Women in the royal court throughout Joseon times (1392-1910), such as queens, royal concubines and court ladies, were given ranks called naemyeongbu (내명부, 內命婦).
The queen led all the women and they lived according to a strict order of ranks and rules. The rules of the royal family governed their lives in all aspects, such as where they lived, what they ate and what they wore. There were eight different ranks for the king’s concubines and they were all placed under a queen, the lawful wife of the king. There were also four different ranks under a crown prince’s concubines. Their roles were different according to their ranks, as were the treatments to which they were entitled.
The National Palace Museum of Korea is holding the “Queens and Concubines of the Joseon Dynasty” exhibit in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the museum’s opening. The exhibition has 300 artifacts, such as costumes, accessories, stamps, paintings and writings, that portray the lives of court women during the Joseon Dynasty and the Daehan Empire.
A woman’s rank was most visible in the type of clothing she wore, the wonsam (원삼, 圓衫), an official dress for various royal ceremonies. The color, pattern and size of the dress were differentiated in line with their rank. An empress wore yellow, a queen wore red, a crown princess and concubines were dressed in purplish-red and a princess and the wife of a prince wore green. Such differences are clearly demonstrated at the exhibition.
The wife of King Yeongchin, Yi Bangja (1901-1989) (이방자, 李方子), who was called the Yeongchin Wangbi (영친왕비, 英親王妃), and the wife of King Uichin, the Uichin Wangbi (1910-1947) (의친왕비 義親王妃) were both daughters-in-law to King Gojong (1852-1919), who later became Emperor Gojong. However, they each wore different dresses, or wonsam, because of the hierarchy. Yi Bangja, a crown princess, wore a red wonsam, while the wife of King Uichin put on a green wonsam.
The status differences were not limited to dresses. A dangui was a type of casual jacket worn by women in the Joseon royal court. It was also used as a simple formal dress for those who lived outside the court. Such jackets were also differentiated according to rank. The dangui worn by a queen, a crown princess or a princess all had a gilded pattern, but lower court ladies and other aristocratic women were not allowed to have such patterns on their dresses.
In addition to the clothing, the exhibit shows how aristocratic women were selected to become a crown princess, a queen or a concubine. It also explains how these women were trained before a royal wedding and were taught the rules of the royal court.
The exhibition shows how a queen, a crown princess or a concubine were trained by reading, and the importance of giving birth to a son. It explains the roles and the rights of a queen, including picking mulberry leaves and personally raising silkworms. Funeral details for a queen or a concubine, and shrines dedicated to them, are also on display.
The exhibition continues until August 30. For more information, please visit www.gogung.go.kr or call 02-3701-7500.
By Jeon Han, Limb Jae-un
Photos courtesy of the National Palace Museum of Korea