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A Discussion of Suicide and Mental Illness in Chosŏn Culture

Cultural ideas surrounding mental illness are always changing and evolving. However, an understanding of how different cultures and time periods viewed and treated mental illness can help further the current understanding of mental illnesses.

According to Soo Jin Kweon’s thesis Cripping Hwabyung: A Cripqueer Analysis of Korean Historical Drama Films, which discusses Theodore Yoo’s work on the history of psychiatry in colonial Korea, “colonial authorities and [Chosŏn] era (1392-1910) Confucianism enforced an ‘emotion regime’ where ‘emotional suffering’ was also noted as the cause of emotion-related mental illnesses'' (Kweon 2). Chosŏn Confucianism associated the development of mental illness with pre-existing emotional suffering, rather than viewing emotional suffering as a result of mental illness.  While Theodore Yoo explains these emotion-related illnesses as a cause of suicide in the colonial period, in Chosŏn Korea, there were other associations with suicide. Suicide was often treated as a means of escape from arranged marriage or sexual assault, or as a result of extreme anxiety and loneliness (Lee 117). Anxiety and loneliness tie into the colonial Korean idea of suicide as a means of ending emotional suffering, but suicide as a means of escape from arranged marriage or sexual assault, or as a means of demonstrating one’s loyalty and piety are distinctly Chosǒn beliefs. Janet Yoon-sun Lee writes in her article “Lovesickness and Death in Korean Literature” that “suicide used to be, and still is (...) sometimes necessary to acquire filial love” (Lee 117). Suicide acted as a way to prove one’s morality, according to Confucian standards, and thus was glorified at times, while being a disgraceful and unspeakable action at other times. The contrary attitudes towards suicide provide a view of Chosǒn Confucian attitudes towards mental illness. Whether emotional suffering was the cause of suicide or the result of suicidal thoughts and mental illness, suicide and emotional suffering are both parts of mental illness that must be discussed and explored.

Mental illness, as we view it today, played a major role in Chosǒn period novels. Themes such as suicide and self-harm are prevalent in many well-known Korean novels from the time. According to Lee’s paper, female suicides were common in stories from the time; about 92% of all suicides described in Chosǒn novels were of women. There are three main reasons why female characters committed suicide are: to escape sexual assault or arranged marriage; the result of struggling with anxiety due to loneliness; and voluntary deaths, usually with a moral cause such as filial piety (Lee 117). Female suicides were often linked to female martyrdom and a desire to do what is right according to the rules of filial piety. 

Members of Chosŏn royalty could be considered to exhibit traits of what we would call mental illness today. One example was the Deposed Queen Yun, the second wife of King Sŏngjong and mother of Prince Yŏnsan. She was known for her intense jealousy and harmful behaviors resulting from that jealousy, such as scratching King Sŏngjong and attempting to poison her husband’s concubine; her jealousy and actions led her to be dismissed as queen, thus why she is known as the Deposed Queen Yoon. According to one study titled, “Deposed Queen Yoon Might Have Suffered From Bipolar Disorder” from the Journal of Korean Neuropsychiatric Association, she exhibited many traits which today would be considered hypomanic, or a milder form of mania (a state of mind marked by extreme excitement, delusions, overactivity, and euphoria); hypomania is a symptom of bipolar disorder. While one cannot fully diagnose someone who has been dead for centuries, there are many similarities between the deceased’s behavior and the diagnostic criteria for bipolar disorder. According to King Sŏngjong’s Annals, which was examined by this study, Queen Yoon’s hypomania might have been first triggered just after she had given birth to her son, Prince Yŏnsan (Seo and Kim 160). Her symptoms became noticeable to King Sŏngjong, but they reduced and temporarily went away. 

However, bipolar disorder is marked by periodical swings from emotional highs to emotional lows. Queen Yun relapsed badly again soon. Once she was dismissed as queen and King Sŏngjong remarried, she directed these intense emotions at the new queen, the Queen Dowager, as well as King Sŏngjong. The article points to a record from the Annals of King Sŏngjong dating from August 11, 1482 to suggest that  “Queen [Yun] curses and threats toward [King Sŏngjong] and the Queen Dowager intensified, and that she exhibited manic symptoms, including aggressive behavior and hypersensitivity to stimuli” (Seo and Kim 161). These symptoms caused a lot of disruptions to King Sŏngjong’s life even after he had dismissed Queen Yun. Her behavior would again go through periods of remission and relapse, over and over again, as is common in bipolar disorder. 

Her son, Prince Yŏnsan, shared some symptoms of bipolar disorder as well. Seo and Kim write, “[Yŏnsan’gun] showed symptoms suspected of hypomania or mania, such as sexual promiscuity, extravagance, obsession with entertainment, excessive punishment, excessive excitement, and expression of anger” (Seo and Kim 162). According to a paper titled “Genetics of Bipolar Disorder” published in the National Library of Medicine, bipolar disorder “has a strong genetic component” (Escamilla and Zavala). Given that both Queen Yun and her son show symptoms of bipolar disorder, it is not unlikely that Queen Yun would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder today. Additionally, Seo and Kim write, “Considering the episodic clinical course in which these manic and depressive symptoms last for several months or more and then go into remission and relapse repeatedly, it is highly likely that [Yŏnsan] also suffered from bipolar disorder” (Seo and Kim 162). The influence of genetics on the development of bipolar disorder cannot be understated; Prince Yŏnsan’s symptoms also support Queen Yun’s diagnosis.

Mental illness continues to be a difficult subject to speak about. Understanding Chosŏn attitudes towards mental illness requires an understanding of Chosŏn beliefs, just as understanding mental illness requires an understanding of an individual’s beliefs. Learning about the past can often be a way to improve the present; perhaps increased access to this knowledge about how mental illness was viewed and how those with symptoms of mental illnesses were treated will further destigmatize mental health and encourage more openness surrounding the topic.

Metadata

Nithya Iyer, “A Discussion of Suicide and Mental Illness in Chosŏn Culture,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed June 13, 2024, https://koreanhistory.humspace.ucla.edu/items/show/93.