Queen Jang Hui-Bin: The Korean Femme Fatale

Jang Hui-Bin as portrayed in Dong Yi (MBC 2010) (Fair Use)

Queen Jang Hui-bin’s reputation has often been negative. According to historian Hwang, her story has some similarities to Anne Boleyn.[1] Throughout history, she has been labelled as a “stubborn, licentious, decadent, femme fatale.”[2] She is said to have seduced King Sukjong and made him divorce his queen, Inhyeon, and make her queen in her place. She was even accused of having cast a curse on Queen Inhyeon that would result in her death. Thus, Queen Jang Hui-bin is often portrayed as one of Korea’s most malignant queens.

Lady Jang was the daughter of a middle-class family. Her father was an interpreter who grew rich through trading while he accompanied embassies in China.[3] No one really knows when or how she entered the palace to become a court lady. However, it is assumed that her family had connections with the Southern faction of the Joseon court.[4] During the early years of King Sukjong’s reign, the Southerners dominated the court.

While Lady Jang was serving the royal family, King Sukjong had no heir.[5] His wife, Queen Inhyeon had yet to produce a son. Lady Jang caught the eye of King Sukjong, and he fell in love with her. She became a concubine under King Sukjong.[6] However, not many courtiers were happy about King Sukjong’s fondness for Lady Jang. They saw her as a danger to the harmony of the royal family, and she was expelled from the palace.[7] However, Queen Inhyeon, who had been praised for her “selflessness, grace, and virtue”, begged for Lady Jang’s return.[8] In 1668, Lady Jang gave birth to a son named Prince Gyun, the future King Gyeongjong.[9] 

By the time Lady Jang gave birth to a son, Queen Inhyeon still produced no heir. This was the beginning of the political factions within the court.[10] King Sukjong’s affection for Lady Jang grew. The proud father made Prince Gyun his legitimate son in 1689.[11] He also gave Jang the tile of bin, which means “Royal Consort”.[12] This made her the second highest-ranking woman after the queen.[13] In the same year, King Sukjong deposed Queen Inhyeon and demoted her to commoner status.[14] He then banished her from the palace. He also got rid of the Queen’s supporters, who were known as the Western faction. He killed the leader of the Western faction, Song Siyeol, who was forced to drink poison.[15] This paved the way for Lady Jang to be queen and for her faction, the Southerners, to dominate the court.

In 1690, Prince Gyun was invested as the crown prince, and Lady Jang became queen consort.[16] However, the Southern faction only wielded power for a few years, when the Western faction regained their power. The Westerners campaigned for the reinstatement of Queen Inhyeon.[17] 

For reasons unknown, King Sukjong agreed to reinstate Queen Inhyeon in 1694.[18] He demoted Queen Jang to her original status as a palace lady.[19] He then sent the Southern faction into political wilderness.[20] Lady Jang, unhappy with her disgrace, ordered her court ladies to shoot arrows at Queen Inhyeon’s portrait three times a day.[21] 

It was even said that she cast a curse on Queen Inhyeon in order to regain King Sukjong’s affections.[22] However, there is no confirmation on whether her curse casting had any effect on the queen.[23] Queen Inhyeon fell ill and died in 1701. She never produced an heir.[24] 

After her death, King Sukjong learned of Lady Jang’s secret rituals of witchcraft.[25] King Sukjong believed that Lady Jang had killed his wife, Queen Inhyeon, by witchcraft. He blamed Lady Jang for Queen Inhyeon’s death and sentenced her to execution.[26] However, Lady Jang did not go to her death quietly. She fiercely resisted any dignified death.[27] In the end, her executioners had to force feed her poison.[28] 

Lady Jang’s relatives and accomplices were either executed or exiled.[29] The courtiers who opposed Lady Jang’s execution were exiled. Lady Jang’s son, King Gyeongjong, ascended the throne in 1720. However, he was chronically ill and died without an heir four years later. His half-brother, King Yeongjo, became king. Lady Jang was buried in a deserted place in Gwangju.[30] However, in 1970, she was reburied with King Sukjong and his other three queens[31]

Ultimately, like a few other vilified women of history, the line between what is fact and what is revisionist history is unclear. Did she participate in witchcraft and rituals that brought about the death of the queen, or was that a rumour spread by someone with an agenda? We’ll never know. However, what is clear is that Jang is an intriguing figure in Korean history.

Sources:

Cultural Heritage Administration (South Korea). A World Heritage in Korea. World Heritage,

       2011.

Hwang, Kyung Moon. A History of Korea. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Yi, Pae-yong, and Ted Chan. Women in Korean History. Ewha Womans University Press, 2008.


[1] Hwang, p. 79

[2] Hwang, p. 81

[3] Hwang, p. 83

[4] Yi and Chan, p. 110

[5] Yi and Chan, p. 110

[6] Hwang p. 78

[7] Hwang, p. 78

[8] Hwang, p. 78

[9] Yi and Chan, p. 110

[10] Hwang, p. 86

[11] Hwang, p. 79

[12] Yi and Chan, p. 110

[13] Yi and Chan, p. 110

[14] Yi and Chan, p. 110

[15] Hwang, p. 79

[16] Yi and Chan, p. 110

[17] Yi and Chan, p. 110

[18] Hwang, p. 79

[19] Hwang, p. 79

[20] Hwang, p. 79

[21] Yi and Chan, p. 111

[22] Yi and Chan, p. 111

[23] Yi and Chan, p. 111

[24] Hwang, p. 79

[25] Yi and Chan, p. 111

[26] Hwang, p. 79

[27] Hwang, p. 79

[28] Hwang, p. 79

[29] Yi and Chan, p. 111

[30] Cultural Heritage Administration (South Korea), p. 125

[31] Cultural Heritage Administration (South Korea), p. 125

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