Sun-bin Bong

Royal Noble Consort Sun of the Haeum Bong Clan (or Sun-bin Bong) was the second consort of the crown prince Munjong of Joseon, who was crown prince of Korea for a record breaking 29 years before becoming a mostly forgettable king.  Munjong is remembered for a few things — none of them particularly good — but one of them is that he had terrible luck with wives or, as they were called when you were married to the crown prince, royal noble consorts.

See, part of Munjong’s problem is that he mostly favored one of his concubines who he couldn’t make his royal noble consort. His first wife tried some witchcraft to make him love her instead — which backfired because he banished her for it. That meant he still needed a wife though. So, Sun-bin Bong was made the Royal Noble Consort in 1429 CE. But he didn’t love her either — which was probably fine with her; it seems like she was mostly there because it was the most powerful position a woman could have in Korea at the time. She wanted to help the village she was born in (even though her family definitely seems to have been upper class), and she didn’t seem to care much about the prince.

She sent clothes — some her own and some which she had stolen from other people in the royal court — back to her home village. This was a serious problem, but no one knew about it for several years so she kept it up. When one of the prince’s concubines became pregnant (and I assume it’s the one he actually liked but I’m not really sure), she started to fear she would be replaced as the prince’s official wife — and she was not quiet about it. This — unfortunately for her — brought her to the king’s attention.

She attempted to salvage her place in the court by (possibly) faking a pregnancy and a miscarriage, claiming to have buried the remains. Servants went to dig up the remains but found only burial clothes. At this point, they discovered that Sun had been sleeping with one of her handmaids, So-ssang. So-ssang insisted that she’d tried to refuse, but Sun had insisted. When they questioned Sun about it, she claimed it was only because the prince didn’t love her, wouldn’t sleep with her and she didn’t want to be alone. She claimed to have also slept with a servant named Dan-ji to help with her loneliness. When pressed further, she went so far as to say that she was intimate with So-ssang “night and day”. The problem with this wasn’t just that she was sleeping with another woman, it was that she was a royal noble consort — a member of the royal class through marriage to the prince — sleeping with a slave. The fact that she’d been sleeping with a woman was bad enough — sleeping with someone so far out of her royal social class made matters much worse.

In the proceedings against Sun that followed, several more accusations were laid out against her. One was, of course, the theft of food and clothing that she sent back to her village. She was also accused of spying on people outside of the palace through a hole in the wall. Lastly, three months before the proceedings began, she had received a visit from her aunt’s husband — he reported that her father had died. The prince had never been notified of the visit, another breach of etiquette. The royal court determined this showed a lack of respect for the greater good, and decreed that she would be demoted to the rank of commoner. The decree mostly focused on her thefts, and really really downplayed the whole lesbianism thing that was, realistically, the true reason behind this whole ordeal. The royals were trying hard to save face.

Now, Sun’s fate after this is unclear. The popular version of events is that her father killed her in an honor killing. The problem with that story is that her father had died three months before — remember that whole breach of etiquette? The rumor-mill of old Korea apparently didn’t. It’s much more likely that she was killed before ever leaving the palace. Other women of the upper classes of Korean culture during that time period were executed with fewer accusations against them, so it would not be out of character.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)

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