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Life in the Joseon Royal Palace - 3

The King's Private Life and Health

By the time of the foundation of the Joseon Dynasty, monogamy was highlighted by sinjin sadaebu (ruling Neo-Confucian elite), so kings could have only one queen and the other wives were relegated to the status of concubines. The queen was an official wife acquired through a royal wedding, but concubines were not. The queen and concubines were treated differently in every aspect including their place of residence, title, status, and children.

For example, the queen went through six procedures as part of a royal wedding ceremony: uihon (proposal for match), napchae (betrothal), nappye (sending of wedding gifts), chinnyeong (bridegroom personally inducting the bride into his home), buhyeongugo (traditional ceremony to pay respect to the groom's family by the newly wedded couple right after their wedding), and myohyeon (presentation of a bride at the ancestral shrine). The queen also received gyomyeong (warrant of appointment as the queen), geumbo (queen's seal), and even gomyeong (warrant of appointment of high officials given by the Chinese emperor). After going through those procedures, the queens were called jungjeon or junggung—both terms meant "the one who lives in the central building in the palace." Indeed, Gyotaejeon Hall in Gyeongbokgung Palace and Daejojeon Hall in Changdeokgung Palace, where queens lived, were the central halls in the respective palaces.

Concubines, in contrast, lived in out-of-the-way halls behind the central hall. The word hugung (後宮) itself referred to "those who lived in the back (hu, 後) halls (gung, 宮)". They had to live silently in some unnoticed places, out of sight, as they were not official wives. Concubines received office warrants called gyoji.

The system of having concubines was organized during the reign of King Sejong and it was specified in Gyeongguk-daejeon (National Code). In an article about women in the royal court in the National Code, the king's concubines were categorized into different ranks: bin, gwiin, soeui, sukeui, soyong, sukyong, sowon, and sukwon in the named order. However, practically, concubines were categorized into two big groups, not by the official ranks, but by how they became concubines; those who had been court maids or professional entertainers and became concubines after being personally selected by the king for a sexual intercourse, and the other ones who had been daughters of sadaebu (scholar-bureaucrat) and became concubines after being selected through official procedures. Even though they were all concubines, the selection process for the two groups differed significantly, as did their backgrounds, which led to differences in how they were treated and what roles they played in the royal court.

The concubines who usually caused political or social scandals were those the kings had personally selected. Most of these concubines had been slaves, professional entertainers, or court maids. If the king's affection and interest was concentrated on such a concubine from a humble background, that could be a threat to the other concubines selected through official procedures as well as to the standing of the queen. It was not just about a small conflict between a concubine and the queen, but a serious risk that could shake the social hierarchy or the whole country, which had big political and social repercussions. There were good examples of such cases: Jang Nok-su during the reign of King Yeonsangun, Kim Gae-si during the time of King Gwanghaegun, Heebin Jang and Sukbin Choi of King Sukjong, and so on.

In contrast, there were fewer cases where concubines selected through official procedures brought about such political or social controversies. Such concubines were usually selected when the queen failed to have a son, and most were daughters of high-ranking officials. Therefore, it was not common for such a concubine to captivate the king's heart and her role was just to give birth. The political and social impact of such concubines' behaviors was insignificant.

Not only concubines but their children were discriminated against. For example, the sons and daughters of the queen were called daegun (prince) and gongju (princess), respectively, but sons and daughters of concubines were called gun (prince) and ongju (princess). Not only their titles differed, but also how they were treated.

For example, the husband of a gongju (princess) was ranked as a wi of rank 1B, but the husband of an ongju was ranked as a wi of rank 2B. A wi of rank 1B who was married to a princess received eighty-eight large packs of grain, twenty rolls of cloth, and ten bills as salary. In addition, he received one hundred and five parcels of land as salary land. On the contrary, a wi of rank of 2B who was married to an ongju received seventy-six packs of grain, nineteen rolls of cloth, eight bills, and only eighty-five parcels of land.

Similar rules applied to kings' sons. Sons of the queen were invested with the title of daegun (prince), and there was no age limit. On the other hand, the sons of concubines became gun and they were invested with the title at the age of seven. There was difference in the size of houses between daegun and gun, as well as between gongju and ongju, after their marriage. Princes and princesses lived in homes measuring thirty units, but for gun and ongju the size was only twenty-five units.

The most important responsibility for the queens of the Joseon Dynasty was to have sons to carry on the king's family line. If the queen failed to give birth to a son, concubines had to. That was the justification for kings to have concubines, because the monarchy of Joseon was a hereditary monarchy.

As such, kings of the Joseon Dynasty were the social norm, but they also had some private time of rest and play, since they were human beings, too. By the early era of the Joseon Dynasty, the king had active recreational activities. King Taejo and King Taejong enjoyed falconry at every opportunity. However, they had to reduce the frequency of their falconry because of criticism that it was not good to see the king following falcons too frequently. Instead, kings began to engage in gyeokgu (low-saddle maneuvering, a kind of polo game), tuho (a game where people try to throw sticks into a canister), and archery. Gyeokgu was the most popular game for kings in early period of the Joseon Dynasty. In a gyeokgu game, players hit a ball with sticks that looked like golf clubs.

However, after the Joseon Dynasty was established and Seongnihak (the study of neo-Confucianism) spread, gyeokgu began to be perceived negatively, because Neo-Confucian scholars had negative views of playing and martial arts. Kings played gyeokgu less and less, instead, they were recommended to play tuho.

Tuho was a game of throwing arrows into a jar. There were two types of the jars: round jars and square jars. Tuho was a very Confucian game which was even written in Yegi (Book of Rites). Therefore, tuho became a game of the upper class during the Joseon era, widely played not only by the royal family but also by aristocrats.

According to Yegi, tuho was a kind of ritual in which the host and guests competed at parties. When the preparation for a tuho game was completed, the host invited guests to play tuho together, saying, "I have some useless bent arrows and an ugly jar, so please let me entertain my guests by using them." Then guests declined the invitation, saying, "You have already treated me so well with good drinks and food, and you're saying that you'll entertain me even further, so I'd like to refuse." Then the host made an offer once again, saying, "These are useless bent arrows and the jar is also an ugly, useless one. So please let me ask you once again to join me for tuho." Guests declined once again, stating, "I've been well-treated already and you're offering me another entertainment, so please let me decline."

Finally, the host made the third invitation and only then, guests accepted the invitation for tuho game. As such, there were a lot of formalities people had to go through before beginning tuho game, which shows that tuho was a very Confucian kind of a game. The fact that tuho was recommended to kings instead of gyeokgu after the foundation of Joseon Dynasty demonstrates how kings of the dynasty were absorbed into the Confucian culture.

Since kings of the Joseon Dynasty had busy schedules every day, it was not easy for them to have free time alone. They had to wait until late night to do meditation alone or read a book of their own choice. Reading books or petitions alone deep in the night was called eullam (乙覽). This meant reading (lam, 覽) at the time of eul (乙, around 10 p.m.). Indeed, kings could have their private time only after 10 in the night. However, even that time could not be spent only for the king himself, because a lot of women were waiting for him. Therefore, kings were able to go to sleep by eleven or twelve o'clock in the night.

As such, kings of the Joseon Dynasty had numerous tasks to do, and those tasks of the king were called mangi (萬機, tens of thousands of important frames for politics). Therefore, if the king got sick or neglected his work, the volume of official documents waiting for the king's review and approval snowballed. Each piece of the big pileup of those official documents might have felt like boring work, but without approval of each and every document, the government could not operate. For his country and people, the king could not be idle even for a while. He was not supposed to get sick either. To be a good king, full of love for the people, he had to work hard and stay in good physical health.

However, kings of the Joseon Dynasty faced a big disadvantage when it comes to health. A king's work was mentally strenuous, but kings had little time for exercise. They had to remain seated during audiences for officials and when reviewing official documents. They also moved on gama (sedan chairs). They had little opportunity to walk or move on their own. Plus, most of their work was to read official documents, petitions, and public appeals, which put a burden on their eyes.

The majority of the kings of the Joseon Dynasty who took in excess calories but lacked exercise suffered from diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Such diseases were related to inadequate blood circulation. These problems, combined with long hours of reading, led in turn to eye diseases and boils. Considering kings could not avoid such diseases because of the nature of their work, these could be seen as kings' occupational diseases.

To help kings stay healthy and manage national affairs in a good condition, there were measures for kings' health taken at the national level during the Joseon Dynasty: a royal medical department in the court and a temporary medical department for serious cases. The royal medical department focused on daily preventative health, while the temporary medical department was there to restore the king's health in emergency cases. The royal medical department was like a hospital exclusively for the king, which had staff including the jejo (director), the eoui (male royal physician), and uinyeo (female royal physician). Eoui at the royal medical department had different specialties such as drug prescription, acupuncture, and moxibustion. Kings were examined by physicians once every five days, as well as at any other time when their health was not good. Medical examinations by physicians were carried out by feeling the pulse of the king for diagnosis, according to the traditions of Korean medicine.

The method of feeling the pulse for diagnosis was different according to the king's posture; the way of feeling the pulse differed according to whether the king was sitting or lying down. As the king was usually sitting when he worked, the king was diagnosed by physicians while sitting for an examination.

For examinations of the king, a team of three or four physicians came together, in order to make more precise diagnosis by putting together the results of feeling the pulse of the king by multiple people. Before examination, physicians waited for the king, bending on their hands and knees outside the pillars of the building where the king was. Then, when the king sat down on a chair for examination, the first physician went to the left-hand side of the king, made a deep bow, and then felt the pulse on the king's left wrist. Then, he went to the right-hand side of the king, made a deep bow, and then felt the pulse on the king's right wrist. For diagnosis, physicians felt the pulse on three spots on the wrist, which were called sambumaek. According to the result of diagnosis, whether the king would be treated by decoction of medicinal herbs, acupuncture, or moxibustion was determined. If there was no specific symptom, just some restorative herbal medicine was prescribed, but if there were symptoms, acupuncture and moxibustion treatment was prescribed along with herbal medicine.

Prescribed herbal medicine was prepared at the royal medical department. The exact weight of each type of prescribed herb was measured and then decocted in a pot, being supervised by one director and one physician. When the medicine was all decocted, the director of the royal medical department tasted it first to test for any problem. If there was no problem with the medicine, the boiling pot was covered with a lid and then locked. The locked boiling pot and the key were carried to the king on a tray. At that time, a brazier was brought together, so that the medicine could be warmed again right away when if it is cooled in the process of being brought to the king.

After the pot was unlocked, a sip of the medicine was poured into a lid of a silver bowl and tasted by the royal medical director, in order to test for any poison in it. If there was no problem, the medicine was poured in a silver bowl and offered to the king.

When the king had to get acupuncture treatment, acupuncturists first gathered to discuss the location of the blood apertures on which they would fix needles. The acupuncturists asked the king whether it was okay to fix needles on the locations they decided and when the king approved it, they went to the king to actually put needles into the king's skin. Before actually beginning the acupuncture treatment, the chief royal physician reported to the king that the needles would be fixed where, then the needle doctor put needles on the king. The same procedure applied to moxibustion treatment as well.

That was how the king's health was regularly taken care of, but when the king got seriously ill, the temporary medical department was set up in order to give the king necessary treatment at any time, while staying on standby around the clock. Of course, the royal physicians were assigned to the special temporary medical department. The setup of the temporary medical department itself was a sign that the king was seriously ill, so it indicated an emergency for the entire nation. Therefore, when the temporary special medical department was set up, not only government officials but also ordinary people were on alert. Kwon Sang-il, an official of the Ministry of Rites, wrote about the circumstances when the temporary medical department was set up just before the death of King Sukjong as follows:
"A physician came at myosi (five to seven in the morning) and said, "The king's condition was especially bad overnight and he is still bad." By sasi (nine to eleven in the morning), the king told a physician, "I tried to eat some rice with water, but couldn't." Min Jin-hoo was the magistrate of Gaeseong city; he came to the temporary royal medical department against his will and died last night. His younger brother Min Jin-won was dismissed from the position of the director of the royal medical department and was replaced with Jo Tae-gu. At misi (one to three in the afternoon), the temporary medical department physicians examined the king and multiple severe symptoms continued. The king's abdomen swelled up even bigger than yesterday and the king excreted two cups of watery feces. At sinsi (three to five in the afternoon), the king excreted a little bit of watery feces. Man-cheuk and uncle Mong-yeo came to me to talk. According to rumors, moxibustion was carried out on the king's abdomen, but the moxa cautery was removed when only half-burned, because the king did not have enough energy to stand the treatment. So, the moxibustion was carried out just for a test and removed soon to prevent permeation of the heat. At yusi (five in the afternoon until seven in the evening), a physician went to the king again for examination. The pulse was loud but had no energy. The king said that his symptoms were the same with the ones examined at noon, but the abdomen swelled even bigger. At that time, the king excreted a little bit of watery feces. At sulsi (seven to nine in the evening), the king asked, "I had a phlegmy voice from yesterday and it's more severe today. Why is that?" The physician answered, "The reason why your abdomen has swollen and you can't eat is because your anal passage is agitated and uncontrolled. I'd like you to drink poria cocos tea." Then, the king excreted half a cup of watery feces and drank the poria cocos tea. At ingyeong (around ten at night), the king micturated four cups of urine colored deep yellow. Around eleven o'clock at night, the king told the physician, "I had half a cup of ginseng decoction." (Kwon Sang-il, Cheongdae ilgi [Diary of Kwon Sang-il]. May 13, 1720)

Infokorea 2016
Infokorea is Korea introduced a magazine designed for readers with an interest in Korea and other foreign producers textbooks and teachers. Infokorea is the author of textbooks or foreign editors and reference to textbooks, Korea provides the latest information that teachers can use in teaching resources. Infokorea also provides cultural, social and historical topics featured in Korea. The theme of the 2016 issue was overview of Korea's palaces.

Publication | The Academy of Korean Studies

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