By Yang Sung-jin
Last week, an epitaph dedicated to Prince Sado was revealed for the first time. It was written in July of 1762 by King Yongjo, who ordered that the prince be imprisoned in a wooden rice chest to correct his wayward behaviors.
The tragic and inexplicable incident in which Prince Sado died alone in the wooden chest has been a most bewildering topic for today’s historians.
According to traditional theories, King Yongjo deliberately attempted to kill his prince, after he became dissatisfied with his foolish and uncontrollable acts which irked the authoritative king to the extreme.
According to “Hanjungnok” (Records Written in Silence) written by Prince Sado’s wife, Lady Hyegyong, the tragedy stemmed from repeated feuding between her husband and her father-in-law, King Yongjo.
Lady Hyegyong argues in her memoirs that King Yongjo treated Prince Sado so badly that her husband, who from her perspective was warm and kind at heart, fell into a state of emotional disturbance and insanity.
Prince Sado, as his emotional troubles deepened, developed a clothing phobia. Among other strange behavior, he spent endless time choosing his clothes in the morning. During the process, he murdered and injured the awaiting servants in sudden fits of rage.
King Yongjo, who felt a deep distrust and scorn toward his son, finally decided that Prince Sado was too dangerous to live at the court and confined him to the rice chest in 1762.
The direct cause for the death of Prince Sado came as the result of an allegation filed by an official named Na Kyong-yon.
On May 22 of 1762, Na Kyong-yon argued to King Yongjo that Prince Sado was plotting a coup with a host of court eunuchs.
The report also detailed Prince Sado’s strange behavior. Enraged at the report, the king downgraded the status of the prince and confined him to the rice chest in the sultry weather of May on the lunar calendar.
But did King Yongjo kill his son on the charge of treason? In reality, Na’s report was not trustworthy and it is highly possible that King Yongjo did not believe the report as it was written.
A group of historians believe that King Yongjo took such a drastic measure in order to stabilize the volatile power politics in the court out of fear that the mentally abnormal Crown Prince would cause troubles.
Yet questions still remain. If the king wanted to remove his prince from politics, he could have achieved this by exiling Sado to a remote location, an option which may have been far better than outright murder.
The main reason for the mystery-shrouded incident is that few would venture to argue with the omnipotent monarch at the time.
In addition, the incident could not be dealt with by historiographers due to its sensitive nature which has led to the scarcity of information related to the tragedy in the Annals.
Prince Sado, as reflected in various materials, was reserved and slow- paced which contrasted with his father who once described himself as hot- tempered.
The relationship between the king and the prince had constantly been on the verge of a rupture, not only because of Sado’s strange character but also because of the king’s gloomy background.
King Yongjo himself did not have a solid footing in the court before ascending to the throne since his blood mother was a low-ranking courtesan.
King Yongjo’s father, King Sukchong, had three sons. Initially, King Yongjo did not secure Crown Prince status. Instead, he was entangled in a power struggle between factions of the court, making his life at the court miserable.
The pressure was high and King Yongjo developed his own “strange” pattern of behavior. For instance, he doted on Princess Hwapyong and Princess Hwawan but openly hated Prince Sado and Princess Hwahyop.
Against this background, the Choson court was mired in the dispute with different factions flexing their muscles to take the initiative.
Prince Sado became implicated in the wrangling and King Yongjo found it highly dangerous to the stability of the court, which led to the rice chest killing, according to some historians.
The newly discovered epitaph — after 250 years of conjecture — may illustrate to historians to a better picture of the tragedy.
“How can I order the Kangsowon (a state agency) to keep an eye on the rice chest just for the welfare of the state. It’s all for your safety and I ho e you’ll be fine. But I finally heard that you died on the ninth day of imprisonment,” King Yongjo confessed in the epitaph.
According to the epitaph, King Yongjo did not intend to kill his trouble- making son but simply meant to teach him a lesson. He deeply regretted Sado’s death, which runs counter to the traditional image of King Yongjo as the callous and merciless father.
King Yongjo also stated, “The prince was intelligent and everybody expected he would become a great king for the nation. Bu he did not learn the lessons of saints. Instead he acquired bad behaviors and befriended with hoodlums, jeopardizing the state of the nation.”
While describing the background for the unprecedented punishment, the king also lamented over his lack fathering skills.
“What I deeply regret is your talent. All the blame should be placed on me since I failed to educate you properly,” King Yongjo chided himself.
After Sado’s death, King Yongjo restored the official title of the fated prince and took every action imaginable to protect his grandson (who became King Chongjo) and daughter-in-law, Lady Hyegyong.
All this explains the true nature of the epitaph — the gloomy symbol of the Choson’s darkest chapter strewn with the heart-wrenching confessions of King Yongjo.