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Newsletter #9: The History Behind THE RED PALACE!
 
October 25, 2021
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Hello friends!

Autumn has finally arrived here in Canada, my favorite season of the month <3 I love when the temperature drops, the leaves change color, and the sky is almost always gray. I consider it the perfect weather for writing mysteries.

Speaking of writing, my deadline for the rough draft of A Crane Among Wolves is fast approaching, so I've been busily typing away! At the same time, I'm really trying to learn how to rest by forcing myself to take weekends off to do something else that I enjoy. This time off helps remind me that I am not my work, and that life still can be enjoyed away from the writing desk. (I probably sound like a broken record because I'm always talking about the importance of rest, and that's because I ALWAYS struggle to take breaks *laughs/weeps*)
 

In other news, we’re officially three months away from the publication of THE RED PALACE! To celebrate, I wrote a piece about the historical event that inspired my upcoming book. You don't need to read this companion piece to enjoy The Red Palace, nor will reading it be a spoiler. I can guarantee, though, that having some historical context will enrichen your reading experience :)

Now, feel free to grab a cup of tea or coffee, curl up, because this is going to be a long and chilling read.


 
 

Image from the film, The Throne (2015)
 
 
The Red Palace is loosely based on the life and death of Crown Prince Jangheon (better-known as Crown Prince Sado), and his story is remembered as one of the greatest tragedies in the history of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

He also happens to be a historical figure I spent a few years reading about out of curiosity. But while writing The Red Palace, I decided not to center the book too much on his life. A good deal of my research therefore didn’t make it into TRP.

The main reason for this decision is that the prince dealt with mental health problems, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to do justice in portraying his experience without falling into the danger of suggesting that those who have mental health problems are dangerous. This is something I absolutely do not believe nor condone. So, in my book, you’re only given glimpses of the Crown Prince, as though you’re spying into his life through a keyhole.

However, since the prince’s story is so fascinating and complex, I wrote this companion piece to offer you a more in-depth look into his life.

But please note, my account of the Crown Prince’s life is mostly based on the memoir left behind by his wife, Lady Hyegyong. Mental health problems might therefore be referenced in ways that are considered uninformed and even problematic. I’d also like to offer a trigger warning: there will be mentions of mental health problems, attempted suicide, violence and parental abuse. So please skip this section of the newsletter if any of these topics are too disturbing to you.

Without further ado, let’s dive into history.
~
 
Prince Jangheon was born to King Yeongjo in 1735, and he was the only surviving male heir. The king rushed to formally establish him as the Crown Prince—a status that would come at a heavy price. At only one hundred days old, the infant prince was pulled from his mother’s embrace and moved to Joseung Pavilion (the official residence of the crown prince), to be raised completely by strangers in an isolated part of the palace.

Initially, the king visited his son daily, and often stayed overnight to spend more time with him. Up until this point, their relationship was filled with affection and warmth. But when the prince turned four or five, King Yeongjo stopped visiting his son so frequently, because he was irritated by the prince’s imperfections. Small things like the prince’s untidy room, or how he dressed, would set off the king’s temper. And it didn’t help that the king hated the prince’s attendants for complex, political reasons.

Over time, the young Crown Prince received less parental supervision, and came to be one of the king’s most hated child (the king had several other children, all daughters). Neglected by his father, the prince spent most of his days in the company of eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting, hearing gossip and tales of scandal. He grew up to be a boy who enjoyed archery and sword fighting, as well as painting. And the king resented his son's lack of interest in his studies, and would often criticize the prince with extreme harshness.

To offer some context, King Yeongjo valued academic excellence. He was a devout Confucian monarch who studied intensely and strove for self-cultivation, determined to help cultivate the moral standards of Joseon society. And there was another reason why the king strove for academic and moral excellence. According to the lectures I heard, the king may have been deeply insecure. Throughout King Yeongjo’s reign, his legitimacy to rule was contested, as there was much controversy about how he’d risen to the throne. It was speculated that he had poisoned his brother, the former King Gyeongjong, in order to claim the throne for himself. This speculation is likely false, and Yeongjo always strove to prove that he was a good and legitimate king.

In contrast to King Yeongjo’s intense efforts to be a virtuous and learned ruler, the Crown Prince appeared idle, pampered and unacademic, and this infuriated the King.

As a result of this tension, the Crown Prince had to endure a great deal of humiliation in the hand of his father, as you can see from Lady Hyegyong’s Memoirs:
  • [The King] always chose either regular audiences or those occasions on which many officials were present. In front of all, he asked the Prince to explicate the meaning of a book that he was studying. Even if it was a passage that children could not easily comprehend, he kept inquiring with unrelenting sharpness. As it was, Prince Sado was already given to hesitation and stammering before his father even concerning things that he knew very well. Publicly tested and asked one difficult question after another, the Prince grew even more frightened and nervous, answering less and less well. This led to scolding or sometimes even derision. (254)
The father-son tension accumulated over the years, and the King’s immense disappointment became a crushing weight on the young prince. According to the Memoirs, the stress and pressure Crown Prince Jangheon experienced manifested in his frequent bouts of illness and fainting spells.

Then things became significantly worse.

In 1748, the Crown Prince was thirteen when his sister, Princess Hwapyong, died due to a difficult childbirth. She was the king’s favorite daughter, and she strove to be a peacemaker between the king and the prince. But with her passing, the king became more emotionally abusive, and the prince, increasingly fearful of his father, did all he could to avoid him.

This was followed by the event called the ‘Daerichungjeong / 대리청정” in 1749, when the king strangely decided to appoint the prince as regent. During this time, Crown Prince Jangheon was only fifteen-years-old, and as regent, he was empowered to make decisions on administrative matters other than appointments, punishments, and the use of troops. The king had the right to veto any of the regent’s decisions—and the king did just that:

If the Crown Prince made a decision on his own, the king would rebuke him for handling weighty state affairs on his own, and veto his decision.

But if the prince paused to consult his father, he would be rebuked for not being able to decide on his own.


No matter what he did, the prince was unable to please his father.

After a while, the king blamed everything on the Crown Prince. He was always angry and unsatisfied with his son. It reached a point where the occurrence of cold spells, droughts, poor harvests, or calamities caused the king to denounce the prince-regent’s insufficient virtue and to reproach the prince most severely (back then, natural disasters were seen as Heaven's response to immoral human behaviour). For example, in Lady Hyegyong’s memoir, she shares:
  • Thus, if the weather was cloudy or if there was thunder on a winter day, the Prince-Regent instantly grew nervous and fearful lest he receive yet another berating from his father.  Before long, he was frightened and anxious over everything; the illness developed gradually as his sense of terror spawned unwholesome imaginings and strange notions. How sad that His Majesty, an extraordinarily virtuous and supremely benevolent king and a remarkably intelligent and observant man, did not realize that his precious heir was growing ill. (258)
The father-son conflict was intensified by the fact that the Crown Prince’s idea of ideal politics differed from his father’s policies, and the king was not very tolerant of those who opposed him. This is where the more recent theory arises as to why the Crown Prince was killed in the end; the theory presents the prince as a tragic prodigy whose revolutionary ideas clashed with his father and the Old Doctrine Faction, the leading political party at the time. The theory suggests that the prince therefore fell victim to their political conspiracy at the royal court, and was murdered because of it.

However, the older theory proposes that the prince was killed for his mental health problems, and this theory finds its traces in the Memoirs. We’re shown Crown Prince Jangheon’s mental health spiralling under parental pressure and emotional abuse. According to Lady Hyegyong:
  • “[The prince]’s illness spread through him just as water soaks into a piece of paper.” (267)
In 1756, this was the year when King Yeongjo placed a ban on alcohol, and the king misunderstood his son’s mental health problems as signs of intoxication, and accused him of drinking. The Crown Prince was innocent but admitted to the crime, rather than defending himself, as he knew his father would always find fault with him in the end. Then the prince went to Nakson Hall where his tutors were waiting for him. He yelled at them to leave, tried to chase them out, and knocked over a candle that engulfed the Hall in flames, including Yangjop House.

The situation in the palace continued to deteriorate as more of the Crown Prince’s allies (the ones who would try to shelter him from King’s wrath) one by one passed away, such as Queen Inwon and Queen Chongsong. According to Lady Hyegyong, the Crown Prince was so consumed in his “illness” and fear of the king that he hardly noticed his newborn daughter Chongson, when she was born in 1756.

In 1757, the prince attempted suicide by trying to jump into a palace well, after getting into a heated fight with his father, and his suicide attempt only outraged the king further.

Then, around this same year, the Crown Prince began to kill. Again, I’d like to reiterate that having mental health problems doesn’t make a person dangerous, and there’s no way to draw a direct parallel between the prince’s mental health problems and his violence, especially as there are several other factors that may have contributed to his violent behavior. But this event took place before there was awareness about mental health and the stigma around it. And so in Lady Hyegyong's Memoirs, it is suggested that the prince’s “illness” and his pent-up anger at his father is what resulted in the violent acts.

The Crown Prince’s first victim was Kim Hanch’ae, the eunuch. He also harmed and sexually harassed ladies-in-waiting. He beat his beloved concubine Pingae to death.

The strange thing is, when the King asked his son about these killings in 1757, the prince confessed to the violent acts and was forgiven by his father. According to Lady Hyegyong:
  • “…the king tends to be exacting and difficult on small matters, but on large matters of gravity he is surprisingly calm. Thus, when he heard the prince had killed many people because he was “hurt” he responded rather sympathetically and even consoled his son.” (305)
After this encounter, Lady Hyegyong was hopeful that the father-son relationship would improve, but in response, the Crown Prince warned her, “Just because you are his beloved daughter-in-law, do you believe everything he says? He may say things, but don’t trust any of it. In the end, I will wind up dead. (288)

Just as the prince foresaw, his relationship with his father did not at all improve. Each time his father met informally with officials, the prince knew it was to criticize and complain about him. With the growing fear that he might be put to death, the prince’s condition spiraled. In 1759, the prince developed clothing phobia:
  • “…Alas, the prince's obsession with dressing was getting worse - and obsession is probably not a strong enough word. For example, when he wanted to choose an outfit, we had to prepare ten, twenty or even thirty sets of clothes... If his [servant] made even the slightest error while helping him to get dressed, he would feel unable to wear that outfit, and would become very agitated, so that eventually someone would suffer for it. What a terrible illness!” (289)
In 1762, rumors began to spread that the Crown Prince was going to kill the King (though there’s no actual proof that the prince was planning to commit patricide). And the underground house the prince had built, storing his military weapons meant for his personal entertainment, only added fuel to the terrible suspicion. In the end, it was his own mother who suggested to the king that their son be killed:
  • “Lady Sonhui realized that though her sick son could not be blamed, neither could he be trusted…now that his illness had reached the irreversible point at which he could not longer recognize his parents, if she, out of private love, were to delay and do nothing, and if perchance the Prince, in a senseless state, were to be driven by his frenzy to commit an unthinkable act, then what would happen to the four hundred-year old dynasty? Duty called upon her to protect above all else His Majesty’s royal person. The prince was irretrievably ill, and perhaps it was best that his suffering come to an end.” (317)
At the age of 27, Crown Prince Jangheon was ordered to step into a rice chest on a hot summer’s day, where he was then sealed within by order of his father. He was left there until he starved to death eight days later. This method of execution was the king’s attempt to evade the court rules that forbid someone from harming a royal person, and the then-common practice of communal punishment, which would have endangered the life of the Crown Prince’s son (the only remaining direct heir to the throne).

The question of what led to this tragic event is still a source of controversy. Was Crown Prince Jangheon killed due to his severe and untreated struggle with mental health problems? Or was he a tragic prodigy, killed for his revolutionary ideas?

No one can say for sure, but one thing to note is that even if Crown Prince Jangheon was really a victim of political strife, this doesn’t negate his homicidal acts. None of the scholars dispute the fact that the Crown Prince was a murderer, because these facts appeared in too many court documents to be a lie, such as the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty and the Diaries of the Royal Secretariat, along with his wife’s Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong. The violent acts he committed were extremely ruthless, and he allegedly killed a hundred people in his lifetime. 

Whatever the truth behind his execution is, Prince Jangheon lived an extremely difficult and painful life and died in 1762 without the opportunity to reign. Many view this tragedy as King Yeongjo choosing his own political life over his son’s actual life. And sometimes I find myself wondering whether the prince might have had an entirely different fate if the king had shown his once-precious and only son a little more love and compassion.  

After his son’s passing, the king gave him the posthumous title of “Sado,” meaning “Thinking of with great sorrow.”  

For the rest of his reign, the king banned any mention of the prince's name. It wasn’t until Prince Sado's son, Jeongjo, ascended the throne that he finally addressed the tragedy with his first statement by declaring:

“I am the son of Prince Sado.”
 
 
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If you're interested in learning more about Crown Prince Sado, you can hunt down The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong. Her memoir contains the most detailed look into the prince’s life available in the English language (though there are so many other resources out there, but in Korean!).

You could also check out The Throne (2015), which centers around Crown Prince Sado’s life and death. I thought it was a great movie!


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For my fellow Canadians:
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Worldwide:
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2022 White Pine Award
THE FOREST OF STOLEN GIRLS (nominated)

2021 Amy Mathers Teen Book Award
THE SILENCE OF BONES (nominated)
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Before I end this newsletter, I wanted to thank everyone who has supported me and my writing.

Your word-of-mouth support, your pre-orders, your library requests—they’ve all amounted to something so significant: I get to keep writing these Korean Historicals, and I get to keep learning more about my own roots as I do. Your support has shown the powers-that-be (my publisher! haha) that there’s space on the shelf for YA Korean historicals. Your support has also opened doors for me, allowing me opportunities that I don’t think would have otherwise existed. And I’m SO excited to share some exciting news with you down the line, when I’m allowed! 

So I sincerely mean it when I say that I appreciate you. Thank you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart <3
 
 

Bye for now!


 
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