Life of the Beloved and Filial Lee San

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

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.

Screenshot of The Red Sleeve

Who is Lee San?

If you had the chance to watch The Red Sleeve, Lee Jun-ho, a member of the K-pop group 2PM, plays the role of Lee San. Lee San, son of Crown Prince Sado and Lady Hyegyeong, was born on October 28, 1752 in Seoul, South Korea in Changgyeonggung Palace. He lived to be 47 and died on August 18, 1780. 

Changgyeonggung Palace
Changgyeonggung Palace
Image resource from
The Seoul Guide.

At the age of 9, his father, Crown Prince Sado, was executed by King Yeongjo in 1762. King Yeongjo was Crown Prince Sado's father and Lee San's grandfather. The horrific execution of his father left Lee San nothing but struggles for his succession to the throne. He was marked with labels such as "son of a sinner" and "son of a psycho" which made his road to succession hard and long.

After the death of his father, King Yeongjo was concerned about the legitimacy of his grandson. Because of this, he had Crown Prince Hyojang, Prince Sado's older half-brother, and Princess Consort Hyosun adopt Lee San as their own. Unfortunately, Crown Prince Hyojang died during his youth in 1728, thus making Lee San crown prince upon adoption. Though the parental rights had been transferred, this didn't seem to make much of a difference as the Noron faction (a political group) had made many attempts to challenge his legitimacy to make way for his half brothers to take his position.

Gyeonghui Palace
Image resource from TheKoreaTimes

Despite the many attempts to delegitimize the Crown Prince, Lee San was made regent in 1775 due to King Yeongjo's declining health. On March 10 of the following year, a coronation was held at the Gyeonghui Palace, and he became the 22nd king of the Joseon Dynasty as King Jeongjo. His reign was from 1776-1800.

Portrait of King Jeongjo, Crown Prince Lee San
Portrait of King Jeongjo
Image resource from Wikipedia

The year that King Jeongjo ascended to the throne, members of the Noron faction attempted a military coup to have King Jeongjo assassinated. Fortunately, the king successfully arrested his assassins and the rebels that were secretly scattered throughout the palace. A number of people were executed that year including his mother's uncle,  Hong Inhan.

King Jeongjo was known as King Jeongjo the Great. He was a reformer who wanted to see his kingdom flourish. Some notable things that he did were opening government jobs for those who were previously unable to apply because of their social status and the establishment of Kyujanggak, a royal library, which was used to better the cultural and political stance of Joseon. He had the desire to recruit talented scholars and work to better lead the kingdom.

King Jeongjo also created his own set of royal bodyguards, Changyongyeong, in 1785 because he distrusted the already established one called Naekeunwe which was erected by King Taejong in 1407.

He was seen as a visionary and an open-minded leader. He believed in faction parties having equal footing in politics. There is even evidence of him practicing behind-the-scenes political correspondence with politicians that were his rivals. 

King Jeongjo's letters, which were penned himself, were released publicly by Sungkyunkwan University's Academy of East Asian Studies over a decade ago. In the study of these letters, it can be observed that King Jeongjo worked quietly to settle and coordinate political matters. It was also said that he spied on public opinion covertly, possibly to better help his people.

A Family Man

King Jeongjo was a filial son who worked hard to clear his father's name and to bring honor to his mother, Lady Hyegyeong. He managed to bring his mother back to the palace and made her Queen Dowager since Crown Prince Sado would've originally been King before him.

Later, he moved the whole court south to Suwon closer to where Prince Sado's grave was and had the Hwaseong Fortress built to protect it. 

What amazing devotion he had! Could you imagine moving an entire royal court to Suwon when, at the time, Prince Sado was labeled a psycho? And then have a fortress built just to protect his grave?

I will write more about this fortress in an upcoming post.

Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon. Built during King Jeongjo's reign.
Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon
Image resource from Wikipedia

Unfortunately, King Jeongjo, unlike his grandfather, didn't have very many surviving children. However, with Royal Noble Consort Su, he was able to produce an heir, King Sunjo, that would later ascend to the throne.

A Man of Art

Though King Jeongjo was known for his reformative reign, he was also known as a man who had exceptional talent in calligraphy, painting, and literature.

Pachodo (Banana Tree) by King Jeongjo
Pachodo (Banana Tree) by King Jeongjo
Image resource from Cultural Heritage Administration

Jeongjo Eochalijeop (어찰첩) Collection of letters.
Jeongjo Eochalijeop (어찰첩) Collection of letters.
Image resource from Cultural Heritage Administration

There is much excitement with the discovery of letters from King Jeongjo (and other kings as well). It gives a chance for scholars and researchers to find out the life, personality, and leadership style of the king(s). 

King Jeongjo's signature
Image courtesy to Wikipedia

His Death

For many years, the reason for his death was in question. It was believed for a long time that King Jeongjo died from poisoning. However, from the secret letters he wrote to the opposing political party, it is believed that he may have died from other natural causes. In one such letter, he wrote that he could not fall asleep because he couldn't stop twisting and turning from the pain he felt in his stomach.

Could it have been some sort of cancer or disease? Maybe.

The Res Sleeve, Lee San, King Jeongjo, Lee Jun-ho
Screenshot of The Red Sleeve

A Loved King

There are a fair number of people I know whose favorite king was King Jeongjo, mainly because of his devotion to this mother and father. 

I first heard the story of King Jeongjo from another Korean School teacher. The two of us were responsible to teach an online cultural event for our school and for the local children who were interested in learning about Korea. 

One of the historical pieces that we had to teach was something called uigwe, which are records that were drawn or painted of events that occurred in the royal family. The picture below is a banchado (반차도), a record that was painted before an event happened, of the procession that King Jeongjo led to Prince Sado's grave. Inside the red palanquin is Lady Hyegyeong.

Procession to Hwaseong Fortress
Procession to Hwaseong Fortress
Image resource from Kyeonggi

For a virtual tour of the uigwe of this procession, visit Google Arts and Culture

If you have not watched the K-drama, The Red Sleeve, I urge you to watch it! Though the love story is fictional, the people in the story are not! I never thought my #1 spot for K-dramas would change, as it hasn't for many years now, but The Red Sleeve has definitely taken a seat at number 1. 

Lee Jun-ho and Lee Se-young starring as Lee San and Seong Deuk-im in The Red Sleeve.
 Screenshot from the Red Sleeve

Is there anything else that you are curious about King Jeongjo? If I have missed anything, let me know in the comments below.

Please look forward to my next post! It will be about Seong Deuk-im. 




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