By Yang Sung-jin
Resisting temptation is far from easy. But it is not impossible if the person in question attempts to reject temptation in earnest.
The problem with King Yonsangun (reign: 1494-1506) was that he did not intend to do so. Abusing his mighty power, the notorious Choson ruler showcased the worst aberration imaginable.
On the front of sexual indulgence, Yonsangun’s insatiable desire had much to do with his prime temptress and accomplice — Chang Nok-su.
Although Yonsangun’s debauchery was his own, Chang Nok-su played a curious part in stoking the sexual flames of the neurotic king.
Her fame — or notoriety if you like — is so far-reaching that her name is now synonymous with a “knock-out beauty” who may bewitch gullible men.
Interestingly, the Choson Annals reported that she was not as beautiful as we imagine now.
“Chang Nok-su was a servant of Chean Taegun (second son of King Yejong). She was smart and knew how to please others. Because she was very poor, Chang barely managed her life, marrying several times. When she got married off to a servant of Chean Taegun, Chang learned to dance and sing. She sang well. Even though she was 30, Chang looked like a 16-year-old girl,” the Annals article said.
Indeed, she looked younger than her real age, but her appearance was “not better than an average person.” In fact, her selling point was not her facial beauty but her “insurmountable excellence in flattery and coquetry.”
No wonder Chang was embraced by Yonsangun without hesitation. She climbed up the ladder fairly quickly, capitalizing on her talent as a flatterer.
Eventually, the king granted whatever Chang requested and elevated her position to fourth class in the official ranking system.
For Chang Nok-su, nothing seemed impossible if it was intended to win favor from the doting king. According to a document dated September, 1506, Chang ventured out to be a pimp, seducing unsuspecting ladies into the bedroom of Yonsangun.
“At royal parties, the king ordered ladies to put on a mark identifying who their husbands were in order know who was who. Of the ladies who joined the party, those who caught the king’s eye were lured by Chang Nok-su into a corner room,” the article explained.
In other words, Chang Nok-su played a tactful seductress to satisfy the sexual desires of the tyrant.
The partnership between Yonsangun and Chang led to bizarre sexual relationships between the king and wives of high-ranking officials.
According to an article dated Aug. 25, 1505, ranking officials noticed the king’s appetite for sex and made up all sorts of excuses to keep their wives away from the much-dreaded court parties.
Yet the king remained persistent in his peculiar pursuit. Yonsangun set his eyes on the beautiful wife of Park Sung-jil, who was then minister No. 3. People were suspicious why Park’s young wife frequented the court even though she was not a royal member.
One day, Yonsangun commented on the wife, saying, “Since Minister Park is old and weak, his wife loves me.”
After hearing the king’s preposterous and shameless remark, Park almost lost his tempter. But fearing the obvious consequences, the minister remained mum about the repeated adultery of his wife and the immoral king.
The tragedy was that Park was not the only victim. In April of 1505, the king held court parties to seek beautiful ladies and asked them to stay at the palace.
As a result, a bevy of wives of high-ranking officials were victimized by Yonsangun while helpless husbands — Park Sung-jil, Lee Chaeng, Pyon Song, Chong Kok-su and Hong Paek-kyong — regretted their harsh fate.
Yonsangun’s sexual indulgence was unbeatable. A notable fact was that few officials dared to stop the king’s uncontrollable behavior for fear of losing their heads.
For instance, when a state agency in charge of music brought four courtesans including a lady named Kwang Han-son, the king was immediately drawn to her.
Yonsangun asked whether the lowly courtesan Kwang would engage in an affair, and an official named Lim Sung-jae did not hesitate to urge the king to go ahead, a perfect example of how the tyrant and flatterer worked.
According to an article dated July, 1506, Yonsangun went on a pleasure- seeking journey to Tumopo, along with 1,000 court ladies. These ladies were chosen from across the nation as part of the king’s efforts to form his harem.
Yonsangun sent off officials to find beautiful girls to become court ladies, regardless of background. In December of 1504, he classified them into three groups — hungchong, unpyong and kwanghui.
In modern Korean language, “hungchong” means “merry-making,” the origin of which is speculated to be the legacy of Yonsangun’s historic adultery.
Legacy or not, the hungchong and the other two organizations to educate court ladies became major state-run projects.
At the time, around 1,000 girls were staying in Seoul after being chosen to be court ladies. Naturally, some of them had affairs with ordinary citizens, which enraged the jealous king.
Since Yonsangun was highly possessive of his concubines, he ordered death for those who slept with the royal court ladies.
Barred from becoming concubines for other officials, most court ladies lived pitiful lives, some resorting to outright begging on the street.
As more and more court ladies covertly slept with other men in the process of begging for food, Yonsangun issued another stern order directed to the ladies.
Citing Chinese history in which some kings embraced thousands of court ladies as concubines, Yonsangun urged his court ladies to keep their chastity solely for the king.
As rumors about the king’s sexual appetite were rampant by January, 1505, Yonsangun forced court officials to bring with them a card bearing a proverbial warning against a “reckless tongue.”
The incident shed light on the king’s self-consciousness, however small it might have been.
Perhaps, he noticed something was amiss from the mushrooming rumors. But it was not enough to keep heads from rolling — he suffered a tragic death after being expelled in a coup while Chang Nok-su was beheaded.