!

    Interesting theories from different official and unofficial historical records make sense from each point of view.
    I’ve always thought that Seong Uibin rejected Yi San’s proposals out of respect for the childless Queen Hyoui and because of her own lower status.
    So which one of these records would most likely be the gossip column? Understandably, the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty would focus more on the king and state affairs.
    I tried to read King Taejo’s Annals but couldn’t make it to the end. It works best as a historical reference, unlike Lady Hyegyeong’s Memoir, which helped me learn more about the noble women of that era and how suffocating palace life was.

    1. Annals/Veritable Records (Sillok) = official and abridged records of important things
      Diary of Royal Secretariat (Seungjeongwon Ilgi) = the daily records, basically the drafts for the Annals
      Diary of Self-Reflection (Ilseongnok) = Jeongjo’s daily journal which later evolved into a proper record of state affairs.
      Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong (Hanjungnok) = biography told from Hyegyeong’s perspective
      Rough Drafts of Master Ijae (Ijaenangok) = daily journal of Hwang Yun-seok (pen name Ijae), a late Joseon official

      From what I have seen, the Rough Drafts of Master Ijae is written more freely but still follows the historical events closely, hence the reason why it is considered a valuable source of history, providing another insight into the events not being described in detail in the official records.

      Unlike the official records, Master Ijae and Lady Hyegyeong’s writings were told from their point of view, so their own sentiments are included. The official records, being written by scribes and historians, will leave out all the unnecessary details to ensure a proper record to be left behind.

  4. Wow, Mimi, thanks so much for translating this very long post about this heartbreaking story! I’m very much prepared to bawl my eyes out tomorrow! There are so many interesting things that I’d like to comment on, but I’ll put them off until I watch the two final episodes. One minor comment is that probably the scriptwriters gave much more space to San’s (Jeongjo) inner feelings, motives and psychological traits because these are much more accessible thanks to all the historical materials that are today available for public scrutiny, while, as you said, Seong Deok-Im’s real feelings and thoughts are and will always be a fascinating mystery.

  5. What a wonderful love story. Jeongjo endured so much and was so patient to have waited 15 years for his one true love. Though their time together was short, their story lives on. Am so glad to have TRS retell their story. Thank you for the translations. I cried while reading it and as sad as it was, I am so happy that they had each other even if for a short time.

  6. Thank you so much for translating.
    I have been crying so much after watching the drama and now reading this i am crying all over again. I am all our of tears and dehydrated at knowing such a heartbreaking and awesome love story.

    Thank goodness The Red Sleeve Cuff gave as a glimpse of what a man King Jeongjo is, not just what kind of King he was. Their time was short and ephemeral that it feels so unfair.

    1. You’re welcome.

      I translated it to distract myself from thinking too much about the drama prior to the final week. Glad to know that it has become a source of comfort for lots of us after finishing the drama. Jeongjo might not be able to preserve the lives of people he loved at that time, but his love was indeed eternal and now, the whole world is witnessing it.

  7. Hi Mimi, the whole thing about young San asking Deok Im to be his concubine is quite amusing for me, as she was a servant of his mother at the time, wouldn’t that be a violation against the rules of filial piety? Also, I read Yeongjo wasn’t happy about Sado having so many concubines in his youth, i doubt he would be pleased with his grandson practicing similar behavior.

    1. Hello Anna!

      I also had the same thought while reading through the story of them, but I guess Jeongjo was desperate at that time with his crush (or perhaps love?). But from how he asked her in secrecy, he might have had a plan ready if Lady Seong accepted his proposal (like asking his mother to send her to his quarters as his maid after that)…but she rejected him. The heartbroken rash young man even went out of his ordinary to visit the courtesan house after the rejection…

      TMI: I accidentally discovered something while reading about Yeongjo. His first concubine Lady Yi Jeongbin (before Yeongbin) was actually a court maid and he was only a prince at that time she entered his household. It might be that there were exceptions in his case (maybe his father Sukjong gave the special permission), but there was also a mention of Sukjong being displeased at Yeongjo, then Prince Yeoning, when Lady Yi Jeongbin gave birth to their first son, Crown Prince Hyojang, since the child’s birth was a proof that he was conceived during the mourning period of Lady Choi Sukbin, Yeongjo’s birth mother. It was taboo for a child in mourning for his parents (three years) to be engaged in intimate activities; even a king had to avoid getting married during the time of national mourning, no matter how pressing the matter of heir at that time.

      As for Sado, the situation of him taking in the court maid of his legal grandmother Queen Inwon as his concubine (Park Gyeongbin) in secrecy probably made Yeongjo even angrier, and there were also their conflicts brewing at that time. Sukjong also took Lady Jang Huibin as his concubine but received permission from Huibin’s master, his legal great-grandmother Queen Jangryeol. Perhaps, it really depended on the permission and situation at that time..

  8. Hi Mimi, I loved the post about the story of Jeongjo and Uibin, thank you for including all the details about how they met, and how they lived before and after being together as a couple.
    After reading the post I find myself fascinated by the richness of this story, and I want to learn more, it makes me very sad that they could not have a happy ending. I do not believe in the theory of other lives, but I believe that in the Asian culture they do, so I hope they have met again and that they had a happy life together.
    Thanks for sharing all this knowledge with us.

    1. Hi Allie. You’re welcome 🙂 We can just imagine that they have met in the afterlife and reunited with their children as well :’) My heart feels content when I think like this. Even if their happiness in life was short-lived, I want to believe that they are in their eternal bliss in the afterlife (ㅠㅠ)

  9. Mimi, how was Jeongjo relationship with his second son, Sunjo? Did he expressed the same kind of affection, that he showed for Munhyo?

    1. I don’t know if his actions were a reflection of his affection towards Sunjo, but Jeongjo was said to be happy for Sunjo’s birth; however, he did not declare Sunjo as his heir early on like what he did with Munhyo. Sunjo was only made a Crown Prince few months before Jeongjo’s passing. However, Jeongjo did refrain himself from visiting Munhyo’s shrine and tomb frequently after Sunjo’s birth, probably to avoid having people to view Sunjo as his second son (this was an important matter when it came to Sunjo’s legitimacy and claim to the throne). Still, Jeongjo did plan to abdicate the throne to Sunjo in 1804, but his untimely death crushed that plan.

  10. Mimi,
    Absolutely LOVED all the background, history, pictures of the palace and thoughts on the background story!!! Ohhh, makes me feel that it IS the ultimate love story. Ha, forget Romeo and Juliet! This story is totally the bomb–so SAD!! The interesting thing is that we DON’T really know how Uibin felt about the king, she didn’t leave any secret diaries or notes to say if she loved him or if it was purely duty in the end.

    Yet you have to believe that he won her over with all the time they spent together!!! It is so much more captivating, perhaps, because she died, that there is still mystery behind who SHE was and how she was able to captivate such an intelligent, skilled, driven man. It IS the ultimate K-Drama!! And I don’t believe in reincarnation but I do hope that the love he had for her allowed him to die with the hope of seeing her again in the best days, as they ended the series with them in the garden. Gosh darn, those tears just start falling when I think about it!!!

    That’s gotta be the next K-drama sajeuk, a fictional creation of what Uibin REALLY thought about the king. On second thought, maybe leave it to the imagination as it has been for all these years…

    If you need a bawling, tear filled catharsis for tragedies in life, for unmet expectations or hopes dashed, this is the drama to watch and history to read and re-read. Thank you so much to all info and fabulous tidbits of info so I don’t have to try and figure it out since my Korean reading skills are sub-nursery level.

    Keep up the amazing work, I’m totally a fan of your site!

    1. Awwww thank you so much! Your comment made me smile! 😀

      In the drama, although she could not get the whole of him back, her making the choice to accept him is already a proof of her true feelings. I believe that beneath the duty and loyalty, both Deok-im and Lady Seong did love San and Jeongjo.

  11. I find Hwabin’s false pregnancy incident very interesting because I remember in Yi San; Wind in The Palace, they shifted this entire storyline onto Wonbin didn’t they? They aged her up, and used this plot for her downfall which triggered Hong Guk-yeong’s downfall. In Wind in The Palace Hwabin was just an extremely minor character with no significant plot.

    I personally liked this version better than Red Sleeve Cuff though, because while RSC was more accurate by using a younger actress for Wonbin, they also used her as a device to induce romantic angst and implying San went to spend the night with her. I wouldn’t have been icked out (I’d be devastated but be more accepting of it as a sad truth) if this actually happened. However my impression about the harem policies was that if a concubine had to be taken in young, she would only be kept there nominally until she comes of age for bed-service. So I thought the way they handled this arc was unnecessary and of bad taste, icking viewers out for no reason. It would’ve been fine if they simply used the character to incite political angst.
    When I looked at the timeline of marriages here’s how I interpreted them.
    1. Hyoui
    2. Won-bin (she was way too young, she was married due to political reasons and due to family pressure- them Hongs are distantly related to San’s mother etc etc. She was merely kept as a backup of good and solid background)
    3. Hwa-bin, because Won-bin died and now they were running out of time to get an heir
    4. Ui-bin
    5. Su-bin, because all prior attempts were fruitless
    So I thought by this point in RSC, there was no reason to include “we are getting a young girl because you need heirs” arc AT ALL, because there was no such pressing concern at that point of their lives. Hyoui would’ve been the go-to option still. Also the fact Won-bin was merely 13, died within 1 Yr yet had 2 adopted kids shows how not pressured she was to heir-bearing, and it’s only after Won-bin died they started panicking.

    Was I wrong in my assumptions? Even if I was correct these are my personal opinions too🤭 You might not have been as maddened haha

  12. I know wikipedia isn’t a good source, but I was wondering why Ui-bin’s rank on both namu.wiki and korean wikipedia is “sangui” before 1782? Wasn’t she “seungeun sanggung” at that time?

  13. Mimi, what happened to the women who suffered the sad fate threatened by San in TRS? Bedded by the king and discarded after? Did the palace had separate quarters for all these women who never became official concubines but could no longer continue as court maids?
    The story of Deok Im is so sad, Munhyo’s death completely destroyed her. She also must have been under a lot of pressure to produce another son, which must not have helped her fragile state.
    In the series, Deok Im says she will never be able to leave the palace again, but in real life it seems that in special occasions like bad health she was allowed to do so?

    1. Hello Melissa 🙂

      We can never be sure of how they continued to live if the court ladies who were graced by the King did not produce any royal heir since there was no record of it or whatsoever, but they would be recorded as the King’s concubines…so we can assume that they would receive stipends as well. However, as for the quarters, I don’t think they would have separate quarters, except when it was approved by the King or the Queen, which depended on how favoured they were. If it was just a night’s affair, then they probably would have to stay in the court lady’s residence for the rest of their lives while being dolled up, like a doll in a dollhouse. Still, even if they would no longer have the opportunity to continue working as normal court ladies, they would still have tasks, like what was assigned to each and every rank of concubines.

      I think that Deok-im means leaving the palace freely on her own accord. In case of a needed respite to nurse her health, she would be allowed to do so, but only with the permission of the King. In a normal situation, just like the Queen, the concubines would never be allowed to leave the palace ground.

  14. Hi Mimi 🙂

    Hope it is not too late to wish you Happy 2022.
    I just discovered thetalkingcupboard and oh boy, can I say that I am in love with your blog?
    Basically I just binge-reading your posts on Sageuk and the Korean culture, thats how much I enjoy readings your POV.
    Altho I have been watching kdrama for 15 years since the age 16, I did not put extra effort in finding more reading materials on Kdrama except an avid reader of DB. Glad that I managed to find you <3.

    As I went thru your posts, I could not find the answer to my question below and perhaps you might share something you know?

    Can the Palace Maid hand in their resignation if that is the correct word? and continue to live normal live outside the Palace ie: getting married, etc?

    1. Hello Charmaine!

      Awww thank you so much! I think we are of the same age? I always envy DB for constantly churning out recaps and drama news, so I aspired to be like them…but alas, blogging is not as easy as it seems when real life stuff keeps lurking around! Thank goodness The Red Sleeve was airing during the time I was not that busy at work, so I got to be more active here 😀

      As for your question..
      There was no such thing as resignation in a palace maid’s life. They could only be ordered to leave the palace under several circumstances, such as being ill, allowed to leave at old age, expulsed as a result of an offense, freed from duties during drought or famine as the king’s way of appeasing the Heavens, or ordered to leave after their master died. Even if they were relieved of their duties, palace maids would never be allowed to marry despite living outside the palace, since they were considered the King’s women from the day they started working as one until their death.
      However, being a palace maid was a stable job with a decent stipend, so those who had saved their earnings could lead a comfortable life even after leaving the palace and even support their family members. Still, those of younger age would return to the palace if they were summoned since life outside without stable pay was difficult for these people who had been working inside the palace ever since they were young.

  15. I found an interesting thing on Wikipedia when I read about Lady Hong Wonbin. It states that there is a novel or book which is called ‘The Diary of Lady Sukchang’ (숙창궁입궐일기) and someone of Hong Guk-young’s family wrote it. I searched in Korean and in English but there are not so much information about this. Do you know anything?

    1. Oh yes, I saw it being mentioned on Wiki and it turned out to be a book considered as a palace-style literature, like Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong. However, for Lady Sukchang’s diary, the author was unknown, although the study assumed that it was a member of Pungsan Hong clan, considering the close description of the accounts pertaining to Wonbin and Hong Guk-young. I only found articles talking about the research on the novel and no sight of the original work.

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