While historical dramas do not necessarily translate to historical accuracy, the film medium provides us with a way to explore and reflect upon the values and cultural norms that are represented on the screen. In this case, The Throne (2015) allows us to examine how the Confucian virtues of honour, education, and obedience may be used against individuals, including royalty, who seek to challenge the status quo.
The Throne is a film set in the eighteenth century and follows the true story of King Yeongjo, the twenty-first king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty, and his son, the Crown Prince Sado. Formerly known as Crown Prince Jangheon, the Prince was named Sado (meaning “thinking of with great sorrow”) posthumously by his father. The film is set during the eight days of Sado’s punishment, during which he is entombed in a rice chest. The charges against him include, but are not limited to, the killing of a eunuch, drinking (alcohol was prohibited at the time), and conspiring to kill the King. The film moves across the timelines of Sado’s childhood and adulthood as it attempts to deconstruct the influence of Confucianism, the state’s religion, upon the Korean Joseon society.
Specifically, The Throne seeks to portray how the patriarchal rule, filial piety, and the virtues of education and decorum under Confucian ideology, as interpreted by Joseon Korea, may have had detrimental effects upon the dynasty as well as the individual members of the clan. The film executes this by way of exploring the intricacies of the personal relationship between King Yeongjo and Crown Prince Sado.
The Joseon dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 until 1910, was the longest-ruling Confucian dynasty. Under its rule, Buddhism was discouraged and at times even persecuted. Instead, Confucian values were key to Joseon Korea, under which a life of scholarship, ritual purity, and conspicuous consumption was required. Education was one of the greatest virtues under Confucian ideology. Residing on tax-free land, scholarly academies populated with elite lineages had influence far beyond the reach of their local communities.
It is for this reason that in the film, the king is seen relentlessly urging Sado, the future king, to study from the age of two. The King’s fear of ridicule from the vassals and the subsequent shame this would bring onto the family clan is his main motivating factor for ensuring the future king is well-read. Thus, the King places studying above all other duties and needs for Sado, including love and compassion. As a child, Sado is not allowed to sleep with his mother or play outside for too long, as it is believed this will interfere with his inherent virtue as a ruler. Hence, the strict Confucian rules imposed by his father under which Sado endures his childhood and young adulthood leaves him little choice but to seek an escape from his situation.
Sado’s childhood in the film is particularly coded. Despite living as a privileged royal boy, the expectations which are placed onto him by his father are exceptionally high. Not wanting to risk Sado being unprepared for ruling, the King keeps a close eye on his son’s studying. In one scene, young Sado is seen reciting a passage written by his father. However, he misses a phrase and is scolded by the King for not studying hard enough. Since the King sees studying as an utmost virtue, as dictated by Confucian thought, he perceives Sado’s interests in painting and playing as an outright rebellion to the status quo. However, this acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Sado’s desire to be virtuous in the eyes of his father morphs into the need to be seen as an individual in the first place.
Moreover, the concept of filial piety, which refers to the virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors, is also being taught to young Sado. Filial piety is central to Confucius’s thought and to those who followed him. Confucius states the five elements of filial piety:
A filial son serves his parents in the following ways: he offers them the utmost respect when at home; he serves them to give them the greatest joy; if they are ill, he feels the greatest anxiety; he is completely devastated at their funerals; when he sacrifices to them (as ancestors), he is completely reverent. If he can do these five things, we can say that he can serve his parents.
At the time of Confucius’ teaching rebelling against fathers was both common and deadly, especially in the families of rulers. Thus, filial piety acted to reduce family conflict and garner children’s obedience. However, other important teachings regarding this virtue, including the understanding of the loving bond between the parent and the child as ‘the most fundamental of human relationships’, are abstracted from young Sado’s lessons. This leaves him deeply troubled as an adult, as he seeks to cope with the lack of fatherly love by self-medicating as well as neglecting his own son, Yi San.
Nevertheless, once Sado turns of age, the King suggests that the Prince begin his regency to prepare for kinghood. While attempting to rule by his morals instead of his father’s, Sado continuously finds himself undermined by the King, who declares Sado as inexperienced and unwise in front of the vassals. Yet, the tension between the two characters runs deeper than the issue of Sado’s amateurism; the King’s perception of Sado’s revolt against filial piety creates a deep emotional chasm between the King and the Prince. The King also refuses to acknowledge Sado’s own needs and desires, instead, he deems him a vessel of the dynasty and Confucian values. Thus, Sado finds himself unable to live under his father’s rule any longer, as he decides to eliminate his father and assume the throne himself. However, Sado is unable to see how the King himself is stuck in the very social order he attempts to uphold by forcing Sado to become king. In a powerful exchange between the father and son, the King says: “I don’t know what it means to be king.”
Interestingly it is ultimately Confucian values that prevent Sado from killing the King. Upon arriving at the King’s quarters with his sword, Sado finds his young son Yi San being interrogated by the King about the recent celebration of Sado’s mother, Lady Yeong. During the ceremony, Sado had ordered his son to bow to Lady Yeong as if she was the Queen, despite the act being prohibited due to the rules of decorum (although she gave birth to the Crown Prince, her status as a consort prevents her from achieving a higher rank). When the King asks Yi San why he violated the rules of decorum by bowing, the child replies: “Because men come before all laws and decorum. Not the other way around.” Yi San goes on to quote Confucius, who said not to see the “trivia of decorum”, but instead to “see the heart”. Yi San tells the King that by ordering him to bow, Sado was showing his son his heart.
Here, Sado is overcome with the realisation that instead of disrupting the patrilineal cycle of authoritative fatherhood, he has become part of it. He also realises he will not be able to assume the throne without becoming heartless in the eyes of his son. He lowers his sword and accepts his punishment. He dies in the rice chest seven days later.
While certain aspects of the narrative are difficult to confirm for historical accuracy, The Throne’s inadvertent challenging of the oppressive nature of learning and decorum in Confucian Joseon Korea is powerfully relayed. The film illustrates how unquestionable filial piety, or parental authority, may hinder social and political progress as well as negatively affect individuals seeking to challenge the status quo. Nevertheless, Sado was never used as a cautionary tale by his father following his death. Instead, the King ordered any evidence relating to Sado’s misconduct to be destroyed. In a way, it could be suggested that the King was showing his heart.
Written by Rebeka Luzaityte
Deuchler, Martina. The Confucian Transformation of Korea: A Study of Society and Ideology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Lee, Joon-ik. The Throne. Directed by Lee Joon-ik. South Korea: Tiger Pictures, 2015.
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Taylor-Jones, Kate. Rising Sun, Divided Land: Japanese and South Korean Filmmakers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.