The Tragic Story of Seong Deok-Im: Royal Noble Consort Uibin Seong to King Jeongjo

Wednesday, January 12, 2022


Lee Se-young starring Seong Deok-im in the Red Sleeve.
Screenshot of The Red Sleeve

The K-drama, The Red Sleeve, has won hearts everywhere with the story of Lee San and Seong Deok-im. Starring Lee Se-young and Lee Jun-ho, it is a must-see K-drama.

This post is a continuation of a 5 part series of Let's Dissect The Red Sleeve.

Lee Se-young starring Seong Deok-im in the Red Sleeve.
Screenshot of The Red Sleeve

While researching about Seong Deuk-im, I was frequently frustrated and felt like I wasted a lot of my time researching for answers. But, I guess this is why another teacher from my Korean School encouraged me to pursue this endeavor of "correcting" and informing about the historical events of our nation in English.

I consider English to be my first language and so it will always be my first option to seek out English resources. However, in this case, there was very limited information on Seong Deuk-im so I decided to research among Korean articles. History can be quite difficult to understand even for native Koreans so I found it very challenging as a Korean-American. I also found conflicting information while researching and wondering if these sites had been possibly updated with false information that people thought to be true from the K-drama.

I will do my best to relay what is true and if at any time, there is information on this blog post that is incorrect, I will have it promptly corrected. 

Who is Seong Deuk-im?

Seong Deuk-im was the birth name of King Jeongjo's first royal noble consort, Uibin Seong (의빈 성씨). Born on August 6, 1753, she was one of eight children. At the time of her birth, her family was quite poor and her father worked as a servant for Lady Hyegyeong's father, Hong Bong-han.

Because of her family's relations to the Hong family, she was able to enter the royal palace as a gungnyeo (궁녀), or court maid, at the age of 10. After being trained as a court maid, she personally served Crown Princess Lady Hyegyeong.

In 1767, King Jeongjo planned to bed Seong Deuk-im but according to his own writing, she refused by saying "Queen Hyoui has not yet given birth or raised children. How could I take such orders." King Jeongjo sympathized with her and accepted her plea and didn't make any more advances.

In the next 15 years, two more concubines were selected but none bore any children. According to Jeongjo's "Yesterday's Empty Cemetery" (어제의 빈 묘지), King Jeongjo attempted to bed Seong Deuk-mi again in 1782. She refused again but this time, King Jeongjo rebuked and punished her servant. In response, she finally accepted King Jeongjo's heart. 

On August 26, 1782, Deuk-im became a 5th rank court lady, and then the day she gave birth to her first son on October 13, who was later named Crown Prince Munhyo, she moved to 3rd rank. In 1783, King Jeongjo personally selected Seong Deuk-im's title and decided on 'Ui (宜)', becoming Uibin, first rank royal noble consort. 

Her son was adopted by Queen Hyoui and became Crown Prince Munhyo on July 2 1784. That same year, Uibin gave birth to a princess but she died at only 2 months old.

In 1786, Crown Prince Munhyo fell ill with measles and died on June 6. Uibin, pregnant again, unfortunately, fell ill and passed away in her last month of pregnancy 4 months after Crown Prince Munhyo on November 4, 1786. 

The cause of her death is unsure. There has been mention of her having liver cancer, preeclampsia, and even poisoning. But one thing for sure is that she was not poisoned as King Jeongjo himself had personally inspected and handled her medications when she fell ill.

According to The Annals of Jeongjo dated September 14, 1786, King Jeongjo mourned and lamented that day and said “From now on, there is no other place to entrust the affairs of the country. 

He was eagerly waiting for an heir but then, tragically, faced the loss of his beloved and his child. 

Seon Deuk-im, Uibin's tomb. King Jeongjo's concubine.
Images courtesy of

Where She Rests

The death of Uibin was a difficult one and it took King Jeongjo 2 months before performing the burial. King Jeongjo broke the laws of the royal court and buried Uibin next to her son, Crown Prince Munhyo. No matter their mother-son relationship, the fact that Uibin was a concubine put her into a lower rank than her son and so, therefore, should not lie next to him. In this case, it was a special situation. It's also been written that he planted many trees by their tombs.

King Jeongo visited their tombs quite often and because of this, the path which he took to get there was named the Royal Procession Pass. It has been written that he even spent nights there. 

Originally, Uibin Seong's tomb was laid in Hyochang Park but during the Japanese occupation, the tomb was moved to Goyang in 1944 to Seosamneung Tomb (Historical Site No. 200). Because of the transport of the tomb, the size and shape were damaged. However, because King Jeongjo's monument still remains, we know that Uibin Seong was his most beloved concubine. 

During the Joseon period, it was not common for a husband to write the stele. It typically was written by another woman of the family. So the fact that King Jeongjo himself wrote out the inscription of the monument shows how much he loved his concubine, Uibin. On the tombstone, he inscribed: 

어제비문 Yesterday's Inscription
의빈 성씨 = 15년동안 정조의 고백을 두번 거절했다가 결국 받아들인 궁녀 출신 유일힌 승은후궁
Ui-bin Seong = The only concubine, Seung-eun, who rejected Jeongjo's confession twice in 15 years and finally accepted it.
아! 너의근본이 굳세어서 갖추고 이루어 빈궁(嬪宮)이 되었거늘 어찌하여 죽어서 삶을 마치느냐? Ah! Your fundamentals were strong and you were fully equipped but why did you die and shorten your life? 
*빈궁(嬪宮): 임금의 후궁 중 가장 지위가 높은 사람
one of the highest rank among the concubines of a king

지금 이 상황이 참 슬프고, 애통하고, 불쌍하구나
This situation is very sad, mournful, and pitiful right now.

평상시 화목하게 지냈건만 네가 나를 떠나 죽고 말았으니 너무 애달프고 슬프다 
We had a good life, but it is so sad and heartbreaking that you left me to die.

네가 다시 살아나서 이승으로 돌아오기를 기대한다 
I hope that you will come back to life and return to this life.

이 한 가지 그리움이 닿아서 네가 굳세게 이룬다면 네가 다시 이승으로 돌아와서 궁으로 올 것이다 
If this longing touches you and you firmly received it, you will return to this world and come to the palace.

나아가 느끼면 매우 마음이 아프다 It hurts my heart to go on further.

너는 문효세자의 어머니다 You are Crown Prince Munhyo's mother

네가임신을 해서 낳은 아이가 문효세자이며 내 후계자다 
Because the child you gave birth to is Crown Prince Moonhyo, he is my heir.

세자는 이미 두 살 때 글을 깨우쳤다 
The Crown Prince learned to write when he was two years old.

너의 근본이 단단해서 임신을 했는데 아이를 낳지 못하고 죽었다 
You got pregnant because your roots were strong, but a child died before birth.

문효세자가 죽은 후 셋째가 되어 다시 우리 곁에 찾아올 줄 알았건만 
After his death, I thought that Crown Prince Moonhyo would come back to us again as the third child.

하늘과 땅은 오히려 사이를 더 떨어뜨려 놓았다. 
Rather, the sky and earth were more separated from each other.

이로써 마음 한 가운데가 참 슬프고 애가 타며, 칼로 베는 것처럼 아프다 
With this, my heart is deeply sad and hurts like a cut by a knife.

사랑한다 I love you.

참으로 속이 탄다 Truly my insides are burning.

네가 죽고 나서 나와 헤어졌다 After you died, you separated from me.

나는 비로소 너의 죽음을 깨달았다 I finally realized your death.

어렵게 얻은 아들 문효세자를 하늘에 견주어 돌아오길 바랐으나 너는 멀리 떠났다 
I hoped that the son, Crown Prince Moonhyo, you worked so hard to bore would return from heaven, but you left far away.

나는 무릇 지나고 나서 깨달았다 
너를 데려 올 방법이 없고, 다른 사람을 보내 물리칠 방법도 없다After all that, I realized there's no way to get you back and no way to send someone.

이로써 느끼니 참 슬프고 애달프다 
It is very sad and painful to feel this way.

앞전에 겪은 일과 비교해도 비교할게 없을 만큼 슬프다 
Even if I compare this to what I had experienced before, there is nothing I can compare this sadness to.

나는 저승도 갈 수 없다 
I can't even go to the underworld.

너를 생각하면 애통하고 슬프도다 
Thinking of you makes me mourn and sad.

너는 진짜 이승을 떠나는구나
ou are really leaving this world.

사랑하는 너는 어질고,아는 바가 많고, 총명하고, 슬기롭고, 밝고, 이치를 훤히 알고, 옳고, 예절을 아는 사람이다 Beloved, you are a smart, knowledgable, intelligent, wise, bright, sensible, upright, and polite person.

또 권세를 능히 삼가하고 도리를 지킬 줄 알고 나눌 줄 알았다 Also, you knew how to refrain from authority and keep the morality, and knew how to share.

너는 문효세자를 잃었을 때는 예를 다하며 울었고, 쉬지도 못했고, 눈물도 그치지 못했다 When you lost Crown Prince Moonhyo, you cried with respect, couldn't rest, and couldn't stop crying.

나는 너의 뱃속에 있는 아기를 위해서 문효세자의 죽음을 슬퍼하는 네가 잘 못 될까봐 걱정 돼서 돌려 보냈다  Because of your sadness over Crown Prince Moonhyo's death, I was afraid that something bad would happen so I sent you f
or the sake of the baby in your womb.

그런데 너의 목숨은 어찌 이리 가느랗단 말이냐? 
But how can your life be so short?

이제 나는 무릇 중요한 일을 잡고 너의 장례를 치러서 살필 것이다 
Now I'm going to put aside all important matters and take care of your funeral.

문효세자의 옆에서 편히 쉬어라 
Rest in peace next to Crown Prince Moonhyo.

아들의 무덤에서 멀지 않게끔 아들과 어머니가 좌우에 있도록 할 것이다 
So that you are not far away from your son's grave, mother and son will be side by side.

Unfortunately, today, Uibin Seong and Crown Prince Munhyo are at separate royal tombs sites.

Was Uibin Really a Transcriber?

You may wonder if Uibin Seong was really a transcriber with beautiful handwriting just like that of the K-drama, The Red Sleeve. So, I decided to add this bit of information for you as you may find it interesting. 

In 1773, Princess Cheongyeon and Princess Cheongseon, both King Jeongjo's younger sisters, with court ladies Yeonghee, Kyunghee, Bokyeon, and Uibin, transcribed 10 copies of the classic novel Gwakjangyangmunrok in Korean. At the bottom of the copies of these manuscript novels, it is written: written by Uibin. These are the oldest manuscripts of her writing.

Currently, at Gongpyeong City Relics Exhibition Center, an exhibition of Uibin's transcription of The Story of Kwak and Jang is on display.

Images below are courtesy of

Uibin, Seong Deuk-im's transciption of Gwakjangyangmunrok.

Uibin, Seong Deuk-im's transciption of Gwakjangyangmunrok.

Uibin, Seong Deuk-im's transciption of Gwakjangyangmunrok.

Seong Deuk-im truly had such beautiful handwriting just like in the K-drama, The Red Sleeve. If you haven't watched it yet, am I doing a good job convincing you that you should watch this drama?

Have you read about...

I hope you are looking forward to tomorrow's post! Hope to see you tomorrow!




Korean Wikipedia
Royal Tombs
Yesterday's Inscription
Digital Jangseogak 

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