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[Part 1] The early years of Queen Min
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승인 2012.04.04  08:37:04
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The Joseon Court in late 1863 and early 1864 was in an uproar. The excesses and weaknesses of King Cheoljong came to an end following his death in January 1864 and, although heirless, a new successor was quickly chosen to rule the country — a 13-year-old boy [Korean age] who came to be known as King Gojong.

Because of the boy’s age, his father, known as Heungseon Daewongun, ruled as regent until the young king reached his maturity. As part of his duties as a king, Gojong was expected to marry and sire sons — something that his predecessor was unable to do. When Gojong was 15 his father began searching for a possible bride for his son.

According to historian Tatiana M. Simbirtseva:

“Candidates were rejected one by one, until the wife of [Heungseon Daewongun] proposed a bride from her own clan. His wife’s description of the girl was quite persuasive: orphaned, beautiful of face, healthy in body, level of education no less than of the most noble in the country.”

Heungseon Daewongun, convinced that the girl could be molded to his own use, approved. In 1865, Gojong was married to the 16-year-old girl who came to be known as Queen Min (later known as Empress Myeongseong). Her story is like many stories of great personalities in history — one filled with love and sorrow, intrigue and death. Time has been her legacy’s greatest enemy and ally; writers over the various years have either vilified her or made her into a martyr.

Gojong apparently had little affection for his wife, at least in the beginning, and preferred to spend his time with his favorite concubine, Yi Gwi-in. Queen Min quietly bore the pain of the rejection — immersing herself in the study of the classics and, if we are to believe some historians, carefully watching her royal husband and noting his weaknesses.

It was too much for the young queen when Yi became pregnant and then bore a son in April 1868. The queen, in a state of great rage, commanded one of her servants to beat the concubine to death. Yi was saved only by the intervention of the king and her son, Prince Wanwha, became a favorite of Heungseon Daewongun’s.

According to some historians, for nearly five years Queen Min guarded an empty room (빈 방을 지겼습니다) — a Korean phrase implying that Kojong refrained from having relations with her. But that is not to say that her bedroom was always empty — it is alleged that she may have had “many handsome boys disguised in court beauty’s costume” to combat her loneliness.

But the temporary companionship was not only unfulfilling, it was also dangerous — her position in the court was already in jeopardy. A Korean woman that could not bear a son could be cast out — even a queen. But how could she bear a son when her husband would not even attend to his husbandly duties in the bedroom?

She resorted to the powers of mysticism and belief. She wore necklaces purportedly made from the female sexual organs of vixens and cats and the scent glands of deer. Whether these necklaces were successful or not is open to speculation but eventually Gojong did become interested in his queen and she became pregnant in 1871.

Simbirtseva writes that Queen Min began to pray to the Spirit of the Mountains and invited many shamans to the palace in an effort to ensure the healthy birth of her child. Heungseon Daewongun sent great quantities of wild ginseng for her to eat and, although Queen Min “hated her father-in-law, she ate the roots with great pleasure every day hoping to assure a healthy birth.”

But her efforts were in vain. On Nov. 9 she gave birth to a son. He was sick with gastric troubles and lived for only three days — not even receiving a name. It is unsure what role Heungseon Daewongun played in his death. Some assert that the boy perished after the regent gave him a high dose of ginseng. Others claim that the boy died while the regent and queen argued about what was the proper treatment for his ills.

There is no doubt that the Queen blamed her father-in-law and this incident further strengthened her hatred for him.

Following her son’s death, the Queen went into deep mourning and commanded Buddhist monks throughout the country to pray non-stop for days on end in order to quiet the child’s spirit. She also commanded that shamans conduct an investigation in order to determine who was responsible for the death of her son.

Unsurprisingly, two court concubines — one of them being Yi — were accused of being involved. As Simbirtseva notes, Yi “managed to escape execution, but the other woman was executed after horrific tortures. That was the price she paid for the king’s attention.”

In 1873, King Gojong reached his majority and assumed control of his government. But there are some who believe it was Queen Min who actually ruled.

Prof. James Palais cites Hwang Hyon, a 19th century scholar with access to the Korean court, as describing the situation in the Korean court as:

“[The] King finally assumed personal rule, but on the inside [the palace] the Queen was in control of things, and on the outside, Min Sung-ho respectfully carried them out…At the beginning, it was as if she were giving orders to the King, thereby purveying her likes and dislikes. Finally, her exclusive [control] and willfulness became worse day after day after day, and the King, on the contrary, was [even more] under her domination.”

Queen Min’s role is still somewhat uncertain but her acts of revenge aren’t. Heungseon Daewongun was denied entrance to the palace and scores of his followers’ heads were fastened to the gates as a warning to him. He eventually retired to his estate.

Concubine Yi and her son were lucky, they were merely stripped of their titles and moved to a small village, but others, as mentioned above were summarily executed. It has been alleged that during Queen Min’s life, 2,867 people met their deaths by her command.
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