Mid Joseon Kings in Sageuk Drama (1494 – 1649) YEONSANGUN to KING INJO

mid joseon kings


Yeonsangun (r. 1494 -1506), King Jungjong (r.1506-1544),King Injong (r. 1544-1545)
King Myeongjong (r.1545-1567); King Seonjo (r.1567-1608); Gwanghaegun (r.1608-1623); King Injo (r.1623-1649)

In this post I’ll take a look of each of the kings of the mid-Joseon period with the help of the film King and the Clown (2005), and the dramas Dae Jang Geum (MBC 2003), Mandate of Heaven: The Fugitive of Joseon (KBS 2013) Heojun (MBC 2000), Jung Yi: Goddess of Fire (MBC 2013), and War of Flowers (JTBC 2013). For other posts related to this topic see my post on Overview of Early Joseon Kings and Joseon Kings Overview

This period lasted just over 150 years with 7 kings. We start with the troubled and tyrannical Yeonsangun who was violent and cruel and caused huge hardship for his people by taxing them heavily to pay for his lavish lifestyle. And we end with the weak and indecisive King Injo whose lack of diplomatic skills leaves him struggling with the Qing Dynasty and the Manchu wars.


YEONSANGUN (r.1494 -1506)
The worst tyrant in Joseon history?

He is certainly portrayed that way in drama. His reign was very different to life under his father, the liberal, diplomatic King Seongjong. But what did Yeonsangun do that was so terrible? He was cruel and violent and ruled over a very unConfucian court and his motto seems to have been “If you don’t agree with me, I’ll kill you.’ And he taxed the poor heavily to pay for his extravagant lifestyle. :(

Yeonsangun didn’t follow Confucian values of self cultivation and restraint by living a frugal life. In fact, Royal extravagance reached its peak during his reign.The Naesusa (Royal Treasury) had already started to ‘acquire’ land and increase the wealth of the royal family. (And this continued well after Yeonsangun’s reign). Yeonsangun financed his extravagant lifestyle by enforcing high taxes leading to severe poverty around the country. Many peasants went bankrupt and lost their land trying to pay the taxes. To make matters worse, the uichang (righteous granary) system which had been set up to lend grain to the people during hard times was abolished at end of the 15th century due to lack of grain. So the people struggled to eat.

Yeonsangun wasn’t into studying and personal growth either (as a Joseon sage king should be) and instead infamously converted Seonggyungwan (the national university) into a BROTHEL for his personal entertainment causing more than a few raised eye-brows no doubt! He enslaved up to 1000 women from around the country to work as ‘entertainers’. But his favourite concubine was the infamous Noksu who it is said even acted as a pimp finding him ladies.

Wang-ui namja (2005) Poster

Yeonsangun and his concubine Noksu and the King’s court are the setting for the film The King and the Clown (2005) starring Jung Jin-young as the diabolical King. The film brilliantly portrays his unConfucian vulgar court where the courtiers live in fear of the violent, unstable King. The king clearly has a smutty sense of humour, and enjoys having fun, but he can change quickly and is prone to sudden and frightening bouts of extreme violence and cruelty. He uses his power to kill or exile people who displease him.

The film is about two court entertainers who become popular with the king by mocking him and his concubine Noksu in a very bawdy fashion! The Confucian ministers are shocked at the sexual innuendo and disrespectful language and actions of the entertainers. But the king (played brilliantly by Jung Jin-young) loves their performances. The entertainers are actually expressing what the common people outside court really think of the king and his concubine.

Yeonsangun was known for his huge sexual appetite and having a harem of concubines. But the film suggests that he was interested in men too. (in the film he becomes infatuated with the effeminate entertainer Gon-gil played by Lee Joon-gi)

During one performance his demeanour changes and he snaps when a minister who is clearly afraid of him drops a cup of alcohol. The king kicks and beats him, demands he be thrown out of court, his family titles and everything taken from him, and if that isn’t enough – he orders that all the minister’s fingers be CUT OFF! Just for spilling a cup of alcohol! As one of the entertainers complains afterwards, they are performing comedy in a bloodbath!

One of the possible causes for the king’s behaviour is that he was traumatised by the death of his mother. (She was one of his father’s concubines who in a fit of jealous rage poisoned another concubine and then attacked the king too. So she was exiled and forced to drink poison by the Sarim faction.)



The death of Yeonsangun’s mother Consort Yoon is portrayed in episode 2 of Jewel in the Palace, (MBC, 2003).

Yeonsangun (above right) is distraught when he sees his mother’s blood. His revenge begins in 1504 when he orders the execution of the people responsible for his mother’s death, (see Literati Purges of 1504.) (Read the Dae Jang Geum episode summaries here.) Wanted posters are put up to catch EVERYONE involved and officials connected to the incident have to drink poison. Jang Geum’s father is also killed. But Yeonsangun killed members from both political factions – the Hungu faction and the Sarim faction – even though it was the Sarim who he blamed for his mother’s death. In the end over 200 people were affected in some way – being executed or exiled.

Finally members of the Hungu faction couldn’t take the king’s leadership anymore and they came up with a plan to depose Yeonsangun. It worked and his half-brother became King Jungjong. But because Yeonsangun was deposed, he was demoted to the title of ‘prince’ (gun) and his sons couldn’t become king.


KING JUNGJONG (r. 1506-1544)
the first Joseon king to come to the throne after a coup by officials

In the early Joseon period King Danjong (r.1452-1455) was only 12 years old when he became king so his uncle, Grand Prince Suyang, saw an opportunity and usurped the throne from him in a coup to become King Sejo (r. 1455-1468). But King Jungjong was the first king to come to the throne after a coup by government officials.


So King Jungjong (r.1506-1544) was put on the throne by the Hungu faction of the government after they deposed Yeonsangun. But then the Hungu continued the corrupt practices of Yeonsangun’s court! (see Dae Jang Geum) And King Jungjong spent a frustrating reign trying to stop them. (So much for trying to make things better :roll: He is said to have been a competent ruler but he had a tough time trying to clear up Yeonsangun’s mess of tyrannical leadership and two violent and bloody purges of sarim scholars.

Unlike Yeonsangun, King Jungjong was keen on education and the first private Confucian Academy (Seowon) was opened in 1542. (by the time of King Seonjo’s reign 1567-1608 there were more than 100 Seowon). Confucian teachings at the schools helped to strengthen moral order around the country and the Seowon were meant for everyone, but gradually they became very prestigious until only Yangban (aristocrat) children could realistically attend them and commoners had to go to public schools (hyanggyo). Jungjong also reopened the Seonggyungwan, national university, and the Office of Censors, which was allowed to criticize inappropriate actions of the king (both of these institutions had been closed by Yeonsangun who wasn’t into becoming educated or receiving criticism!)

But most importantly to sageuk drama fans, Jungjong is famous for employing Dae Jang Geum as the first female royal physician. (Read how King Jungjong is portrayed in Dae Jang Geum here on my blog)

dae jang geum

In episode 3 of Dae Jang Geum (below) we see the plot to overthrow Yeonsangun which took place in 1506. Here the Hungu officials gather secretly to discuss their plans.

plot to depose Yeonsangun

Prince Jinsung, the future King Jungjong, (below played by Im Ho) is aware of his brother’s increasingly violent behaviour but he is unable to do anything about it. In fact he also lives in fear of his own life under the tyranny of the unpredictable king. Jang Geum is a child at this point and she is used by the plotters to deliver the message to the prince about what they are planning to do. (i.e. commit treason!)They use the innocent child because the prince is heavily guarded and so the plotters can’t speak to him directly.

the prince doesn't want to be king

The story of Jang geum as a child delivering alcohol to the prince’s quarters is obviously fiction, but we can get a sense of the tension at the time. The prince is in a predicament because ( well, he says this in the drama) he doesn’t want to be king if the Hungu succeed with the coup, but on the other hand he doesn’t want to be killed if the traitors are caught! It’s Catch 22! But the plot is successful and in 1506 King Jungjong has his coronation. Although he doesn’t look too happy about it.

king Jungjong

Because the Hungu faction which had put King Jungjong on the throne were very powerful, King Jungjong tried to balance political power by promoting a member of the opposing Sarim faction, Jo Gwang-jo, to a high position in government. Gradually Jungjong began to assert his authority and carried out a large-scale reformation of the government with the help of Jo Gwang-jo and other Sarim scholars.

But of course members of the Hungu faction didn’t like the growing strength of the Sarim and this brought more power struggles and bloodshed. In short, it all ended badly with the third Literati purge of 1519 and sarim member Jo Gwang-jo having to drink poison. AGAIN (other sarim scholars were killed or exiled too and this event is portrayed in later episodes of Dae Jang Geum when Jang Geum herself and her mentor Lady Han get caught up in the third purge.

(Below Jang Geum played by Lee Young Ae and Lady Han played by Yang Mi kyoung are arrested for serving the king poisonous duck soup and are accused by the hungu faction of supporting sarim reformer Jo Gwang-jo. See Dae Jang Geum episode 25).


The fictional Hungu official Lord Oh (below played by Jo Kyung Hwan) in Dae Jang Geum represents the corrupt officials prevalent at this time. He manages to get hold of land even when the king is trying to stop this practice to help lower the tax for commoners. Many peasants lost their land during this time and had to turn to other professions – many became merchants. Lord Oh is also involved in illegal trade with foreign enemies ..Many officials became wealthy through foreign trade with China and Japan at the time. But in the drama Lord Oh is finally arrested, stripped of his title and exiled. hurray! :)

Lord Oh is exiled ep 48

Towards the end of King Jungjong’s reign in 1540 there was a very bad harvest and famine. This brought more hardship to the people but also affected the king’s reputation. Because during the Joseon period any kind of natural disaster was blamed on the king’s rule – it was believed that the powers above were punishing the king (and so Joseon) for making bad decisions. Perhaps this was particularly bad luck for King Jungjong because of the way he came to the throne. Was it the heavens punishing him and the people?

Politically, the power of the Hungu faction began to diminish. Sarim Confucian scholars started their own political faction and eventually had political power. The Hungu faded away and the Sarim took over. But as the numbers of Sarim grew, their disagreements grew too and although they remained in power for the rest of the Joseon period, they broke into many splinter groups due to ideological differences. And as can be seen in many Joseon dramas, the various factions struggled for power amongst themselves.


KING INJONG (r. 1544-1545)
had the shortest reign of the Joseon kings

King Injong (r. 1544-1545) had the shortest reign of all the Joseon kings – he died just eight months after coming to the throne. He died of ‘ill health’ and there was a rumour that he was poisoned so that his half-brother Grand Prince Kyung Won (son of Queen Munjeong) could take the throne. His reign was short but a rumoured plot to kill the king is great drama material.

Corruption had been rife since Yeonsanguns’ reign. King Jungjong had had limited power and although King Injong tried to end corruption and make reforms in the government, he couldn’t succeed due to his health. (BTW – He reigned over Joseon while Dae Jang Geum was in exile in Jewel in the Palace so we never actually get to see him as king in that drama. :( )
King Injong

The rumoured plot to kill him by his step mother Queen Munjeong is portrayed in the drama Mandate of Heaven: The Fugitive of Joseon (KBS 2013). At this point King Injong is still Crown Prince Yi Ho (above – played by actor /singer Im Seulong and member of K-pop group 2AM).

In the drama Queen Munjeong is presented as a ruthless queen desperate for power. Prince Yi Ho is far too kind and naive and he wants to believe his step mother when she tells him that she would NEVER wish him harm (when she is already plotting his murder!) The prince is so lonely and powerless in a court full of spies and enemies. And he struggles to get his head around the idea that the queen could possibly want to harm him now – although she is not his biological mother, she brought him up as her own child. :( Here she is below (played by Park Ji Young) in one of the creepiest sageuk drama scenes ever – even if it does involve flower petals and what should be a relaxing bath!

Mandate of Heaven


his mother Queen Munjeong reigned as Regent as he was too young

King Myeongjong (r.1545-1567) was only 12 years old when he came to the throne, after his half-brother died of ill health. If his mother Queen Munjeong really did manage to plot and kill King Injong, she got exactly what she wanted – the position of Regent. She ruled for many years on Myeongjong’s behalf even after he became of age! The Joseon dynasty banned Buddhist worship and tried to enforce Confucianist ideology on the people, but Queen Munjeong supported Buddhism.

Here’s King Injo ( or rather Grand Prince Kyun Won as he was known, played by Seo Dong hyun) in Mandate of Heaven before he became king where he’s portrayed as a kind boy who is dominated by his ambitious mother, Queen Munjeong. It’s never suggested that he had anything to do with the plot to kill his half-brother and previous King Injong.

Mandate of Heaven

There were two rival political factions both led by relations of the royal family. While the previous king Injong reigned, his uncle (brother of Jungjong’s second wife – Queen Janggyeong) and the Dae Yoon (Greater Yoon Faction) was in power.

But after Injong died King Myeongjong’s uncle (Queen Munjeong’s brother) Yun Wonhyeong, became the most powerful leader at court leading the So Yoo (Smaller Yoon faction). But he is considered to be one of the worst politicians of the Joseon dynasty! yikes! 😮

The two factions had lots of issues – they came from different parts of the country and had idealogical differences. The Dae Yoon was made up of many young literati from the provinces whilst the So Yoon’s members were literati from the capital. In the end, the So Yoon accused the Dae Yoon of treason and so we come to the Fourth Literati Purge of 1545 where many sarim scholars were killed. AGAAAAAAIN. (For crying out loud enough with the purges already! ) Anyway here’s the ambitious Queen Munjeong (played by Park Ji Young) in Mandate of Heaven. (2013)

mandate of heaven queen Munjeong

BUT amongst all the political in-house fighting, another serious problem was looming: SECURITY. At this time in Joseon, elite yangban aspired to become Confucian scholar-officials in the Joseon government. This was considered far better and more prestigious than joining the military. So with a lack of interest, a lack of funds, and a lack of discipline, the military was in trouble. The country wasn’t developing weaponry either even though there were BIG SIGNS that Joseon was under threat from foreign invaders – In 1555, well before the Imjin invasion by the Japanese led by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, there were reports of Japanese pirates pillaging in Joseon. King Myeongjong was asked to melt the bells from the east and west gate in the capital for weapons. But he declined. And his lack of preparation meant that Joseon was not ready for war…


KING SEONJO (r.1567-1608)
flees the capital during the Imjin Wars

The half-nephew of King Myeongjeong, started his reign off well making reforms and trying to rid the government of corruption. He encouraged intellectual pursuits and built a reading hall for the scholars (Dokseodang) on the River Han. So great intellectuals emerged during this time which was very successful. But as the number of Sarim scholars at court increased so did their ideological disagreements. And the sarim began to splinter off into factions. In the middle of the bickering came the Japanese invasion of 1592 and the start of the 7 year war. But the political squabbling made it difficult to get anything done.

The Sarim broke up into the Seo-in (Westerners) who were established scholars from the capital, the Dong-in (Easterners) who were younger rebels. The Dong-In came to power and then THEY separated into hardliners (Bug-in, Northerners) and moderates (Nam-In Southerners). All very complicated. 😕

Anyway, in the very early years of the Joseon period, defence of the country had been taken seriously. King Sejong had been particularly keen to develop gunpowder weaponry, but now defence was being neglected. This neglect began just a few years later after the 1455 military coup by King Sejo. He limited military and weapon production to stop a coup against himself! (He had usurped the throne by staging a coup himself so his worries were probably understandable!) By King Seonjo’s reign pleas to increase the size of the army were still being ignored.
So it was King Seonjo who had to deal with the Seven-year War (1592-1598) with Japan. In 1592 the Dong-In are in power and they advise the king that there’s no need to worry about the Japanese invading. Duh! They are wrong and the country is not ready for war when Hideyoshi’s men arrive in Pusan. The country is attacked and King Seonjo has to flee the palace to Uiju on the Ming border.


A drama that deals with this part of history is Heojun (MBC 2000). Here King Seonjo (above played by Park Chan-hwan) looks glum as he escapes from the capital after the attack. He has just crossed the river but his men burn the boats to stop the enemy crossing the river after them. Unfortunately that means that the Joseon peasants are stranded on the other side of the river as well. :(


Back in the capital (below) disgruntled peasants riot and set fire to official buildings including the palaces. (not a very useful thing to do, really) Doctor Heojun is desperate to save all the books from the royal library where years of work are about to be destroyed by fire. Gyeongbok palace burns down – and destruction of land and census registers will make it hard to collect taxes creating chaos in government affairs.


But there was good news. Admiral Yi Sunsin, the hero of the Imjin Wars was able to lead the navy and the turtle ships to victory in this first battle thanks to his clever military strategy. On land too, armies were put together made up of peasants and led by sarim scholars and Buddhist monks! Guerilla tactics helped the smaller Joseon armies win against the larger Japanese. Then a Ming army came with back up and Pyeongyang fortress was recovered. In the final battle at sea Joseon won, but Admiral Yi was shot and killed. Below the ordinary folk hide from the Japanese invaders in Heojun.

heojun5706 heojun5711 heojun5714 heojun5713

After the war (34th year of Seonjo) all should be well, but now another problem arises. Domestic this time: Who is going to be the king’s successor? Gwanghaegun (below) had been given the title of Crown Prince during the war but now the Queen has had a baby boy – Prince Yeungchang – and this causes disagreements over who should be the next king. (since Gwanghaegun is only the son of a concubine not a queen)

The Bug-in (Northers faction) argue and split up AGAIN over this issue into the Dae-buk (Big Northerners) who support Gwanghaegun (since he has good leadership skills and did a good job during the war protecting the country) and the So-buk (Small Northerners) who support Prince Yeongchang (since he IS the son of the queen). In the scene below the officials dressed in white mourning wear are STILL bickering over the next King as they supposedly mourn the death of King Seonjo. (Come on Sarim scholars, pull yourselves together. :roll: )

heojun6213 heojun6311 death of King Seonjo gwanghaegun

By the end of King Seonjo’s reign the country was at peace but the after-effects of the seven-year war were great. There were many deaths for starters. 50 years later records show that the population was still only 1.5 million – a third of what it was at the beginning of the Joseon dynasty. And many books, important documents, records, cultural artefacts and buildings were destroyed too. :(


GWANGHAEGUN (r.1608-1623)
a political victim ousted in a coup

So there was a big hooha as the political factions argued over who should succeed King Seonjo. Seonjo was slow to name his successor. Read why Seonjo chose Gwanghaegun to be his successor here. In the drama Jung Yi, Goddess of Fire, (2013) we see three of King Seonjo’s sons ( below from left: oldest son Prince Imhae played by Lee Kwang soo, Prince Gwanghae played by Lee Sang Yoon, and Prince Shinsung played by Park Jun Mok)


Although King Seonjo had fled the capital during the Imjin War, his son Gwanghaegun had stayed behind to fight and rebuild Joseon and so surely worthy to become king. But he was the king’s second son and born to a concubine. This caused problems as the king’s successor should be the first son and born to the queen. Although he did eventually become King, he was also the next king to be ousted in a coup. And on that miserable note let’s take a break with a picture of Prince Gwanghae enjoying a shower in Jung Yi, Goddess of Fire. :)


Because Gwanghaegun was deposed in a coup, his title remained gun – prince. He was not given the title for a king (Jo or Jung). But he is considered to be a good ruler who tried to rebuild the country – a political victim of the times. He was also a good diplomatic who kept a neutral policy towards the Manchus and Ming Dynasty. But when Gwanghaegun was deposed by the pro-Ming faction, the friendly relations with the Manchus also disappeared.

prince_Gwang Hae

In fact, during the First Manchu Invasion (1627) when Gwanghaegun’s successor King Injo was on the throne, the Manchus invaded Joseon demanding the reinstatement of Gwanghaegun. If this had happened perhaps the second Manchu Invasion would not have happened. But he wasn’t reinstated and relations became really, really bad with the anti-Manchu policies of the Western faction in King Injo’s government.


KING INJO (r.1623-1649)
leads the country through two Manchu invasions

(all pictures below are scenes from episode 1 of War of Flowers, JTBC 2013)


The opening scenes of War of Flowers or Blood Palace (JTBC 2013) depict January 1st in the 15th year of King Injo’s reign when Joseon surrenders to the Qing dynasty during the second Manchu War. Huang Taiji the Emperor of the new Qing Dynasty has invaded Joseon and come straight for King Injo (played by Lee Deok Hwa). The scenes show the humiliated King Injo on the cold winter’s night being forced to first get out of his palanquin and walk through the snow to bow before the Emperor Huang Taiji.


After Gwanghaegun was deposed, the Joseon court refused to support the Qing dynasty and diplomatic relations were bad. But here the Qing Emperor demands that Joseon support the Qing dynasty (and not Ming) from now on. King Injo (r.1623-1649) ruled through both Manchu invasions which ended here with the surrender of Joseon. All that the Crown Prince Sohyeon (played by Jung Sung Woon) and courtiers can do is stand helplessly and watch as the King prepares to get down on his knees. :(


He’s considered a weak leader who caused the Manchu invasions with his lack of diplomacy when dealing with the Qing Dynasty. He was indebted to the Ming Dynasty for their help during the previous Imjin wars. But now he had to decide whether to continue to support Ming or acknowledge the now powerful ‘barbarian’ Qing Dynasty which was challenging Ming. The Western Faction (Seo-in) of King Injo’s government was also pro-Ming and anti-Qing. So, unlike his predecessor Gwanghaegun, King Injo did NOT keep a neutral policy when dealing with his neighbours. That was a mistake…


He was also unprepared for war. For example before the Manchu invasions ministers tried to emphasise the importance of sword fighting. Because at that time skilled sword fighting was the key to winning battles on the ground. But officials no longer practised swordsmanship and nothing was done about it. :( He’s blamed for the economic problems at the time too. The outcome of Joseon’s defeat after the second Manchu Invasion meant that Joseon became a tributary state of Qing and had to pay tribute to Qing instead of Ming…

huang taiji

After the Manchu invasions King Injo’s son Crown Prince Sohyeon (1612-1645) and brother (who later became King Hyojong) were taken to Qing as hostages to guarantee that Qing’s demands would be met. But still King Injo and his western Seoin faction didn’t seem to learn from their mistakes. They continued their pro-Ming and Anti-Qing regime causing problems for the crown prince. (Sohyeon died under mysterious circumstances and his brother became king Hyojong – see the drama Horse Doctor MBC 2012) but we’ll take a look at that in the next post on the late Joseon period. The Ming Dynasty was eventually overthrown by the Qing Dynasty in 1644 so now surely Joseon would have to find a way to get along with the new dynasty.


So things have gone a bit pear-shaped by the end of the mid Joseon period as the Joseon Dynasty struggles to work with the Qing Dynasty. In the next post on Joseon Kings we’ll look at the kings in the late Joseon period. For other related posts see An Overview of Joseon Kings and An Overview of Kings of the Early Joseon Period. Keep loving Sageuk. 😉

One thought on “Mid Joseon Kings in Sageuk Drama (1494 – 1649) YEONSANGUN to KING INJO

  • December 16, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    You’ve done what I’ve been thinking of doing in a long time! I’m a fan of sageuk and I have always wanted to know more about throne ascension and the like and, ho much do I love that you used drama screencaps to illustrate your point. It made the article more relatable and I found myself nodding along with the overthrowing of Yeonsangun and the screenshots from Dae Jang Geum (awesome drama). I love what you do with your blog, keep on doing what you do.

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