For concubines, this was home

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For concubines, this was home

Life was hard for royal concubines in Korean palaces. During the Goryo Dynasty (918-1392), when the system of keeping court ladies - the title that the concubines typically began with - was first instituted, harem candidates were selected by governors or handpicked by the kings and admitted into the palace at ages as young as 4. Often, they spent their entire lives as virtual slaves within the palace walls. Even if they were released, they were rarely free from the royal restrictions placed on them.

During droughts, which according to Confucian belief result from having too much female energy in the house, many court ladies were removed from the palaces, though they were required to keep chaste. They were strictly guarded by authorities to prevent dalliances with men, for they could be chosen as the king's favored at any time. In "Gyeongguk Daejeon," the Joseon Dynasty's book of law, men found guilty of having intimate affairs with court ladies were to be caned 100 times. Inside the palace, the court ladies were often paired together in rooms that were sequestered in areas off-limits to men. Not surprisingly, there are records indicating homosexual activity among the court ladies of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910).

For sons of the royal concubines, life was even harder. They often grew up watching their mothers suffer mistreatment dealt out by the bitter queens, who were usually neglected by their husbands once the new woman arrived. The sons of the concubines were often in precarious situations, especially when they were compelled to compete, or watch their mothers compete, for the throne with the male offspring of other concubines or sons of the queen.

One concubine, Jang Hee-bin, the beloved of King Sukjong, was sentenced to death by poisoning after being found guilty of hiring a shaman to put a curse on Queen Inhyeon. The queen was sterile, and Jang wanted a shaman's guarantee that she would stay that way so her son Gyeongjong could ascend the throne. Gyeongjong did become the 20th king of the Joseon Dynasty despite his mother's death, but his reign lasted only four years.

Including Gyeongjong, there were seven kings in the Joseon era who were born to royal concubines. In central Seoul, located in the same compound as the Blue House, are the sanctuaries for the mothers of those seven kings, whose bodies were laid to rest outside of the royal ancestral burial grounds when they died. The site is called Chilgung, or the Seven Shrines.

"It's a humble shrine you rarely see in Seoul," says Mun Young-bin who specializes in classical architecture at the Cultural Properties Association - the institution that restored Chilgung and other Korean heritage relics.

Chilgung had been closed to the public since 1969, when North Korean infiltrators tried to assassinate President Park Chung Hee. But recently, visitors have been allowed into the compound after arranging appointments far in advance for "protective" sightseeing. There are still armed guards roaming the complex to keep an eye on the visitors on their 20-minute tour.

The shrines, located right next to Yeongbin-gwan, the main presidential guest house, are conspicuously simple compared with some of the royal ancestral shrines outside of Seoul. Their roofs and poles are plain, and the stone walls are rather low for Korean classical architecture. The rooms, which were used to perform ancestor-worship rituals, are now shown only to the direct descendants of the concubines and the limited staff of the Cultural Properties Association. In the center of the shrines is a large zelkova tree, or Japanese elm. Nearby is a quaint water well called "Naengcheonjeong" where King Yeongjo used to perform ablutions before carrying out his worshipping ceremonies.

"Certainly the 'Yeoin cheonha frenzy' had stimulated the interest of the shrine," said Yu Eun-ju, the tour guide of Chilgung, referring to the popular historical drama that deals with fierce power struggles among the royal concubines and the queens in the palace. "They seem to be thrilled by the dark, royal conspiracies." Ms. Yu explains that this change in peoples' attitudes is significant in that the historic sites were normally considered tedious.

Originally, Chilgung was a shrine for Choi Suk-bin, the mother of Yeongjo, Gyeongjong's successor as the 21st king of the Joseon Dynasty, who was particularly concerned about his mother's low status. Choi, a maid in charge of preparing clean water for the court ladies to wash their faces, had long been a rival of Gyeongjong's mother, Jang. Before she was poisoned, the notorious concubine Jang was once punished for beating Choi and locking her in an earthenware vessel in the storage room. Now, the shrines of the two stand just a few meters apart from each other in Chilgung, after Jang's shrine and five other shrines for concubines were relocated to the compound in 1908. The system of royal concubines was terminated near the end of Joseon Dynasty.

by Park Soo-mee

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