(4) Coronation Ceremony Clouded by Mourning

By Yang Sung-jin

For all the gloomy prospects concerning the nation’s economy, people are likely to expect something hopeful from the inauguration ceremony of President-elect Kim Dae-jung starting at 10:00 a.m. tomorrow. Perhaps, Michael Jackson and some 130 foreign celebrities invited to the ceremony will help evoke a festive mood.

Yet, even Michael Jackson would have failed to enliven the festivities if he had attended a coronation ceremony during the Choson Dynasty era (1392-1910). The enthronement ceremony of the Hermit Kingdom was supposed to be solemn, even mournful. In most cases, the inauguration of a new king was carried out when the predecessor died. As a result, the incoming king remained grief-stricken about the death of his king-cum-father.

The trouble was that the Crown Prince often declined to immediately ascend to the throne, citing the need to pay due respect to the dead king, thus creating a precarious power vacuum. Therefore, the ceremony was done in a simple, swift manner, yet ritualistic enough to convince the public of the legitimate transfer of power.

“In general, when the king died, the entire nation came to a stop and the people mourned the dead king, the Crown Prince included. But the important work of the king must carry on, so other high-ranking officials oversaw state affairs until the new king could be crowned,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty show the general atmosphere of the ceremony, which customarily took place around noon at the royal palaces in Seoul.

First, the Crown Prince, emerged from the lying-in-state room of the dead king, changed into ceremonial clothes and sat on a mat in the eastern part of the court. Rituals such as reading the late king’s will and transferring the Royal Seal were conducted. The ceremony ended when the new king rode the royal palanquin to the main office. As soon as the ritual concluded, the king returned to the lying-in-state room to continue mourning his dead father.

The CD-ROM Annals recorded numerous incidents in which the new kings rejected sitting on the royal chair, the last step of the ceremony.

This is now viewed by historians as a cautious, ritualistic symbolic gesture in a bid to avoid the image of a son hurriedly taking over the royal post after his father’s death. “Under the strong Confucian social norms, it’s quite natural for them to delay the coronation even though it was only a ceremonial deference to the dead king,” Lee explained.

Kwanghaegun, the 15th king of the Choson Dynasty (reign: 1608-1623) was an extreme case. When an official named Kim Kwon asked the new king to take the royal seat, Kwanghaegun rejected it, citing his mixed feelings. Another official named Yoo Mong-in implored, to no avail. While all the civil servants waiting for the king to finish the ceremony, Kwanghaegun turned down the officials’ proposal to finish the ceremony 14 times. Only on the 15th offer, the new king reluctantly said, “I tried my best to avoid taking the royal post. Now I follow your request only because all the people here expressed the same opinion.”

Though symbolic and ritualistic to some extent, it would be too hasty a conclusion that the whole coronation ceremony was just a show. The CD-ROM Annals reveal several cases where intense grief overwhelmed the crowning of the new king.

For instance, Hyonjong (reign: 1659-1674) stood in front of the royal chair but never budged at the officials’ requests. Only after the prime minister Chong Tae-hwa asked twice, did the king helplessly move closer to the royal chair, but still refusing to take the seat. Instead, the new king started to sob, so did the officials. According to the CD-ROM Choson Annals, the lamentation was heard even outside the royal palace.

In other words, the coronation ceremony was largely focused on paying tribute to the deceased king, a legacy of the strong filial duty in the Choson Dynasty.

In the same vein was the way to calculate the starting point of a reign. When a king died in the midst of a year and a new king ascended to the throne, the year of the inauguration belonged to the dead king. The official starting date for the new king’s reign began the next year.

“The standard for the new reign’s starting point reflects how much attention the Choson people paid to the former king as a sign of loyalty. Also interesting, if a new king took over the throne by force or through a coup d’etat, the new reign started that same year, leaving an eternal mark of its illegitimacy,” Lee said.

Another important procedure regarding the legitimacy of a new King’s reign was receiving formal recognition from China. In the wake of the inauguration ceremony, diplomats were dispatched to get the related documents and golden Royal Seal from China, the most powerful nation in East Asia of the day, the CD-ROM shows.

For domestic policies, the new king issued a state announcement, or inaugural speech in today’s sense, to the public. One of the best was by King Taejo (reign 1392-1398), the founder of Hermit Kingdom. His statement had 17 fine points setting guidelines for future reigns, one of which is the two-fold state examinations for the civil and military ranks.

Generally, all the new kings held a “Chunggwangsi” or augmented state examination in an effort to build enthusiasm for their leadership among  the populace. “By recruiting additional officials shortly after their inauguration, the kings were able to secure subjects particularly loyal to their newly-launched reign,” Lee said.

Following the coronation ceremony, the king visited sacrosanct national sites including “Chongmyo” (Royal Ancestral Shrine) and “Sajik” (the National Altar to Worship the Gods of Land and Grain.)

In addition, the king granted a general pardon in an attempt to inject a fresh vitality to the nation by soothing and unifying the populace, a practice even today’s president follows suit.

“In understanding the mechanism behind the inauguration of a new king, we should consider that some incumbent kings pushed for a peaceful transfer of power while still alive,” Lee said.

King Sejong (reign: 1418-1450) is a case in point. “These days, historians agree to the theory a cultural revolution during the King Sejong’s reign was greatly due to his predecessor King Taejong. After peacefully transferring power, King Taejong maintained a tight grip on the military so that King Sejong could concentrate on state affairs,” she said.

Noteworthy are the cases in which the incumbent king suggested the peaceful transfer of power in a bid to gauge the degree of loyalty of the subjects. “For instance, King Sonjo often expressed his desire to abdicate the throne, not genuinely but to confirm the royalty of his officials, a highly sophisticated political strategy of the day,” Lee said.

Sophisticated or not, it was the unwritten law to do all things necessary to pay tribute to the recently deceased king. That is why most inaugurations were done six days after the incumbent king died. To the Choson people, there was a common belief a person could resurrect within six days after death, though whether the king’s chance for resurrection was greater than others is still arguable.

Intriguing is today’s equivalent of the waiting period. Outgoing President Kim Young-sam’s official term ends on Feb. 24, at 12:00 midnight sharp; therefore, incoming President Kim Dae-jung is supposed to wait only 10 hours before the inauguration ceremony kicks off — a fairly short time even for the almighty Choson king to resurrect to his next life.