First post and I'm already cheating - recycling material from my own blog. Ahem. In my defence a) it's been a busy weekend (parental visit), b) I haven't finished my current reads yet (though hopefully shall later tonight), and c) this book is still haunting me, almost a month after I originally wrote about it. Thus:
After countless adversities and misfortunes both public and private, my life seemed a frail thread about to break. I could not die without telling my grandson what I know of his ancestors; it would have been outside normal human sentiment. And so, resisting death and weeping blood, I wrote this record. Nevertheless, I omitted many things of which I could not bear to speak.
--The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong (from the 'Memoir of 1805')
Finished reading this book last weekend. It's a series of autobiographical narratives by a woman known as Lady Hyegyong, a Crown Princess and mother and grandmother to kings in late eighteenth-century Korea. It's fascinating from all sorts of literary and historical angles: at once public apologia and private memoir, written in four instalments over the space of ten years. The first three concern themselves with the story of her earlier life and her marriage into the royal family, and with championing (and in some cases posthumously defending) her natal family. They're political but also intensely personal; and over all three hangs a shadow: the fate of her husband, Crown Prince Sado, who was executed by his own father for mysterious reasons in 1762, and whose posthumous reputation threatens the position of her offspring.
In the fourth, Lady Hyegyong finally tells the tale - for the reason quoted above, and also to absolve her grandson, by this time the king, from the inauspicious and politically-damaging suggestion of criminality associated with his grandfather Sado. This is where history becomes Greek tragedy. Even though, writing 40 years later, Lady H quietly agrees that there was ultimately no other way to deal with her husband, she doesn't shy from exploring the causes of his downfall (even to the extent of criticising the late Yongjo, a brave move). And, like a good thriller writer, she squeezes every last drop of tension and emotion out of the events (proving that, once again, history can be unputdownable ).
A long-overdue male heir to the throne, Sado was put under immense pressure to achieve and learn conformity by the stifling educational rituals of the royal family - while, simultaneously, he was neglected by his coldly formal father, Yongjo, to such an extent that even an inside observer like Lady Hyegyong, steeped in the customs of the time, cannot hide her shock in the retelling. From soon after his birth, Sado was brought up separately from his parents' living quarters, and visits were highly formal occasions. Every encounter between father and son was framed as a test of the heir; with every failure, Sado became more terrified of Yongjo, and Yongjo more openly disgusted with his son. Lady Hyegyong recalls how Sado would change from a cheerful, articulate young man into a stammering, cowering boy in his father's presence, so fearful that it took him hours simply to dress in the formal robes for their meetings.
As he grew older, Sado began to embrace his father's poor opinion of him. Accused by Yongjo one day of being drunk in his presence, and badgered into 'admitting' it even though he wasn't, Sado subsequently had alcohol delivered to his house publicly. Gradually, Yongjo conceived such a hatred for his disappointing offspring that he became convinced Sado was a living, breathing ill omen, inauspicious by his very presence. Attempting to visit his sick mother one night, Sado was chased from the building by an enraged Yongjo, who wanted him as far away from his mother and pregnant sister as possible. Although Sado was appointed regent and co-ruler at an early age, he was repeatedly blocked from fulfilling his role or taking part in official functions; when crisis struck the realm, like a bad drought and subsequent famine, Sado was even blamed for the natural disasters.
Not surprisingly, Sado became ill, physically and mentally. His rage and frustration turned to violence, he went through phases of being unable to recognise his loved ones, and he tried to commit suicide on several occasions. He also developed what Lady Hyegyong calls a "clothing phobia":
It was inexplicable. I say 'clothing phobia' but it was beyond description - a strange and mysterious affliction. For him to get dressed, I had to have ten, twenty or even thirty sets of clothes laid out. He would then burn some, supposedly on behalf of some ghost or other. Even after this, if he managed to get into a suit of clothes without incident, one had to count it as great good luck. If, however, those serving him were to make the slightest error, he would not be able to put the clothes on, no matter how hard he tried.
Once he did find something he was able to put on, his relief would be such that he would wear the same clothes for days on end without changing. If he went out, if anyone saw him before he reached his destination he would have to remove the clothes immediately (leading to at least one occasion where he presented himself to his father in only his underwear).
As Sado's "madness" grew worse,Yongjo began to fear for his own life - partly from rumours opportunistic courtiers trying to undermine the heir, partly (I suspect, although Lady H talks around this point) because Sado may truly have been planning something. Ultimately, his violent tendencies became so bad that he beat several people to death - including his pregnant mistress. His mother, witnessing this, was forced to a heartbreaking decision (but, by the standards of the time, an utterly unavoidable one): to intervene with Yongjo and request that - for the sake of the kingdom - Sado be executed.
Sado was then summoned before his father. What happened next, Lady H only heard through her father. She and her children were under house arrest; under Korean law, they were tainted by Sado's crimes and potentially under sentence of death themselves.
In the royal audience chamber, meanwhile, father and son faced each other. In between them there stood a wooden rice chest (measuring 4ft x 4ft x 4ft, we are told). It was opened, and Yongjo ordered his son to climb inside. Undoubtedly aware of what this meant, Sado did as his father told him. It was then sealed up.
Eight days later, he died, still inside it.