The Tragedy of King Danjong

I’m willing to bet that most of you have never heard of King Danjong.

Jangneung, King Danjong, Yeongwol, Korea

King Danjong's Burial Mound: Jangneung, Yeongwol, Korea.

Well, settle in, because his story’s a good one. It’s a lot like The Lion King, but without the happy ending.

Danjong’s sickly father, King Munjong, died in 1452 when Danjong was only twelve. It was generally agreed that twelve was too young to rule, so the premier and vice-premier took over government control.

Enter Scar, also known as Uncle Sejo (or Grand Prince Suyang).

In 1453, Sejo masterminded a coup d’etat and basically killed everyone in charge, including the premier & vice-premier. He exiled and killed his own younger brother, just to eliminate any competition. Danjong was forced to abdicate in 1455 and hand over the crown to his uncle.

A year later, six government officials plotted to assassinate Sejo and restore Danjong to power. Sejo got wind of the plan and had them all tortured and executed. Danjong was stripped of his title and banished to Yeongwol.

For two months, the young ex-king was stranded on Cheongryeongpo, a small, rocky beach right around the corner from my apartment. It was considered a natural prison because it backs into a cliff and is surrounded by the river.

Cheongryeongpo

Cheongryeongpo. Image from www.ywtour.com because I live right by it but have never been.

I can only assume Danjong couldn’t swim, because the river these days is pretty peaceful. And shallow.

By the end of 1457, Sejo accepted the advice of his court: his seventeen-year-old nephew was just too much of a threat. He had to be disposed of.

The story they tell us in Yeongwol is that Danjong was poisoned. Wikipedia says that he was locked in his room, where the ondol (under-floor heating) blazed so hot that he suffocated to death.

Either way, Scar won the day.

The 46th Annual King Danjong Festival

In the late 1600s, King Danjong’s title was restored. He is buried here in Yeongwol, so the town throws a big festival every year.

It usually rains, prompting the organizers to claim that Danjong’s tears are presiding over the festival. This year, Danjong must have been in a good mood because the sun shone brilliantly all weekend.

Friday

Students from schools all over Yeongwol county converged on Jangneung, the King’s Tomb, to celebrate the arrival of spring. The elementary school students had two choices: Draw a picture (theme: spring) or write a poem (theme: future dreams).

King Danjong festival, Yeongwol

Probably all thinking of poor King Danjong.

“I wish it would rain,” one of my students said, pouting.

“Why?” I asked. “Are you hot?”

“No,” she said. “I don’t want to write the poem.”

Troubles sure have evolved since Danjong was a boy.

 

In the evening, the festival tents were in full swing on the banks of the Donggang.

 

King Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

Tiny baked goods, fried things on sticks, and waffles. Now THAT is a festival.

 

King Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

One-stop shop: Dresses and dried prawns.

 

King Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

Kind of like those restaurants where you throw peanut shells on the ground.

 

King Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

Totally texting each other.

 

King Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

Nothing says festive better than a couple of waygooks sitting on a roaring tiger made of recycled materials.

 

King Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

Now it's a party.

The night concluded with a rip-roaring fireworks display to rival New Year’s Eve in Sydney. Just when we thought it was all over, streams of fireworks poured from the Yeongwol bridge, eliciting appreciative oohs and ahhs.

Danjong would have been proud.

Saturday

In the morning, a parade marches from the town center to the King’s Tomb, about a 15-minute walk. It’s comprised of local students in traditional dress, except for the all-female high school band in kilts playing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”

When the procession arrives at the tomb, a re-enactment of Danjong’s funeral is performed. I’m fairly sure he didn’t actually have a funeral at the time, so it’s a re-enactment of the funeral they gave him hundreds of years after his death.

Sort of a, “Hey, sorry about all that shit you had to deal with. I swear we’ll make it up to you.”

King Danjong Festival parade, Yeongwol, Korea

Possibly his pretend widow in the chair - that's right, he was married off at 13.

 

Danjong Festival Parade, Yeongwol, Korea

Poor exiled Danjong rolls past the local Family Mart.

 

Danjong Festival - Yeongwol, Korea

My lovely students. I'm sure this wasn't part of the original funeral procession.

 

Saturday night was much like Friday night, except Jared and I met a Korean friend for some makgeolli and snacks.

Makgeolli at the Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

Makgeolli, or rice wine, is ladled into individual bowls. This was fresh and surprisingly tasty.

 

Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

I didn't have the sense to take a photo before we tucked in. I kind of lose my mind when I'm hungry.

Afterwards, we played some carnival games, bringing me back to my carny days. Everyone walked away with a soft toy or a complimentary firework.

The Saturday night crowd was much larger due to the evening’s entertainment, a series of K-Pop concerts. The headline act, Dal Shabet, danced to their hit songs “Hit U” and “Bling Bling.”

It was a real cultural experience. King Danjong would have loved it.

Dal Shabet at Danjong Festival, Yeongwol, Korea

I'm presuming these are not traditional outfits.

 

Been to any good festivals in Korea?

5 Responses to “The Tragedy of King Danjong”

  1. one day i would like to be in Yeoungwol and take part in Danjong Cultural festival you wrote and explain well thanks

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] then, on Sunday, we walked to Cheongryeongpo, where the young King Danjong was exiled to almost 600 years ago. It was a sweltering hot day, but we’d decided to take the […]

  2. UNESCO World Heritage Site #28: Joseon Dynasty Tombs | World Flavor - August 14, 2012

    […] 14 Aug The Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty are one of the ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea. The site comprises 40 tombs scattered around in 18 locations. They are all in Seoul or Gyeonggi-do, except for one in Yeongwol (Gangwon-do). […]

  3. 2012 Travel Diary #22: The Burial Grounds of the Royal Joseon Placentas, and why underfloor heating is not always good for you | London Korean Links - December 3, 2012

    […] in an annual festival at his tomb (his actual tomb in Yeongwol, not his placenta’s burial place). Lateral Movements has an account of the 2012 celebrations. The well-kept Yu family graveyard, near where […]

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