By Yang Sung-jin
History has a cycle of ups and downs. In the eyes of humans who focus on the present, the great wave of events bearing historical significance may be elusive at best.
But historians have the great advantage being able to juggle the past with hindsight. In this regard, the Choson Kingdom enjoyed unprecedented growth and advancement when King Sejong took the helm.
About three centuries later, another big wave swept over the nation in the form of the “golden days” during the reign of King Chongjo (1777-1800) who pushed for a set of comprehensive reforms.
King Chongjo, the 22nd monarch, was the eldest son of Crown Prince Sado who, amid factional strife, was locked in a chest to death by King Yongjo, Chongjo’s grandfather.
As his father was constantly threatened by hostile factional members in the court, Chongjo also felt the danger of being kicked out of central politics.
With the help of a group of court officials including Hong Kuk-yong, the crown prince walked the precarious line of strife-ridden politics while absorbing the advanced knowledge of Ching China.
Taking the throne, King Chongjo set about installing a new court library and research center called “Kyujanggak” at Changdok Palace on Sept. 25, 1777.
The ostensible reason for the establishment of the new library was to nurture “culture-oriented” politics, referring to the ruler’s attitude of championing study and research as the cornerstones of nation building.
But the ulterior motive for launching Kyujanggak was to strengthen the power of the king as opposed to the sky-high influence of the faction-oriented high ranking officials who were divided over the principles of Confucian ideologies.
While recruiting talented officials to beef up the function of Kyujanggak as a new political powerhouse, King Chongjo began to eliminate political foes who had attempted to block the king from grabbing the mantle of power.
As a result, Chung Hu-kyum, Hong In-han, Hong Sang-kan and Yoon Yang-ro were removed from office, which in turn propped up the power base of the king.
At the same time, the king openly supported Hong Kuk-yong, a military officer in return for his loyalty when the king’s fate was on the cusp between glory and destruction.
Hong’s emergence as a powerful elite under the aegis of the king, however, was short-lived. For King Chongjo did not want Hong to challenge his rule as king and therefore placed checks on him in a prudent manner.
In April, 1781, Hong died while in exile, orchestrated by King Chongjo who was intent on building his power base.
In the meantime, Kyujanggak faithfully increased its influence as an education center for a group of officials who would support King Chongjo, while publishing a number of books and articles.
King Chongjo also pushed for the development of new fonts, an essential step to advance the publication of books. Interestingly, the king did not opt for an easy path in printing the books.
Instead of importing Chinese books, King Chongjo stuck to Choson’s traditional culture and history, reflecting a growing sense of independent identity.
The pride held by King Chongjo later contributed to the flowering of Choson’s distinctive culture in the 18th century with a new wave of paintings and writings driving out the outmoded China-oriented counterparts.
Since his father was killed as a result of factional dispute, King Chongjo abhorred abrasive conflict between different factions in the court. To block this ineffective wrangling, he continued “Tangpyongchaek” (a policy of impartiality), which was first adopted by King Yongjo to ensure political stability.
The policy was designed to offer equal treatment to those who wanted to enter politics, regardless of their factional backgrounds.
King Chongjo, meanwhile, embraced the practical learning of “sirhak” and promoted middle class culture and literature. The culture-centered policies jumpstarted the growth of the middle class who had long been alienated from the mainstream.
Today’s historians view the dramatic advance of the nation’s culture during the reign of King Chongjo as a result of the subtle combination of several historical incidents.
For instance, the Manchu Invasion of 1636 promoted Choson officials and rulers to regard themselves as a “Small China” which was superior to barbarian neighbors.
The mainstream Choson officials began to focus on their own cultural and social heritage while toying with the idea of invading northern nations.
Suwon Castle in Kyonggi-do was one of the yearnings shared by King Chongjo and his people. The king moved his father’s tomb to Suwon and at the same time designated the region around the vicinity of the grave as a planned city for the inhabitants of Suwon. It has been called “Hwasung” ever since.
The construction was not only an expression of filial piety but also a vehicle to establish a firm economic and military base for King Chongjo through which he could maintain strong leadership and guard the nation against foreign invasions.
These days, the reign of King Chongjo is being studied and scrutinized by historians since the period represents a convergence of political stability, social progress and cultural revolution.
Notable is that those historians appear conscious of the elusive historical cycle. There was a 300-year gap between King Sejong’s admirable nation building in the 15th century and King Chongjo’s golden days in the 18th century.
Whether the theory for the cyclical progress of the nation holds any water remains to be seen. What’s certain, however, is that the next potential “boom period” at the 300-year interval from King Chongjo’s reign is none other than the 21st century.