Book Review: The Confucian Kingship of Korea: Yongjo and the Politics of Sagacity

the confucian kingship of korea

Now I’m watching the drama Jang Ok Jung, Living in Love (SBS, 2013) about the romance between King Sukong (r.1674-1720) and his infamous concubine Hui Bin. Hui Bin’s son became King Gyeongjong (r.1720-1724) but he died young and his half brother became King Yeongjo (r.1724-1776). There were rumours that King Yeongjo killed his half brother to take the throne. Later he had his own son Crown Prince Sado suffocated to death in a rice chest …

So since I’m watching dramas set in the late Joseon period I recently read the book – The Confucian Kingship of Korea: Yeongjo and the Politics of Sagacity by Jahyun Kim Haboush, a Korean American scholar of Korean history and literature. (This is the 2001 paperback updated version of the book first published by Columbia in 1988)

(BTW In Sageuk historical dramas King Yeongjo appears as a child in Dong Yi MBC 2010, Crown Prince Sado dying in the rice chest appears in the drama Yi San, The Wind of the Palace MBC 2008, and in the upcoming 2015 film The Throne )

There’s not much information in English about the kings of Joseon. And quite often the information about them is pretty dry and limited to battle dates and main events of the king’s reign. This book is more engaging and focuses on the reign of King Yeongjo who was the longest reigning monarch in the Joseon period and reigned for 52 years (r.1724 -1776). It gives a detailed explanation of what was expected of a Confucian King.

And what I like about this book is that we also get details about the king’s daily life, his character, and his motivations for doing what he did. We can get a deeper understanding of Joseon’s longest ruling monarch. There are transcripts of actual dialogues between the king and his officials taken from various sources (translated into English) such as the official Sillok documents and diaries from officials who were in the government at the time.


The book also includes some interesting details about the relationship between Joseon and its neighbours particularly the Ming Dynasty. For example, the difference in status between the King of Joseon and the Emperor of Ming was shown through dress: The Ming emperors were considered to be the sons of Heaven and so they wore yellow. But the kings of Joseon were not the sons of heaven and answered to Ming so they had a lower status and so they wore red. But red was the same colour as the Joseon government officials wore. So the king’s garment had to be adjusted to make it stand out. (the Joseon King had a dragon embroidered on the front but the scholar officials had cranes)

The book covers in detail what it meant to be King in Joseon. The Kings of Joseon received the mandate of heaven to rule but this position didn’t come unconditionally. The king had to be worthy of the position and if he was not, then it could legitimately be taken away from him. King Yeongjo had a complex about his position because his mother was a low birth concubine (Suk Bin aka Dong Yi). And there were rumours that he had killed the previous king his half brother (King Gyeongjong son of infamous concubine Hui Bin) to get the throne himself.

So we learn that he spent his reign trying to prove his worthiness by focussing on being a sage king. This meant that he had to be virtuous and disciplined himself and was burdened with restoring moral order in the country! He became a great scholar of Confucianism and often went out in public to speak to the commoners and searched out ways to have more contact with them. However, he also had his son Crown Prince Sado locked up in a rice chest until he suffocated to death. (That’s dealt with in chapter 5)


The book is divided into 5 chapters. In chapter 1 there’s an overview of the political structure in Joseon and the relationship between the King and his government. Chapter 2 is about Yeongjo’s reign as a sage King, Chapter 3 deals with Yeongjo’s practical politics, Chapter 4 explains how Yeongjo handled factional disputes, and finally in Chapter 5 there are details about the death of Crown Prince Sado. Useful information in the appendix includes the list of books in the curricula of King Sukjong and King Yeongjo’s Royal Lectures on Confucianism, and a chart on the development of the political factions (the political fighting during this period is always a big part of historical dramas) Anyway, here’s a summary of each chapter:


Confucian Kingship and Royal Authority in the Yi Monarchy 

This chapter gives an overview of the changes in the political structure that occurred when the Joseon Dynasty was founded in 1392 and ruled for 500 years. It looks at the relationship between the king and his government and the role that Confucianism played in this. The relationship between the Joseon kings and the Ming emperors is mentioned – Joseon acknowledged Ming as the centre of the world and accepted a subservient position as a tributary state in return for being accepted as belonging to Confucian civilisation.

The Ming Dynasty was respected, but it fell in 1644 to the Manchus causing dismay to Joseon who saw the new Qing Dynasty as barbarians. Joseon believed with the fall of Ming it was up to them alone to continue to uphold and protect Confucian values. But how to do this caused disagreements and ended up with serious factional disputes in the government.


Yongjo’s Reign: Images of Sagehood

This chapter looks at how King Yeongjo created his image as a sage king. As there were questions about his legitimacy to the throne, Yeongjo realised he had to establish his moral credentials and chose to do this by becoming a sage king. He worked diligently at this hoping desperately for a sign from above that proved he had received the Mandate of Heaven.

The chapter also gives an insight into the daily work of the king – all the ceremonies he had to attend throughout the year and what was expected of him by the people. His demeanour during ritualistic ceremonies was observed intensely so he paid great attention to details and made sure he always showed devotion and sincerity. He also became a scholar and Confucian moralist to be able to lead by example and follow Confucian rituals meticulously to show respect and devotion.  Showing filial piety not only to his parents but also to the previous king was important but also problematic as he was accused of killing him!


Yeongjo’s Rule: Politics of Patriarchy

This chapter looks at how Yeongjo used practical politics to make tax reforms. The changes in society since the beginning of the Joseon period had created a big burden on commoners (the number of upper class yangban had increased and they didn’t pay tax).

It explains that there were two strands of Confucianism – hierarchical and egalitarian. The officials backed whichever side that suited them at the time. And when it came to taxes the officials became hierarchical! The king could not pass a law without the government so how could he persuade the members to vote for something that would not benefit them?


Magnificent Harmony: dealing with factional disputes 

This chapter deals with how Yeongjo introduced tangpyeong: Magnificent Harmony – which essentially means nullifying factions (not taking either side) to deal with the extreme factional disputes during his reign. It also covers the lead up to a serious revolt against his leadership led by extremists of the Soron faction who wanted to dethrone him. A serious famine helped to anger the people enough to join the rebels and revolt in 1728.

Previous kings had not tried to tackle the issue of factions and some had encouraged factions when it suited them. For many years Yeongjo insisted on a coalition government – Soron and Noron. At the beginning of his reign the Soron had greater power, by the end the balance had swung to the Noron. So he never eradicated the factions completely.


Yeongjo’s Tragedy: The Prince of Mournful Thoughts

The final chapter deals with the lead up to the controversial and infamous death of Prince Sado when he was ordered by King Yeongjo, his own father, to get in a rice chest where he remained for 8 days until he died. It’s a sad, interesting, and sometimes shocking chapter which reveals the reasons for the downward spiral in the relationship between Yeongjo and his son Crown Prince Sado.

Apparently some of the Records of the Royal Secretariat (sungjongwon) which would have  given more details of the event were destroyed (on King Jeongjo’s orders – King Yeongjo’s successor and Prince Sado’s son). But the chapter includes records from Sado’s mother’s memoirs – A journal Written At Leisure; Yi Kwanghyong’s Diary – and some info from the Sillok.

Yeongjo seems to have pinned his hopes on his son to help him clear his name of the crime of regicide – killing the previous king. But Yeongjo’s stern nature and overpowering character appears to have caused his son Sado to retreat into a shell and neither of them could understand each other. Crown Prince Sado began to show signs of mental illness and violent behaviour to the point that King Yeongjo decided to end his life. And so Yeongjo’s obsession with proving his legitimacy and authority continued as before. Since Yeongjo had no other heir, his grandson (and Crown Prince Sado’s son) became King Jeongjo (r.1776-1800)


5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Confucian Kingship of Korea: Yongjo and the Politics of Sagacity

  • May 11, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    I really enjoyed Jang OK Jung, Living in Love and am eager to hear your impression of it. It seems challenging for dramas to twist away from their romantic predilections to adhere more to historical reality since the required happy endings become impossible as a result. JOJLiL appeared to do that fairly well. I wonder if you will agree.
    Cheers, Christina

    • May 11, 2015 at 8:40 pm

      I’m on episode 15 at the moment and loving the drama so far. Comparing this version of events to the drama Dong Yi is very interesting. Either way, Jang Ok Jung’s character is very compelling. I just have to prepare myself for what’s going to happen from now on – it has to go pear-shaped for JOJ. :(

  • May 11, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    I cannot express adequately in words how much I enjoy and benefit from your blog. Do you think I would be able to get this book in USA
    Can you do a blog on his grandson.?
    He was my favorite king.

    • May 11, 2015 at 8:49 pm

      Yes, you can get this book on Amazon. And there are several dramas based on Yeongjo’s grandson – King Jeongjo – so I’ll be getting to him soon! Thanks for reading my blog :)

  • June 19, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    I have this book as well. It’s a brilliant book. Also love Haybush’s translation of Lady Hong’s Memoirs

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