The tomb of Yeonsangun (r.1494-1506), the most infamous king of the Joseon period, is modest and low key. His father King Seongjeong had his mother Consort Yoon put to death by poison which is portrayed in the MBC 2003, drama Jewel in the Palace episode 2. In the drama we find an angry and blood thirsty king eager for revenge who orders the execution of everyone even remotely connected to his mother’s death.
Yeonsangun didn’t live by Confucian values of frugality, study, and restraint. Instead he had a harem of concubines and taxed the people heavily to pay for his extravagant lifestyle which led to severe poverty and hunger. Finally he was overthrown in a coup and King Jungjong came to the throne. But the aftermath of Yeonsangun’s reign would negatively affect the Joseon court economically and morally for years to come. He is always portrayed as a tyrant in drama but here is what it says about him by his tomb…
After he was deposed in 1506, Yeonsangun was banished to Ganghwado Island and died that same year age 31. His tomb remained there until it was moved to Seoul in 1513. But he is not buried with his father King Seongjeong, or with King Jungjong, his half-brother and successor, who are both buried in Seoulleung and Jeongneung tomb in Gangnam. He is in a separate location in northern Seoul so I went to take a look at his tomb this week.
The tomb didn’t use to be open to the public but now it is and with no entry fee we can simply stroll in and take a look around this modest tomb which is fit for a prince not a king. If we compare this tomb with the tomb of King Sejong one of the greatest kings of the Joseon period we can really see the difference.
This is the whole layout of the graveyard (above). There are five tombs here starting with the tomb of Yeonsangun (r1494-1506) which is at the top left. Next to him is his wife Princess Consort Geochang (1472-1537). In the middle is the tomb of Lady Jo (?-1454) a royal concubine of King Taejong, bottom right is the tomb of Princess Hwisun (1495-?) a daughter of Yeonsangun, and next to her is her husband Gu Mun Gyeong (?-?).
The royal tombs have an area that separates the inner world of the King’s spirit from the outer world. The two worlds may be separated by a stream and a tall red gate (called hongsalmun and signifying holiness). But there is no stream here and no tall red pillared gate which is usually a gateway to a long impressive pathway. The pathway is built on two levels one higher for the spirit of the dead king and one lower for living people to walk on up to the tomb. But here there is just a simple path leading all around the burial area.
A wall (곡장 gokjang) surrounds Yeonsangun’s and his wife’s tombs on three sides. The gokjang symbolically protects the tombs. Peeking over this wall from behind we can see the tombs and modern apartment buildings in the distance (above).
In front of each grave is a memorial stone post and a stone table (상석 sang seok) where the ceremonial dishes for the memorial rites service are placed.
Royal tombs always have a selection of stone figures and stone animals to guard them. A king will usually have stone warriors and stone scholars but here there are only 4 stone scholars (문인석 munin seok). As he is not a king there are no soldiers guarding him. Also, at a king’s tomb we should see stone sheep, tigers, and horses which are there to protect the tomb but there are no stone animals here at all. There is also no sacrificial building with japsang animals on the roof to scare away evil spirits.
So looking at this tomb we can compare a king’s tomb with one for a prince. It’s a quiet unassuming place where the only passersby are probably in the area for a mountain walk. It doesn’t seem as though anyone sets out to visit this place on purpose.
As I mentioned earlier, a visit to the tomb of King Sejong the Great in Yeoju about an hour from Seoul by bus is a completely different experience. It’s set in huge grounds and has an indoor and outdoor museum showcasing all the great work that King Sejong is associated with. It’s not a calm place though as huge parties of school children arrive here to see the tomb of the most famous king in Joseon history.
The Royal Tombs have to follow certain rules and protocol but their size and grandness can reveal how much those kings are revered and remembered today. And King Sejong’s tomb is at one end of the scale and Yeonsangun is at the other. All the others I suppose are somewhere in between. Who knows how much political shenanigans in the past has affected how the kings are perceived today. But of course the truth is that not everyone can be a great leader.