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Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Kings of Joseon Dynasty, Part XI: King Jungjong (Yi Yeok) - Righteous King yet the Reformer of Joseonese Royal Cabinets


King Jungjong of Joseon, previously known as Grand Prince Jinseong (Hanja: 中宗王 [晉城大君]; Born: April 16th 1488 – Died: November 29th 1544, Reigned: 1506–1544), born Yi Yeok (이역/李懌), was the eleventh King of Joseon Dynasty. He was the only son of King Seongjong and Queen Jeonghyeon of Papyeong Yoon Clan. He succeeded his half-brother, King Yeonsan the Terrible - Yi Yung, because of the latter's tyrannical misrule, which culminated in a coup placing Jungjong on the throne.

On the day King Yeonsan was deposed, soldiers belonging to the coup leaders surrounded the house of his half-brother Grand Prince Jinseong. He was about to kill himself, thinking that King Yeonsan was finally going to kill him; but, dissuaded by his wife, Grand Prince Jinseong found himself becoming the eleventh king of Joseon Dynasty, or King Jungjong. Jungjong worked hard to wipe out the remnants of the King Yeonsan the Terrible era by reopening the Seonggyungwan, royal university, and Office of Censors, which criticizes inappropriate actions of the king. However, during the early days of his reign, Jungjong could not exert regal authority freely because those who put him on the throne exercised immense power. When the three main leaders of coup died of old age and natural causes eight years later, Jungjong began to assert his authority and carried out a large-scale reformation of the government with help of Jo Gwang-jo and other Sarim scholars.

Jo Gwang-jo strengthened local autonomy by establishing a self-governing system called Hyang'yak, promulgated Confucian writings by translating them in Korean hangul and distributing them widely, pursued a land reform that would distribute land more equally between the rich and poor, and introduced a supplementary system for recruiting talents to the government. He also believed that any talented people including slaves should be appointed as officials regardless of social status. As Inspector General, he enforced the laws strictly so that no official dared to receive a bribe or exploit the local populace during this time according to Annals of the Joseon Dynasty.

However, the reforms faced much opposition from conservative nobles who led the coup in 1506 that placed Jungjong in power. After four years of reformist agenda, Jungjong abruptly abandoned Jo Gwang-jo's programs because he either lost confidence in Jo's programs or feared that Jo was becoming too powerful. While Jungjong and Jo Gwang-jo shared the reformist agenda, Jungjong was also chiefly interested in solidifying royal authority whereas the latter was more concerned with neo-Confucian ideology, according to which those who rule must be a virtuous example to the rest. Finally in November 1519, when conservative officials slandered Jo Gwang-jo to be disloyal by writing "Jo will become the king" (주초위왕, 走肖爲王) with honey on leaves so that caterpillars left behind the same phrase as if in supernatural manifestation, Jungjong executed Jo Gwang-jo on charge of factionalism and exiled many of his followers, abruptly abandoning his reforms. This incident is known as the Third Literati Purge of 1519 or Gimyo massacre of scholars.

After Jo Gwang-jo's fall, King Jungjong never had the chance to rule on his own. His reign was marked by tumultuous struggle among various conservative factions, each of them backed by one of the King's queens or concubines. In 1524 the conservative factions collided with each other, one faction deposing the corrupt official Kim Anro. Kim Anro's followers took their revenge in 1527 by intriguing against Consort Park, one of the King's concubines, which led to her execution along with her son Prince Bokseong. Kim Anro came back to power and took revenge on his enemies until he was removed from government and then executed by the new queen's brothers, Yun Wonro and Yun Wonhyeong. However, Yun Im, ally of Kim Anro, was able to keep his nephew as crown prince since the new queen, Queen Munjeong, did not have a son until later. Injong would later be declared the crown prince. His uncle Yoon Im competed for power with the Queen Munejeong's brothers, Yoon Won-hyeong and Yoon Wonro. Many officials and scholars gathered around the two centers of power and each group developed into separate political factions. Yoon Im's faction became known as ‘Greater Yoon’ and the Yoon brothers' faction as ‘Lesser Yoon’. Their conflict led to the Fourth Literati Purge of 1545 after Jungjong's death.

As the dynasty weakened as a consequence of the continual internal conflict, foreign powers driven away by earlier monarchs returned with much greater effect. Wokou pirates and privateers often plundered southern coastal regions, while the Jurchens attacked the northern frontier numerous times, bleeding the army dry.

Jungjong was a good and able administrator especially during the reform period led by Jo Gwang-jo. However, historians judge that he was a fundamentally weak king due to circumstances of his ascension to throne, too easily swayed by both Jo Gwang-jo and conservative ministers who placed him on the throne. Sometimes he was seen as a tragic figure who never wanted to be a king but was forced to become one and depose his loving queen under the pressure of the coup leaders, who killed her father during the coup. More recently, some historians have suggested that Jungjong was not actually manipulated by his ministers and in-laws, but rather used them to get rid of one another to strengthen regal authority albeit not so successfully. In either case, his reign was marred by much confusion, violence, corruption, and court intrigues. He has been especially criticized for allowing the Third Literati Purge of 1519 and executing Jo Gwang-jo and others on framed charges.

In the early days of reform, Jungjong encouraged the publishing of many books; but publications declined dramatically after the literati purge in 1519. He also tried to improve self-government of local areas and succeeded in reforming the civil service examination. In the latter days of his reign, he realized the importance of defense and encouraged military service.

Jungjong is also known for appointing Jang Geum as one of his personal doctors. Never in Korean history had a woman become a royal physician. It is also worth noting that since Jungjong's reign, Korea has never had a female royal or presidential physician, even to this day.

King Jungjong was buried at the Royal Tomb of Jeongneung, part of the Royal Tomb of Seonjeongneung (선정릉/宣靖陵) in 1 Seolleung Avenue 100th Street/Seolleungno 100-gil, Samseong-dong 131-beonji, Seoul Gangnam-gu. He was posthumously known as King Jungjong Gonghoe Hwimun Somu Heum-in Seonghyo the Great (중종공희휘문소무흠인성효대왕/中宗恭僖徽文昭武欽仁誠孝大王).