The Great King Sejong is no doubt the one of the most admirable kings and politicians, not only in Joseon but in the entirety of Korean history. The fact is something most Koreans would agree with. He created the Hangul alphabet we used today and issued a number of publications in the form of guidebooks for farming and medicine like Nongsajikseol and Hyangyakjipseonbang, all aiming to improve his citizens’ lives. His achievement also included taking the genius scientist Jang Yeong-sil under his wings, leading to various inventions including Joseon’s very own sundial (Angbu Ilgu), water clock (Jagyeokru), and rain gauge (Cheukwoogi).
Sejong also did not miss to leave behind his legacy in culture and literature. Through Park Yeon, he compiled the court music scores; through his open door policy to recruit people regardless of their social standing, training them in his Hall of Worthies (Jiphyunjeon) and selecting suitable persons for higher positions in the court, he allowed talented people to demonstrate outstanding abilities under his reign. The ministers under his reign like Hwang Hee, Heo Jo, Maeng Sa-seong, were considered great Premiers. The king who established the 4 counties and 6 garrisons and expanded the Northern border near Amnok and Tumen Rivers to become the Korean Peninsula we know today was no other than Sejong. In order to find out the public opinion on giving female slaves maternity leave, he ordered for something similar to national vote involving 17000 respondents prior to the enforcement of the new tax law, Gongbeop.
Sejong was the king who left behind a legacy of his great achievement. Everything seemed to be going perfect for him, but from personal aspects of his life, the king could be considered as someone without the privilege to lead a good life. Among those aspects, the most heartbreaking thing was his unfortunate family history.
Not long after Sejong’s ascension to the throne, his father Taejong, who was the King Former at that time, sentenced Sejong’s father-in-law Shim On to death and demoted his mother-in-law to a government slave. It was Taejong’s steps to nip the bud of the king’s in-laws domination in the royal court, but from Sejong’s point of view, witnessing your wife’s family being punished as soon as you became king was quite strong for a welcoming party.
Sejong had 8 sons and 2 daughters from his marriage with Queen Soheon. However, he mourned the death of his 3 children before his own? His eldest daughter Princess Jeongso passed away at the young age of 13.
Sejong’s words during the memorial service after the 3-year mourning period were as follow:
“Ah, I was the one who should have died in 1424, and the thought only grew stronger with each changing season. As we’re approaching the end of the mourning period, my heart is heavy with sadness. I keep thinking of the Princess’s young age and beauty; those things are now forever interrupted by the afterlife.”
Sejong’s loss of children in their young age did not end there. When he turned 48 in 1444, his fifth son Grand Prince Gwangpyeong left him forever, and he had to send his seventh son Grand Prince Pyeongwon to the next world in the following year (although it was technically different years, the two deaths were only months apart). Even his beloved wife Queen Soheon joined the children in death, leaving his side forever in 1446.
Losing his children and his wife consecutively made him emotionally weak. He invited the ministers who believed in Buddhism to court and erected a temple Naebuldang inside the palace (to pray for the wellbeing of his late wife in the afterlife). He also ordered for Buddhist scriptures such as Wolincheongangjigok (Songs of The Moon Reflected in a Thousand Rivers) and Seokbosangjeol (Abbreviated and Particularized Life of the Buddha) to be compiled as a way of finding inner peace. However, scholars from both Hall of Worthies and Sungkyunkwan Academy criticized Sejong for his public worshipping of Buddha, saying that he’s leading Joseon astray from the country’s aim to become a Confucian state.
Sejong knew it better than anyone else that as the nation’s king, he was not supposed to grow close to Buddhism, but his psychological pain was unbearable, to the point of him leaning towards the comfort offered by Buddhism, even for a short moment.
Sejong’s daughters-in-law, at one time, became the talk of the town. The selection for his eldest daughter-in-law got him deeply involved, since it was for the position of Crown Princess Consort, who would become the future Queen Consort. In addition to that, the Crown Prince was the first heir in Joseon history who was the eldest son of the ruling king (Jeongjong was the second son of Taejo and Taejong was the fifth; as for Sejong, his eldest brother Grand Prince Yangnyeong was the Crown Prince before Taejong deposed him and made Sejong, then Prince Chunnyeong, the official heir.) With that, Lady Kim was chosen through the process, earning her the title Crown Princess Hwi. However, the Crown Prince did not like having her company, and she went too far in her effort to catch her husband’s attention. Lady Kim resorted to using shamanism, stealing the shoes belonging to the Crown Prince’s favourite maid and burning them to ashes, before attempting to feed him those ashes. The matter became known to Sejong himself and Lady Kim was stripped of her position after 2 years and 3 months.
Sejong played a leading part as well in the selection of the second Crown Princess in 1429.
“I am carefully selecting a maiden for the sake of the Eastern Palace, since it is the time to do so. Lineage and female virtues have always been important (in the selection), but without decent character, it would be impossible (to be selected).”
With that, Sejong decided for Lady Bong, or Crown Princess Sun, who was deemed to have everything, from good family and virtue to beauty, to be selected for the position. He even gifted her with the book Biographies of Exemplary Women (Yeolnyeojeon), showing his sincerity and hope for his daughter-in-law. But then, Lady Bong was not the person Sejong thought she would be; she was leading a promiscuous life of an alcoholic and having relationship with her own maid.
“Lady Bong is having a relationship with a maid inside the palace, and this is a vulgar act. She also possesses extreme jealousy by nature and does not produce any son, plus she enjoys singing among various other treacherous acts, so it is deemed that she had abandoned her duties.”
In the end, Sejong also decided on Lady Bong’s deposal from the Eastern Palace.
After twice the failure, Sejong decided to pick the Consort among the Crown Prince’s concubines. Lady Kwon was chosen as the third consort. True to Sejong’s expectation, she was gentle and had good relationship with the Crown Prince. She also gave birth to the Royal Grandson (later Danjong) but unfortunately, she passed away two days after labor. The repetitive losses of Crown Princess through deposal and death left Sejong wounded, not to mention having to see his grandson growing up without the love and care from a mother.
Although the unfortunate family disasters did not come from Sejong himself and more of the problems coming from people around him, Sejong also had his own difficulties as well: his health issues. Most of the time, a king would rise to the throne after the previous king’s passing, but Sejong got the throne when his father Taejong abdicated and became the King Former. When Sejong ascended the throne, the Grand King Former, Jeongjong (who abdicated in favour of Taejong) was also alive. Because of this reason, Sejong had to oversee the national mourning ritual (reserved for the passing kings and their consorts) consecutively right after his coronation.
Jeongjong died in 1419, followed by Sejong’s own mother Queen Wongyeong in 1420, and Taejong followed suit in 1422. Sejong had to oversee the mourning ritual for three times, and for someone with deep filial piety like Sejong, multiple mournings would be physically draining for him. Coupled with his sleepless nights due to academic research projects and policy making tasks, his health displayed various warning signs early on.
There were about 50 records related to Sejong’s ailments in Annals of King Sejong. When he was in his late 20s, mentions of headaches and dysentery were made in his 6th and 7th years of reign. Records of leprosy and boils appeared in his 30s, and Sejong started to have problems related with his visions and early signs of diabetes in his 40s. He also experienced hand tremors and numbness on one of his legs.
In 1439, when he was 43 years old, Sejong declared that he could no longer participate in Royal Hunting and gave the responsibility to deal with court matters to the Crown Prince. His decree was as follows:
“One of my legs had always been in pain since I was young but it got better over the past 10 years. However, I’ve been suffering from edema on my back for quite long this time around. I cannot lie on my back when it got painful, and the pain is not something I can endure. I also suffer from diabetes that has been going on for years. My sight went so bad during last year’s summer that I was unable to oversee my court matters and it only got better during winter. After the hunting activity last spring, my left eye felt painful and I had to cover it; even with that, the right eye was also dark and I could not recognize people who only stood a step’s away from me. I regretted joining the hunt last year. My body has grown weaker, since new illnesses come with each passing ailment. Since that is the case, I will not be able to participate in the hunt for this fall onwards, and the Royal Guards would be divided between me and the Crown Prince for that occasion.”
His sickness could be attributed to him being overworked, but there are opinions on how his habit of enjoying meat during his meals affecting his health. In the annals, it was mentioned how he would refuse his meals if there were no meat on his dining table.
Sejong’s diseases are equal to today’s cataract, diabetes, bladder infection and prostate gland infection. Diabetes is known to be caused by multiple other illnesses, and the best way to overcome it is through adequate rest and changing eating habits. But then, Sejong chose to stick to overworking himself until the very end. Although Sejong declared regency for the Crown Prince to deal with the nation affairs, Sejong couldn’t simply take his hands off his work on Hangul, like today’s big companies. Despite his unfortunate family fate and his numerous ailments, Sejong did everything he could to fulfill his obligations, which in turn would write his name in history. Perhaps, that is the reason why the praises given to Sejong as a great king is more heartfelt.