King Sukjong (r.1674-1720) and his ‘romance’ with a peasant woman who became his concubine and the mother of a future king is fictionalised in the historical drama Dong Yi (MBC 2010).
But King Sukjong’s biggest romantic claim to fame is his relationship with Jang Hee Bin, THE femme fatale of the Joseon period.
Jang Hee Bin became the top level concubine when she gave birth to the king’s son. The queen didn’t have any children. Jang Hee Bin desperately wanted to become Queen but King Sukjong already had a queen (he had three altogether – one after the other, not all at the same time).
The political situation was complicated and the queen was eventually exiled for political reasons. And with her out of the way the king put Hee Bin on the throne and she was pronounced Queen.
But it didn’t end well for her as the king later regretted his treatment of the queen and pardoned her. She mysteriously died though and Jang Hee Bin who had been demoted back to concubine was eventually accused of plotting to kill her. Hee Bin was sentenced to death and drank from the dreaded bowl of poison.
King Sukjong is buried with Queen Inhyeon (his second queen, the one he exiled and then pardoned) at Seoorung 서오릉 (meaning 5 western tombs) a UNESCO World Heritage site just outside of Seoul in Gyeonggi-do.
It’s a fun day out (if you like looking at tombs) as the burial sites are spread out over a vast area of land with walking paths and pine trees and other nature stuff. Several of the Joseon kings and queens and relations are buried here. Lady Choi’s tomb, (Dong Yi) is not here but Jang Hee Bin’s tomb is nearby, but separate from King Sukjong.
There are three different types of royal tombs depending on the status of those buried there.
NEUNG tombs are the highest level reserved for kings and their queens. (King Sejong’s tomb site is another NEUNG type tomb)
WON tombs are second on the status level and are for crown princes and princesses and royal parents.
MYO tombs are the lowest level of royal tombs. Jang Hee Bin was a concubine so her tomb is a MYO tomb. Her tomb was originally further away but was moved here in 1970. (dethroned kings like Yeonsangun also have MYO tombs. See Yeonsangun’s humble tomb here)
While military officers and scholars guard the King’s tomb only scholars guard the lower level MYO tombs.
KING SUKJONG’S TOMB
The tombs of King Sukjong and his second and third queens are just outside the Seooreung complex and they are the only ones that are not fenced off to the public so visitors can go up on the hill and look more closely at the mounds and animals and figures protecting them.
Royal tombs follow specific rules. For a Neung (top class) tomb there must be a red gate at the entrance to the area and a straight path leading up to the building where memorial rites are carried out.
The actual tombs are on elevated land with pine trees behind them. The pathway leading up to the burial mounds has 2 different levels: the highest level is only for the spirit of the departed king. So nobody should be walking on that!
Traditionally kings and queens were buried together while concubines had smaller tombs separately. King Sukjong’s tomb is next to Queen Inhyeon, his second wife, the queen portrayed in Dong Yi.
His third wife, Queen Inwon (1687-1757) outlived him but is buried on a nearby hill on her own to the left. (see below) His first wife, Queen Ingyeong who died at the age of 19 is buried in a completely separate area within the Seooreung complex.
JANG HEE BIN’S TOMB
The MYO tombs of the concubines are more simple than the tombs of the kings and queens. There is no gate and no path leading up to the burial mounds and no buildings for preparing memorial rites.
Jang Hee Bin is infamous in history for her aggressive ambition and the interesting thing about her tomb is that behind the tomb a pine tree has broken through a ROCK to grow.
This apparently suggests that Jang Hee Bin’s energy (ki) is still very strong.
The saying goes that if a young single woman is looking for love, she should go and ask for help from Jang Hee Bin at her tomb and her wish will come true. I don’t know if this really works but I suppose it’s worth a try.