King Jeongjo the Great, previously known as Crown Prince Hereditary Hyeong-woon (Hanja: 正祖大王 [亨運世孫] Born: 28 October 1752 – Died: 18 August 1800), born Yi San (이산/李祘) was the 22nd ruler of the Joseon Dynasty (Reigned: 1776-1800). He made various attempts to reform and improve the nation of Joseon. He was preceded by his grandfather King Yeongjo (r. 1724–1776) and succeeded by his son King Sunjo (r. 1800–1834). Some historiographers say that King Jeongjo is one of the most successful and visionary rulers of the Joseon Dynasty. But it is also pointed out that he was overestimated.
He was the son of Crown Prince Sado-Jangheon (who was put to death by his own grandfather, King Yeongjo) and Lady Hyegyeong (who wrote an autobiography, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong detailing her life as the ill-fated Crown Princess of Joseon). Lady Hyegyeong's collection of memoirs serves as a significant source of historical information on the political happenings during the reigns of King Yeongjo (her father-in-law), King Jeongjo (her son), and King Sunjo (her grandson).
When he was the Crown Prince, King Jeongjo met Hong Guk-yeong (홍국영/洪國榮), a controversial politician who first strongly supported Jeongjo's accession and toiled to improve the king's power, but ended up being expelled because of his desire for power.
Jeongjo spent much of his reign trying to clear his father's name. He also moved the court to the city of Suwon to be closer to his father's grave. He built Suwon-Hwaseong Fortress to guard the tomb which is now become as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The era before his rule was in disorder as his father was killed by royal decree of his own father, King Jeongjo's grandfather. King Yeongjo's ultimate decision to execute Crown Prince Sado was greatly influenced by other politicians who were against the Crown Prince. According to the Chronicles of Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조실록/Joseon Wangjo Sillok), Jeongjo became the King of Joseon after the death of King Yeongjo. On that day, he sat on his throne in the throne room, looked at everyone and said,
"I am the son of the late Crown Prince Sado..."
This was a bold statement that sent shivers down the spines of all the politicians who were complicit in his father's death.
During his accession, he also issued a royal decree that his mother, Lady Hyegyeong, be a Dowager Queen since his father, her husband, was supposed to be the King before him. Thus, she became the Queen Dowager Heon-gyeong, the widow of Crown Prince Sado. From then on, King Jeongjo experienced many turbulent periods, but overcame them with the aid of Hong Guk-yeong.
King Jeongjo led the new renaissance of the Joseon Dynasty, but was initially stopped by continuing the policy of Yeongjo's Tangpyeong rule. He tried to control the politics of the whole nation to advance and further national progress.
He made various reforms throughout his reign, notably establishing Kyujanggak (규장각), a royal library. The primary purpose of Kyujanggak was to improve the cultural and political stance of Joseon and to recruit gifted officers to help run the nation. Jeongjo also spearheaded bold new social initiatives, including opening government positions to those who were previously barred because of their social status.
Jeongjo had the support of the many Silhak scholars who supported Jeongjo's regal power, including Scholars Dasan-John Jeong Yak-yong, Yu Deuk-gong, Park Ji-won, Park Je-ga and Yu Deuk-gong. His reign also saw the further growth and development of Joseon's popular culture.
King Jeongjo was known as an innovative person despite his high political status in Joseon. In 1800, he died suddenly under mysterious circumstances at the age of 48, without seeing his lifelong wishes that were later realized by his son, Sunjo. There are many books regarding the mysterious death of Jeongjo, and speculation as to the cause of his death continues even today.
King Jeongjo the Great was buried at the Royal Tomb of Geolleung (健陵), a part of the Royal Tomb of Yunggeolleung in 21 Hyohaeng Avenue 481st Street/Hyohaengno 481beon-gil, Annyeong-dong 187-1 beonji, Hwaseong City, Gyeonggi Province. His tomb is located near to his father's tomb, Royal Tomb of Yungneung (Tomb of Posthumous King Jangjo, Crown Prince Sado-Jangheon).
He was posthumously known as King Jeongjong Munseong Muyeol Seong-in Janghyo the Great (정종문성무열성인장효대왕/正宗文成武烈聖仁莊孝大王). In 1897, Emperor Gojong-Gwangmu promoted the great king into Posthumous Emperor during the Foundation of the Korean Empire. Thus, King Jeongjo the Great granted the Posthumous Imperial Name, which is known as Emperor Jeongjo Gyeongcheon Myeongdo Hongdeok Hyeonmo Munseong Muyeol Seong-in Janghyo, Emperor Seon of Korean Empire (정조경천명도홍덕현모문성무열성인장효선황제/正祖敬天明道洪德顯謨文成武烈聖仁莊孝宣皇帝).