At times, life can be more dramatic than any kind of fictional portrayal. At times, a person’s entire life can be more unusual than a theatrical presentation. Princess Deokhye’s life was like that: born the youngest and only daughter of King Gojong in 1912, she lived through the painful years of the annexation of Korea by Japan, forced into a political marriage with a Japanese nobleman and living most of her life in exile, only to return in 1962, 38 years after she left.
Princess Deokhye (덕혜옹주) was born to King Gojong and his concubine, the Lady Yang of Bongnyeongdang, earning her the title ongju (옹주). (The title gongju 공주 is reserved for children of the Queen.) King Gojong was sixty when she was born and being the only daughter, she was much loved by the King and the whole nation in dire need of comfort in the early years of the annexation.
Deokhye was a very bright child, prompting the King to establish a kindergarten in Deoksugung Palace. However, following the colonial policy of the Japanese Government-General of Joseon, her education was continued in an elementary school for Japanese nobility, learning lessons in Japanese whilst wearing Japanese or Western clothes. In 1925, she was sent to Japan to join the Crown Prince Youngchin, who had been there since he was eleven and had made a political marriage into Japanese royalty, as part of the policy to absorb the royalty of Joseon into the Japanese Imperial family to prevent the Joseon Royal Family to become the symbol of anti-colonial movement.
Princess Deokhye’s life in Japan wasn’t a happy one. Although she was royalty, as a princess of an annexed country, she was ostracized, always anxious and in fear of her safety. She sought solace by being with her half-brother’s family, but her loneliness was acute.
King Gojong had died in 1919, and Emperor Sunjong, who was like a father to her, died in 1926. To make matters worse, her mother also passed away in 1929. Japanese royalty laws forbade her to wear proper mourning clothes for the funerals and soon after her mother’s passing, Princess Deokhye had a nervous breakdown. Her symptoms worsened and she was diagnosed with precocious schizophrenia.
Despite her unstable state of mind, plans for her marriage were carried out. Like the Crown Prince, it was to be with a Japanese aristocrat. Princess Deokhye’s condition slightly improved and in 1931 she was married to Count So Takeyuki (宗武志) of the noble clan of Tsushima. Regardless of their arranged marriage, the couple seemed to be happy and the following year, their daughter Masae (正惠) was born.
Unfortunately, Princess Deokhye’s mental state kept on deteriorating. When World War II ended, the fortunes of the Japanese nobility dissolved, and Count So was not an exception. Faced with financial ruin and nearing full dementia, Princess Deokhye was admitted into a Tokyo mental hospital in 1946. She passed the following years in the institution. Her husband was granted a divorce while she was hospitalized, their daughter Masae got married but went missing after leaving an ominous letter which many presumed to be a suicide note. Completely alone, Princess Deokhye was as good as forgotten.
Independence and the Korean War left chaos and political unease on the Korean peninsula. In 1950, efforts to bring back the Princess home were made when Kim Eul-han, the Tokyo correspondent for the daily newspaper Seoul Sinmun, heard of her plight, but this was dissuaded by the Korean government led by President Syngman Rhee who was against bringing back members of the Imperial Family in the new political atmosphere.
Through the continuous efforts of Kim, the Princess was finally able to return in 1961, 38 years after her departure from her homeland. A residence was set up in Changdeokgung Palace. Her old nanny from her youth was there to take care of her and so was her sister-in-law, Youngchin’s wife. Princess Deokhye’s mental state wasn’t stable. She did not recognize many of the things which should have been familiar and she went through continuous treatment at Seoul University Hospital until her death in 1989. She was laid to rest close to her father King Gojong’s tomb in Hongneung (홍릉).
In commemoration of the 100th year of Deokhye’s birth, the National Palace Museum of Korea is holding a special exhibition looking back on Princess Deokhye’s tumultuous life. Her life can be understood as a reflection of the country in the annexation era, a reminder of the pain and suffering of the nation as a whole. Her isolation and loneliness was that of the Korean people.
The exhibition displays not only various photographs of the Princess but also many of her personal items, including the traditional hanbok which she wore as a child and wedding gifts.
Regrettably, except for some main titles, there are no extra explanations in any other language but Korean, so I would suggest going with someone fluent in Korean to fully appreciate the exhibition. The exhibition is free of charge, and since the museum is within Gyeongbokgung Palace’s grounds, making a quick tour would be quite easy. Like most galleries and museums, it is closed on Mondays. The exhibition runs until January 27th, 2013.
For more information:
The National Palace Museum of Korea
* All photos are courtesy of the National Palace Museum of Korea