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.”
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.