Roles in Korea’s Royal Family

There are a lot of great historical dramas out there that show different aspects of traditional Korean lifestyles and culture, but most of the time these dramas focus on one particular group of people; the royal family.

Whether it be a serious drama like Scarlet Heart: Ryeo or a comedy like Hwarang, historical dramas love telling the story of different Korean rulers and their families.

But have you ever wondered to yourself; ‘Were people really like that?’, ‘Is that how they behaved?’, ‘Were they all ridiculously good looking?’. We may not know for sure about that last one, but what we do know is how members of the Korean royal family were structured, taught and what they were expected to do.

So read on if you want to find out more about Korea’s ancient royal family!

Seondaewang (선대왕) – The Great Predecessor King

©moonlovers12-00006, 27.09.2017,

©moonlovers12-00006, 27.09.2017,

The seondaewang referred to the deceased king, or the ruler before the present king. Often sons, nephews or grandsons, who were in line to the throne, had to wait until the king died until they themselves could become king.

Sometimes, though, the king would willingly step down and become a sangwang (상왕) or ‘King Former’ in order for the heir to begin his rule.

Daebi (대비) – The Queen Dowager

©Hwarang20-00065, 27.09.2017,

©Hwarang20-00065, 27.09.2017,

After the seondaewang died the position of king would be filled by his heir, but if the heir was either too young or unfit to rule then the heir’s mother would become Queen Regent (the female version of a king) and rule in behalf of her son until he was ready to ascend to the throne.

Even once the new king was ready to rule, the daebi was still a highly respected and important person who held a lot of power in court – since they were the elders of the royal family.

Wang (왕) – The King

©Hwarang20-00300, 27.09.2017,

©Hwarang20-00300, 27.09.2017,

In most cases, the man that would be made the new king would be the seondaewang’s son, but more often than not there were disputes and fights between other members of the royal family who had claims to the throne – such as uncles, brothers and nephews.

It was very important for a king to elect capable officials to advise him in political matters as well as help him maintain his court and scholar-officials to teach him how he ought to rule.

It was also vital for kings to have good bonds with his people, from the higher class and government officials or yangban (양반) to the lower class and commoners or cheonmin (천민). 

Wangbi (왕비) – The Queen

©frozen flower, 27.09.2017,

©frozen flower, 27.09.2017,

The queen was the ‘Mother of the Nation’ and thus the most important woman in the royal household and the country, she was highly regarded and a role model for all the women that she looked after.

Even though a king could have many partners, the queen was only one lawful wife of the king.

The queen was in charge of all the women in the royal household, from concubines to court ladies, and she decided where they lived, what they ate and what they wore – not even the king could interfere with matters concerning the women of the palace.

There have been many instances throughout Korean history, especially in the Joseon dynasty, where the country has been ruled by a Queen Regent instead of a king – the most infamous being Queen Seondeok of Silla.

Wonja (원자) – The Prince Royal

©moonlovers1-00680, 27.09.2017,

©moonlovers1-00680, 27.09.2017,

Although a king might have many children, from either queens or concubines, only the legitimate son of the king and queen could be made heir apparent – these princes were called wonja (원자).

The other legitimate sons who were not made heir were called ‘Grand Princes’ or daegun (대군) and held a higher position than the gun (군) or sons of the king’s concubines.

No matter their rank, all young princes were taught to read and write Hangeul as well as classic Chinese. They were also educated in the ways of literature, poetry, music, dance, the fine arts and philosophy.

But as the heir apparent grew older, he learnt to understand the difference between good and bad, how to love and nourish the people, to reward and punish and, most of all, how to maintain harmony and peace within the kingdom.

Wangsejabin (왕세자빈) – The Crown Princess

©sh_ep18_9a, 27.09.2017,

©sh_ep18_9a, 27.09.2017,

Since it was a big responsibility being queen, princesses were trained mercilessly in etiquette, reading, writing, the arts, music and palace education. They were also taught about, from a young age, the importance of bearing sons.

Princesses were carefully watched over by the Queen and came under her jurisdiction until they were of ‘marriageable age’.

When it did come time for a princess to be married off it, there were two possible outcomes; either she strengthen political ties by marrying a foreign king or, more likely, she would be made to marry one of her relatives in order to keep the ‘pure bone’ lineage clean – this practice was called Geunchinhon (근친혼) and was very common in Silla.

Hugung (후궁) – Concubines

©dong yi, 27.09.2017,

©dong yi, 27.09.2017,

The queen was expected to give birth to a legitimate heir to the throne, but if she couldn’t then she would raise one of the concubine’s sons as her own, this alone made concubines extremely valuable members within royal household.

There were many ranks that a concubine could achieve, the highest being bin (빈) and the lowest being suk-won (숙원) . The fastest way a hugung could rise in rank was if she gave birth to the king’s son or if she won the affections of the king.

Despite what many might think, there wasn’t much rivalry between high ranking concubines and the queen, in fact it was very common for a bin to become the queen’s closest advisor and companion.

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Feature Image Source: ©Changdeok Palace, 27.09.2017,

Claudia Deborah 이보라

Book-dealer by day, writer and illustrator by night—Instagram: @kikitsa.draws. Instant coffee and trot music get me through the day. My life is simple but I’m greatful for it. 나의 인생은 조금 심심하고 단순하지만, 이런 내 삶도 나에게 주어진 삶이 기 때문에 감사함을 느끼고 있습니다.



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