A prince is suffocated at the Rice Box GateWe will never know the rights and wrongs of the matter. But we know one thing for certain: Something terrible happened at the Rice Box Gate.
The killer ― perhaps the murderer ― was a king. Yeongjo, one of Korea’s greatest kings, was decisive, famous for a rigid righteousness. He also had one of Korea’s longest reigns, 52 years. According to his detractors, however, the decisiveness that marked his youth and maturity turned to arbitrary, stubborn senility as Yeongjo advanced in age.
The victim is known to history as Sado-Seja, Yeongjo’s favorite son and the designated crown prince. Yeongjo ― perhaps wise enough to see his approaching senility, perhaps merely following a tradition of abdication in old age common among Korean kings ― had retired to the Mulberry Palace in the west of Seoul and turned over the daily administration of government to Sado-Seja, who lived in Changgyeong Palace near the East Gate.
Those who have read King Lear can guess what came next: The court was split by factionalism. Inevitably, two groups coalesced around the two centers of power: one urging the king to retake his throne, one urging the prince to consolidate his heritage, each in advance of their factional interests.
The King’s group, out of power, whispered in Yeongjo’s ear that his son was overtaxing the people. Indeed, his tax collectors were little more than brigands. Worse, he had developed insatiable sexual appetites. His agents combed the kingdom for the prettiest women, married or not, and brought them to the palace for his pleasure. Now, it was said that he even had plans to kill the old king, his father, outright, and seize the throne.
The king ordered his son brought before him for punishment. And here is where Yeongjo’s Confucian Korea and Shakespeare’s England are different. Sado-Seja submitted to this order. This in itself suggests he was the injured party, the dutiful son. Had he been a schemer expecting what came next, or been planning to seize power, he would surely have refused. Once in his father’s power, he was formally stripped of office, sealed up in a rice chest and left before Seonim Gate in the hot July sun, without food and water. This, they say, was the suggestion of the prince’s own sister.
How could a sister be so heartless? The princess claimed in her memoirs that her plan was only to shock Sado-Seja, who had grown paranoid, back to his senses.
It took the prince nine days to die. After 21 days, they opened the chest. His body showed no decomposition, and was strangely cold.
This was taken by many as proof from heaven of his innocence. The old king supposedly repented what he had done, but too late. The nation suffered through an erratic last few years of his reign. When Yeongjo died, his grandson, feeling the capital’s ground polluted with the injustice, refused to enter the royal palace, and planned to move the government to Suwon.
Through the same haunted gate, the depraved ruler Yongsan-gun passed in 1506. Korea’s Caligula, said to torture virgins after sleeping with them, said to have driven his sister to suicide with his incestuous passions, passed through on his way to exile and imprisonment on Gyodong Island.
The unlucky gate is now sealed. But you can visit it by taking the No. 4 subway line to Hyehwa Station and walking west through the grounds of Seoul National University Hospital to the east wall of Changgyeong Palace. It is the gate just south of the main entrance to the palace.
Admission to Chongmyo will entitle you to stroll north, across a bridge, and into the Changgyeong Palace grounds. Seonim Gate will then be directly to the east, your right.
by Stephen K. Roney
Stephen Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, British Columbia.