Unloved by his father, Crown Prince Sado of Korea (1735-1762) grew up as a sadly disturbed man. His superstitious nature and an obsession with clothes induced him to burn whole sets of new silken clothes. When he felt agitated or depressed, murdering servants brought him relieve. Daily, several dead bodies were carried out of the palace. Raping court ladies was another of his pastimes, and, after murdering his concubine, Sado started harassing his own sister, too. Finally, the King decided upon a very drastic measure, involving a rice box... King Yongjo

Korea had been for several years without an heir after the death of the beloved son of King Yongjo (1694-1776, to the right). The Queen, So Chöngsöng (1692-1767), was childless, while the King's favourite concubine, Lady Sönhui (1696-1764), had given birth to a series of daughters. Then, in February 1735, Lady Sönhui gave birth to Prince Sado, and everybody rejoiced. After 100 days, Sado was established with a governess, eunuchs and maids in the "Palace of the Crown Prince". With his parents far away, the little Prince grew up, doing just as he pleased.

King Yongjo could easily be angered by the most trivial incidents and his little son regularly managed to arouse his father's anger. As a result, Sado became afraid of his father and always behaved with great caution in his presence. When asked a question, he could never find an immediate answer, which irritated his father even more. Whenever they met, King Yongjo's resentment against his son usually predominated over his affection for him. He never sat down together with him, and often scolded him in the presence of others. Gradually, he began to avoid his little son. Lady Sönhui visited her son every day and tried to bring him up strictly - with instructions always preceding affection. Sado was terrified of her, too, and extremely careful in everything concerning her.

In 1743, the King and Queen chose as Sado's future wife Lady Hong (1735-1815). She was the 8-year-old daughter of Hong Pong Han (1713-1778), a brilliant scholar. He descended from a Korean Princess, but belonged to a poor branch of the Hong family. The two children were married on April 27, 1744. Towards the end of 1745, Sado fell seriously ill and behaved in a peculiar manner. In January 1746, he and his bride were temporarily moved to another palace, closer to his mother's mansion, and there Sado studied earnestly. He was well skilled in the techniques of archery and swordsmanship, but also read mythical works.

The court regulations were very strict, and the young Prince and Princesses were supposed to bring respectful early morning greetings to the King, Queen, Queen Dowager and Lady Sönhui several times a week. At these meetings, Sado always behaved very stiff. He respected his elder sisters, but sympathised most with his beautiful sister Hwayöp (1733-1752), because she, like himself, was not in the King's favour. In April 1747, Sado and his wife were relocated to the distant Chüphüi-dang Hall. The Prince could now see his mother and sisters only rarely and started to abandon himself to amusements.

In 1749, when Sado was 14 years old, it was decided that he should begin full-married life. The next year, Sado's first child was born, a son Uiso, who died 2 years later. Soon afterwards, Lady Hong gave birth to Prince Chöngjo (1752-1800). That year a measles epidemic was raging. The court physicians requested that the Crown Prince and Royal Grandson were moved to another residence to avoid the disease. At the time, the baby was less than three weeks old. By sunset, Sado had contracted the disease, along with all the court maids, so Lady Sönhui came in person to look after her son. Luckily, Sado's symptoms were mild, apart from a very high temperature. As soon as the Prince recovered, his wife, hardly recovered from the confinement, went down with the measles. The baby broke out in a rash, but fortunately he recovered without much trouble. Sado's wife recovered, too, but his favourite sister, Hwayöp, died from the disease.

Since his illness at the age of 10, Sado had been suffering from mental disturbances and slightly abnormal behaviour. Now he began suffering from delusions and nightmares. He declared that he could see an apparition of the god of thunder. He was terrified of the sky and the characters for 'thunder' and 'thunderclap'. If a thunderstorm appeared in winter, Sado would become very concerned lest the King would blame him. He suffered periods of mental instability in 1752 and 1753. Soon outbreaks were occurring more and more frequently. Still, during short official appearances, the Crown Prince usually managed to behave reasonably normal.

Sado had always wanted to see the countryside, but, time after time, his father denied permission. As King Yongjo grew older, he began to shun such words as 'death' or 'return'. When he happened to hear ominous words, he used to wash his ears. After speaking a few words to his son, the King would always rinse out his mouth, wash his ears, and change into a fresh robe. The King was also very particular about which doors he used, distinguishing between doors for pleasant and unpleasant duties. He would often ask Sado to replace him by some ominous task, like presiding at the torture of a condemned criminal. When the Crown Prince was acting for the King, however, there were always difficulties between them, and the Prince could never do any good.

In 1753, King Yongjo had an affair with a court lady, Mun, and made her pregnant. Around the same time, Prince Sado did the same with another court lady, Yangiye. In vain, he tried to procure her an abortion, because he was terrified of his father's reaction. The hypocritical King indeed had an awful fit of rage. Yangiye gave birth to a son, and, soon afterwards, another son followed. By 1754, the King's concubine had given birth to 2 Princesses. Her brother, Mun Söng-guk, began reporting details of Sado's eccentric behaviour to the King. It worsened the relation between father and son even further.

In December 1755 Lady Sönhui became ill and her son went to visit her. King Yongjo flew into a temper and shouted: "Go back immediately!". Sado jumped out of the window and returned in distress to his palace. His condition deteriorated further and he began stammering. In the summer of 1756, the King unexpectedly visited his son. He found him in a state of mental confusion, and he incorrectly assumed his son was drunk. He rebuked him bitterly, gesticulating and shouting. After he left, Sado became violent. While he was chasing his servants, the palace caught fire. The heavily pregnant Lady Hong managed to rescue little Chöngjo just in time.

In 1754 and 1756 Lady Hong had given birth to girls, Ch-öngyön and Ch-öngsön. After her last confinement she became melancholic. She was unable to look after herself properly and became completely exhausted. In the summer Sado was finally allowed to accompany his father on a voyage to a royal tomb. The following winter he was stricken with smallpox. Lady Hong nursed him and he recovered soon afterwards. In the spring the Queen and Queen Dowager died shortly after each other. After these deaths, the frustrated Prince took to beating his eunuchs more and more. If a court lady did not give in to his demands immediately, he would become violent and raped her. After the funerals, Sado became even more deranged. He murdered the eunuch on duty and showed his head impaled on a stick to the court ladies. Soon afterwards, he killed a great number of maids at random. Everyone close to the Crown Prince was completely terrified. Sado once explained: "It relieves my pent-up anger to kill people or animals when I am feeling depressed or on edge." His wife tried to soothe him as much as she could.

In 1758 the husband of Princess Hwasun died. She demonstrated her loyalty by starving herself, and thereby brought about her own demise 17 days after his death. She was very much admired for it. The next year, King Yongjo married Kim Chöngsun (1745-1805), who was 10 years younger than her stepson. In the autumn Sado brought a seamstress, Ping-ae, with him. Although he had very little money of his own, he set her up in extravagantly furnished apartments. When the King found out, he was stamping the ground in rage. The Crown Prince, in great distress, threw himself into a well. Since the well was full of ice, the guards could easily rescue him. Hearing of this incident, his father became even more infuriated. Later, Ping-ae gave birth to a son. In January 1761, during a sudden attack of insanity, Sado injured Ping-ae critically. She died shortly afterwards.

Sado became obsessed with clothes. When he wanted to choose a new outfit, his servants had to prepare 10, 20 or even 30 sets of new clothes. Sometimes, he burned several silken outfits as an offering to a spirit figure, before he could finally make a choice of an outfit. If his valet made even the slightest mistake, while helping him to get dressed, he would feel unable to wear that outfit, and would become very agitated. That spring the King permitted the Crown Prince to accompany him to a royal tomb, but along the way it rained so heavily that the King thought that "heaven was showing its displeasure", and he sent Sado back. The Prince was very melancholic and declared: "There is no way I can go on living now." Later, he blamed the incident on a wrong choice of clothes and his clothes obsession intensified. In 1760 he started to see passers-by, who weren't there. He used vulgar language to his elderly mother and screamed at his little children. In the summer he made a voyage to the Onyang Palace. He stayed there for a week, but became depressed again and returned to the court. In May 1761 Sado visited the P'yöngyang province. Afterwards, he suffered an attack of malaria that lasted for several months.

Although alcohol had always been strictly prohibited in the Korean court, Sado now started drinking huge quantities of it. He also organised late-night parties with orgies. From March 1762 onwards, he tried to become intimate with his younger sister, Princess Hwawan. At such occasions, she was frightened and swore at him. Sado also maimed and killed royal physicians, translators and court workmen, so that every day several dead bodies were carried out of the palace. During the serious attacks of his mental illness, Sado was scarcely aware of the existence of his wife and children, but in more lucent periods, he was immensely proud of his eldest son. King Yongjo often praised his Royal Grandson, too. On February 25, 1762, Chöngjo was married to Kim Hyoui (1753-1821).

In May 1762, Lady Sönhui came to visit her son and left in tears. In June King Yongjo received a document from one of his ministers, informing him of the misconduct of the Crown Prince. One of the accusations was that he had violated the court regulations by "bringing a nun into the court and cohabiting with her". The minister was tortured and put to death. Prince Sado suspected involvement of the widower of his sister Hwahyöp, and spoke out his intention to kill his brother-in-law. Meanwhile, he continued to stalk his sister Hwawan and tried to break into her apartments to get near to her.

On July 4, 1762, Sado was summoned by King Yongjo. The King struck the floor with his sword and declared the Crown Prince deposed. Next, a heavy wooden chest, used for storing rice or grain, was taken in. Sado was put into it and it was very tightly shut. In this narrow prison, Sado was left to starve. After 8 days, on July 12, Sado was found death. His body was buried in the royal tomb mound. These events became known as "The Imho Incident".

Sado's eunuchs, court guards, workmen and shamans were put to death, too. His wife was demoted to commoner status and returned to her family home. During the next three years, she was separated from her son. She became melancholic and was often ill. Sado's mother, Lady Sonhui, died on August 23, 1764. Princess Hwawan was demoted, sent into exile and poisoned. Sado's son, Chong-Jo, acceded the Korean throne in 1776. In the 19th century, one of his descendants posthumously awarded Prince Sado the royal title of "Chonjo". By then the false story had been spreading that Prince Sado hadn't been ill, but was executed as a result of false charges. Fortunately, the memoirs of Lady Hong have survived.

Copyright © 2002-2007 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.


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