(5) Kings Treading Rough, Rugged Royal Road

By Yang Sung-jin

It is true that all the 27 kings of the Choson Dynasty exercised great power and authority during their reigns. In return for the privilege, they had to live with the burdensome responsibility as the most important figure of the nation.

However, being respected as the most powerful man in a nation is always a sweet experience regardless of time and region. Therefore, is can be assumed that President Kim Dae-jung is now tasting the sweetness of power, at least in the months to come. In general, new beginning symbolizes hope and renewed expectation.

The problem is how to conclude the rule. No matter how hopeful the start may be, a bad ending of the rule leaves an indelibly negative mark upon his reign. Just think about the sorry example of the outgoing President Kim Young-sam, now under attack for the current economic crisis.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty illustrates the point that the ending of the rule is much more important than the beginning. The easiest way to know which ending a king secured during his reign is to look at the suffix of his official name. All the 27 kings’ name end as “jo” or “jong” or “gun.”

“If the king in question established a nation or did something of the same magnitude, the Choson historiographers put the suffix of ‘jo’ in the king’s name. That is why Yi Song-gye, the founder of Choson is called ‘King Taejo.’ King Yongjo has the same suffix because of his numerous achievements,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Korean Studies Database Institute.

The suffix, “jong,” is attached for the kings who succeed the reign in a legitimate manner such as King Sejong (reign: 1418-1450). Therefore, most Choson kings had their name ending as “jong.”

The opposite case of “jong” is the suffix of “gun,” suggesting a rule through an illegitimate way. Yonsangun (reign: 1494-1506) and Kwanghaegun (reign: 1608-1623) fall on this category.

“In fact, ‘gun’ indicates the person is a Prince. If the Prince is the Heir Apparent to the throne, he is called ‘Dae-gun,’ and other Princes born from royal concubines are called as ‘gun,’ which means Yonsangun and Kwanghaegun’s status has been downgraded from the king to a simple Prince,” Lee explained.

The judgmental naming of kings were possible because when the king died in the Choson Dynasty, he was worshipped at “Chongmyo” (Royal Ancestral Shrine) along with his predecessors as a national rite. And the very name of the king as we know it now, was used for the ancestral rite, in deference (or disdain) to the recently-deceased king. Yongjo, Chongjo and Sunjo used to bear the suffix, “jong,” at first.

But, after their deaths, Choson officials discussed and reassessed the deceased kings’ achievements as a ruler, and upgraded them into “jo” — a strict historical judgement applied to the king’s rule.

Interestingly, King Tanjong (reign: 1452-1455), the sixth king of the Choson, was dethroned by a coup d’etat by his uncle, Sejo. At that time, he was downgraded into “Nosan-gun.” It was over 200 years later that he regained the formal title as Tanjong and his Annal, formerly known as “Nosan-gun Diary,” was renamed as “The Annal of King Tanjong.”

Record-making, Record-breaking

As is human nature, each king showed different aptitude in their ruling. A certain group of kings ruled the nation with authority while wrapping up their lives peacefully; other kings were swayed and, in the worse case, manipulated by the government officials. And all the specific information is stored in the CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty.

The king who lived longest is King Yongjo at 83. The tragically short-lived is Tanjong, who had to commit suicide at the age of 17.

The longest-running reign is also secured by King Yongjo — 51 years and six months, six days; the shortest one is by King Injong, which lasted only seven months and 12 days.

When it comes to the age at a point of enthronement, King Taejo was the oldest at 58; meanwhile, King Hongjong (reign: 1834-1849) was only 8-year-old when he took in office.

The king who put much energy into procreation is King Taejong who had 12 sons and 17 daughters; King Tanjong, Kyongjong and Sunjong had no child.

Officially, only the eldest son of the incumbent king is the Apparent Heir to the throne, or Crown Prince. But, of the 27 kings, only 10 belong to the normal (thereby, idealistically legitimate) case. The other kings had problems with their legitimacy in whatever form.

For instance, transfer of power between brothers — instead of the practice of primogeniture — were carried out in such cases as Chongjong-Taejong; Injong-Myongjong; and Kyongjong-Yongjo.
Besides, King Sejo, Chungjong and Injo took away the royal seat from the Crown Princes by force.

The controversy over who is the legal, legitimate heir to the throne flared up from the very beginning of the Choson Kingdom.

Though the principle dictated the eldest son as the Crown Prince, the founder Taejo appointed the youngest Yi Bang-suk as Heir Apparent, which caused a fratricidal rebellion by Yi Bang-won, who later became the third king of Choson, King Taejong.

The first legitimate transfer of power based upon the primogeniture took place only in the King Sejong’s reign. King Sejong appointed his eldest son (who later became King Munjong) at the age of eight and educated him for 28 years, which is now called “royal education” to make a better, wiser king.

There ‘Was’ a Royal Road

As a whole, the Choson Dynasty put much emphasis on learning. The king was no exception. To be the fatherly figure of the nation, all the Choson kings had to study hard to attain a certain degree of scholarly knowledge about the Chinese classical texts.

Study, however, does not suit everybody. King Chungjong was the very figure, who favored a hunting on horse-back riding rather than sitting all day long in a closed palace. A document in the CD-ROM Annals in 1399 states: “Because I [King Chungjon] was brought up in a military official, I have been accustomed to climbing mountain, sleeping beside the lake and riding the horses. So, if I stay in my room for a long time, I will definitely develop a disease.”

Regardless of the Heir Apparent’s aptitude, the soon-to-be king had to learn the basic skills necessary for managing a nation. The most striking tool for this “royal education” is “Hwang-guk-chi-pyong-do,” a diagram summing up the essential components to be king.

The diagram, which is detailed in the Annals, include the moral standard, political principles, better relationships with subjects, and self-control as a king, among others.

“The diagram is what Yang Sung-ji, high-ranking scholar, gave to King Tangjon, so that the young ruler (who was sworn in at 12) would understand the principles more easily,” Lee Nam-hee said.

The kings who excelled in the royal education are King Sejong and King Chongjo. A document dated in 1421, the third year of the king’s reign, says, “King Sejong likes to study very much. As soon as he finishes the state affairs from dawn, he goes to the lectures with officials. Even at night, he continues to read books.”

King Sejong’s scholarly aptitude is only in a par with King Chongjo, who studied real hard, beating other high-ranking officials. “Materials related to King Chongjo show that he was quite good at studying the classics. He even changed the old system, in which the officials ask the king to study and discuss a specific subject, into the new one in which the king himself could demand the officials to study a certain topic. As a result, as many as 100 governmental officials attended the new system geared to learning during the King Yongjo’s reign,” Lee said.

Reassuring is the fact that President Kim Dae-jung enjoys reading books whenever he has extra time. Yet, it is only the initial step toward the much-honored, yet hardly attainable royal road.

(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.

(3) A Look at Choson’s Bureaucracy

By Yang Sung-jin

As Korea’s economic woes are translated into bankruptcies and layoffs, the ordinary laborer’s job security is now more vulnerable than ever. It is no wonder that many college students are now, somewhat blindly, preparing for the highly-competitive state examinations to become civil servants, a post of higher social status and, well, enviable job security.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty tells almost the same story concerning the civil servant system of the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910).

The state exams were difficult and time-consuming. Those who passed the screening test were given a fairly high social status and job security.

The only difference is that Choson public officials had to bear far greater moral and ethical responsibility than those of today. “The Choson Dynasty’s law clearly stated that if a public official was caught taking a bribe, not only did the person involved get dismissed from the office but also his descendents were barred from civil service posts, forever,” said Goh Yoon-hee, researcher of the Korean Studies Database Research Institute.

“Without this kind of strict and refined regulatory measures, the Choson’s bureaucracy would not have lasted such a long time,” Goh added.

Indeed, the 500-year-old Dynasty hinged on the high moral standard of the civil servants, in contrast to the current system focusing on specialty and professionalism. Yet, it seems that the everyday life of civil servants has not changed much over the past 500 years.

In general, the Choson state examination took place every three years, promoting 33 civil applicants and 28 from the military sector to the first rung on the bureaucratic ladder. Their journey upwards, however, was by no means easy. It took roughly 15-30 months to climb the next step of the 18 stages.

The only exception was the person who placed first in the examination, called “changwon.” While other ordinary officials had to spend over seven years to attain the post (if you were lucky), the changwon was able to jumpstart the complicated bureaucratic hierarchy under the systematic support.

“The privilege given to the changwon can be interpreted as evidence of the Choson Dynasty’s emphasis on individual effort as the essential condition for promotion, not family background, which was favored in the previous Koryo period,” Goh explained.

But the Choson’s merit-oriented policy was not complete. The applicant’s passing the exam totally depended on their academic ability and knowledge about the Chinese classical texts, which was fair enough. Yet, once the exam was over, those applicants of the privileged class were given a better job, leading to a faster promotion — a diehard legacy of the hereditary aristocracy.

The newly-appointed public officials had to go through a gruesome initiation process, or “hazing” by seniors. A record dated 1662 in the CD-ROM Annals states, “The newly appointed officials traditionally pay a visit to their seniors before they get the formal certificate. But, the seniors tear apart the newcomers’ clothes and play a humiliating trick on them.

Although its origin is unknown, this evil practice is still continuing in the name of custom, which should be eradicated as soon as possible.”

Worse, a feast offered by the newcomers followed the excruciating initiation ceremony. A document dated in 1529 in the Annals points out that newcomers avoided the post of sagwan (historiographer) because the sagwan appointees had to provide an expensive feast for the seniors as an initiation process.

Once the person was appointed to a government post, the nation offered a “salary” to the officials. Yet, Choson’s salary did not involve money. It was a piece of land, rice and clothes.

A track of land given to the officials as a payment was classified into 18 different kinds, based upon the official’s rank. Yet, as the scale of the government got bigger, more land was needed, but the government’s land was quite limited. So, King Sejo revised the related law, drastically cutting the number of officials receiving a piece of land in 1466.

Another form of payment was to give food (usually rice) and clothes to officials, which was called “nokbong.” There are 1,305 articles related to nokbong in the CD-ROM Annals, suggesting all the imaginable controversies about the limited salary and the officials demanding more.

Therefore, the honorary officials, who did not work in the office but received the nokbong, were the first targets of “downsizing.” For instance, a document in 1400 asks for layoffs for the honorary officials: “The number of ‘kumkyo’ (honorary) officials dramatically increased. But they get their salary at home without working in the office. Please get rid of the kumkyo’ post, which will cut unnecessary officials and thereby save the labors of the public.” This is a passage reminding today’s buzzwords such as “downsizing,” “restructuring” and a “small, efficient government.”

Choson officials were also required to abide by the designated office hours (5-7:00 a.m.-5-7:00 p.m. in the summer time) as today’s breadwinners do.

But as there are some deadbeats today, there were lazy officials in the Choson Kingdom, as well. In 1482, an official named Kim Seung-kyong states: “Even though the office hours are manifested by law, there are many absentees as I have inspected. And 10 lashes with a cudgel for the violators is too lenient a punishment.”

Interestingly, there was also a lunchtime set for the civil servants. Since the official lunch was provided by the taxpayer’s money, it was also the first target to be scrapped in emergency. The Uijongbu (State Council) filed a petition to King Sejong in 1436, the year the dynasty was hit by a severe drought: “The government should spend 57,280 soks of rice (1 sok equals 5.12 U.S. bushels) on a yearly basis. Yet we have only 123,300 soks as a total reserve. Considering the expected shortage of rice next year, we urge that the lunch for low-ranking officials should be curtailed.”

The Choson officials also had to perform night duty. Dreading this task, it seems, is a universal human trait transcending time because the CD-ROM Choson Annals reveals various incidents in which officials tampered with the night duty system. For instance, Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) filed a formal report calling for the dismissal of officials found neglecting the night duty in 1632. In another case, an official named Lee Seung-jo was exiled in 1400 because he was caught inviting a kisaeng (female entertainer in licensed quarters) into the court while on duty.

Another part of human nature is to want a vacation. According to numerous records related to the word “vacation” in the CD-ROM Annals, not only the regular public officials but also government slaves enjoyed a vacation. Moreover, King Sejong ordered in 1426 that a government female slave should be given 100 days off following childbirth. What draws interest from present scholars is the fact that King Sejong went as far as to allow the husband of the female slave to have 30 days off also, to take care of her.

“Not only the government’s slaves but also prisoners had vacation during the Choson Dynasty,” Goh explains. “King Sejong allowed five days of vacation a year to prisoners so that they could meet and pay respect to their aging parents, which shows the importance of the filial duty during the Choson Dynasty even for prisoners,” she added. In short, when it comes to the vacation system for public officials, it was a pretty modern concept, from which today’s policymakers can take a cue.

Another interesting fact concerning Choson officials was the retirement system. Unlike today’s “forced early retirement” in a bid to trim the bloated organization, Choson people thought it a courtesy to let officials aged 70 retire after their life-long service to the country. One official, Cho Mal-saeng, implored to King Taejong in 1416: “It is often said that the subject should finish their life peacefully after serving the nation until the age of 70. How many years could be left for an official aged 70? Let all these officials retire.” Today’s civil servants, however, should not blindly quote the above passage to save their posts because only an official of high integrity was able to reach 70 without an error in the Choson Dynasty.