Life as A Joseon Queen: an Introduction

(0) A Queen’s Dignity? Hiding Behind is a Life Lived by Treading on Thin Ice. 

Queen Sinjeong of Pungyang Jo clan, portrayed by Chae Soo-bin in the drama Moonlight Drawn by Clouds. She did not get to become the Queen Consort in her lifetime because of her husband, Crown Prince Hyomyeong (posthumously honoured as King Munjo)’s death.

We are always served with the splendid life of Joseon queen on the screens, big and small alike. From the elegant poise and the beauty to all the fancy court robes donned by them, they seemed to be the subject of envy among women. A few years back, the author was invited to give a special lecture on making the housewives as great figures, encouraging the housewives to live like( queens of their homes. However, the author requested to change the topic to ‘living as a queen’ and he did deliver the talk with that topic. From the author’s point of view, the life of Joseon queens is straight out of a fairy tale; it is not as splendid as what it is portrayed, and the author thought that they had to live with their freedom restricted. Perhaps, the Joseon queens lived extreme lives doing an extreme job, stuck beneath the stifling palace walls.

The most basic route in becoming a queen is through becoming a Crown Princess, by being selected to be the Crown Prince’s consort and naturally crowned queen when her husband ascends to the throne as the king. A Crown Princess selection usually takes place when the prospective bride was in her teens and the selection process includes three stages of screening. But then, there were only six queens who made it to the position of Queen Consort through this route: Danjong’s Queen Jeongsun, Prince Yeonsan’s Deposed Queen Shin, Injong’s Queen Inseong, Hyeonjong’s Queen Myeongseong, Sukjong’s Queen Inkyeong, and Gyeongjong’s Queen Seonui. Out of a total of 27 kings who ruled Joseon, why there was so little amount of queens who took the basic route to become one?

Sejo’s coup, Danjong’s dethronement, Jungjong and Injo Restorations are among the various political variables which caused the change in the succession of the throne. Sometimes, the second son or the grandson ended up taking over the throne instead of the firstborn son of the king, not to mention the possibilities of having the illegitimate son as the successor. There was also Grand Prince Yangnyeong and his consort Grand Princess Suseong, who were demoted from their original positions of Crown Prince and Crown Princess respectively; and Seongjong’s birth mother Queen Dowager Insoo who lost her position as Crown Princess after Crown Prince Uigyeong passed away. As for Crown Prince Sohyeon’s consort Crown Princess Minhoe, pursuing the cause behind the suspicious death of her husband led to her own death by poisoning. Lady Hyegyeong also had to let go of the Crown Princess title following Crown Prince Sado’s death.

Even if one did become the Crown Princess, that position itself was not a guarantee for her to become the queen in the future. Hyeonjong’s consort and Sukjong’s mother Queen Myeongseong was the only consort in Joseon history who acquired the title of Crown Princess, Queen Consort, and Queen Dowager in her lifetime. That proves that the route of a Crown Princess to become the Queen is not that smooth.

In order to ensure the continuity of the royal lineage, a king would be encouraged to take in concubines, and it would be heart-wrenching for a queen to have the king’s affection taken away by the concubine. Seongjong and Deposed Queen Yoon’s relationship was ruined because of this very reason when Queen Yoon was jealous of the attention given by Seongjong towards his concubines. There was also the issue of the queen’s family becoming sacrificial lambs in the name of politics. Taejong put this in practice by executing Queen Wongyeong’s brothers and Queen Soheon’s family, who were his in-laws. One’s family could be in grave danger once she becomes the queen because it was difficult to guarantee their safety at that time.

Once someone becomes the queen, she might also be deposed as a result of coup d’etat. After Sejo’s takeover of the throne, Danjong had to abdicate, and his consort Queen Jeongsun eventually had to dye clothes to support herself after Danjong was demoted to a mere prince and died in exile. Although her status was restored some 230 years later by Sukjong, the young queen led a life full of hardship as a commoner after she turned 20. Deposed Queens Shin and Yoo changed completely after their respective husbands Prince Yeonsan and Prince Gwanghae were deposed; the only consolation for them was perhaps to be buried together with their husbands, and their shared tombs are still intact until today.

The queen’s position does not guarantee power and stability; in fact, a queen was expected to devote herself to womanly duties, especially supporting the King inside the stifling royal palace. In her spare time, she could either spend her time strolling in the artificially built garden huwon and Amisan Hill behind her residence Gyotaejeon or burying her face in books. That kind of life sounds suffocating, and the queen herself might have felt like that too. The palace might a spellbinding space when we visit it, but in reality, the huge place probably held the sad memories of Joseon queens living there at one time.

(1) Send in an Application if You Are Joseon’s Eligible Bachelorette

The first hurdle towards becoming a Joseon queen is the selection process. Although one would usually acquire the position of a Crown Princess after the wedding ceremony, they could become a queen straight away if the king was young, just like Danjong and Gojong, who married Queen Jeongsun and Empress Myeongseong respectively when they were already king. There were also instances where a new queen was selected after the death of the first consort; Sukjong’s Queen Inhyeon and Yeongjo’s Queen Jeongsun were some of the examples.

Most of the time, the selection process for a royal wedding would involve three steps. Once the wedding was scheduled for the king or the crown prince, the court would be issuing an edict of marriage prohibition (geumhonryeong) and the potential maidens from the whole country would be sending in their cheonyeodanja, which can be described as a marriage resume. If it still exists today, the resume is the same as a written application of the candidates for the position of the queen. Maidens who were daughters of the royal relatives, Yi family, widows, and concubines were exempted from sending in their details. Preferred candidates would be those who were 2 or 3 years older than the prospective groom (the King or the Crown Prince), with both parents still alive. Because of this factor, most of Joseon Queens were actually older than their spouses.

A selection with the chosen one able to acquire the highest position of a female in the country as a Queen would surely attract in a lot of applications, but it was nothing like that; only 25 or 30 applications were sent in at most. This was because of the expenses that would come with the formalities required when attending the selection for the chosen ones; money spent on formal clothes and carriages would ultimately become a financial burden to ordinary families. Plus, if the daughter happened to succeed in becoming the Queen, the is a huge possibility of the whole family being known as the one setting a political storm in the court through the hands of a woman. Thus, most would be reluctant to let their daughters join the selection.

Usually, the preliminary screening would have 6 candidates picked out, then 3 candidates from the second screening would advance to the final stage before having one decided for the position of Queen. By having the three-stage selection process, it served as a challenge for the candidates, as well as a way of putting emphasis on the fairness of the process itself. In order to ensure fair selection taking place, all the candidates attending the screening sessions were put on the same level of judgment – at least physically – by the attire required for the event. The first stage required the candidates to wear the same yellow samhoejang jacket over a red skirt. As they progressed into the other two stages, they would be allowed to adorn themselves with slightly more ornaments.

The selection process also took into great consideration of the prospective bride’s wisdom, which was evaluated through the interview with the candidates. During Queen Jeongsun (Yeongjo’s second Queen Consort)’s own selection, she was asked, “What is the deepest thing in the world?” The other candidates answered the mountains and the water, but Queen Jeongsun gave a very different answer. “A human’s heart is the deepest,” she said. “An object’s depth can be measured, but it is impossible to measure the depth of someone’s heart.” When asked about her favourite flower, she answered with cotton flower. Her reason: “Others flowers’ goodness is only temporary; the cotton flower has the advantage of giving warmth to the people of this country.” Those answers gave a clear insight into her intelligence, and she was ultimately chosen as the Queen.

In her personal records Hanjungnok, Crown Prince Sado’s wife Lady Hyegyeong also detailed out the great deal of effort put in by her parents during her selection process.

“That year, a royal edict was sent out requesting the names for the candidates of the Crown Prince’s consort. My father (Hong Bong-han) said like this,’As a subject who received a stipend from the country for many generations and has a daughter who is also the Prime Minister’s granddaughter, I do not dare to deceive the throne.’ He sent in my name, but my family was extremely poor at the time and there was no money for the clothes. My skirt was made from the fabric originally saved for my sister’s dowry, while the linings underneath were made from old clothes. I can still vividly recall my late mother’s great lengths to make the preparation for me.”

Based on Lady Hyegyeong’s account, she already became the center of attraction in the preliminary screening stage, receiving special love and care from the royal elders. “King Yeongjo praised my humble attire, treating me favourably, while Queen Jeongseong observed me with interest. As for Lady Seonhui (Crown Prince Sado’s birth mother and Yeongjo’s concubine), had me summoned to her quarters before I went to the screening process. Her face was gentle and she was loving. The palace maids bickered with each other to sit beside me, causing my body and mind to feel uncomfortable.” She provided a peek into the atmosphere of the process itself. She also highlighted the effect of power in determining one’s social standing: “After the selection, many relatives poured in for a visit, including the old servants who cut their contact with us. It is easy to see how acknowledgment is closely related to one’s social standing.” Nothing has changed much these days as compared to the past.

The selection made it possible for a woman to rise to the highest position of the Nation’s Mother as a Joseon Queen. But ultimately, life as a Queen was not as smooth as what we expected it to be.

(2) Wedding Rituals and Processions according to the Six Rites…the Carriage Parade of the King, Followed by the Queen

The final round of the selection process would end with a prospective bride chosen to become the future Queen; however, the selected lady would not be returning to her home. Instead, she would be taken to a placed known as the Detached Palace or Byeolgung 별궁 (別宮). The palace would be the first residence of the future Queen, where she would be receiving lessons regarding how to familiarize herself with the royal household’s etiquette and the virtues a Queen should have. It would be her place of staying from the day of the final round until the wedding ceremony begins, which would usually last for about 50 days or sometimes less than that. The Detached Palace was a place built for the purpose of preparing its occupant for the impending wedding ceremony, which included complicated order and process, with meticulous preparation needed beforehand. It also acted as the future Queen’s natal home, with its dignity and prestige matched that of the royal household’s, thus reducing the burden of the bride’s family when receiving the King during the ceremony.

The places used as the detached palace changed a few times throughout the dynasty, according to the time period. Taepyeonggwan, Eouigung Palace, Unhyeongung Palace, and Andong Detached Palace were among of them. Empress Myeongseong’s wedding ceremony took place in Heungseon Daewongun’s private mansion, Unhyeongung Palace.

There were six steps or etiquettes in wedding ceremony, also known as the Six Rites (Yukrye), which included: the King’s formal wedding proposal (napchae); sending wedding gifts as a token of the marriage (napjing or nappye); choosing the coronation date for the Queen (gogi); then the coronation ceremony of the Queen (chaekbi); the King’s journey to the detached palace to escort the Queen into the main palace (chinyoung); and finally, the celebration of the returning King and Queen in the form of royal banquet in the main palace (dongroe). The highlight of the wedding ceremony was no other than chinyoung, which could be said to be similar to modern day’s wedding march at the wedding hall. It was a procession in which the Queen, who had received various lessons for her future days, would be escorted to the main palace from the detached palace.

These processions and rites were immortalized in the form of written records and drawings in an official document known as the Garyedogam Uigwe, and scenes of the wedding ceremony were vividly shown through the Banchado paintings. The term banchado itself carried the meaning of ‘a painting detailing the rank and task of the people in it’. The first part of the banchado showcased the troop of army marching in front of the King’s retinue and the flag alerting the presence of the king or dukgi. The focus of the painting would be on the main attraction of the ceremony that was the royal couple and their respective royal carriages. The splendid yet solemn king’s retinue signaled the presence of the king through the special flag carried by a guard of honour, accompanied by a band of the court musicians and the royal bodyguards. The civil and military officials, together with the military commanders, were included in the king’s entourage, symbolizing their act of serving and protecting the king.

The queen’s entourage would be right behind the king’s; the first in line would not be the queen herself but her investiture document gyomyeong carried in a special small carriage, the precious jade investiture book okchaek in its own carriage, and her gold seal geumbo in a carriage draped with silk cloth. The commoners would have the chance to see the king’s visage on this day since the king’s royal carriage would have its four panels wide open for everyone to catch a glimpse of him, but it would not be the same for the newly crowned queen, as hers would not be opened. The long wedding procession would have the king’s royal bodyguards marching at the end of the line.

A royal wedding ceremony would be a good platform to give the public a glimpse into the royalties’ splendour and dignity. The king’s special flag with the painting of sun, moon, mountains, and creeks; the mythical animals drawn on the accompanying flags; and the flag of a fairy riding a turtle or gaguseonin is among the paintings featured on the flags held by the flag bearers on that day. There was also equipment which symbolized both practicality and the spiritual influence, such as the big blue fans or buchaeseon, parasols or yangsan, and the pot lids or gae. The court musicians created the ambiance for the parade, as well as carrying the function of matching the movement of the procession. Those who participated in the event wore special formal robes according to their respective status and roles in the parade. The distinct colours and design of the robes showcased the personality of the wearers and their roles in the event, at the same time showcasing the unique fashion of the court, such as the veil or noul worn by the court ladies. The horses and the rides also became a subject of interest, because horse riding was reserved for the noblemen; however, the eunuchs and the palace maids were mostly seen riding the horses in the parade, and the different colours of the horses – white, black, and brown –  made it even more interesting for the public to see. We owe it to the hard work of the past people who recorded it in the uigwe together with the accompanying paintings, making it possible for us to see how the procession took place back then. The vivid banchado paintings made it as if we travelled back in time to witness the event ourselves with our own eyes.

 

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8 thoughts on “Life as A Joseon Queen: an Introduction

  1. What an excellent work!
    I pity the queen consorts of Joseon. As a modern woman, I can’t imagine to live behind the palace walls and to follow the rules. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask some questions.
    1. Were the candidates of crown princess aware that someday the crown prince will have concubines?
    2. Were there any regulations to divorce your royal spouse?
    3. I watched Dong Yi some years a go, do you know how many times the royal women (queen, crown princess and royal concubines) were allowed to meet their relatives or politician supporters in their residence?
    Thank you in advance 🙂

    1. Thank you for dropping by to leave a comment and some questions! I really love it if you have anything you’re curious of, because I learn a lot from the questions 😀
      1. Yes. Noblemen were allowed to have concubines to moderate their marriage. Weird, but that’s how it was back then. It was better to have the men having an outlet to ‘have fun’ rather than restricting them, which could possibly lead to frustrating men terrorizing other’s wives, contributing to the disruption of the marriage institution. They knew and they could nothing about it, plus it was even worse for the crown princess/queen because they would have to manage the concubines as part of her duties..if not, she would be considered failing in her duties as the nation’s Mother.
      2. Confucian teachings have this basic concept called ‘Seven Sins’ serving as a guide to divorce. It included: disobeying in-laws, failing to produce son, having an affair, stealing, contracting a disease, extreme jealousy, and talking rudely. Marriage was something one did to stay together until the bitter end, till death came to separate them. Royal household did not really promote divorce because it would be a source of gossip and it would become an issue among the aristocrats as well. Only in several instances did divorce take part among them: Munjong’s two crown princesses (extreme jealousy/extreme belief in shamanism and lesbian affair) and King Jungjong divorcing his first consort Dangyeong because of potential political conflict. Others ended up in death, such as King Seongjong sentencing his consort Deposed Queen Yoon to death by poisoning because of her extreme jealousy, or King Sukjong and Jang Hee-bin’s eventual fallout.
      3. The higher one’s status was, the more stringent the rules would be. One needed special permission to meet the royal women because they were the king/crown prince’s women, and they resided in the Inner Palace. Even with the family members going in and out of the palace every day to carry out their duties, that did not give them the freedom to simply walk into the quarters. Apart from permissions and invitations to visit, family members would send letters to their relatives inside the palace, and the replies would be written on the same letters because outside letters were not allowed to be kept inside the palace.
      Hope these answers will be of help 😉

      1. Thank you for sharing your answers. Those help me a lot to understand about those women’s life more. If you don’t mind, I would like to ask some questions again.
        1. Were it mandatory for the late king’s wife and concubines to live in temple as nuns?
        2. Many of queen consorts of Joseon came from the same noble clan, I wonder if the kings just married their distant relatives, is it one of causes why there were so many royal babies died as infants?
        I hope you don’t mind about those questions. Thank you 🙂

        1. Sure do!
          1. For the concubines, it used to be like that in early Joseon since it was heavily influenced by Ming Dynasty and there was a special temple called Jeongeobwon, where they would stay after leaving the palace to pray for the wellbeing of the departing king’s soul. But then, those with sons would leave the palace to stay with their princes until their passing. As for the queens, they would live inside the palace as Dowagers until their death.
          2. Although the majority of the queens came from the same clans (Yeoheung Min, Papyeong Yoon, Cheongju Han, Andond Kim, just to name a few), they were not closely related to the king’s clan, Jeonju Yi. Joseon did not prefer close kin marriages and even forbid those with the surname Yi (although there were various clans with the same surname) to be considered as candidates for a queen’s position. The high rate of children mortality back then was caused by harsh weather and also lack of protection from diseases. Those babies born in scorching hot summer and freezing cold winter would have a hard time surviving their early years. Even when they grew up, there were many who did not pass the teenage phase because of diseases topped with lacking immune system. They were living in a controlled environment and did not develop decent antibodies, so when they contracted infectious diseases like measles, they would easily succumb to death.

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