(87) Women in Royal Court Mired in Power Politics

By Yang Sung-jin

Sex is still a dangerous topic in Korea. After causing a sensation by publishing a chronicle of her past sex life, an actress recently lost her role in a television drama and is now beset by countless attacks from the conservatives.

Critics of the conservatives argued that the Korean society is not yet ready to discuss sexual matters without any reservation and prejudice. Maybe. Such topics have never been smoothly accepted here and yet, somehow, in recent years progress has been made.

Curiously, Choson rulers and officials were willing to talk about topics on sex in court and recorded the details. The meticulous recording of numerous discussions and incidents may surprise those who have a prejudice against the Choson period, when the conservative, male-oriented Confucianism dominated as the absolute social principle.

What should be considered is that the sexual topics in the Choson royal court were mostly related to the central politics.

On April 22, 1519, a dispute erupted upon the introduction of female historiographers, in an effort to write down what happens in the innermost areas of the court.

“Female historiographers can record words and acts of the king in detail at court places where male historiographers are not allowed to enter.

If female historiographers were introduced, they would contribute to give our descendants correct views on historical facts,” Kim An-kuk filed an appeal to King Chungjong.

Historical fact or not, the king was deeply displeased by the suggestion. Already, male historiographers in charge of recording Choson kings’ public and private life for the Annals publication were freely poking around the palace and if female historiographers were added, there would be almost no place to hide from the scrutinizing eyes of observers.

“In the past, women were highly literate and familiar with classic texts. That is why female historiographers were recruited to record state affairs. But these days there seems to be few educated women and finding a person for the job may be difficult,” King Chungjong said.

As for court officials, Kim An-kuk’s suggestion was a brilliant idea to balance the overwhelming power of the king.

“Female historiographers do not have to write down in Chinese. They could record all the important affairs of the court in Korean,” a ranking official named Lee Chong said.

At the time, court documents and major books including the Annals of the Choson Dynasty were recorded in Chinese, since the Chinese characters were widely used by the elite and literati yangban class. Meanwhile, women were recommended to learn Hangul (Korean alphabet) rather than the difficult Chinese characters.

As officials mounted a fierce attack on the absurd logic regarding women’s literacy, King Chungjong had to find another excuse.

“Given that female historiographers are supposed to record the good and bad aspects of state affairs and king’s life, they must have upright characters,” the king said.

Eventually, the powerful ruler of the Choson Kingdom won the battle with his subjects, rejecting Kim’s proposal for female historiographers.
The moment was a triumph for the monarch but a great loss for today’s historians.

Just imagine what would have been in the Annals if female historiographers had been able to write down what really happened in the innermost areas of the palace.

That King Chungjong did not like to have female historiographers around reflects the king’s desire to keep his private life safely locked and protected from public criticism.

But such a cautious attitude was not found in King Yonsangun, a notorious tyrant who had no reservation in increasing the number of beautiful concubines.

As a result, Yonsangun often gave away important government posts to concubine’s male relatives.

On Nov. 25, 1502, Kim Hyo-son was elevated to 7th grade in the government office ranking only because he was a relative of Chang Nok-su, a royal concubine who captured the heart of Yonsangun.

As Chang’s political influence became bigger and bigger, people lined up to be recognized as her relatives in a bid to secure a public office at the palace.

According to an article dated Aug. 7, 1506, a number of people including scoundrels falsely claimed they were relatives of Chang Nok-su. Moreover, Yonsangun made a list dedicated to Chang’s relatives, which was used by some scoundrels to harass innocent citizens.

While some men climbed up the public office ladder in connection with their female relatives, others failed their life by mismanaging relations hips with women.

The most striking example is Yangnyong Taegun, the eldest son of King Taejong.

In April of 1410, Yangnyong Taegun invited a courtesan into the palace, violating the court rules. In 1413, a courtesan based in Pyongyang set her feets into the court covertly at the invitation of Yangnyong.

In October of 1414, Yangnyong was spotted drinking with another courtesan at a party. The problem was that the courtesan named Cho Kung-jang used to serve Yangnyong’s grandfather, King Chungjong.

For his complicated private life with courtesans, Yangnyong angered King Taejong and eventually lost his title as the Crown Prince.

Yangnyong’s case reflects the general trend of the Choson court which placed a strict judgment on both public and private lives. That could justify Annals’ detailed recording of debates about sexual scandals entangled with power politics.

Whether today’s media frenzy over the actress who wrote about her past sex life has such a justifiable public cause remains to be seen.