The Family Plot

In the end it is Lady Hyegyong who most enduringly redeems Sado's life, bringing a human dimension to his sensational death. "One sees that his true nature was good," she writes, citing palace stories of Sado's childhood and the lucid moments amid his illness in which his filiality was patent—for example, his copious tears upon the death of Yongjo's queen, who was not even his birth mother. (Significantly, when his father was present—when such visible, filial sincerity might have redounded to his good—fear overcame Sado, and his tears stopped, leaving Yongjo disgusted at his apparent lack of respectful anguish.) Lady Hyegyong blames Sado's mental deterioration on evil spirits, lax (or worse) servants, an early interest in martial games and the occult; she suggests that the root of these ills lies in the early, curious removal of Sado from his parents' quarters to those of the previous king, whose servants were still loyal to his memory, to the point of arrogance. The reason for the move points to an older, similarly complicated tale of sovereignty, family, death. Yongjo, son of king and concubine, had come to the throne after the brief reign of his more legitimate brother, King Kyonjong—and charges of fratricide dogged him ever after. Moving Sado to Kyonjong's old quarters might have been Yongjo's way of displaying his own respect—and innocence.

Too soon and sadly, relations between Sado and Yongjo grew strained, until they "seemed to act toward each other almost against their wills"; when Yongjo named him regent (at age 14), the pressures of administrative duty further burdened his mental state. Yongjo was in many ways a capable, upstanding king; he made valiant (if necessarily self-serving) attempts to quash the bitter factionalism that pervaded the court. He was also superstitious, however. Lady Hyegyong notes that Yongjo blamed his son for foul weather, and would often clean his own ears after speaking to Sado, in order to wash away the day's bad luck. It is no surprise that, with the start of the regency, Yongjo made Sado preside over only "grim and inauspicious affairs" like criminal cases.


The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong:
The Autobiographical Writings of a Crown Princess of Eighteenth-Centruy Korea

Translated and annotated by JaHyun Kim Haboush
University of California Press, 329 pp., $26.95
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  • Though Lady Hyegyong writes long after the fact, her grief is mitigated neither by time nor by notions of fate. She recounts the details of Sado's dying day with the scrupulous precision of a detective novelist, partly to set the record straight (so wild were the rumors surrounding the imo incident that, Lady Hyegyong states, "in several years no one will be able to figure out what his crime was"), partly as if to obtain a last measure of understanding. "In my decrepitude," she write, "I remember but one word in ten thousand." This is sadness of an uncommonly thorough order. But perhaps a final, posthumous justice—now that the world the Memoirs evokes is dust—is that we can still read her words, which remember so much sorrow so well.

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