Book Review: The Annals of King Taejo

If you are interested in Korean historical drama then The Annals of King Taejo (translated and annotated by Choi Byong Hyon, Harvard University Press) is a fascinating read.

There are 1,893 volumes of the Annals of Joseon but the volumes of King Taejo, the founder of Joseon, are the only ones that have been translated so far! So it’s a fantastic opportunity to really get a sense of the first few years of the new dynasty in the late 14th century.

It’s not the kind of book you read from cover to cover like a novel and then put away. The records are written in diary-form with notes entered almost every day of the 7-year reign.

Some days have short entries on the weather, other days have long descriptions on serious happenings such as the execution of high officials for treason. But even the weather notes are interesting because bad weather was interpreted as being a message from Heaven to the King.

This is not a cheap book, (it’s in hardback and around $55) and at 897 pages it’s thick too. But it’s the kind that you can refer back to again and again, searching for information on the people or events of the time. So for me it’s a must.

The McCune-Reischauer system is used to romanize Korean words as opposed to the Revised Romanization of Korean (which I prefer) so for me it that takes a bit of getting used to.

But I learned a lot. Here are some of the highlights.

OVERVIEW

The records begin with a long 100 page introduction regarding the circumstances that led to Taejo becoming King of a new dynasty. And the records end with the dramatic final months of his reign when trusted high ranking officials are executed for treason before Taejo, now sick and weak, abdicates and hands the throne to his son, King Jeongjong.

One thing to remember is that The Annals of Taejo were written by officials of the new dynasty so of course Taejo is seen in an extremely positive light.

As a general in the Goryeo army before he became King he is described like a hero from an action film – he sits on a hill on a white horse with a red arrow and white feathers gazing down at his men. His 5th son (future King Taejong) is also presented as a brave warrior. When coming back from Ming on a ship in a terrible storm, other boats sink and there is panic onboard all around him, but, we are told, Taejong stands serene and calm.

So what notes are included in the records? Requests to the King from various government departments, meetings with envoys from Ming, China, the King’s trips to hot springs, lengthy obituaries of high ranking officials, poems written for the King that reinforce his worthiness to hold the Mandate of Heaven, reports on rewards for filial piety and punishments for crimes of high officials or commoners.

Small details of court life reveal that the King played kyokku, a ball game on horseback. He liked to go hunting and had a falcon farm erected on the Han River. A large bell was erected in the new capital so that the King’s achievements could ‘ring out and reach the hearts of the people’. The bell was also useful to get people up in the morning and let them know when it was time for bed. And we’re reminded that Joseon was a different time when locals are called out to help catch a roaming tiger.

The_Great_Seer

King Taejo is played by Ji Jin Hee in The Great Seer (SBS 2007) 

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE MANDATE OF HEAVEN

Since the King could only maintain his position if he pleased Heaven by being a worthy king, the writers of the Annals are at pains to show that the Goryeo King had lost the Mandate of Heaven and therefore had no right to be King. And since Heaven’s dissatisfaction is believed to be shown through the weather, there are plenty of examples of this throughout the records.

For example, when King U of Goryeo came to the throne, “ the people across the country were disheartened, and the thick yellow fog all around concealed the sun completely. When U carried out the winter sacrifice to the royal ancestors, the owls cried in the shrine, lightening flashed, and the earth was shaken;” “these happened because the ghosts of the royal family tried to prevent U from succeeding them, by demonstrating their dignity.”

Then when the inspector general is unhappy with the King’s actions he writes a memo in a way that shows this is NOT his OWN opinion but the wish of HEAVEN – he points out that after the King left the palace there was fierce thunder and lightening. This means that the King should reflect on his inappropriate actions – ie he should stop late night music and entertainment at the palace and refrain from leaving the palace so often (he likes to visit the falcon farm!)

THE IMPORTANCE OF REMOVING TROUBLE FROM THE PAST

Other requests are repeatedly asked of the King. The officials constantly try to persuade him to remove possible troublemakers for the new dynasty. These people include members of the Wang clan (ex-royal family of Goryeo), eunuchs, and Buddhist monks!

The Censorate of the Board of Punishments pushes the King to punish all the remaining members of the (Goryeo) Wang clan for treason. Officials prostrate themselves outside the palace front gate. So in the end the King has no choice but to agree. Military officials are sent out and the last king of Goryeo, King Gongyang, and his two sons are strangled to death. Other members of the Wang clan are beheaded. The records note that after this, people who have the family name Wang (unrelated to the royal family) now feel compelled to use their maternal family names instead.

INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS

The relationship with Ming China is strained. Envoys are sent to Ming with tributes but often the envoys are turned away. Messages from the Emperor arrive demanding that the ‘small kingdom’ has to show respect and should send envoys who can speak Chinese or not send anyone at all.  The Emperor questions the sincerity of tributary gifts and also sends poems, yes POEMS, by envoy to Joseon. The poems reflect the Emperor’s feelings on the relationship between the two kingdoms.

Whilst having to balance the relationship with Ming, there are constant references of attacks from Japanese marauders. One Joseon commander receives capital punishment for allowing his battleships to be captured by the enemy.

Jeong_DoJeon_(Korean_Drama)-p02

Jeong Do Jeon (KBS1, 2014) is a drama about the most powerful official during King Taejo’s reign

THE DIFFICULTIES IN MOVING THE CAPITAL

The records detail the huge amount of work required to move the capital city to a new location. It’s noted that officials are against the move as they don’t want to relocate their homes and families. So they try to dissuade the king from going to look at Hanyang (Seoul) by suggesting that ‘there are bandits on the way!’ (but the King, a former army general, is undeterred!)

By the 3rd year of the King’s reign the geomancers can still not agree on where the best location for the new capital is. Even though the King has already ordered work to commence in Hanyang to build the new city walls. Other suggestions for locations are still being thrown around but on the 25th day of the 10th month the capital is moved to Hanyang (Seoul).

Lots of details are given of the new construction of the palace – the size of rooms and facilities. 118,070 workers (slaves) are summoned from around the country to work on the construction of the city walls. Towards the end of his reign work on the capital has finished and requests are made that the workers be allowed to go home and concentrate on agriculture again. Families of workers who died on the job are given grain and beans.

After a relatively peaceful change of dynasty, Taejo’s reign ends rather dramatically when several of his trusted officials are executed for treason. By this point Taejo is sick and weak and chooses to abdicate. (He was the first of only 3 kings to abdicate during the Joseon period). So due to his abdication the first few months of Taejo’s son King Jeongjong’s reign are also recorded.

***

What a huge job it must have been to translate The Annals of King T’aejo: Founder of Korea’s Choson Dynasty But they are so fascinating to browse through. This is definitely a book I will have to refer to again and again for information. I now feel compelled to go and watch dramas set during King Taejo’s reign. And I’m also waiting for the translation of the Annals of King Jeongjong! But who knows how far away that will be….

2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Annals of King Taejo

  • September 22, 2016 at 3:13 pm
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    I have a question regarding 1st paragraph. You meant King Taejo of Goryeo not Joseon right? :)

    Reply
  • September 22, 2016 at 3:21 pm
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    Oops my mistake. It’s Joseon Dynasty, and Goryeo has Jeongjong too 😊

    Reply

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