(69) King Taejong’s Resentment Against Stepmother

By Yang Sung-jin

Favors may be forgotten but resentment lingers. For King Taejong, that bitter resentment was especially hard to shrug off.

Chongnung, a royal mausoleum located at the southeastern foot of Mt. Pukhan in northern Seoul, is vivid proof. Buried in the tomb is Queen Shindok, second wife of King Taejo who was the father of King Taejong.

King Taejo’s first wife, Queen Shinui, died one year before he founded the Choson Kingdom in 1392.

Shindok, a daughter of Kang Yun-song, a ranking Koryo Kingdom official, was deeply loved by King Taejo. And that relationship irked King Taejong, who had to witness his own father’s unsparing affection for his stepmother.

Shindok rode a wave of revolutionary forces that underpinned the shift of power from Koryo to Choson. She monopolized the attention of King Taejo and maximized the turbulent situation to expand her political influence.

Few women had such knack for political maneuvering. Pulling strings as a member of Koryo’s aristocracy, Shindok persuaded key Koryo officials to pledge allegiance to Choson’s founder, King Taejo.

Once the new nation was built, she waged a political battle to have her son Pang-sok appointed as crown prince, defying the festering sentiment of Queen Shinui’s sons, including Pang-won, who later became King Taejong.

Shindok’s ambitious political somersault, however, was short-lived. She died on Aug. 13, 1397, wrapping up her high-profile life and opening the way for a brutal power struggle between royal princes.

Grief-stricken, King Taejo built the tomb for his beloved wife in Chong-dong (where the British Embassy is now located) and named it Chongnung. The ruler also established a temple called Hungchon-sa to the east of the tomb to placate the spirit of his dead wife.

Bitterness Lingers

Two years later, the so-called first Revolt of the Prince broke out, shattering Shindok’s dream. Protesting King Taejo’s decision that endorsed the son of his second wife as crown prince, Yi Pang-won and his brothers staged a mini coup to expel Pang-sok and his allies.

In the process, the Pang-sok faction was entirely removed from the political arena, which dealt a severe blow to King Taejo.

Out of despair and shock, King Taejo retired, passing the throne to Pang-gwa, who became the second monarch of the Choson Kingdom — King Chongchong (reign: 1398-1400).

But the hard-earned political stability did not last long. The ambitious Pang-won defeated the rival claim of his older brother Pang-gan in a fierce street battle in Seoul and grabbed the throne himself, emerging as King Taejong.

With political opponents crushed, King Taejong undertook revenge against his over-ambitious stepmother Shindok.

In 1406, the State Council advised King Taejong to build houses near Chongnung, arguing that the tomb site was too large.

King Taejong gladly accepted the proposal, allowing affluent yangban aristocrats to construct residential houses. All of a sudden, the wealthy class rushed to carve out their share near the tomb site, cutting pine trees en masse.

The violation of the Shindok’s tomb was more than a shock for King Taejo, who was then retired. On May 5 of that year, Taejo visited Hungchon-sa and performed the Buddhist ritual dedicated to Shindok. Throughout his rare outing to visit his deceased wife, King Taejo never stopped shedding tears.

According to the Annals, while the former ruler and founder of the nation was bursting into tears at the mausoleum, a host of construction projects were under way nearby.

But that was the only beginning of the revenge against Chongnung. In 1409, King Taejong decided to move the tomb outside the capital area. As a result, Shindok’s tomb was relocated to the foot of Mt. Pukhan in northern Seoul.

Relocation of Resentment

The State Council explained the reason for the relocation: “All the tombs of former kings and queens are located outside the capital area, except for Chongnung. Since Chongnung’s location at the heart of Seoul and near the reception office for diplomats is far from appropriate, the relocation should be duly implemented.”

On April 13, 1409, King Taejong took a further step on the issue of Shindok’s remains. He ordered all traces of the former Chongnung site to be cleared.

Chongnung’s pavilion was disassembled to build another government agency building. Stone structures were removed or buried to eliminate all traces of Shindok.

In 1410, King Taejong placed the tablet of his mother Shinui in the Royal Shrine, establishing her as the sole wife of King Taejo while downgrading Shindok to the status of royal concubine.

Even King Sejong, who succeeded King Taejong, did not view Shindok in a favorable light. As soon as King Sejong ascended the throne, he ordered the relatives and families of Shindok to organize a body for her rituals, downgrading them from a national affair.

In 1426, King Sejong ordered officials to burn Shindok’s portrait, continuing the revenge handed down from King Taejong.

It was only 160 years later that officials floated the idea of restoring the status of disgraced and downgraded Chongnung.

Court officials suggested to King Sonjo that Chongnung be restored to the status of a legitimate royal tomb, wrapping up the long-standing animosity and resentment.

But the king rejected the offer, urging officials to concentrate on current state affairs, not past incidents.

In 1669, Song Si-yol, a high-ranking official, filed an appeal calling for the restoration of Chongnung’s former glory, which was finally accepted by King Hyonjong.

That concluded the King Taejong-initiated revenge against Shindok, a bitter end to a feud that had dragged on for a quarter of a millennium.