By Yang Sung-jin
King Taejong loved hunting. According to articles in historical annals, the king often went out to the fields to chase after wild animals, frustrating court officials who wanted their ruler to stay in the palace.
King Taejong’s appetite for outdoor activities was indeed peculiar.
On Oct. 13 of 1395, when his father Yi Song-gye ruled as king and was founder of the Choson Kingdom, Yi Pang-won (King Taejong’s name before taking the throne) was nearly killed while engaging in his hobby.
“Lee Hwa asked Yi Pang-won to go hunting outside of the West Gate. But when they were hunting together, Yi Pang-won stood face to face with a leopard. When Song Ko-shin rode to rescue Pang-won, the leopard turned away from him and bit Song’s saddle. Kam Dok-saeng shot the leopard to death,” the article said.
To the great embarrassment of court officials, King Taejong did not stop hunting even after taking the throne.
On June 11, 1402, the Ministry of Rites came up with the novel idea forcing the king to restrain himself. The ministry put forward a formal policy under which the king is required to go hunting near the palace three times a year.
However, the regulation was not very effective in reining in the royal hunter.
King Taejong sneaked out of the palace under the cover of night to enjoy his hobby. The unusual outing was soon detected by government officials and sparked a chorus of opposition.
Saganwon (Office of the Censor-General) filed this appeal to the king in September of 1403: “Your Majesty rode off to a suburban area alone on the 25th day of this month, which shocked each and every citizen of the nation. Please bring the secretaries and servants when Your Majesty goes out of the palace.”
Natural Born Hunter
King Taejong replied, “I did indeed go out that night, because I heard flocks of wild geese approaching the area. But I regret it now.”
As the news of the king’s repentance about his over-the-top pursuit of leisure spread, Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) lost no time in filing another appeal.
“Now that Your Majesty has become ruler of the nation which champions scholarship, hunting should be avoided because it is likely to harm the integrity of the royal status,” the Sahonbu said.
The Sahonbu’s logic favored the pen rather than the sword. However, it failed to turn around King Taejong’s steadfast support for hunting.
It took only two days before King Taejong ventured out to the hunting ground.
On Sept. 28, King Taejong changed his schedule and wandered around the hills near the city of Imjin.
A ranking official, Cho Soh, said, “Your Majesty is hunting while leaving behind the court officials and attaches. It is feared that you might get hurt when falling off near the hills and puddles.
“Are you suggesting I have to stop killing living things in accordance with Buddhist principles?” the king retorted, referring to the harshly persecuted religion.
Cho Hyu, another official with a negative view about the king’s hobby, attempted to remind the king with his own statement: “Last week, Your Majesty went out alone. Since we implored you not to repeat the mistake, you admitted your mistake. But the hunting resumed in less than a week, which is clearly wrong.”
King Taejong did not want to lose a verbal war with his Confucianism- oriented officials. “Is there any law that blocks the ruler of the nation from hunting?” the king answered back to Cho’s indirect criticism.
King Taejong was a highly self-disciplined ruler when it came to power struggles. He knew how to control people, attack his political opponents at the critical moment and maintain amicable relations with supporters.
An Incurable Appetite for Hunting
Why did such a sensible man fail to control himself as far as hunting goes? King Taejong himself provided an answer.
“I did now grow up in the palace. Although I learned classical literature and happened to obtain the title of gentleman-scholar pursuing the philosophy of Confucius, my forefathers were military generals. Since my childhood, I used to ride a horse and enjoy hunting,” the king said, according to an article dated Oct. 1 1403.
King Taejong’s main argument was simple in a way. Now that he was the seemingly undeniable ruler of the nation, he had a right to enjoy hunting from time to time in order to get away from the boring life of the palace.
The king did not forget to excuse himself for the night-time hunting scandal: “These days, wild geese are passing the nation and it’s also a perfect time for falconry. This cannot be done during the day time and that is why I released the falcons at night.”
King Taejong justified his hobby, arguing that no authoritative book of wisdom bans hunting. “The books just recommend us to avoid excessive hunting,” he said.
The king’s unabashed attitude toward hunting, however, suffered a humiliating backlash.
On Feb. 8, 1404, King Taejong fell from his horse while chasing after a deer, which was a disgraceful mistake for a self-styled hunter.
In 1406, Saganwon filed another appeal to the king, calling for the suspension of hunting once and for all.
After reading the lengthy, preachy document about the importance of sharpening one’s scholarly mind inside the palace, King Taejong made this witty comment: “Saganwon officials attempt to reveal my weakness and publicize their own lofty fame by making appeals which are about trifle matters at best.”