By Yang Sung-jin
Jealousy, if it comes as a result of unfaithfulness, is likely to jeopardize a marriage. But back in the Choson period, the matter was not so simple. Because husbands were generally allowed to keep concubines, a man’s wife had little choice but to keep a tight lid on her jealousy.
Despite the social strictures, some brave women confronted the issue head-on. The striking example was Queen Wonkyong, wife of King Taejong and mother of King Sejong.
Queen Wonkyong was one of the few women of the era who had a palpable impact on the politics of the Choson Kingdom.
Born to Min Chae, a member of the Koryo Kingdom’s aristocracy, the Queen played a key role in furthering King Taejong’s power at the same time as she raised King Sejong, one of the greatest rulers in the Korean history.
Wonkyong’s relationship with Taejong was rocky, to say the least. From the outset, the trouble lay in the fact the power-hungry monarch did not want his wife’s family to exert any influence in the royal court.
To control the burgeoning influence of Queen Wonkyong’s allies, King Taejong resorted to successive unions with female members of other prominent families. Concubines were brought in one after another: Hyobin, Shibin, Sonbin, Uibin, Sobin and Sukui.
As a result, the total number of King Taejong’s offspring reached 29, meant to ensure that he would keep a lock on power in the face of challenges from other members of the royal family.
In addition to his host of ladies-in-waiting, the Annals include mention of a number of unidentified women who “served” King Taejong, which must have duly piqued Queen Wonkyong.
The queen was firm in the belief that she had made an indispensable contribution to her husband’s ascent to the throne. She thus expected due recognition. But King Taejong was eminently ungracious, taking on new concubine at will and maintaining a ready supply of concubine-candidates in the palace.
A Woman Scorned
According to an article dated June 18, 1401, King Taejong provoked the queen’s ire by abruptly kicking out 20-odd servants and eunuchs in her service. Queen Wonkyong had been furious with the fact the king tended to pay more attention to virtually anyone around the palace in a skirt than to his beloved wife. As a means of revenge, she harshly disciplined a female servant in whom the king had shown an interest.
But the queen’s jealous outburst generated nasty repercussions. In the aftermath of the incident, King Taejong expelled all the servants of Queen Wonkyong, an apparent warning against future demonstrations of her jealousy. The royal couple’s marriage had begun to come apart at the seams.
Curiously, historiographers portrayed Queen Wonkyong as over-jealous: “Not long after the king ascended to the throne, there were few concubines in the palace. Queen Wonkyong, however, was born to be jealous, showing little affection for other people, which pushed the king to take up with other women.”
On March 7, 1402, King Taejong took one of the daughters from court official Kwon Hong as his concubine and Queen Wonkyong lost no time in voicing her dismal with the king’s latest infidelity.
“The jealousy of Queen Wonkyong deepened further. When the king was about to take on a concubine in a formal ceremony, the queen stepped out and grabbed the king’s clothes, desperate to make her case. She did not stop crying and afterward did not eat. She had disease in her heart and the king suspended his handling of state affairs for several days,” the Annals article said.
In her efforts to win back her lost love, Queen Wonkyong urged the king to remember the days when the couple had worked closely to secure the throne.
Deteriorating relations between King Taejong and Queen Wonkyong also had a political angle. The king executed relatives of Queen Wonkyong under the pretense of punishing traitors, which dealt a serious blow to the queen’s status, not to mention her fragile emotions.
In 1407, Queen Wonkyong’s brothers, Min Mu-gu and Min Mu-jil, were impeached on charges of high treason. Desperate to rescue them, she secretly invited the wife of Min Mu-jil to the palace in hopes of resolving the crisis.
Unfortunately, the king became aware of the queen’s efforts, which was more than an adequate excuse to attack her.
King Taejong told his subjects that he had already warned to the queen about the malicious plotting by Min Mu-gu but she did not repent. He continued to say the queen had become upset and made unpardonable remarks.
In a show of strong warning, the king decided to move out of the main palace for awhile, which signaled a separation period.
Despite the worsening situation, the king did not depose the queen. He restrained himself from taking revenge on her for the Min Mu-gu situation, reminding himself of the fact she was a key backer of his successful bid for supreme power.
King Taejong’s relations with his wife’s family were originally amicable. The Min brothers stood behind King Taejong’s political machinations at critical moments. The king even joined a political party formed by his father-in-law, Min Chae, on Dec. 13, 1405.
But the high treason case of 1407 permanently severed peaceful ties. Two of Queen Wonkyong’s brothers were expelled from the court and put to death. Two others were later hanged for having protested the execution of their siblings.
Curiously, King Taejong stipulated in his will that he was to be buried alongside his first wife’s tomb. Despite the fact their union was marked by jealousy and hatred, the royal couple was buried at Hunnung Mausoleum in Naekok-dong, Socho-ku, Seoul.