Did you know that... (35) Evil begets evil

By Robert Neff

There is a saying that evil begets evil and this certainly applies in the story of King Seongjong and his second wife, Queen Yoon. King Seongjong was the ninth king of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

Queen Yoon was a beautiful woman who became filled with hatred and jealousy while vying for the love of a man. After giving birth to a son, Yi Yung, in 1476, the king's attention drifted from her to one of his favorite concubines - Lady Kwon. Yoon could not and would not tolerate being spurned so she decided to take drastic measures.

According to Edward B. Adams' "Through Gates of Seoul", Yoon conspired with a "mudang" (shaman) to remove Kwon from the palace. A human bone was secretly buried beneath the king's chamber and then the queen began to act as if she were possessed by an evil spirit. The king, alarmed at the state of his queen, agreed to have a "gut" (a shaman ritual) performed in the palace in an effort to alleviate her suffering.

Yoon quickly summoned her mudang. After much ceremony and chanting the mudang went straight to the hidden bone and revealed it, claiming that this was the source of the queen's possession.

"The astonished king asked who was responsible for it, whereupon the mudang, closing her eyes and whirling about, pointed out concubine Kwon. Though insisting that she was innocent, Kwon and her young son were banished from the palace, and [Yoon's] feigned illness suddenly vanished".

The king's heart was torn. He obviously could not condone the use of sorcery against his queen but he could not forget his strong feelings for Kwon and constantly sent messengers asking about her health. This angered the queen to no end and, in 1479, she sent two assassins to kill Kwon and her son. But they were foiled by one of the king's servants.

The assassination attempt convinced the king that Kwon and her son were in danger and they had to be brought back to the palace where he could watch over their safety.

When he informed the queen of his plans, she flew into a rage, threw a table of food at him and scratched his face with her fingernails. She had gone too far and even though she was the queen, she was exiled.

Eventually, in 1482, she was deemed too much of a threat and executed with poison. As she lay dying, she took a handkerchief and stained it with blood from her lips and asked that it be given to her son, Yi Yung, so that he could exact her revenge.

When Yi Yung, now known as Yeonsan-gun, ascended to the throne in 1494, he honored his mother's dying wishes and immediately began a campaign of revenge. "Court officials and their families who were in any way associated with Queen (Yoon's) death were decapitated publicly, and the remains of those who had died in the intervening years were dug up and scattered to the four winds".

Yeonsan's reign was filled with violence and purges but fortunately it was short. He was disposed of in 1506 by his half-brother. Although finally demoted and exiled, he has been described as the most ruthless tyrant of Joseon's history and his excesses were not limited to just murder. It is rumored that he forced a thousand women to be his consorts and had orgies in the Secret Garden but apparently, judging from this further vilification, he lacked stamina.

Yeonsan believed that if he kept snakes under his bed that they would make him "vigorous and strong". There were no snakes in Korea at the time so he sent a boat to India and had some brought back where they were unloaded near Asan. Unfortunately some of the serpents escaped and now inhabit Korea's mountains. A lasting consequence of Yeongsan's many evils.

Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.

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