By Yang Sung-jin
Modern sociologists have dissected marriage and revealed its political, social and economic ramifications: Marriage is a social system that involves more than a unwavering romantic passion.
As for sons-in-law of Choson kings, the un-romantic aspect of royal marriage sometimes let loose unpleasant incidents and scandals.
On Feb. 19 of 1544, King Chungjong expressed his strong displeasure at his son-in-law Cho Ui-chong, who married Princess Hyochong, but treated her badly.
“On several occasions, I have warned Cho Ui-chong whose personality is violent and treacherous. But, he appears to be oblivious to his own immorality. Furthermore, he upset the order of the family by making Princess Hyochong’s servant, Pungkai, as a concubine and neglecting the princess,” King Chungjong said.
The king had good reason to lose his temper. Earlier, when King Chungjong noticed that Cho had displaced his daughter with the servant Pungkai he punished his philandering son-in-law.
Nevertheless, Cho’s passion towards Pungkai did not subside. He secretly brought back Pungkai who was supposedly required to serve time at a state agency as a punishment.
When the king got news that Pungkai was back at Cho’s house, he did not take an immediate action for fear that the matter would get out of control. He hoped his son-in-law would keep things quiet.
But, such expectation proved useless. The king’s inaction gave Cho the courage to take matters a step further by oppressing the princess while spoiling Pungkai.
That is how King Chungjong perceived the situation, but the truth was more complicated.
First of all, Princess Hyochong, a product of King Chungjong and royal concubine Sukwon Lee, was quite plain. But, Pungkai, one of her servants, was a knock-out beauty, setting the ominous stage for the ill-fated princess. What sparked off an indignation from the king was Cho’s purposeful delay in reporting Princess Hyochong’s illness.
Soon after getting pregnant the princess got sick. Her health worsened as time went by. The king, unaware of her daughter’s illness, wanted to help her delivery by dispatching royal female doctors, but stalled on the move since Cho did not file any formal request.
At the last moment, Cho called for the court to help the princess who was suffering from a post-natal illness.
King Chungjong immediately sent court doctors, but it was too late. The princess was already dead.
Filled with anger and resentment, the king ordered the state agencies to grill Cho and Pungkai, accusing them of killing the princess.
Curiously, the princess herself did not protest her husband’s adulterous behavior. Instead, she defended her treacherous husband whenever the king threatened to punish him, Annals writers commented.
On March 17 of 1544, the state court slapped 100 cudgels on Pungkai before sending her off into exile. The problem is that Annal writers who observed Pungkai did not believe she was a vicious girl who was an accomplice in her master’s death.
“Princess Hyochong liked her servant Pungkai. That is why she allowed her husband to take Pungkai as a concubine. In 1543, when Pungkai was exiled to Hamhung, the princess went to the royal court twice, pleading Pungkai’s innocence,” the Annals article noted.
When grilled on the death of the princess, Pungkai did not show any emotion and only offered vague details of what happened.
The Pungkai incident led to another unforeseen tragedy as she was beaten to death by Un Dae, a court lady notorious for her pompous and cruel personality.
When it comes to an unusual sex scandal involving a high-class Choson aristocrat, few matches that of Lee Sun-ji, who was a renowned astronomer and scholar.
Actually, it was Lee Sun-ji’s daughter who got entangled in a bizarre sex scandal in 1468. She was married off to Kim Kyu-sok, who died soon after marriage. Life unfolded in an unexpected way when widow befriended a Buddhist nun.
The Buddhist nun had an affair with Sa Bang-ji, a servant of Ahn Maeng- dam who was one of Lee Sung-ji’s remote relatives. Interestingly, Sa Bang-ji was said to put on women’s clothes and have no beard.
Sa Bang-ji slipped into the widow’s house with the help of the Buddhist nun, and the widow soon fell for the cross dressing servant.
As the rumors circulated around the village, Sa Bang-ji was arrested. After a brief investigation, the king did not punish Sa, but instead sent him to Lee Sun-ji, letting the astronomer deal with the scandal.
Lee, however, did not punish Sa Bang-ji, and let him work for a remote farm house.
But, the scandal was not over. When the widow’s father was on the verge of death, Sa Bang-ji visited her and renewed the love affair, stirring up the government.
Finally, Sa Bang-ji was arrested again, and female doctors were assigned to conduct a physical examination of the cross-dresser.
The result was nothing if not shocking: Sa Bang-ji turned out to be a hermaphrodite with two different sexual organs.
High-ranking official Han Myong-hoe called on King Sejo to expel the Sa to a remote place, sparking a dispute at the court.
The king basically did not want to interfere with a mere sex scandal, but a bevy of officials claimed for justice about the unusual scandal, stressing Sa Bang-ji should be killed for his abnormality.
King Sejo, however, spared Sa Bang-ji’s life by exiling him to a remote place with the status of lowest slave, concluding Choson’s first ever romantic passion between a hermaphrodite servant and a widow of the high-class background.