Lady Hyegyong was an 18th century Crown Princess in Korea’s Cho’son dynasty. Her husband was the “infamous” Prince Sado.
What’s known about Prince Sado is that he was put to death by his parents the King and Queen. Since no one could harm a royal person, Sado was ordered to climb into a rice chest, where he was locked until he suffocated after eight days. The reason given was because Sado was “mad” and considered a risk to the dynasty. In the 19th century there were rumors Sado was not “mad” but the victim of a conspiracy, and his father unjustly killed him. Lady Hyegyong, by now an old woman, decided to counter these rumors and set the record straight. That the late King, Sado’s father, had all mention of the incident removed from castle records, makes Lady Hyegyong’s account the definitive one. And like I said it’s a fascinating book. Lady Hyegyong gives a first hand account of what happened and details Sado’s “madness”.
But that’s not all that’s in this book. There are four memoirs here. In all of them Lady Hyegyong shows herself to be a perceptive judge of character and court life.
The first details Lady Hyegyong’s life from her childhood through her marriage at age nine to Prince Sado, her removal from her family home and her residency in the Royal Palace. From there she speaks briefly of Sado’s tragic life, the aftermath of his death, and her ultimate resolve to keep living and raise their son (who also happened to be the heir to the throne).
The second and third memoirs deal with her family members and their involvement in court intrigues. I recommend skipping these two, and going straight to the last.
The last memoir is a character study of Prince Sado, his illness, and his relationship with his father. It’s highly detailed as if Lady Hyegyong is trying to find the source and cause of Sado’s madness. Was it because he was separated from his parents at an early age, that his father failed to provide him with decent overseers, or something more sinister – such as the proximity of his palace to the ruined palace once belonging to a Queen who poisoned her competitors in the court? What is certain is that Sado’s episodes were often violent and he killed and/or raped many servants. The first Lady Hyegyong witnessed was the death of a eunuch and she speaks of his being the first severed head she had ever seen. Later Sado beat one of his consorts to death, and nearly knocked out one of Lady Hyegyong’s eyes after hitting her in the head with a chess board. These and other instances were what caused the royal family to fear Sado and led them to giving the order that he should be sealed in the rice chest.
As a modern reader it’s impossible not to try and diagnose Sado’s “madness”. That he was neurologically atypical is likely. Possibly he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder. He also exhibited several phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders (Lady Hyegyong talks about a clothing phobia that would require a steady stream of fresh cloth, since Sado would destroy any clothes he found fault with), along with a murderous rage. Yet, Lady Hyegyeong is clear in stating that these were episodic and when he wasn’t in one of these phases Prince Sado could be a kind and gentle man, and often Sado comes across not as a monster but a victim. He suffers, even if he is a murderer.
Then there’s the weird stuff – the things that would make a good horror story. It’s like there’s a ghost story waiting right behind the actual tragedy.
Prince Sado was obsessed with Taoist magic, in particular one book of rites known as the Jade Spine Scriptures. He believed the God of Thunder was angry with him and was terrified by thunder storms (that one occurred on the 8th day after he was locked in the chest doesn’t go unnoticed by Lady Hyegyong). Often he would leave the palace dressed as a commoner and no one knew what he did during these times. And when he died, his father had his associates, a group including several shamans and a Buddhist nun, put to death.
It’s one thing to read about Caligula or some other ancient ruler known for being “mad”. It’s another to have a near modern account of a neurologically atypical ruler, one where the individual is painted so vividly that it’s like looking at an evolving portrait of their life. Lady Hyegyong provides that level of detail in her account, and as a book The Memoirs make for compelling reading. Maybe your library has a copy.