The father who needed to be king. The prince who wanted to be a son.
The history of Crown Prince Sado is arguably one of the most famous amongst its native audience in South Korea. A character constantly revisited in South Korean film and television (more often in tv), Crown Prince Sado has yet again made his appearance through Director Lee Joon-Ik’s The Throne. Although many Koreans are familiar with Sado’s story, the film has reveled in success, attracting approximately 6.2 million audiences nationwide.
The film, extremely faithful to the original history, is set during the reign of King Yeongjo, following the life of Crown Prince Sado, the original heir to the throne. Never in any other historical records from any part of the world would there be a family story more tragic than that of Sado, who was deemed unfit to rule and was condemned to death by his own father at the age of 27 by getting locked in a rice chest for eight days until he suffocated and starved.
So why did the father, King Yeongjo, end up killing his own son? Why did he commit such brutality towards his own son by locking him up inside a rice chest and starving him to death?
Let’s go back in time and walk the steps of Prince Sado.
From this point on, feel free to watch the film The Throne now, or after reading the rest of the post. There are no spoiler alerts because everything is already written in the records, and I highly recommend watching the film for its particularly stellar cast, cinematography, direction, and music. The story, of course, is the main focus here, and I sincerely believe that the heavy emotions coming from this tragic tale of a royal family in Korean history will move you to shed some tears inside.
Prince Sado’s birth name was Yi Sun (to clarify any confusion, I will denote the last name first, and first name next — just like how Koreans write their names), and he was born as King Yeongjo’s second son. The first son of King Yeongjo was Prince Hyojang, who died at an early age of 10. Prince Sado was, shortly put, a miraculous baby boy gifted to the king at age 41.
Being a bright, intelligent young boy, one could imagine the amount of love and attention the Prince must have received. However, contrary to his parents’ expectations, the Prince ended up obtaining skills and knowledge in a whole different field as he grew up. He bulked up, gained muscles, and grew stronger, naturally falling in love with martial arts. But as King Youngjo was a type of monarch who insisted against force and violence, the different interests alone between the father and son created a serious conflict. The ultimate factor that eternally split the father-son relationship, though, was the 14-year period of regency, during which King Youngjo appointed Prince Sado to substitute his position as monarch in rule.
The Prince would approach the King and inquire, “Father, there were such and such incidents that needed to be taken care of that were brought up to my attention today. What should I do?” And returned an uproar from the King, “You couldn’t solve such a simple matter and you call yourself a prince? You don’t deserve the status. Get out of my sight.” So the Prince thought to himself, ‘Ah, I must figure out a way to handle all tasks by myself, independently.”
The Prince approached the King once again, “Father, I resolved such and such things today.” “Why did you do that,” the King interrogated, “And you’re supposed to be acting as the King in place of me? Get out of my sight.”
Whether he worked independently or served under micromanagement, the Prince was never able to satisfy his father, King Youngjo. Gradually, Prince Sado grew severely afraid of his own father, reaching the point of needing to take a nervine medicine every time he stepped out to meet him. The situation worsened as the Prince suffered from a mental illness: when he threw on his Dragon robe, it was a sign telling him he must see his father now; hence, he became traumatized into thinking he could no longer put on his robe. As his servants helped him put on his clothes, if even a sliver of the cloth touched his skin, he would pull out his sword and massacre every single person in the entire scene. Prince Sado’s ailing conditions that inevitably got implanted due to his father were clearly getting out of hand.
On July 4th of 1762, King Youngjo locked his own son, Prince Sado, inside a small rice chest for eight whole days, leading to his tragic death. But we still do not have a clear answer to the question — the prince was clearly a murderer with psychopathic issues, but even so, why did the King kill the Prince? More bluntly put, why did the father kill his own blood, his own son, his only son?
Let’s go further back in time at this point and take a look at the other side of the coin: King Youngjo’s life story.
Born as the son of King Sukjong and Consort Suk of the Choi clan (from the lowest class of people), King Youngjo was named Yi Geum at birth and called Prince Yeoning before he came onto the throne. Prince Yeoning had a half-brother named Yi Yoon, and following the death of King Sukjong, Yi Yoon became the successor, taking the title King Gyeongjong.
King Gyeongjong constantly suffered from illness and exhaustion, however, and had no heir to the throne. At this time, the Soron faction of the governing power supporting King Gyeongjong could not be more concerned about the situation. On the other hand, the opposing political party — the Noron faction — took the chance to side with Prince Yeoning and pressured King Gyeongjong to name Prince Yeoning as the next heir. Due to the Noron’s insistence, Prince Yeoning eventually became the regent in absence of King Gyeongjong while he rehabilitated his health. This regency period was never favorable to Prince Yeoning, though, as many members of the Noron faction were killed by the opposing Soron in the heated political warfare.
One day, Prince Yeoning sent a dish of crab marinated in soy sauce and persimmons to his half-brother, King Gyeongjong, wishing him health and betterment. But little did he realize that these foods would upset the King’s stomach and lead him to death. Prince Yeoning then became King Youngjo.
King Youngjo had three primary concerns that haunted him throughout his entire life: 1) he was the son of a woman from the lowliest of class, 2) he was deemed as the murderer of his own half-brother, and 3) he was a king produced and created by the Noron faction of bureaucracy.
Who knows whether or not he truly intended to kill his own brother? King Youngjo is the only one who has the answer. But at the time, everyone believed that the crab and persimmons acted as a device to murder the late king so that King Youngjo could usurp the throne. This frustrated the King beyond imagination that after 31 years of being on the throne, King Youngjo wrote a detailed document discussing his reign and government while heavily focusing on the justification of how he legitimately came onto the throne.
Meanwhile, the Noron faction continued to assume the role of a puppeteer and tried to control every word and movement of King Youngjo. Hence, the King, realizing he only had enemies surrounding him, could only believe in himself and no others. He eventually abided by a strict lifestyle; he never skipped a meal, only ate vegetables, and chewed into every single bite. Every day for 15 hours, he would sit up straight on a hardwood floor and read all the books and documents on political affairs. King Youngjo quickly transformed into a perfectionist and stickler of self-management and self-discipline, becoming more sensitive, unrelenting, and cold than anyone else.
At age 41, a beam of light shines upon his reign: newborn son, Yi Sun — Prince Sado.
King Youngjo named Yi Sun the Prince and heir to the throne merely a year after his birth, making him the youngest royal ever in history to be called successor of the King. Normally, a King’s son would need to have grown up several years and demonstrate his potential as the next in line — King Youngjo ignored such tradition and thus opened doors to the tragedy that would ensue in the next 27 years.
A child needs love from his mother and father (or a mother figure and father figure, or even just one of the two) as he grows up; but in the case of Prince Sado, being a prince prevented him from such privilege. The little boy was transferred over to the East Palace (called as such because it was located to the east side of the King’s Palace, signifying the Prince’s role as the rising sun from the east), separating him from his parents’ love and care. Prince Sado nevertheless received a form of care from his foster parents, whom King Youngjo elected himself; however, ironically, the elected foster parents were originally servants to King Gyeongjong, whom they believed was killed by none other than King Youngjo. Thus, as Prince Sado grew up, the foster parents kept scratching the relationship with his father and taught him martial arts and other non-academic activities. Prince Sado’s potential and work ethics for academics and politics blurred, much to King Youngjo’s dismay. Later in the years, it can be noted that Lady Hyegyeong, the wife of Prince Sado, actually writes, “It was the move to the East Palace, it was the decision to crown Yi Sun as Prince so early on that began the entire tragedy. It started the entire disconnection between the parent and the son.”
A prince would usually pay a visit to the king three times a day. Prince Sado never did. Days of no visit became months. Months turned into a year. The obvious disconnect between father and son ensued; the disconnection led to doubt; and doubt led to misunderstanding.
Even the most ridiculous rumors flew into King Yongjo’s ears: apparently the Prince was acting insane, roaming around outside of the palace and drinking like a maniac. He supposedly killed multiple servants of his, counting up to over one hundred. He would even cut the head of a person and show it around as if he was proud of his murder.
King Youngjo attempted, for the first and last time, to talk to his son: “What is wrong? Why behave as such?” And the prince replied, “I feel an endless surge of resentment and anger! Since you, father, would not love me, I need to still my heart by killing any animal or person I see within my sight.” The King remained silent for a moment and finally embraced and comforted him. But that also lasted only for a moment. The gap between father and son grew bigger for the next four years, and the resentment inside Prince Sado grew deeper to the point that he raised up a sword and declared, “I want to kill my father.”
The King received the news of Prince Sado’s remarks by none other than his own wife, the mother of the Prince, sobbing and confessing that she needed to save the King’s life somehow. King Youngjo then visited the grave of his own father, the late King Sukjong, declared to rid the family of its traitor once and for all, and, with a sword in his hands, called for Prince Sado.
July 4th, 1762. Unable to kill his own son with his bare hands, the King ordered the Prince to take his own life. From 7 A.M. to 7 P.M., on the burning day of summer, the two went back and forth but never landed on a resolution. The Prince was then locked inside a small rice chest, returning to the outside world as a cold dead body after eight days of starvation.
Above is a painting titled “Dog” by Prince Sado himself. The puppies are wagging their tails and running towards their mother they missed so dearly. But the mother has her back turned against them, merely turning her head and staring down coldly at her children. As he longed for his father’s affection more than anything else, perhaps Prince Sado projected his own pain and suffering onto this painting, symbolizing his endless cry that was never heard.