In her memoirs, Lady Hyegyong gives us an insight of the life inside Korean courts in the 1700s. The journals provided details that could not be offered by official court records. Lady Hyegyong included personal interpretations of politics at that time as well as the dynamics of the court and the royal family. It is from her memoirs that we get to see the maelstrom of political intrigues, rivalries and power struggles that happened in that court. From these diaries, we are going to draw how life was in the courts, and later in the paper contrast it with the living experience in Chinese and Japanese courts.
The first thing you get after reading Lady Hyegyong memoirs is the young age at which she got married to Crown Prince Sado. She was chosen as a bride when she was barely nine years old- and got married to the Prince when he was fourteen years old. From this, we can conclude that planned marriages and child marriages were a common phenomenon in the Korean courts.
The hierarchy of power and importance was established in the court. Even though Crown Prince Sado had his biological mother alive, it was King Yongjo and Queen So Chongsong who chose his bride. Crown Prince Sado was next in line of leadership. If he had not been executed, he would have ruled after the death of his father. Throughout the memoirs, we see the kings descending from the family, which means that a person was born to a particular class of citizenship, and could only change through marriage as was the case of Lady Hyegyong.
People living inside the court were also expected to follow strict traditions. Crown Prince had to get married when he was fourteen years old. Together with his bride, they were supposed to pay morning greetings to the King, the Queen, and Lady Sonhui (Crown Prince Sados biological mother) several times a week.
When the Crown Prince was executed, his body could not be mutilated because he was royalty. As such, he was starved in a wooden rice box as a punishment. The memoirs documentation of his execution gives an insight into the justice system in the courts. Had the Prince been executed as a criminal, his wife and children would have followed him to the grave.
From the memoirs, we also get to know why windows of criminals committed suicide after the execution of their husbands. Committing suicide was a way proving that their husband was guilty of the crimes for which they were executed. Lady Hyegyong chose not to commit suicide as this would have condemned the whole of Sado's line as criminals.
The royal family is depicted as living a lavish lifestyle inside the court. Crown Prince Sado wore silk clothes and could afford to burn others as sacrifices to spirits. The Prince had a personal valet while the household had servants and court ladies ready to serve the members of the court.
Another thing that sticks out in the memoirs is the little regard the ruling elite had for those below them. King Yongjo had no time for his mentally challenged son, who he could never be satisfied with no matter what he did. In turn, Crown Prince Sado grew up as a disturbed man. When he felt depressed or restless, he killed servants like animals and raped court ladies to calm down. That he did this without getting punished goes a long way in showing how the lesser humans were treated.
Through the memoirs, we also get a useful understanding of the dynamics of court politics. After she was selected to as bride to the Prince, her family members entered the court politics much to Lady Hyegyong's regrets. After Sado's death, his son Changjo became the next in line of succession; thus he was protected by Lady Hyegyong's father. It is the politics of the court that saw her brother and uncle executed on trumped charges. The divisions in the Choson court saw different factions fight each other. For instance, her uncle was accused of being disloyal to Changjo's regency.
In her memoir of 1801, Lady Hyegyong reveals the corruption in the court. Madam Chong, who led a dominant faction in the court, manipulated other factions against the Hong family. As Madam Chong's son became more powerful and closer to Changjo, he claimed the Hong family was falling out favor with Changjo. By so doing, it encouraged antagonistic political figures to attack the Hong family.
The family values also stand out in the memoirs. Lady Hyegyong is regretful that her family members joined the politics of the court. When her husband was ailing, she nursed him back to health as a good wife. In her memoirs of 1802, she describes how badly King Changjo reacted to the execution of his father, Prince Sado. She wrote to her king Sunjo, her grandson, imploring on him to restore the honor of his grandfather and that of the Hong family. Through the memoirs, we also see by what extent King Changjo regretted the death of his father because he could not pay him morning and evening respects as a son should.
The memoirs also show the expectations that were placed on children by their parents. At the age of fourteen, Crown Prince Sado was already doing some administrative duties. When it was reported to his father that he suffered mental disease, his father treated him as a disgrace. His father always demanded more from him- which partially contributed to Prince Sado's psychological health.
Studying the Korean courts and the Japanese courts show remarkable similarities and equally notable differences. For instance, the role of women the courts was very different. Lady Hyegyong, a brilliant woman from a scholar family, had no say in the day to day running of the court. All she did was observed and record the happenings in the court. Compare this with Shogun Tsunayoshi mother. She played the vital role of advisor to the Shogun until the day she met her death.
The way the leaders were treated in their respective courts was very different. In the Korean court, the Kings and the royal family were treated with awe, as if they were not human; the main reason why Lady Hyegyong's memoirs were so popular. They demystified the ruling class. In Japan, Shogun Tsunayoshi had critics from everywhere. There were publications against him that made wicked fun of him. All these show how the leaders were treated with familiarity in Japanese courts.
The treatment of animals and servants Korean courts differed very greatly with their treatment in Japanese courts. Crown Prince Sado was known to vent on his servant when frustrated. He killed and raped them to "calm" down, showing total disregard for the sanctity of life. Shogun Tsunayoshi on the other protected dogs from being harmed. In a legal decree, all dogs were not be harmed. Stray dogs were captured and taken to a shelter where his administration fed them.
Succession politics in both Japanese and Korean courts were patriarchal. The heirs to the throne had to be sired by the ruling King. It did not matter however whether the son was the Kings/Shoguns concubine or the official wife. Crown Prince Sado was in line to be the next King even though he was not the Queens biological son. When his father was the Shogun, he feared that the lively Tsunayoshi would usurp his elder brothers. As a result, he ordered that Tsunayoshi is brought up as a scholar, rather than as a samurai. It was not until the death of his elder brother Shogun Letsuna did Tsunayoshi become the Shogun. After the end of the Dog Shogun, the seat went to a close relative as seeing the shogun had not sired an heir to the throne.
In both courts, superstition is evident. Crown Prince Sado was intensely superstitious, and as a rule, avoided thunder and anything that bore, or depicted thunder. Shogun Tsunayoshi on the other believed the reason he had not sired a son was that dogs were still being harmed. As a result, he passed a decree that protected dogs, and anyone who violated this order was liable to pay with his life.
In both courts, the struggle for power led to betrayal and death of the royal family members. The battle for power in the Shodon court saw Lady Hyegyong lose her brother and uncle through execution. Her father was not spared either as other factions in the Shodon court made aggressive attempts to contain the Hong family. During the reign of the Dog Shogun, his official wife poisoned his second son, Chomatsu. Jealousy may have driven the official wife as her son Tokugawa Tokumatsu had died earlier at the tender age of four.
A look into the Chinese courts shows striking similarities in succession politics and leadership with the Japanese and Korean courts. A study of the Emperor Qianlongs reign will give us a better understanding of how the society was.
The Chinese leadership is hereditary in the line of the father. However, the son needed not be the firstborn of the reigning Emperor. Qianlong Emperor was appointed the emperor despite the fact he was the fourth born son of the emperor, an act that was significantly different from the succession plan in Japan, where Shogun Tsunayoshi had to be herded away from the throne lest he usurped his elder brothers. Japanese courts had it that the firstborn was the designated heir unless he died.
If you compare the case of Emperor Qianlong and that of Shogun Tsunayoshi, both were incredibly intelligent and suited for leadership roles than their elder brothers. However, Shogun Tsunayoshi got the seat after the death of his brother. Qianlong Emperor on the hand ascended to the throne with minimum fuss. This goes a long way in showing how the Chinese chose their emperors based on their abilities rather than their birthright. Emperor Qianlong was selected as the heir to the throne because his father was Kangxi Emperor's favorite son, and thus Qianlong Emperor, his beloved grandson.
Before Yongzheng Emperor assumed power, however, there was a succession battle between him and his older half-brother that raised the possibility of there being differences and splits in the court as was the case in Choson court in Korea. The memoirs do not show betrayals and power struggles in the Chinese courts as was the theme in Korean and Japanese courts. The emperors there prepared for their succession beforehand, which is the main reason why Emperor Yongzheng opted to write a will on who would succeed him, and so Emperor Qianlong faced no opposition when he assumed power.
The leadership in both Japanese and Chinese courts is depicted as secure and stable during the reigns of Shogun Tsunayoshi and Emperor Qianlong. Their territories experienced unprecedented growth and prosperity during their respective reigns. Qianlong was an able military leader who led his country to victories over central Asian tribes and exacted dominance over them.
In the three courts (Japanese, Chinese and Korean), there is a great deal of art referenced in the articles. Lady Hyegyong was an able scholar who used different styles in writing memoirs that reshaped the history of Korea. In the latter part of Shogun Tsunayoshis reign, Japan experienced her golden era of Japanese art- a period referred to as the Genkora. Emperor Qianlong was not only a martial arts expert but also an able scholar, a combination which saw him chosen for the high seat. During the later stages of his reign, Qianlong emperor spent his time studying art and literature.
This essay makes the argument that a lot has happened in East Asia since the days of the reign of Emperor Qianlong and Shogun Tsunayoshi. The three regions (Japan, China, and Korea) enjoyed dynasties in different periods which helped them develop to the modern day East Asia. In his book, A History of East Asia: From the Origins Civilization to the Twenty-First Century, Holcombe tells us what he understands East Asia, and how it came be.
Currently, many of the features that made China...
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