The Sage King Yeongjo of Korea

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Recently I finished and interesting book (started in Spring) titled The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yôngjo and the Politics of Sagacity. This book looks at the life of a certain Korean king named Yeongjo (1694-1776, 영조/英祖) of the Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조,朝鮮王朝). The Joseon Dynasty was the longest-lasting Confucian kingdom in world history (605 years) and had many ups and downs.

Yeongjo was one of the most famous kings because he was very dedicated to Confucianism or yugyo (유교, 儒敎) and tried very hard to live like a “sage king”. He took Confucian teachings very seriously and tried to cultivate an image as a “virtuous” king. However, reality on the ground proved to be very different.

The Joseon Court had two main groups: the king and his close relatives, and the Confucian bureaucracy. This bureaucracy was made up of scholars called the sarim (사림, 士林). The bureaucracy was supposed to serve the king, manage all the day-to-day issues of government, and per Confucian tradition, was supposed to criticize the king if he made a bad decision.

However, Yeongjo became king under controversial conditions (his elder brother died suddenly, some people thought he was poisoned), and the court was divided into two political factions: the Soron (소론, 少論) who opposed Yeongjo and the Noron (노론, 老論) who favored Yeongjo. The problem was that both groups were constantly sabotaging one another, so it was hard to get anything done. Even though the Noron had protected Yeongjo and supported him as a king, they expected a lot of favors, and Yeongjo just wanted to rule fairly.

Yeongjo tried to rule using a policy called Tangpyeong (蕩平, 탕평) which mean “Great Harmony” so that both groups had equal treatment, and were expected to do their job well. Sometimes this worked, and fighting decreased, but extreme members of both factions still tried to stir up trouble, or rebellions.

Also, Yeongjo tried to fix the broken tax system, so that the elite yangban (양반, 兩班) class in Korea would pay taxes too. During that time, the government was severely in debt and many groups in society avoided taxes. However, the bureacracy members were all yangban families and of course opposed this. It took many, many years and very careful work, but eventually Yeongjo succeeded in fixing the tax system.

But the biggest problem for Yeongjo was his own son, Prince Sado. At the age of 27, King Yeongjo forced Prince Sado to get into a rice chest, and then locked the chest so that Prince Sado died 8 days later. The official records at that time are very vague about why this terrible thing happened.

The book looks at several different records and explains what happens like so: Prince Sado was born when the king was already pretty old. He had no other heirs, and so the king was very hopeful for his son to become a Confucian ruler like him. So, Yeongjo really pushed his son to work hard and study Confucian thought. At first this worked well, and Prince Sado was a bright and happy son.

However, this wasn’t good enough. Yeongjo pushed him so hard, that eventually Prince Sado became depressed and started neglecting his studies. This made Yeongjo criticize his son more. This became a cycle over the next 10 years or so, where Yeongjo kept pushing his son, and his son would fall short, become depressed and give up more. Based on the diary of Lady Hyegyeong, Prince Sado was so afraid of his father, that he would become very upset in the morning when he had to get dressed (and meet him), beat his servants and sometimes kill them.

Prince Sado’s mental health became worse and worse, and eventually he became a threat to everyone. However Confucian law prevented King Yeongjo from killing his son, so he forced him into a rice chest and locked it. After Prince Sado died, records were destroyed and people tried to forget it ever happened. Sado’s son (Yeongjo’s grandson) became the next king, Jeongjo, and was one of the best kings of the Joseon Dynasty.

Yeongjo’s reign was very, very difficult, but he was king for 50 years and did make some very positive changes to the Joseon Dynasty that helped it survive much longer. Plus, during his reign, the factional fighting was much less than past kings. Thus, despite the controversies, Yeongjo (and Jeongjo) are remembered fondly by Koreans today.

As for the book itself, it was a great read and indefinitely recommend it to anyone interested on Confucianism or Korean history.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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