Yeongjo Yi Mang was a Korean sovereign in the 18th century, contemporaneous with Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. Similar to Qianlong, he held the record as one of the longest-reigning monarchs in Korean history, spanning a remarkable 53 years. Although the era under his rule in North Korea was relatively prosperous, it was also during his reign that a gruesome and extraordinary enigma unfolded within the royal family, offering a glimpse into the concealed shadows of the palace.
Si Mou, the progeny of Yeongjo, was bestowed upon him following the untimely demise of his previous offspring. At the age of 42, Yeongjo was elated to welcome another son into his life. Soon after the child’s first birthday, he was anointed as the Crown Prince and provided with tutors to instill knowledge from a tender age. Throughout his upbringing, the prince received abundant attention and nurturing. However, one fateful night, when he reached the age of 27, the Crown Prince abruptly stormed into Yeongjo’s dwelling brandishing a sword. His biological mother promptly reported this transgression. Subsequently, Yeongjo imprisoned the Crown Prince in a granary for seven agonizing days, subjecting him to starvation until his demise. Upon confirming the death of his son upon opening the grain repository, Yeongjo wept inconsolably and posthumously bestowed upon him the title of Crown Prince Si Mou.
This case, wherein a son is suspected of regicide, a mother betrays her own child, and a father condemns his son to a slow demise, is undeniably extraordinary in the annals of North Korean history. It has been immortalized through the cinematic masterpiece “Mourning,” featuring Song Kanghao and Liu Yaren, esteemed luminaries among the realm of Korean actors. The film is a gripping portrayal. Esteemed South Korean scholar Zheng Bing has asserted that a newly released tome, “Power and People: The Death of the Crown Prince and the Joseon Royal Family,” delves into this enigmatic affair. Under Bing’s artistic brushstrokes, the enraged monarch and the deranged scion at the heart of power emerge as pitiable souls. Yingzu, burdened by the specter of power since his childhood, suffered profound inadequacy owing to his biological mother’s humble station as a lowly maid. His temperament was mercurial, and his strictness boundless. When he eventually ascended to the throne, his “forced love” for his son became stifling. As the heir apparent, the Crown Prince endured a life overshadowed by the perpetual anguish of subjugation to the whims of the sovereign, his sanity frayed to the point of contemplating self-inflicted demise. Within the lofty ramparts of the royal family, all that met the eye were distorted bonds forged within the crucible of power, and the desolate, melancholic spirits that inhabited them. Even a modicum of precious love had the potential to transform into a razor-sharp blade, compelled to inflict harm upon one another.
The myriad palace protocols and regulations, designed to uphold the grandeur of regal authority, are astonishingly intricate and stringent. When the crown prince’s consort, Huiqinggong, was chosen as the concubine of the crown prince, her mother received missives from the palace: one from the queen and another from the crown prince’s biological mother. The queen’s missive necessitated four bows before its contents could be unveiled and perused, while the missive from the biological mother, an ordinary concubine, required only two bows. None dared to jest about these rituals, as they symbolized the supremacy of royal authority and the unyielding nature of hierarchy. Hence, in the case of royal progeny, when faced with the monarch, they were ministers first and kin thereafter. Loyalty stood as a virtue of greater import than filial piety, or rather, filial piety could only be deemed as such once loyalty had been unequivocally demonstrated. In the film, as Yingjo prepared to confront the crown prince, while arranging his attire within the palace, the crown prince’s biological mother implored Yingjo to deal sternly with his rebellious offspring. After a brief moment of contemplation, Yingjo turned to his wife and uttered his first words: “You, my dear, he is a loyal minister.”
Diverse conjectures surround the discord between Prince Sidu and Yingzu, ranging from power struggles to theories of factional strife and sacrifice. Yet, one aspect invites profound introspection: these historical figures were born within the orbit of power, and gradually, their hearts became ensnared by fear until they were consumed entirely. Perhaps Si Mou had endeavored to flee countless times, but the act of storming the palace brandishing a sword, which ultimately led to his tragic demise, signified a surrender to the inescapable.