(78) King Munjong’s Trouble-Ridden Marriage Life

By Yang Sung-jin

Sex education is rarely discussed by Koreans who regard the subject as “unmentionable.” No wonder the level of sex education for students is ludicrously perfunctory. After all, conservatism can be overdone.

So it is interesting to note that Choson people were given sex education; however, it was quite different from today’s. While current sex education is designed to suppress human nature, the Choson version intended the opposite.

That does not mean sexual promiscuity was promoted during the Choson period, which was typified by highly conservative moral values. Rather, the Choson people thought proper sex education was essential for bearing children and continuing the family lineage — one of the make-or-break issues at the time.

The most common item for Choson sex education was the optimal day for fertility. Traditionally, mothers gave a small calendar to their daughters before they wed, detailing the secret dates.

Although its scientific base is far from certain, mothers passed the calendar to their daughters in the hopes that they would bear sons to carry on the family name.

The strange practice is understandable. Under the male-oriented Choson social norms, those who failed to bear sons were likely to be kicked out of a household without any compensation for the forced divorce.

Even the men were given covert lectures about the optimal day to impregnate. The master of the house sometimes set specific dates for an ideal day to conceive and nudged their sons to enter the an-chae where wives were staying on those days.

Equally important, conceiving on “ominous” days was shunned by all means. Various taboos to be avoided before sex included overeating, drinking, fear, emotional fluctuation, eye diseases and artificial intake of the Viagra-like drugs.

Certain places — near a shrine, temple, restroom or tomb — were also deemed unthinkable for having sex, whether it was for getting pregnant or not.

All these rules were designed to bear “sons,” the vehicle of the family lineage and tradition, a wish still widely held by today’s Koreans.
The necessity of bearing sons was particularly pressing for the royal family. For instance, King Munjong (reign: 1450-1452) slipped into the unprecedented scandals over the issue of securing future kings.

King Munjong’s first wife, known by her surname, “Kim,” was notorious for her incessant jealousy. To keep the crown prince all to herself, Kim placed a towel tainted with snake’s semen to her waist, a superstitious act.

In addition, Kim stole the shoes of a royal courtesan dotted on by Munjong in a bid to win back his affection. She burned the shoes into ashes and then mixed it in a drink offered to Munjong.

The over-the-top superstitious acts were finally disclosed, and King Sejong kicked her out of the palace. At the time, she had been married to Crown Prince Munjong for only two years.

Prince Munjong second wife’s surname was “Pong.” But the situation did not improve on the front of bearing sons for the royal family, a serious problem for Munjong’s father, King Sejong.

King Sejong hoped his son would have a boy baby who could continue the throne, but the night affairs between Munjong and his new wife were not fruitful. To resolve the issue, King Sejong brought in three young ladies to put a spin on the troubled marriage life of Munjong.

King Sejong’s intervention no doubt displeased Pong, but there was nothing she could do except suppress her overwhelming anxiety and jealousy.

Unfortunately, one of the three ladies, Kwon Sung-hui, got pregnant after a nightly visit by Munjong. Desperate to secure her position, Pong spread false rumors including a lie that she herself was pregnant.

The false news reached unsuspecting court officials and King Sejong. Filled with joy, King Sejong even asked his daughter-in-law to move into an inner court room to keep her from any possible harm.

One month later, Pong said she suffered a miscarriage, in her continuing effort to hoodwink the king and others.

Pong’s weird acts went out of control in the wake of the mock pregnancy scandal. She was caught looking through the cracks of a restroom wall to peak at men outside of the palace.

In addition, she forced her servants to sing songs about love affairs. Even more shocking was that Pong was believed to be a “lesbian.”

According to the Annals articles, Pong loved her female servant named “So-ssang.” Since Pong showed a particularly strong affection, So-ssang was deeply troubled.

So-ssang later testified that she was forced to sleep with Pong. “Last year, Crown Princess called me and asked me to stay at her room that night. I declined, but she screamed so much so that I obliged. When I was half- naked and entered the room, she took away my clothes and forced me to assume a position as if having sex with a man,” So-ssang said.

When King Sejong called Pong to ask her about the incident, she gave a different story. Pong argued that So-ssang was in love with another servant girl and that she had never slept with So-ssang.

But, the truth finally came out, and Pong was expelled from the palace, her royal title canceled.

As a result, King Munjong ascended to the throne without a queen. Later Kwon Sung-hui, who came to the palace at the behest of King Sejong to help Munjong, finally gave birth to a son who later became King Tanjong.

Unfortunately, Kwon suddenly died only three days after the delivery. She was posthumously bestowed with a queen’s status and named Queen Hyondok.