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Death of Crown Prince Sado and Lady Hyegyong

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In January of 1735, Prince Sado was born to King Yongjo and Lady Sonhui. With the birth of the heir, the future of the throne was secure. Due to King Yongjo’s impatience to formally establish him as the Crown Prince with legal status, he was moved to Choson Pavilion, which was the residence that was intended for the Crown Prince. The pavilion was located far from his parents’ home. There he was cared for by nurses and governesses. Putting him there created the impression that the nation already had an adult heir. However, in Lady Hyegyong’s opinion, Sado’s early separation from his parents is what led his to insanity. There are many events that may have contributed to Sado’s illness. These events take place throughout Sado’s life starting from his early years.

Living at Choson Pavilion without the guidance of his father, Prince Sado began getting into trouble. His deviant behavior is said to have started with palace matron Han’s suggestion to let the Prince play occasionally so that he could vent his frustrations. The matrons made swords, bows and arrows to play martial games with him. Sado thoroughly enjoyed the games, however he soon began to worry that his parents would find out. Nonetheless, the games soon became an obsession. Several years later when King Yongjo found out, Han was dismissed. At about this time, a barrier began to grow between the father and son.

The year when Prince Sado’s behavior became noticeably strange was 1745. He often fell ill and lost consciousness. His illness worsened after the death of his sister Princess Hwap’yong whom he was very close to. Sado returned to his martial games and when he wasn’t occupied with his games he painted. He also grew an avid interest for occult texts. He spent a large amount of his time studying and memorizing magic formulas. Thus his studies suffered significantly. King Yongjo would publicly humiliate Sado by testing him on his studies in the presence of many officials by asking one difficult question after the other. But in the presence of his father, the Prince became inarticulate and hesitant out of fear and nervousness. This led to scoldings from his father who became apprehensive about how the Prince was developing. The Prince grew bitter and angry. This anger coupled with his terror of his father and his sense of rejection, eventually led to his insanity.

In 1749, when Sado was 15 years old, the second part of the capping ceremony, which marked his passage into adulthood, was held. At this time, King Yongjo unexpectedly sent down a decree appointing Prince Sado as the Prince Regent. This meant that Sado was to be treated as a ruler, holding him responsible over administrative matters. Despite the fact that the regency was already ridden with existing problems, the King was unhappy with how Prince Sado dealt with matters. Before long, Sado was frightened and anxious over everything. His illness developed gradually as his sense of terror spawned unwholesome imaginings and strange notions. He started to vent his anger on eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting.

Aside from Sado’s deteriorating relationship with his father that may have played a significant part in his worsening illness, there was another factor. The Prince heard that if one were to master the Jade Spine Scripture, a Taoist recantation, one would be able to command ghosts and spirits. Late one night, his mind slipped into hallucinations. In this state, he said that he saw the Thunder God and grew extremely frightened. After this experience, his illness grew worse. He was in perpetual terror. He could not touch anything that contained the word “Jade Spine” and he became fearful of the sky. He remained in this state until 1753.

As Sado’s illness grew worse, he did not visit his elders and frequently cancelled his lectures. Unfortunately, his parents did not know how severely ill he was because in their presence, he acted normal. After the death of Queen Inwon and Queen Chonsgun, when his illness reached an irrevocable point, he started beating his eunuchs. This led to his first killing of many to follow. When his father heard of the Prince’s behavior, he confronted his son. Prince Sado confessed and explained that he couldn’t calm down unless he killed someone or at least an animal.

In the midst of all this, Sado also experienced a phobia towards clothes. For Sado to get dressed, he would have to have 20 to 30 sets of clothes laid out among which he would burn on behalf of some ghosts. Even after this, it would be considered lucky if he managed to get into a suit of clothes without incident. If, however, those serving him were to make the slightest error, he would not be able to put on his clothes no matter how hard he tried. In the process, he would hurt or even killed his servants out of frustration. However, when he did finally get dressed, he would be so relieved that he would wear his clothes until they got filthy.

From 1760, Sado killed many eunuchs and ladies-in-waiting. He often summoned blind fortunetellers, medical doctors, astronomers and servants. If they did or said anything remotely out of his favor, he hurt or killed them. Always staying within the palace walls suffocated him. These feelings led to his fits of rage. Thus, leaving the palace walls in disguise had a calming effect on him. He did this occasionally without prior permission from the King. Another activity that he enjoyed was his martial games. Although he was forbidden to do so, the Prince had been secretly carrying on his games. The Prince went as far as to excavating a space in which he built a house to hide his military weapons and equipment from his father.

The event that led to Sado’s death was the Na Kyongon incident of 1762. Na Kyongon sent a memorial to King Yongjo charging the Prince with 10 heinous crimes. The King had Na Kyongon executed but the Prince was still furious. He believed that Sin Man had something to do with the incident and threatened to kill his son Lord Yongsong. Lady Sonhui felt that her son could not be trusted after realizing how her son’s sickness had reached an irreversible point after her latest visit to him. She was worried that Sado would do something that would stain the 400-year-old dynasty. She thought that it would be best to bring Sado’s suffering to an end.

Believing that it was her duty to preserve the dynasty, Lady Sonhui went to see the King and told him how she felt. She wanted Yongjo to make a decision. Without hesitation, King Yongjo ordered the departure for Changdok Palace where Sado resided. News of the Kings departure alarmed Sado but he still went to meet his father. By 4:00 that same afternoon, a rice chest was requested.

Lady Hyegyong and their son, who was now the Grand Heir, were forced to leave the palace since they were now considered a criminal’s wife and son. On May 13, 1762, Sado was put into the rice chest. It is said that the Prince entered the rice chest on his own, however, this may have been an attempt to avoid the appearance of a criminal execution. In the following two days, Yongjo had the chest bound tightly with ropes and covered with grass. The chest was then moved to the upper palace. On May 20, 8 days after the Prince entered the rice chest, Sado was announced dead.

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