Among the 27 kings of the Joseon Dynasty, how many kings did not have concubines? Except for the 13th king, Myeongjong, and 18th king, Hyeonjong, it is recorded that all kings had one or more concubines. The concubine was a formal position, which had a specific hierarchy, but was subject to many restrictions. Because of the unequal relationship between the queen and the concubine, the position was limited so as to be beneath that of the king’s wife. For example, the concubines were not allowed to put their names on the royal shrine, Jongmyo, where the king and queen’s memorial tablets are enshrined. There is, however, a royal shrine for the seven concubines who were excluded from the royal family. This shrine is called Chilgung. To mark Parents’ Day in May, The Argus visited Chilgung and looked deeper into the concept of “Hyo,” filial piety, as well as the lives of the royal concubines from this era.
Chilgung is a royal shrine dedicated to the seven concubines who gave birth to some of the kings of the Joseon Dynasty. It is located in Gungjeong-dong, Jongno-gu, Seoul. Originally, each of the shrines was placed all over the Seoul-metropolitan area. However, after King Yeongjo, the 21st king of the Joseon Dynasty, built a shrine called Yuksang-gung for his mother, the memorial tablets of the other concubines were moved to Yuksang-gung and became Chilgung. Yeong-bin Yi and Su-bin Park are enshrined together in one building, in addition to Suk-bin Choi and Jeong-bin Yi. Thus, Chilgung is made up of five shrines in total.
There were two main ways to become a concubine: Gan-taek and Seung-eun. First, Gan-taek was conducted by selecting the best person among a number of candidates. Royal elders were the examiners of the Gan-taek process. On the other hand, Seung-eun was a process whereby a woman who had caught the king’s attention slept with him and she was subsequently appointed to be a concubine. Thus, Seung-eun was a very irregular and unpredictable happenstance.
The appellations of the concubines had changed a little, but these were relatively fixed since the completion of Gyeongguk-Daejeon, a collection of codes and rules. The highest rank of the concubines was “Bin” and the prefix in association with the character of the concubine was attached to those who are ranked as Bin. For example, Hui-bin means radiant-bin and Suk-bin stands for pure-bin. In addition, when naming the concubines, the concubine’s rank was placed in front and her surname followed.
Coming out of Gyeongbokgung Station via exit three and walking along the road for about 15 minutes, the reporter reached the Chilgung information center at Mugunghwa park. It was not a difficult place to find, but the reporter noticed a heavy police presence, unlike that at other historic sites. After giving some brief personal information at the booth, the reporter received a pass and could enter Chilgung, following the directions of a plainclothes police officer.
“Welcome. Are you here to take pictures?,” said the cultural heritage commentator, who was waiting in the front yard of Chilgung-proper, to the reporter with a camera on his shoulder. “Be careful when taking pictures because Chilgung is adjacent to the Blue House. This police officer will accompany us to deal with any unforeseen circumstances.” After hearing some tour etiquette from the commentator and having a casual greeting with the plainclothes, sunglass-wearing police officer, the 50-minute journey to Chilgung began.
As soon as the reporter entered Chilgung, an antique building came into view. “First, let me tell you about “Song-juk-jae” and “Pung-wol-heon.” This building was a place where the kings would calm themselves down before the memorial service.” The stone steps, which looked like a staircase in front of Song-juk-jae and Pung-wol-heon, also drew the reporter’s eye. That was a kind of stone step called “Ha-ma-seok,” used to get off of a horse. “Yeongjo, the 21st king of Joseon, was known for visiting Chilgung 247 times during his 51-year reign.” About 300 years ago, Yeongjo would dismount from a horse here and walk in to see his mother after cleansing his body and mind in Song-juk-jae and Pung-wol-heon. The king’s love for his mother touched the reporter’s heart.
The reporter could see the shrine after crossing a wooden bridge next to Song-juk-jae and Pung-wol-heon. The last entrance to the shrine, Sam-mun, was composed of three gates standing in a row. The interesting part was that the middle one was higher than the other two. “The middle gate and its path are for the dead, so follow me this way, please.” Following a Confucian rule of entry, “Dong-ip-seo-chul”- meaning “Go in by the east gate and out by the west gate,” the reporter entered through the east gate.
The signboard of this shrine read Yeonho-gung. The reporter, who had expected Yuksang-gung, approached the shrine. The reporter could find the signboard of Yuksang-gung hidden behind that of Yeonho-gung only on closer approach to the shrine. “Yuksang-gung and Yeonho-gung were combined into one shrine in 1870. When our ancestors united the two shrines, they placed the elder’s signboard behind that of the younger personage in accordance with Confucian etiquette.” Unfortunately, the shrines were closed except during the memorial service, so the reporter could not see the memorial tablets in person. However, the reporter could imagine the inside of the shrines through the explanation and guide board.
“In the Joseon Dynasty, there was a rule called “Seo-sang policy.” It means that the memorial tablets of elders are to be enshrined in the west. Therefore, the tablet on the left is for Suk-bin Choi and the other one is for Jeong-bin Yi.” The most intriguing part was the relationship between these two concubines. Suk-bin Choi was Yeongjo’s mother, while Jung-bin Yi was Yeongjo’s concubine. “There is no exact record of why the two tablets were enshrined together. However, many people guess that it is stemmed from their close relationship compared to other concubines.” Imagining a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law talking in a friendly manner, the reporter moved to the western section of Chilgung.
Suk-bin Choi: Cinderella of Joseon
Suk-bin Choi, who is enshrined at Yuksang-gung, lived a similar life to that of Cinderella. She was a musuri, a handmaid who was in charge of all of the palace chores. However, she became a concubine through Seung-eun from the 19th king, Sukjong, and was promoted to the status of Bin. Exactly what kind of life she led before entering the palace does not remain on record, but it is believed that she was from a very poor and humble family. After becoming a concubine, she strengthened her position by giving birth to three sons and her second son, Yeon-ying-gun, later became King Yeongjo. Therefore, Suk-bin Choi was truly a Cinderella of the Joseon Dynasty who experienced life from the bottom of the social ladder to that of birthing the highest-ranking member of the royal family.
Coming out through a side door of the Yuksang-gung and Yeonho-gung, Naeng-chen, a well covered by a circular lid and Naeng-chen-jeong, a smallish house attracted the reporter’s attention. “Naeng-chen was used by King Yeongjo, and Naeng-chen-jeong was a place where Yeongjo prepared his mother’s ancestral rites and rested. Yeongjo hung his portrait at Naeng-chen-jeong as he wanted to be with his mother all the time.” Although Suk-bin’s humble origins could have complicated Yeongjo’s rule, he served his mother with great filial piety and love. Visualizing Yeongjo, who would have missed his mother at Naeng-chen-jeong, the reporter thence took steps toward other shrines.
The western wing of Chilgung was arranged in a linear pattern consisting of three shrines, with Deog-an-gung being the first. “The original area of Chilgung was larger than this, so the three shrines at the back were all located independently like Deog-an-gung. However, the area of Chilgung was reduced due to the construction of a road and the shrines were moved to their current location at that time.” The most impressive one among the three shrines attached together was Daebin-gung in the middle. This was because the reporter felt a slight sense of difference between this shrine and the other two.
The commentator asked as if she had read the mind of the reporter. “There are some unique characteristics on Daebin-gung. Would you like to guess?” The guide kindly gave a reply when the reporter mumbled an answer. “First of all, the pillars of Daebin-gung are round-shaped, unlike other shrines which have square pillars. The stairs are also one step higher than the other shrines on both sides. In addition, the decorations on the doors of Daebin-gung are more colorful than those of other shrines.”
To understand these peculiarities of Daebin-gung, the reporter had to know about the life of Hui-bin Jang. “The Queen In-hyeon was abolished by King Sukjong and Hui-bin Jang became the queen from 1689 to 1694 with the affection of Sukjong. However, Queen In-hyeon was reinstated and Hui-bin Jang was demoted to concubine because of Jang’s severe jealousy towards other concubines such as Suk-bin Choi. Eventually, she was killed under the charge of cursing Queen In-hyeon to death.”
Hui-bin Jang is the only concubine crowned queen in the entire Joseon Dynasty. Although she died dishonorably, her life as queen for five years and the fact that she is the mother of King Gyeongjong, did not change. Thus, there are distinctions in her shrine. There is no way to check whether Hui-bin Jang was a demonic woman or a pathetic woman used as a political scapegoat. Hearing about her life, which had been dominated by the degree of love from the king, the reporter felt pity for her.
Yeong-bin Yi and Su-bin Park: Mothers who lived different lives
The relationship between Yeong-bin Yi and Su-bin Park is that of grandmother-in-law and granddaughter-in-law. However, their lives were completely different. Yeong-bin Yi, the mother of Jangjo, had one son and six daughters, but six of them, including Jangjo, died before her death. In particular, Jangjo frequently clashed with his father, Yeongjo, due to the differences in personality and political views. Jangjo even suffered from mental illness caused by the heavy pressure on his father’s expectations and engaged in various crimes and misbehaviors. In order to protect her daughter-in-law and grandson, who later became King Jeongjo, Yi was forced to plead with Yeongjo to kill her son.
On the other hand, Su-bin Park died in 1822 after seeing her son ascend to the throne in 1800. She had a son and a daughter, one of whom was Sunjo, the 23rd king of Joseon. After the death of Su-bin Park, Sunjo set up a funeral parlor inside the palace and wore white clothes for three years after the funeral, which is the same procedure for the queen’s funeral. Not only was she not short-lived but also did not see her children die unlike others. Thus, she enjoyed life as a mother and as a concubine.
After stepping out of Jeo-gyeong-gung, Daebin-gung and Seonhui-gung, the reporter could find Deog-an-gung. “Although her status was a concubine, Sunheon Gwi-bi Eom performed the role of queen since the death of Empress Myeong-seong, the last queen of Joseon. She is also famous for donating a lot of land to Sookmyung Women’s University with her great interest in women’s education.” Unlike the other three shrines, Deog-an-gung has remained in relatively good condition. The reporter passed through the Sam-mun in front of Deog-an-gung after finishing the tour of Chilgung’s western area. Song-juk-jae and Pung-wol-heon appeared over the wall on the left in a moment. Finally, the reporter arrived at the place where he had met with the commentator, and the 50-minutute tour of Chilgung came to an end.
Hyo, meaning “filial piety,” is one of the virtues left in our society, transcending time and space. Chilgung is a place where visitors can look at the ancestral rites of the Joseon Dynasty and witness the Hyo of Joseon’s kings. In addition, it is a meaningful place where concubines, who were forced to live a passive life under the absolute orders of the kings and queens, exist as the main characters. However, unlike Jongmyo Shrine, which has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and recognized for its value, Chilgung has been excluded from the attention of people. The Argus hopes that the historical value of Chilgung is recognized by the public and reborn as a new landmark representing Hyo.
By Na Geum-chae
Associate Editor of Theory & Critique Section