Joseon Kings Overview

joseon kings

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 😉 )

King Yeongjo

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

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.

Horse doctor

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?

king TaejoKing Yeongjo

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

Yeonsangun, Gwanghaegun

IMG_1489

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.

young and older Sejong

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.

dongyi

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.

Jang_hee_bin

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)

Sejonk

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. :)

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19 thoughts on “Joseon Kings Overview

  • June 1, 2013 at 9:48 am
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    The Joseon King Overview article is terrific! This period of Korean history is very interesting to me, and I appreciate the information. I like the ‘POWER AND THE KING’, ‘the title GUN’ and ‘LEGITMATE HEIR’ sections and the king titles information. This article answers some questions for me. The format and organization of the article are excellent. Thank you for the impressive research and presentation. Regards, Chuck L.

    Reply
    • June 2, 2013 at 3:09 pm
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      Thanks for taking the time to read this. I’m glad it’s useful. :)

      Reply
  • June 2, 2013 at 11:42 pm
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    hi is there away where i can read the book regarding the joseon kings? :)

    Reply
    • June 4, 2013 at 9:37 am
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      Hi. Unfortunately I haven’t found any books that are only about the Joseon kings. :( The names of the books I read for this post are at the top of the article.

      Maybe you mean the book with portraits of Joseon kings? (I put a couple of photos of that book in this post) That book is called “Great Korean Portraits” by Cho Sun-Mie but it is about Joseon portrait painting and there were only 4 kings whose portraits have survived till today. If you are interested I wrote more about this book here: http://www.dramasrok.com/2012/02/book-great-korean-portraits/

      Reply
      • June 6, 2013 at 6:50 pm
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        hi thanks pof the info, ahm do you think this book is available now in ebook?
        A Review of Korean History vol. 2 Joseon Era by Han Young Woo

        have you read te e-annals of joseon dynasty and the memoirs of lady hyegyong and also the inhyeon wanghu book, i really want to read those books, :( but there’s no ebook available online, and i also want to watch those saeguk dramas which are from the 80’s or those really old saeguk but i dont know where to watch, perhaps you know a website where i can watch and read all those books and dramas, please help

        Reply
        • June 29, 2013 at 2:33 pm
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          I’m afraid I’m not going to very helpful here. :( I don’t know of any ebooks that are available about Joseon history or websites where we can watch old sageuk dramas. But I’ll keep an eye out for them…

          All I know is that the annals of Joseon are available online (in Korean) and there are plans to translate them into English starting next year I think.

          The Centre for Korean Studies Materials has a collection of documents etc that can be seen online but again mostly in Korean …
          http://www.kostma.net/eng/sub/introCenter1.aspx

          Reply
          • July 4, 2013 at 6:31 pm
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            thanks for the link, one more question :) there’s a blog saying that lady choi sukbin were forced to leave the palace and after that the king didnt seek her, is there a basis on that info? didnt she leave because she’s sick? and if she’s sick and gotten better, why didnt she go back to the palace? please please please help me again :)

          • August 12, 2013 at 12:06 am
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            Hi Lady

            Yes I know what rumor you refer to, but no, she was not evicted, there are not such in Annals records or anywhere, when she died she had her bin title (meaning she kept all the privileges as High rank Concubine, had she been evicted she would had lost her rights and demoted. She was also buried in a Royal type of Tomb, also there is not an edict or announcement of it…Thats just a rumour, that comes from a part in annals of Joseon in 1704.. that stated, that some officials are commenting that Choi suk bin is in her way with 5 of her ladies to her private residence, and Yeoning Geum (her son) is going to establish a separate residence. (this was said because the nobles were complaining for the money the king was using in his chalup) Historiographer don’t know what this mean or why she left, but she could have come back after a short period, that is a rumour that comes from those times that stated that in 1711 when Inwon came down with pox, the doctors didn’t gave her hopes, but Choi suk bin order the palace ladies to find remedies between the commoners to save the Queen. It looks like by 1711 she was back in the palace, but then in the end of 1716 the King received a message from Yeoning Geum who was living in Inhyeon Palace asking the King for more help (maybe doctors) because her mother’s illness had worsened,It is interesting that in her book memoirs of a Korean princess, daughter in law of Yeongjo said that in 1717 Sukjong finally allow his son (with Jang hui bin) to take care of government matters then in 1718 he made him to rule in his place as regent. Choi suk bin died april 1718. 😀 Hope that help.

  • June 27, 2013 at 11:29 pm
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    Thanks for the info. It’s very interesting. Does Korean monarchy still exist up to now?

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    • June 29, 2013 at 3:01 pm
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      No, it came to a dramatic end soon after Empress Myeongseong (the wife of the last king of Joseon – King Gojong) was assassinated by the Japanese in 1895. King Gojong proclaimed Joseon an empire in 1897 and became Emperor Gojong but he soon abdicated and his son by Queen Myeongseong – Emperor Sunjong – took over until 1910.

      But Sunjong was powerless against the Japanese and had to sign the annexation treaty in 1910 ending 500 years of Yi family rule and so the end of the Joseon Dynasty and monarchy. :( Korea remained a colony of Japan until the end of the second world war in 1945.

      Reply
  • July 2, 2013 at 11:54 pm
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    Thank you so much, your writings have been very enlightening. I watch the drama Jang Ok Jung ( Hee Bin) and got so interested to check out who she is. Her role and her romance with King is so beautiful. So, i started seaching for more information about her. Thanks again.

    Reply
  • July 3, 2013 at 7:43 pm
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    may i know what are the book names are you using? and what book was with the portraits?pls reply to me, i need it for a project tyvm

    Reply
    • July 16, 2013 at 1:19 pm
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      These are the books I read here

      The Land of Scholars Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism by Kang Jae-eun
      (not easy to read though)

      A Review of Korean History vol. 2 Joseon Era by Han Young Woo
      (this gives general info on life and politics during Joseon. But not so much on individual kings)

      Click into the Hermit Kingdom: Virtual Adventure into the Joseon Dynasty by Yang Sun-jin
      (this book picks out some interesting info found in the Joseon Silok)

      Great Korean Portraits by Cho Sun Mi
      I wrote a post about this book here:
      http://www.dramasrok.com/2012/02/book-great-korean-portraits/

      (and of course various online Wiki articles )

      Reply
  • July 6, 2013 at 3:33 am
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    Some reliable references for the study of the Joseon period in English are as follows:

    1) ‘Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions – Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty’, compiled and authored by James B. Palais.

    2) ‘Sources of Korean Tradition’, Volumes II, an abridged multi-sourced work edited, collaborated and contributed by many Korean and Western sources and professionals in the fields of sociology and history.

    Be forewarned, that these books can be, at times, difficult to follow, but are superbly written. Wow, some of the information found in these books is so very interesting, but I believe you have to be in the mindset for research to enjoy the material. Additionally, these references basically cover the political events and social developments of early Korea with references to what King did what during Joseon Korea and not intimate details of their relationships with their girlfriends. . .

    3) And of course the old standby website, wikipedia.org, and try http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org, as these nets provide nice, concise information on a vast scope of Joseon Korean history including the Joseon Kings and Queens and concubines.

    That is why DramasROK is so special and kool to me, as the author (and administrator of DramasROK) provides the most interesting details to fill in the missing nook and crannies of a confusing and mysterious period as seen through (my) western eyes.

    Reply
  • August 24, 2013 at 4:43 pm
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    Hi there Dramasrok. Your blog rocks! (^__^)
    I too love sageuk dramas. In fact, my no. favorite K-drama is Dae Jang Geum.

    Thank you for this awesome overview on Joseon Kings. One of the sageuk dramas I’ve seen is Yi San who became a King. I don’t remember though the royal name he was given. Was it King JeongJo? If yes, then that makes sense. If I recall the drama correctly, Yi San became one or the most beloved King because he really mingled or looked after the welfare of the common people during his reign.

    Thanks also for the information on shinmungo, the “drum of appeal”. It reminded me of one episode from the ongoing drama “Goddess of Fire, Jung-Yi” where the young Jung-Yi beat the drum next to the palace, to tell the King about her father’s innocence and to petition her father’s release from prison. I didn’t know until today, that Korean commoners at one time can use shinmungo to speak with the King. Awesome information! Gwanghaegun is also one of the characters in the drama “Goddess of Fire, Jung-Yi”. So I’m paying close attention to how the writers are portraying him as a prince, his ascension to the throne and his reign. So far as the prince, Gwanghae appears to be frequently getting trapped by the schemes of the enemies/villains of the story.

    Thanks again. I look forward to reading your future articles.

    Reply
  • January 4, 2014 at 3:13 pm
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    From the link, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_monarchs_of_Korea, Joseon monarchs had temple names ending in jo or jong. Jo was given to the first kings/emperors of new lines within the dynasty, with the first king/emperor having the special name (Taejo), which means “great progenitor” (see also Goryeo). Jong was given to all other kings/emperors. Example, from King TaeJO’s (the first in the family to be king) family, the next king’s sons are named ,..JONG (JeongJONG, TaeJONG, SeJONG, MunJONG, DanJONG) When King Munjong’s brother (Prince Su Yang) usurped the throne and start a new royal line, he is now known as King SeJO (his sons and sons’ sons … JONG).

    Reply
  • June 19, 2014 at 9:59 am
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    Good article. But according to my knowledge the title of ‘Jo’ was given to king who created different royal line. Taejo founded dynasty.
    Yengjo succeeded his brother not father thus breaking royal line of his brother and so on.

    ‘Jong’ means they continued the royal line.

    ‘Gun’ simply means that they weren’t given temple names because they weren’t considered king. Possibly because they were deposed.

    Reply
  • September 2, 2015 at 9:55 am
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    Hi, thanks for the article, I really love your blog. I like to watch sageuk drama, and when I watch Yi San, there’s an interesting character for me, he is the right hand of King JeongJo. He’s name is Hong Guk Young, an ambitious man but very loyal to the king. I really want to know more about him. Is there any books or articles of Hong Guk Young? I heard there was a sageuk drama called Hong Guk Young in 2001, but I don’t know where to watch it. Can you help me please?

    Reply
    • September 14, 2015 at 2:00 pm
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      Hello! Thanks for your question. Actually I’m watching Yi San right now and I agree that Hong Guk Young is a very interesting character. I’m only up to episode 15 so I can’t quite work him out yet. Unfortunately I don’t know where you could find the 2001 MBC drama ‘Hong Guk Young’. But apparently his character also appears in the fusion drama Warrior Baek Dong Soo (SBS 2011) about a swordsman who protected King Jeongjo from assassination attempts. He’s not a main character in that drama though. The drama looks interesting so I’m going to add that to my list to watch! Have you seen it?
      http://asianwiki.com/Warrior_Baek_Dong_Soo

      Reply

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