Brand New YA Book, The Red Palace, by June Hur

Dear Reader,

As you have undoubtedly discerned, I am a voracious if somewhat selective reader.  Despite my age, one genre I favor is Young Adult (teen) fiction as they generally are well written since it is a competitive market.

The Red Palace is the third book by YA author June Hur and her best to date.  A reader can see a definite improvement in writing from the first book, The Silence of Bones, to The Red Palace.  I enjoyed the Red Palace quite a bit and will re-read it in the future.

June Hur writes police mysteries set in Korea’s historical past.  Korea was not always the technology forward, modern country you see in K-dramas.  During much of Korea’s past, it was a very isolated country.  Starting in the Joseon era, Korea followed strict Neo-Confucian beliefs in a much harsher fashion than Imperial China.

The Red Palace follows a female palace nurse in her quest to solve a mass murder, exonerte her foster mother, and bring the real killer to justice.  She partners with a rebellious but morally upright police inspector and learns many secrets behind the palace walls.

It is not an especially long book and is a stand alone story rather than a series which has become the norm for YA fiction.  I found the protagonists in the Red Palace very likable and as relatable as they could be given the historical and cultural context.  You want the protagonists to succeed in their quest and to see justice done.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories featuring these characters as I grew fond of them.

The Red Palace is set in the reign of King Yeongjo and touches on the tragedy of Crown Prince Sado, which makes the historical context of the book worth knowing.  If you, dear Reader, understand the context, the story becomes much richer and the silences and what is unsaid is sometimes more important than what is said.

Before diving into the tragedy, one point is worth noting about Joseon society.  In Joseon Korea, children usually took their social status from their mother, not their father, just like in the American South, where children born to slaves were also slaves.

I have very mixed feelings about the Crown Prince Sado incident.  He is often viewed as a tragic figure.  However Crown Prince Sado was a serial murder and his wife claims he was also a serial rapist.  I rather doubt his wife would lie about that. In the end, Crown Prince Sado was coerced to climb into a rice chest and kept in it until he died of dehydration (some records say starvation) after eight excruciating days in the high summer of 1762.

That Crown Prince Sado was a serial murderer is not in historical doubt.  It is noted in reliable, contemporary historical records, and the count is estimated to be around 100.

My sympathies are with the victims of the Crown Prince.  That he could have so many victims says volumes about the social structure of Joseon Korea.  Small wonder tales of those seeking revenge and justice were so popular in Joseon Korea.  Tales featuring revenge and justice are still a popular theme in modern Korea, as can be seen by the many K-dramas with this theme.

There is a question of why Crown Prince Sado became an out of control criminal.  He was treated badly by his father, to the point I would call it emotionally and psychologically abusive.  Even with historical notes about great anger, being consistently wronged, and the Crown Prince not being able to hold his anger in, it does not excuse his many, many crimes.

I do have some sympathy for the Crown Prince.  I cannot imagine feeling so unloved and rejected by a parent.  He was not just a monster; he had positive points such as he did want to implement social reforms that would have benefited the common populace.  It is quite easy to get swept away by the romantic, tragic aspects of the ordeal: a handsome, young, reformist prince at odds with his tyrannical father, and pays for it with his life.

I cannot though look away from all who Crown Prince Sado harmed.  For it was not just his immediate victims but their families and loved ones too.  Joseon Korea expected women to kill themselves if they were dishonored; the psychological damage he inflicted upon the women, eunuchs, servants, and their families cannot be overstated.  Most of all, he did not stop until he was dead.

Note: The author, June Hur, condemns the actions of Crown Prince Sado in her book, though she does have some sympathy for the prince.

It helps to understand the King.  King Yeongjo, was not a bad man per se, but as distinguished Korean scholar Kim Haboush noted, King Yeongjo was a self made man and a harsh one. King Yeongjo wasn’t supposed to inherit the throne of Joseon as was the second born son and born to a low born concubine.  But Yeongjo’s older brother died after eating shellfish brought in from the coast many hours away to the capital city and he inherited the throne.  Some at court whispered King Yeongjo killed his older brother, though modern historians do not believe this rumor.

So King Yeongjo became the perfect Confucian King.  He had to be strongly disciplined to keep his life, and when his son did not act the same way, he took out his anger on Crown Prince Sado, berating and humiliating him in public on numerous occasions and especially on the Crown Prince’s birthday.

Crown Prince Sado was born with all the certainty denied to his father.  He had an older brother who predeceased him.  So when he was born, the entire court rejoiced at the birth of an heir.  There was no competition, no uncertainty as to who would inherit the throne.  His grandmother, his birth mother, and the Queen all doted upon him.  He was brought up without the spectre of political assassination hanging over him and perhaps King Yeongjo resented this unconsciously.

Crown Prince Sado began his life as an ideal neo-Confucian prince.  He eschewed luxury and memorized the required texts.  But as time passed, something went dreadfully wrong and the warm relationship with his father deteriorated.  It broke down so badly that the Crown Prince could not be allowed to live.

Crown Prince Sado had a very severe illness when he was ten.  I believe this illness caused brain damage, which left him more prone to rage and a lack of control. I have no scientific hard evidence for it.  Only the testimony of his wife describing his illness and how things went after he recovered.  There is scientific evidence that brain damage can make a person more prone to certain acts.  It does not however give them an excuse or cause a person to act badly.  In other words, even if he had brain injury, he had no excuse for killing and his other crimes.

The political environment as Crown Prince Sado came of age was as toxic as the current American environment, perhaps even more so.  The Norons, or Old Faction, and the Soron (Southern or Reformists) were seeking ways to eliminate each other literally.  The preceding century was filled with bloody purges as the factions turned on each other.  King Yeongjo had barely survived a disguised assassination attempt by the Southern or Soron party when he was younger.  This was a reformist party with which the Crown Prince Sado sympathized.

While King Yeongjo maintained an official policy of Grand Harmony, he bore an understandable resentment against the Soron.  It would be rather difficult to not feel negatively towards someone who had sincerely and actively tried to kill you.  Both Noron and Soron looked to exploit the estrangement of the King and Crown Prince to their advantage.

There was no single event that caused an irreparable breach between father and son.  There were many events over the years until in 1757, after the death of the Queen Dowager and the Queen, the breakdown accelerated to a fatal pace.  1757 was the beginning of the end for Crown Prince Sado.  This was the year he committed his first murder, notably after a stressful, traumatic event.  The legendary FBI Profiler Roy Hazelwood noted that many serial murderers would kill when they were under more stress than their average.

Finally in 1762, five years after Crown Prince Sado began killing and approximately 100 murders later, the Crown Prince broke into his father’s palace, ostensibly after someone else but perhaps after the king himself.  After pleading from others, King Yeongjo finally called him to account.

On July 4, 1762, King Yeongjo ordered Crown Prince Sado into the rice chest, which was estimated to be about 4 ft x 4 ft x 4 ft.  Remember rice was and is still a daily staple for Koreans.  You can buy rice in 50 lb bags from Asian grocery stores in the US so a rice chest must be large enough to store this culinary staple.

In the most harrowing part of the tragedy, the young Grand Heir, Prince San, later King Jeongjo, begged for his father’s life on his hands and knees.  Prince San was not ten years of age when this happened.  He was bodily and forcibly carried away, still screaming and crying and begging for mercy on his father’s behalf.  This traumatic event also shaped King Jeongjo’s reign.

King Yeongjo couldn’t declare his son a criminal without condemning the Crown Prince’s wife and more importantly the Grand Heir, Prince San.  The King was fond of the Crown Princess and doted on Prince San who was everything the Crown Prince was not. Prince San must have had a very difficult time.  Neo-Confucian beliefs held that he must be filial to his father, Crown Prince Sado.  It also held he must be filial to his grandfather, the man who caused his father’s death.  The emotional and psychological toll on him must have been immense.  He too was a victim of his father and his grandfather.  Prince San later died in undetermined, and suspicious circumstances.

Since Crown Prince Sado was of royal blood, the King could not bodily harm him with a swift execution such as beheading or the taking of swift poison.  Amid a scene of much chaos and distress, an advisor finally came up with the rice chest solution.  It wasn’t entirely clear at first if King Yeongjo meant to release his son after punishment, i.e. if the Crown Prince mended his ways he could live.  But when King Yeongjo had the rice chest moved to a more secure location it was clear it was meant to bring about Crown Prince Sado’s death.  And after eight miserable, grueling days in July, Crown Prince Sado finally died on July 12, 1762.

It was an agonizing, slow, and cruel death.  While the Crown Prince clearly needed to be stopped, I find it difficult to approve of this execution, but my thoughts on this are irrelevant.  Perhaps this excruciating death brought some solace to the victims whose lives he destroyed.

The motivations of King Yeongjo in ordering his son’s death are not entirely clear.  They have been obscured by the mists of time.  They may never have been clear as the King did not leave his thoughts on the matter.  Korea was very isolated so there are no outside accounts of this event.  Even first hand accounts were suppressed for many years and kept in secret by those who witnessed the dreadful events.

Thus revisionist takes around the tragedy are popular.  Some think Crown Prince Sado was the victim of political persecution.  Some think the King sacrificed his son for his own political gain as there was a more suitable heir.  But I ask this one question.  What could a father and a King do with a son who was greatly harming those who he was supposed to protect?  How could the father protect his family, including his grandson and daughter in law?  How could a King best protect his people?  Dear Reader, remember what Crown Prince Sado did when you ponder this question.

I do not think King Yeongjo hated his son.  He probably believed he was being the best father he could be according to neo-Confucian customs.  He had not grown up with love and mercy and did not know how to show these to his son.  Neo-Confucian beliefs are not merciful either.  They are quite draconian.  If even the King behaved badly, he was to be sharply and publicly reprimanded.  In reality, when one remonstrated the King, one had to be careful or the remonstrator would end up being executed in painful ways.

When King Yeongjo was being so harsh with his son, he was trying to show him the correct path.  Modern psychologists believe perfectionism can be a response to trauma.  King Yeongjo makes a good argument for this; in response to his near assassination by the Soron, he became the perfect neo-Confucian king and expected his son to be the same.  When his son did not live up to these unrealistic standards, the King did not hesitate to show his immense royal displeasure.  Self made men are harsh.  King Yeongjo may have been born a royal prince, but he had few allies and an uncertain place in life.  Unlike children born to the official Queen, a concubine’s family was not always a powerful aristocratic family.  His mother’s family was considered low born and could not assist him.  He worked hard, clawed his way up, and hung on by the tips of his fingers. If he had not been hidden by the Queen Dowager during the Soron rampage, he would have died.  A person does not struggle that much and not be changed by life.

By other measures King Yeongjo was a fair and just king.  He cared deeply for his people and tried to minimize the damage the toxic political atmosphere caused to the normal citizen.  He did keep the country isolated and declared Catholicism to be an evil belief, but he employed a famous secret government inspector, Park Mun-su, to fight corruption and injustice.  He tried to live out the life of an ideal sage king.

Interestingly this was going on at roughly the same time America was becoming its own country.  While the expanding colonies were developing a nascent sense of national unity, the Joseon court was in wicked turmoil.

Crown Prince Sado’s name is actually his temple name, meaning it was the name given to him after he died.  He was called Prince Jangheon while alive and is referred to as such in the book.  Sado is written with the Chinese characters called hanja in Korean to mean Thinking of with Great Sorrow.  He is called the Prince of Many Sorrows in Korean tales.

If the real history fascinates you, dear Reader, as it has so many others, the book on King Yeongjo by Kim Haboush is a well thought out analysis of the King’s reign.  Later editions include a purported first hand account of the ordered killing.  The account has not been 100% verified, but many of the main details match known, reliable historical records.

Kim Haboush also has translated the memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong.  Lady Hyegyeong however is not always forthright and you have to read between the lines.  She is forthright about his violence against women, the murders, and the abuse she suffered.  She is less forthright about the political atmosphere, but she might not have been fully aware since she was not expected to be involved in politics.

I hope dear Reader that this makes for a richer reading of The Red Palace.  It is a book worth reading and I look forward to future works by author June Hur.

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