They came from starkly different backgrounds.
She from a family poor in wealth but rich in love; he from one with full coffers but stingy with affection for him.
In The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong, the eponymous crown princess of the Joseon Dynasty recalled with fondness how her parents used to sleep beside her right before she got married at the age of nine, caressing and consoling her when she cried at night. Her family descended from the eldest daughter of a previous queen and held ministerial positions in the Joseon government, yet their homely ways and general disdain for riches belied these illustrious roots. Unable to afford new clothes, her mother painstakingly sewed those she wore for the crown princess selection using fabric taken from old clothes. Meanwhile, as the crown prince, her husband Sado was left to be reared in a sprawling residence complete with multiple study halls for his personal use but manned by obnoxious servants and infrequently visited by his parents. His father was a fearsome king quick to pick on his flaws in front of large audiences, accusing him of wrongs he never committed and blaming every other misfortune, including bad weather, that came his way on the young lad. Not only that, the king excluded the prince from the royal entourage visiting the ancestral tombs for more than two decades and made a ritual out of calling on the poor boy after tending to official affairs and washing his ears right after hearing the response to rid himself of the unpleasantness of his day—which might have been more tolerable if not for the harsh contrast to the loving manner with which he treated many other members of the royal family.
In the drama Secret Door, Prince Sado found a confidant in Heung-bok, a lowly painter in the palace. In real life, it was his father-in-law, Hong Bong-han, whom he poured his woes to. Lady Hyegyeong remarked in her memoirs that, as populated as the palace was, prior to his marriage (also at the age of nine), there was no one Prince Sado could share his innermost thoughts with. After Hong got acquainted with the prince, however, the elder man started sharing noteworthy passages from classics and other books with him, explaining famous writings and historical events with great care and patience so that a boy his age could understand. Lady Hyegyeong noted that her father, in fact, spent more time with his son-in-law than her. Prince Sado, in turn, sent his essays to Hong for comments, even though he had his own team of tutors. The two of them also exchanged letters, a practice that lasted into the prince’s adulthood, in the process of which Prince Sado described his unhappiness with palace life such as his inability to visit ancestral tombs.
As Prince Sado grew older, he started displaying symptoms of mental illness. Attributing his ailments to the immense terror and hurt he experienced under the king, Lady Hyegyong described how he developed bizarre mannerisms and threw violent tantrums at eunuchs, ladies-in-waiting and, occasionally, her. Aware of his own condition yet unwilling to disclose it to physicians in the palace for fear of incurring his father’s wrath, Prince Sado sought assistance from Hong, asking if the latter could pass medicine for depression covertly to him. Meanwhile, Lady Hyegyeong’s mother, who paid great attention to the prince’s troubles, would calm him down during his outbursts—one word from her, according to the memoirs, always dissipated his anger at once.
It was when he lost touch with both in-laws that Prince Sado allegedly grew from disturbed to depraved. Madam Hong passed away when he was twenty. A year after that, Hong himself began to be dispatched to other provinces to take on one bureaucratic position after another. Although he was summoned back to the capital now and then, including a transfer to the central government that finally enabled him to stay near the prince, one can speculate that this flutter of activity and his increased responsibilities as he rose through the ranks to become the prime minister meant that he had less time for his son-in-law. Moreover, Hong once interfered in a dramatic confrontation between father and son—a move which enraged the sovereign and got him dismissed and banished from the city for a fortnight. In an age when one wrong step could put the lives of your entire clan at risk and a place like the palace where gossip was rife, Hong might be forced to become more circumspect in his interactions with the prince from then on, while the younger man suffered setback after setback. Prince Sado’s disease, in Lady Hyegyeong’s words, “spread through him just as water soaks into a piece of paper.” He slayed people, beheaded a eunuch, violated ladies-in-waiting and beat his beloved concubine to death. The prince’s descent into madness, as Lady Hyegyeong claimed, eventually alarmed his parents enough that, after a mutual discussion, the king had him locked up in a rice chest and starved to death He was only 27.
In circumstances like these, where political power is at stake, the motives of individuals can be suspect. One may reason that Hong and his wife’s attention to Prince Sado was spurred not by sincere concern but by a desire to gain the favor of a man originally slated to be the next sovereign of the country, or at least secure his well-being, and improve their family’s standing. Even Lady Hyegyeong’s account itself can be discredited for her partiality towards her blood relatives, whose reputation had been tarnished substantially after a number of tussles with court rivals. Yet such charges may be unfair to moral agents finding themselves in this kind of situation. Political players do not become self-minded persons by mere virtue of the section of society they belong to. Engagement in politics can be motivated by societal welfare as well as personal gains. Even when prestige, influence and wealth are on such individuals’ radar, there may still be room for prosocial interests. Contrary to the antagonism characterizing much of public discourse surrounding politicians nowadays, political figures and the company they keep have arguably as much a right as ordinary persons to a presumption of good will until otherwise proven.
And this good will between a husband and his in-laws could not have offered more food for thought. In modern times, the realization that a marriage occurs not just between two persons but their families as well is met often with resignation at best and indignation at worst. A spouse’s family is prone to be viewed as liabilities and unwanted baggage. Parents-in-law, in particular, are frequently painted in Asian dramas as third parties in a marriage, creating tension between a couple with their criticism of parenting styles and unreasonable demands on the spouse who is not their own flesh and blood. Yet Prince Sado’s experiences—echoed also in those of Lady Hyegyeong, who recounted the king showering her with affection and her mother-in-law consoling her tenderly upon her mother’s death—suggest that the family one marries has the potential to be a precious source of strength and comfort.
Be it 250 years ago or today, that is always a silver lining.