By Yang Sung-jin
Knowledge does not necessarily guarantee integrity. History shows, be it a high-ranking official or a lowly servant, resisting temptation, especially those of sexual nature, is far from easy.
Tracking the sexual misconduct of high-powered officials, however, could have be tricky, to say the least. For some Choson officials who claimed to uphold lofty Confucian ethics only paid lip-service, and did not hesitate to deviate from the moral rules.
However, one can find a record of sex crimes dating back to 1692 made by Saganwon (Office of Censor-General) in an appeal, disclosing rampant sexual violations committed by local magistrates.
“Local governors are raping state-owned female servants on their whim and committing other sins. To clean up the mess, those governors should be severely punished,” the appeal said.
The report itself is a sad reflection of the deplorable social phenomenon in which the powerful abused and misused their authority on innocent and powerless female victims.
For the record, there were countless Choson officials who made good on their word by living an exemplary private life.
But despite the majority who led righteous lives, there were a few bad apples. In May 9 of 1427, ranking officials were forced to resign over a sexual scandal: “Lee Mu-sang and Lee Bok-saeng lost their offices and were exiled into Wonju and Kanghwa. The courtesans involved in the scandal — Cha Tong-son, Kan Sol-mae, Chuk Kan-mae, Yak Gye-chun and Po Kum — were hit 90 times with a stick while Mae So-wol was subject to 80 hits.”
It turned out that Lee Mu-saeng slept with three courtesans, Cha Tong-son, Kan Sol-mae and Chuk Kan-mae while Lee Bok-saeng committed adultery with Yak Gye-chun and Po Kum.
The scandal was all the more shocking since the two high-ranking officials held a wild party with the women on the anniversary of Choson founder King Taejong’s death.
Furthermore, some of the courtesans had been involved with other scandals with royal princes years before. Yak and Chuk were practically concubines of King Taejong’s second son, Poryong Taegun.
Kan Sol-mae, who was also an ex-lover of a royal prince, teamed up with Mae So-wol to stage the wild sex party for the officials.
On April 6, 1496, a Saganwon official named Lee Kam deplored the festering morality of public servants in an appeal to the king: “In recent days, relatives of the king frequent brothels, ministers are lecherous, servants are raping their masters, concubines subjugate their husbands and officials spread false rumors about their superiors. It’s deeply regrettable that our society has degenerated into such a sorry state.”
But nothing is sorrier than the double-standard of those tangled in the sexual scandal.
On Oct. 8, 1423, Cho So-ro, once a top diplomat, was kicked out of the office and sent off to a remote place as a punishment for his incestuous love affair with a wife of a retired government official.
However in comparison Cho was lucky. His lover was forced to stand in the market place for three days amid open condemnation from passers-by and then was beheaded.
The tragic incident stemmed from the earlier relationship between Cho and the lady known by only her surname, “Yu.”
Cho and Yu were distant relatives. Since Yu’s father died early when she was young, she became a Buddhist nun. One day she visited Cho’s house for she knew Cho’s mother. As time went by, Yu and Cho became close and the relationship deepened. At the time, he was only 14 years old.
Cho’s mother instantly noticed the unusual atmosphere in her house. She began to hate Yu and finally banned her from entering the house. Disappointed, Yu grew out her hair and was married off to Lee Kyu-san, a retired local governor.
Lee Kyu-san cared much for his young wife. Unaware of the past, he did not mind when Cho came to visit his wife. Lee even held a drinking party with his wife for Cho. The situation went into disarray when the lady remembered the good old days.
Yu sent a secret letter to Cho, inviting him to resume the love affair. The relationship, however, did not avoid the scrutiny of the Sahonbu (Office of Prosecutor-General).
Sahonbu uncovered the scandal and filed an appeal to the king, accusing the two lovers of adultery and incest.
King Sejong dealt with the high-profile sex scandal strictly, mindful of sending warnings to would-be adulterers: “Choson has long been ruled by courtesy and morality. For generations, the high-class yangban families did not witness this kind of treacherous adultery. Cho’s responsibility as a chief diplomat is very important. He cannot and should not neglect his duty. Considering his status, Cho’s crime cannot be justified. But, I cannot place a harsh punishment on him considering what he has achieved for the nation. Nonetheless, I am willing to set a precedent that would warn descendants against the same crime.”
That is why Cho’s life was spared while Yu, on the other hand, was publicly humiliated and beheaded.
The unfair treatment of adulterers is largely due to the Choson’s male- oriented social and family structure, which pushed women into a minor sphere while allowing sinful men to play around.