King Yeongjo, previously known as Prince Yeon-ing (Hanja: 英祖王 [延礽君]; Born: 31 October 1694 – Died: 22 April 1776, reigned 16 October 1724 – 22 April 1776), born Yi Geum (이금/李昑) was the 21st king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty. He was the second son of King Sukjong and Royal Noble Consort Suk of the Haeju Choi clan a.k.a Dong Yi, and succeeded his older brother Gyeongjong as Crown Prince after considerable controversy.
Yeongjo's reign lasted 52 years and was marked by his persistent efforts to reform the taxation system of Joseon, rule by Confucian ethics, minimize and reconcile the factional fighting under his "Magnificent Harmony" Policy (Tangpyeong/蕩平/탕평), and for the highly controversial execution of his son, Prince Sado. In spite of the controversies, Yeongjo's reign has earned a positive reputation in Korean history due to his sincere efforts to rule by Confucian virtue.
In 1720, his father King Sukjong died and Crown Prince Yi Yoon, Sukjon's eldest son, ascended to the throne as King Gyeongjong, at the age of 33. When Sukjong died in 1720, he supposedly told Yi I-myoung to name Prince Yeon-ing as King Gyeongjong's heir, but in the absence of a historiographer or scribe, there was no record.
During his time there was infighting and resentment for his low-born origins. The Noron faction (노론/老論) of the bureaucracy pressured King Gyeongjong to step down in favor of his half-brother Prince Yeon-ing (the future King Yeongjo). In 1720, two months after the King's enthronement, Prince Yeon-ing was installed as Royal Prince Successor Brother (wangseje/왕세제/王世弟). This aggravated the power struggle and led to a great massacre, namely the Shin-im Literati Purge (辛壬士禍). The Norons sent messages to the king to no effect while the opposing Soron faction (소론/少論) used this to their advantage – claiming the Noron faction were trying to usurp power and subsequently getting their rival faction removed from several offices.
Members of the Soron faction then came up with an idea to assassinate the heir (Prince Yeon-ing) under the pretence of hunting for a white fox said to be haunting the palace, but Prince Yeon-ing sought shelter with his stepmother, Queen Dowager Inwon, who protected him and he was able to stay alive. Afterwards, he told his half-brother the king that he rather would go and live as a commoner.
On 11 October 1724, King Gyeongjong died. Soron then accused Prince Yeon-ing of having something to do with his brother's death due to the earlier attempt by the Noron faction to have him replace Gyeongjong on the throne. But historians now agree that he could have died of eating contaminated seafood, as to the symptoms of the illness that caused his death. Homer Hulbert described this in his book The History of Korea where he said, "But we may well doubt the truth of the rumor, for nothing that is told of that brother indicates that he would commit such an act, and in the second place a man who will eat shrimps in mid-summer, that have been brought 30 miles from the sea without ice might expect to die." On 16 October 1724, Prince Yeoning ascend the throne as King Yeongjo, the 21st ruler of Joseon.
King Yeongjo was a deeply Confucian monarch, and is said to have had a greater knowledge of the classics than his officials. During the reign of Yeongjo and his grandson Jeongjo, Confucianization was at its height, as well as the economic recovery from the wars of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. His leadership has been called one of the most brilliant reigns of all the Joseon Dynasty.
Yeongjo worried deeply for his people. Annals of Joseon record that one day in the 4th year of his reign, King Yeongjo woke up to the sound of early morning rain and said to his courtiers,
Oh dear! We have had flood, drought and famines for the past four years because of my lack of virtue, and this year we even went through an unprecedented revolt by a traitor named Yi In Jwa. How can my poor people manage their livelihood under such hardship? There is an old saying, 'War is always followed by a lean year.' Fortunately, however, we haven’t had a big famine for the past two years and we pin our hopes on a good harvest this year. Yet I am still nervous because, while the season for harvesting is around the corner, there is no way of knowing if there will be a flood or drought before then. Nobody knows whether a cold rain will pour suddenly and flood the fields awaiting harvest. My lack of goodness might bring upon us such awful things as I fail to win the sympathy of heaven. How can I earn the sympathy of heavens if I do not self-reflect and make efforts myself? I should start with reflecting on myself.
Yeongjo worried that rain would ruin the harvest forcing his unfortunate people to starve. The King ordered his courtiers to reduce taxes on the people and decrease the number of dishes in his own meals. Reducing the range of foods he ate was a decision made out of concern for his starving people.
One early morning 25 years later circa 1753, the continuous rain reminded Yeongjo of the flood during the 4th year of his reign, when he had eaten less food:
"Oh! Floods and droughts really happen because I lack virtue. I am much older than that year, but how can my compassion for the people and will to work hard for them be less than back then?"
Yet again, Yeongjo ordered a reduction in the number of dishes on his dining table. People around him described him as an articulate, bright, benevolent and kind King. He was penetrating in observation and quick of comprehension.
Yeongjo realizing the detrimental effect on state administration of factional strife during the latter half of the 17th century, attempted to end factional strife as soon as he ascended the throne. Yeongjo reinstated the short-lived universal military service tax, then he even went beyond the palace gate and solicited the opinion of officials, literati (scholars), soldiers and peasants. Yeongjo reduced the military service tax by half and ordered the variance be supplemented by taxes on fisheries, salt, vessels and an additional land tax. Yeongjo also regularized the financial system of state revenues and expenses by adopting an accounting system. His realistic policies allowed payment of taxes on grain from the remote mountainous areas Gyeongsang do province, to the nearby port, with payment in cotton or cash for grain. The circulation of currency was encourage by increasing coin casting.
Yeongjo's concern for improvement of the peasant’s life was manifest in his eagerness to educate the people by distributing important books in the Korean script (Hangul), including the Book of Agriculture. The pluviometre was again manufactured in quantity and distributed to local administration offices and extensive public work projects were undertaken. Yeongjo upgraded the status of posterity of the commoners, opening another possibility for upward social mobility and inevitable change. Yeongjo policies were intended to reassert the Confucian monarchy and a humanistic rule, but they couldn't stem the tide of social change that resulted.
Mercantile activities rapidly increased in volume. The accumulation of capital through monopoly and wholesales expanded through guild organisations and many merchants were centered in Hanyang. The traditional division of government chartered shop, the license tribute goods suppliers and the small shopkeepers in the alley and streets were integrated and woven into a monopoly and wholesale system.
Regardless of status, many yangban class aristocrats and commoners engaged in some kind of merchant activities. Thus Hanyang made great strides as a commercial and industrial city in the 18th century. The popular demand for handicrafts and goods such as knives, horse hair hats, dining table and brassware was ever-increasing. Restrictions on wearing the horse hair hat originally denoting a Yangban class status, virtually disappeared
Even pirating of books became commercialised as competition developed among the well-to-do Yangban engaged in publication of collected literary works of their renowned ancestors. This also led to printing popular fiction and poetry. The people especially appreciated satire and social criticism. One example is the Chunhyangjeon (Tales of Chunghyang) about the fidelity of the Gisaeng’s (entertainer's) daughter was widely read as a satire aimed to expose the greed and snobbery of government officials.
The only significantly dismal incident during Yeongjo's reign was the death of his son, Crown Prince Sado-Jangheon (Posthumous King Jangjo). History indicates Sado suffered from mental illness; accused of randomly killing people in the palace and being a sexual deviant. By court rules King Yeongjo could not kill his son by his own hands, so Sado was ordered to climb into a large wooden rice chest on a hot July day in 1762. After eight days, Sado died of suffocation. During the 19th century, there were rumors that Prince Sado had not been mentally ill, but had been framed; however, these rumors are widely contradicted by his widow in The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong.
Yeongjo was the first to take action against Roman Catholic activities in the country. By the 18th century, Catholicism was beginning to acquire a following especially in the Gangwon and Hwanghae provinces. In 1758, Yeongjo officially outlawed Catholicism as an evil practice.
When 14 years later King Yeongjo died, Sado's son, Yeongjo's grandson Jeongjo, became king. The early part of the new King's years were marked by political intrigues and fear of court officials who were afraid that Jeongjo would seek revenge on them for petitioning the punishment that caused the death of his father, Crown Prince Sado.
King Yeongjo was buried at the Royal Tomb of Wolleung (元陵),a part of Donggureung Royal Tomb Cluster in 197 Donggureung Avenue/Donggureungno, Inchang-dong san 8-2 beonji, Guri City, Gyeonggi Province. This controversial King received long and tongue-twisted posthumous name, posthumously known as King Jihaeng Sundeok Yeongmo Uiyeol jang-ui Hongnyun Gwang-in Donhui Checheon Geongeuk Seonggong Shinhwa Daeseong Gwang-woon Gaetae Giyeong Yomyeong Suncheol Geon-geon Gonnyeong Baemyeong Sutong Gyeongnyeok Honghyu Junghwa Yungdo Sukjang Changhun Jeongmun Seonmu Huigyeong Hyeonhyo the Great (지행순덕영모의열장의홍륜광인돈희체천건극성공신화대성광운개태기영요명순철건건곤녕배명수통경력홍휴중화융도숙장창훈정문선무희경현효대왕/至行純德英謨毅烈章義弘倫光仁敦禧體天建極聖功神化大成廣運開泰基永堯明舜哲乾健坤寧配命垂統景曆洪休中和隆道肅莊彰勳正文宣武熙敬顯孝大王).
Oh crap, my tongue sprained a lot....