In the drama “Scarlet Heart Ryeo,” King Taejo (877 to 943) is the father of several princes and at least two princesses. While the drama admits that it does take some license with history, the real-life king of Goryeo was the patriarch of an even larger family. The tenth century ruler married 29 consorts, mostly to seal political alliances, and with these women had a total of 20 sons and nine daughters.
Although these half-siblings grew up together, some would fight for the throne and a few of the would marry each other.
Fans of the drama may have been surprised when Princess Yeon Hwa discussed the idea of partnering with her half brother Wang So or when Wang Yo laughed at them, saying he was no match for her. The translated subtitles did not mention the word marriage but a study of Taejo’s dynasty reveals that is exactly what they were talking about.
When Yeon Hwa says she does not want to be merely the daughter or sister of kings, she means that she wants to become a queen in her own right. The only way for her to become a queen was to marry whichever half brother was destined to become the next king. She wanted to marry Wang So but she would marry Wang Yo if that’s what it took.
There is historical evidence to prove that such royal intermarriage took place during the early years of the Goryeo kingdom. Part of the reasoning behind such intermarriages had to do with women’s status in that kingdom. Women’s status was at that time stronger in Korea than it would be for subsequent centuries.
Before the advent of Confucianism women in Goryeo could own and inherit property and thus exercise power. A woman was considered a member of her own family and not her husband’s. After a marriage, a woman did not necessarily become part of a husband’s household. As often as a woman went to live with her husband’s family, a man might live with a wife’s family and possibly inherit a share of her family business. This was true among all classes in Goryeo because marriage was an economic contract that women had some power in.
Princesses inherited considerable wealth and could summon political power. Although they had no chance to rule, a princess might have the support of her mother’s kinsmen, support that a king needed to rule efficiently. When a prince married his own half-sibling, both their power and property were consolidated.
In the history of Korea only three queens ruled in their own right, and they ruled in the ancient kingdom of Silla.
While women in Goryeo had more rights than they would in subsequent eras of Korean history, they were not in line for the throne, certainly not if there were princes to give preference to. History records that at least three of Taejo’s sons married their half-sisters and one prince married two of them. The person arranging these marriages was none other than King Taejo, whose chief reason was to consolidate power and strengthen his dynasty.
Although Korean laws would later outlaw marriages between closely related individuals, the practice of royal intermarriage continued for a few centuries.
When the Mongol Empire invaded Korea during the 13th century, they did not approve of the royal intermarriage customs. Korean kings were forced to take Mongol princesses as their main consorts and sons born from these unions had priority when it came to succession.
Will Princess Yeon Hwa marry one of her brothers? You’ll have to watch “Scarlet Heart Ryeo” to find out.