In this post I’ll give a brief overview of the Joseon kings. See other posts for more info on the early Joseon kings and the mid Joseon kings. Scenes above taken from dramas set in the Joseon period: (from left Han Suk Kyu as King Sejong in Deep Rooted Tree (r. 1418-1450), Jung Jin Young as Yeonsangun (r.1494-1504) in King and the Clown, and Lee Sang Yoon as Prince Gwanghae (r. 1608-1623) in Goddess of Fire, Jung Yi.
The info here I read in several books including …
The Land of Scholars Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism by Kang Jae-eun
A Review of Korean History vol. 2 Joseon Era by Han Young Woo
Click into the Hermit Kingdom: Virtual Adventure into the Joseon Dynasty by Yang Sun-jin Great Korean Portraits by Cho Sun Mi
(and of course various online Wiki articles 😉 )
27 KINGS WITH DIFFERENT SKILLS AND WEAKNESSES
There were 27 Joseon kings. Some ruled for a long period bringing a sense of stability to the country and others didn’t last long at all. The longest ruling monarch was King Yeongjo (r.1724-1776) who ruled for 52 years. His father King Sukjong (r.1674-1720) didn’t do too badly either with 46 years on the throne. But at the other end of the scale, poor old King Injong (r.1454-1455) didn’t even make it to one year on the throne before he mysteriously died (possibly poisoned so his half-brother could get the throne grrr).
POWER AND THE KING
Jeong Do Jeon one of the scholars who helped found Joseon acknowledged that each king was different – with different weaknesses and personality – so he believed it was up to the prime minister to balance out the king’s weaknesses. Monarchic authoritarianism was rejected in the Joseon dynasty and power of administration allocated to the prime minister.
But the actual power of the king varied depending on the personality of the king himself and the strength of the political factions at the time.
Although Jeong Do-jeon the prime minister wanted the government to have actual political power rather than the king, King Taejong (the third king r.1400-1418) was very ambitious and power-hungry and he created the State Council of Joseon (의정부), declaring that all decisions passed by the State Council could only come into effect with the approval of the king.
But later, other kings struggled against the powerful political factions that had developed in their governments over time. King Jungjong (r.1506-1544) (left played by Im Ho in Jewel in the Palace) came to power after a coup to depose the tyrant Yeonsangun. But he struggled with the strong Hungu political faction since they had helped him become king.
And some kings were mere puppets while other family members – queen mothers, queens, in-laws – were really in control! For most of the 19th century the Andong Kim clan of the Norin faction controlled the government. And all the kings at this time had to marry queens from the Andong clan!
WARRIORS, BOOKWORMS, AND LADIES’ MEN
The earlier kings who helped form Joseon were more warrior types who preferred the outdoors and hunting to studying books indoors. But the kings were expected to understand Confucianism to help them make decisions and they had regular lectures (as did the crown prince) from specially chosen Confucian scholars on the subject of Confucianism. King Sejong (r.1418-1450) and King Jeongjo (r.1776-1800) are considered to be the most academic of all the kings and they spent a lot of time studying. (BTW Although King Sejong was a bookworm. He also had a reputation for being a ladies’ man 😉 ) On the other hand, Yeonsangun (r.1494-1506) was not into academia at all but was very interested in ladies and infamously converted Seonggyungwan (the national university) into a brothel for his personal entertainment! 😮 (I wonder what the Confucian scholars had to say about that?!)
Diplomacy was another important skill that the king required. And some kings had more of this than others. It was important to keep good relations with neighbouring states and Gwanghaegun (r.1608-1623) kept good relations with the neighbouring Manchus (who went on to found the Qing dynasty 1644-1912). But during the reign of Gwanghaewgun’s successor, King Injo (r.1623-1649), relations with the Manchus soured leading to the Manchu invasions which left Joseon devastated after the wars.
The king also often had to be diplomatic when dealing with the different factions in his own government. King Yeongjo and his successor and grandson King Jeongjo managed to keep a ‘policy of impartiality’ in politics giving equal treatment to all who wanted to enter politics regardless of their faction. This created more stability in politics.
Disgruntled government scholars march off to see the king (Horse Doctor MBC 2013)
SO WHICH KINGS DID A GOOD JOB AND WHICH WERE NOT SO GREAT?
The titles of the Joseon kings were all given posthumously. And each title has the ending of Jo, Jong, or Gun.
As these titles were given to the kings just after they died, we can see what the historians of the time thought of their leadership! But reading their resumes it’s not always clear (to me anyway) why the kings were given these titles!
Kings with titles ending in JO
There are seven kings with this title: Taejo, Sejo, Seonjo, Injo, Yongjo, Jeongjo, Sunjo
This is the highest title and was given to a king who achieved something very great during his reign (like establishing a dynasty!) So what did these kings do?
Original portraits of King Taejo (r.1392-98) and King Yongjo (r.1724-76) still remain. picture source: Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea
King Taejo (r.1392-1398) founded Joseon.
King Sejo (r. 1455 -1468) was a strong ruler and his most important achievement was compiling the gyeongguk daejeon Grand Code for State Administration – the first written form of constitutional law. (So even though he usurped the throne from his nephew, Prince Danjong, he was still given this title!)
King Seonjo (r.1567-1608) started off well trying to rid the country of corruption and making reforms but was criticised for his handling of the seven year war with Japan when Joseon was not prepared for war at all.
King Injo (r.1623-1649) ruled during the Manchu invasions and was considered a weak ruler (so I don’t know why he was given the Jo title!)
King Yongjo (r. 1724-1776) had a long and successful reign and created stability. (Not bad for the son of the king’s concubine! Dong Yi 😉 ) But there was that incident with his son being killed in a rice chest …
King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800) was considered one of Joseon’s most successful rulers.
King Sunjo (1800-1834) became king at 11 years old and took his queen from the Andong Kim clan. The king became a puppet and the real power was held by the Andong clan! (So again, not sure why he has the Jo title …)
The title GUN
Portrait of military officer Yi Jung-no (1577-1624) who participated in the coup to depose Gwanghaegun in 1623 and then became a meritorious subject
Gun actually means ‘prince’ (The crown prince was named Daegun. And the King’s concubine sons were also given the title gun.) So this is a posthumous demotion for a king! It means the king was considered to have ruled illegitimately and so was downgraded
Yeonsangun (r. 1494 -1506) was a tyrant with a huge sexual appetite. He was defeated in a coup and deposed, so he didn’t get a king’s title.
Gwanghaegun (r.1608-1623) was considered a good ruler and diplomat. But he was the king’s second son to a concubine which caused political problems. He was deposed in a coup so doesn’t have the title of king but today he is considered a victim of politics.
Kings with title ending JONG
Jong is the most common title for the king and all the remaining 18 kings have this title. It simply means that the king was legitimate.
An older King Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) fights with his younger self (Song Joong-ki) (Deep Rooted Tree SBS 2011)
King Sejong – the most famous Joseon king – was only given the Jong title. 😕 Not a Jo. I can only guess that this means that his work was not considered so great at the time? (for example the yangban officials were not impressed with hangeul at all – see Deep Rooted Tree) But today his pioneering vision is appreciated and he has been given the title of King Sejong the Great. (I think a ‘Great’ trumps a ‘Jo’!)
SAGWANS RECORD THE KING’S EVERY MOVE
The history of Joseon was recorded by over 80 scholars called sagwan.They worked full time in the Office of Annals Compilation (춘추관 chunchukwon) government department keeping detailed records of everything that went on from daily life to state affairs.
Two sagwan scholars (in blue) sit at the back of the daily meeting keeping records with King Sukjong (Ji Jin Hee) and the government officials. (Dong Yi 2010)
Whenever the king went anywhere there were always a couple of sagwan assigned to go with him and write down EVERYTHING that he did. (There is a record in the annals of an embarrassed King Taejong falling off his horse while hunting and trying to persuade the sagwan NOT to include the incident in the annals. But they did 😕 )
The king was not allowed to read the records otherwise the sagwan could not write objectively – fearing punishment if they wrote something uncomplimentary! After a king died the Office of Annals Compilation would organise a special committee called 실록청 sillockchong and hire more sagwan to work on putting together the Annals of the previous king which was called Joseon Wangjo Sillok (Royal Annals of Joseon)
WHO WAS THE LEGITIMATE HEIR TO THE THRONE?
Strictly speaking, the eldest son – Crown Prince – of the king and queen (NOT concubine), should become the next king.
Two sons by King Sukjong’s concubines became kings: The son of Jang Hee Bin (played by Lee So Yeon in Dong Yi) became King Gyeongjeong (r.1720-24) and King Yeongjo (r.1724-1776), was the son of concubine Suk Bin (a.k.a. Dong Yi).
But this rule was only followed 10 times in the Joseon period! Why? Because some kings didn’t have male heirs, or they preferred to choose another of their sons rather than the eldest, or the throne was usurped by other family members – brothers, uncles, etc. King Yeongjo one of the longest ruling and successful kings was the son of the king’s concubine (we can see this in the drama Dong Yi)
WHAT IF COMMONERS LIKE ME WANTED TO SPEAK TO THE KING?
Some of the kings mingled incognito outside the palace with the commoners to find out what the people really thought about life under his reign. But of course then they DIDN’T KNOW he was the king! (King Yeongjo was very keen on this.) But if a commoner wanted to speak to the king, this was difficult but not impossible.
There was a system called sang-on and kyok-jang which involved disgruntled citizens blocking the royal procession to appeal to the king when he was out somewhere. (there are 2,671 cases of this in the Joseon Annals)
King Sejong (Han Suk-kyu) debates about Chinese characters with scholars at the palace gates (Deep Rooted Tree)
In theory anyone could call the attention of the king with the shinmungo (drum of appeal) People could profess their innocence of a crime or complain about something. But this system faded out in the 16th century as it became too difficult for ordinary citizens to actually get to the bell – there were guards there and people had to exhaust every other avenue before being allowed near it which included appealing to other gov offices etc. Commoners then resorted to riots as there was no other way to be heard.
Often in sageuk dramas we can see scholars gathering at the palace gates to call out to the king urging him to change his decision about something. In Horse Doctor (MBC 2013) groups of scholars gather at the gates several times to complain to the king about the common horse vet becoming a ‘real’ doctor and in the palace too!
WHAT HAPPENED WHEN THE KING DIED?
After a king died, the country (including the crown prince) came to a stop to mourn. High officials had to keep things running in government during this time until the crown prince was made king in a solemn ceremony.
Jongmyo Ancestral Shrine, Seoul
During the ceremony tribute was paid to the dead king. And in the final part of the ceremony the new king would be inaugurated. But he was supposed to look solemn and reticent as he took his place on the throne – not leap into the seat with gusto suggesting that he was glad he was now the king and his father was gone! 😉 Then the new king gave an inaugural speech to the public. But formal recognition was also required from China so diplomats were sent there to get documents and a gold Royal Seal.
Ancestral Rites for all the previous kings were held at Jongmyo Royal Ancestral Shrine. Jongmyo Jerye, the Royal Ancestral Rite, was the most important state ritual. It was conducted by the King 5 times a year at Jeongjeon (the main hall) and twice a year at Yeongnyeongjeon (a smaller hall built later when Jeongjeon couldn’t accommodate any more tablets). We can still see a re-enactment of this ceremony every year in May.
The kings and their queens were buried in tombs usually outside the capital as the tombs needed a lot of space and had to be positioned in a suitable place with good feng sui. There are several locations where we can visit the tombs of the Joseon kings including King Sukjong and Jang Hee Bin’s tombs
Next time I’ll take a brief look at all the kings in order starting with the early Joseon period, middle Joseon period, and finally Late Joseon period.