Femme Fatale of the Joseon Dynasty, Jang Ok-jeong

Written by on April 28, 2013 in Arts, Lifestyle

A Joseon era beauty. Painting by Shin Yunbok. Photo courtesy of The Academy of Korean Studies.

Although there are many beautiful women with virtue and grace, there are the opposite. Every country has one. An infamously beautiful woman who ruins a man’s life, brings down a kingdom, changes the course of history. There have been such notable “evil” beauties in Korean history: Misil (미실), who held immense power in the Silla era; Eoudong (어우동), the ruined noblewoman who was at the center of the biggest sex scandal in Joseon history; Jang Nok-su (장녹수), the favored concubine of Yeonsan-gun (연산군), who meddled in political affairs; Hwang Jini (황진이), the musically talented poetess and courtesan of 16th century Joseon; and Jang Ok-jeong (장옥정), better known by her title Jang Huibin (장희빈), Joseon’s King Sukjong’s favorite concubine.

Jang Huibin, the movie from 1961. Photo courtesy of KMDB.

All the women’s histories are fascinating, but Jang Ok-jeong’s rise and fall within the royal court of Joseon is so dramatic and memorable that she is probably the first of whom people think when asked about Korea’s femme fatales.
Jang Ok-jeong was born into a wealthy family in 17th century Joseon, but entered the royal court as a lady-in-waiting when the family’s fortunes collapsed. Mostly from semi-noble (and sometimes noble) backgrounds, the ladies-in-waiting of the royal court were divided in strict ranks, from those who worked in the kitchens to those who were personal valets to the queen. Getting noticed by the King and becoming his concubine led to a higher title with division among those titles as well, like becoming the official royal concubine. The rank was significantly higher for concubines who give birth to a son.
Jang Ok-jeong entered court at the lowliest position but was soon noticed by King Sukjong for her exceptional beauty. However, she was soon banished from court by the King’s mother. Political divide was rife in Joseon at the time with severe conflict between the factions West and South, and the King’s mother, who was affiliated with the West, worried about the influence Jang Ok-jeong, whose family was of the South faction, might have over the king.
Jang Ok-jeong was reinstated when the King’s mother died. She rapidly rose up in position due to her cunning and the King’s favoritism. She was in constant conflict with the Queen Inhyeon (인현왕후), who was also of the West faction.

Movie poster from 1968 with Nam Jeong-im as Jang Ok-jeong. Photo courtesy of KMDB.

Shortly after coming back to court, Jang Ok-jeong gave birth to a son. The King, who didn’t have any sons until then, was delighted and made her his official consort with the title of huibin. The South faction gained more power while dissent within the West faction split it into two, adding to the political chaos.
Matters worsened when the king decided to make Jang Ok-jeong’s son the Crown Prince. This was met with great opposition from the West faction supporting the Queen (and also from some members of the South faction), but the decision was carried out and with it, the West faction was purged from the royal court. Soon after, the Queen herself was stripped of her title and banished from court and King Sukjong officially made Jang Ok-jeong the Queen.

Jeon In-hwa’s Jang Ok-jeong was greatly popular. Photo courtesy of MBC.

The glory days of the South faction didn’t last long, however. Jang Huibin started abusing her power. Allegedly, she had enraged bouts of jealousy about the other ladies-in-waiting, grew incredibly tyrannical and was accused of “un-queenlike” behavior. During this time, King Sukjong had other sons from other consorts, most notably the sukbin (숙빈, another title for royal concubine) Choe, who was a close ally to the disowned Queen Inhyeon. The king was growing disillusioned by Jang Huibin, and the South faction.
Choe Sukbin and the West faction started openly opposing the Queen Jang, and since King Sukjong was regretting his decision regarding Queen Inhyeon, it only took the West faction to accuse the South faction of treason for the King to turn around and reinstate Queen Inhyeon. Jang Ok-jeong was demoted, the court was purged once again, although this time, of the South faction. This was a mere 5 years after Jang was appointed as queen.

Kim Hye-soo portrayed a vengeful Jang Ok-jeong. Photo courtesy of KBS.

Nevertheless, as the mother of the Crown Prince, Jang Ok-jeong was still living in the royal palace, as was the Queen Inhyeon. The Queen died several years after from an unknown illness – some claim she was murdered – and when Jang Ok-jeong was discovered to have been praying for the Queen’s death while shooting arrows at her effigy and had set up a shamanist temple within her quarters for this purpose, she was sentenced to death by the King.
By royal orders, Jang Ok-jeong was executed by drinking poison. The involved shamans, and her brother, who had been awarded a position following his sister’s rise to the top, were also executed. The South faction was more or less annihilated.
Jang Ok-jeong and King Sukjong’s son, the Crown Prince, later became King Gyeongjong, the 20th king of Joseon.

Jang Ok-jeong (Lee So-yeon) meets her fate. Photo courtesy of MBC.

With such a story, it’s natural that Jang Ok-jeong should be a popular character for TV and film. She has been portrayed multiple times in different shades throughout the decades: as an exceptionally beautiful woman caught up in the political turmoil of the times, but also as a conniving, ambitious, power-lusting, unscrupulous schemer. Not surprisingly, there have been much more portrayals as the latter than the former.

Kim Tae-hee is the new Jang Ok-jeong. Photo courtesy of SBS.

Kim Tae-hee (of “Iris” fame) is the latest incarnation of Jang Ok-jeong in the new drama from SBS. She has eight predecessors to follow: Kim Jimi, Nam Jeong-im, Yun Yeo-jeong, Lee Mi-suk, Jeon In-hwa, Jeong Seon-kyeong, Kim Hye-soo, and Lee So-yeon.
The new drama has just started recently so it’ll be difficult to say in what direction it may go, and there are still critics who are not pleased at Kim Taehee’s casting, but it’s totally up to the individual viewer to decide whether the show is for them or not. Personally, I am not that keen on Kim’s acting abilities in a period drama, nor do I think she has the depth to depict all the inner conflicts of Jang Ok-jeong while dripping with sexuality, but then again, I’m not sure many young Korean actresses are capable of doing that anyway, so I am more than willing to give her a shot.
I just wish one of Korea’s famous film directors would have the guts to tackle Jang Ok-jeong’s story on the big screen again, with a fresh new perspective. After all, stories of femme fatales never get boring.

The List : Actresses as Jang Ok-jeong
1. Kim Jimi (김지미) – “Lady Jang” (장희빈) 1961
2. Nam Jeong-im (남정임) – “Femme Fatale, Jang Hee-bin” (요화 장희빈) 1968
3. Yun Yeo-jeong (윤여정) – “Jang Huibin” (장희빈) MBC drama 1971
4. Lee Misuk (이미숙) – “Biographies of Women, Jang Huibin” (여인열전) MBC drama 1981
5. Jeon In-hwa (전인화) – “500 Years of the Joseon Dynasty, Queen Inhyeon” (조선왕조 500년 인현왕후) MBC drama 1987
6. Jeong Seon-kyeong (정선경) – “Jang Huibin”(장희빈) SBS drama 1995
7. Kim Hye-soo (김혜수) – “Jang Huibin”(장희빈) KBS drama 2002
8. Lee So-yeon (이소연) – “Dongyi” (동이) MBC drama 2010
9. Kim Tae-hee (김태희) – “Jang Ok-jeong, lives for love” (장옥정, 사랑에 살다) 2013

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul