Posted : 2014-07-08 17:53
Updated : 2014-07-14 13:00

King Yeongjo's policy achievements

King Yeongjo directed 18-century painter Lee Pil-seong to draw the birthplace of King Hyeonjong in Shenyang, Qing Dynasty. Hyeonjong was born in 1641 as the eldest son of King Hyojong as Yi Yeon, while his father was in China as captive of Qing Dynasty. This painting was part of a 2011 exhibition at the National Museum of Korea in Yongsan, Seoul.
/ Korea Times file

By Kwon Oh-yeong

In the 18th century, both the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) and the Qing Dynasty of China experienced the Renaissance of scholarship and literature. The scholarly endeavors undertaken by the Kangxi and Qianlong Emperors of Qing and a large number of literary works authored by the Kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo of Joseon demonstrate this fact.

King Yeongjo is the 21st sovereign of Joseon. King Yeongjo lived up to the age of 81, the longest among Joseon's rulers, and was also Joseon's longest-reigning monarch, having ruled from 1724 until 1776.

During 52 years of his reign, Yeongjo actively pursued several key governmental policies and projects such as Tangpyeong (meaning ‘magnificent harmony') policy, Gyunyeokbeop (‘Equalized Tax Law'), and the dredging of Cheonggyecheon stream.

He completely denounced the involvement of selfish motives whether in politics or in daily life, and put a heavy emphasis on having a "public-oriented mind." Inherent in Yeongjo's political belief, one finds the spirit of fairness, impartiality and harmony.

Reflecting on his accomplishments in Eoje Muneop (‘King asks himself about his undertakings') in his later years, Yeongjo considered Tangpyeong policy, Gyunyeokbeop and dredging to be among his six major achievements.

The most prominent among his undertakings was the Tangpyeong policy that aimed to root out political factionalism, orbungdang. The king was deeply aware that the split and conflict between political factions could lead to bloody carnage, which in turn could become a seed for the collapse of the nation state.

Today, you can still find Tangpyeongbi, a stone slab monument standing in front of the main gate of Seonggyungwan University in Seoul. Erected in 1742, the stele bears an inscription of Yeongjo's words: "A virtuous man is fair-minded; he gets along well with others and does not take sides. But an unworthy man is swayed by personal feelings; he only likes to form a group and does not get along with others."

Another major achievement the king himself singled out was the implementation of Gyunyeokbeop (Equalized Tax Law). In July of 1750 (26th year of Yeongjo's reign), Yeongjo implemented Gyunyeokbeop in order to lessen the burden on the people, reducingthemilitary service exemption taxby half from two bolts of cloth to one.

In 1760 (36th year of his reign), the king establishedJuncheonsa, a government office responsible for dredging the Cheonggyecheon Stream and protecting mountains within the bounds of the capital.

For this large-scale project of dredging Cheonggyecheon to prevent flooding, an army of 215,000 strong workmen were mobilized.

When the public construction project was completed, Yeongjo took his oldest son (future King Jeongjo) to the Gwangtonggyo Bridge to take a look, while thinking of governance that interacts with the people.

In his self-assessment of his accomplishments, the king considered the dredging of the Cheonggyecheon a success, while acknowledging that the other two major undertakings, namely Tangpyeong policy and Gyunyeok Law, had not produced great results.

This honest evaluation seems to express his admission of how difficult it is to rule a country.

King Yeongjo had a deep love for his people and this extended even to the lower classes including nobi(slave) and seo-eol (illegitimate children of yangban).

In Joseon, out-resident slaves were required to pay a tribute to their owners in the form of cloth. In 1772, Yeongjo lessened the burden by limiting it to one bolt of cloth for male slaves and granting exemption to female slaves. The king also issued a decree allowing illegitimate sons of noblemen to hold high government positions. These measures illustrate Yeongjo's love for his subjects.

‘Politics of harmony'

Fundamentally, Yeongjo wished for the politics of harmony. The degree to which he valued harmony and balance both in politics and in personal life is demonstrated by the fact that he chose to include the hanja (Chinese character), hwa, meaning balance and harmony, in the posthumous title for his mother and in the names of his daughters.

All his princesses' names start with the letter hwa, while the king's mother Sukbin Lady Choe received the posthumous title of Hwakyeongin 1753. Yeongjo's wish to achieve harmony and peace within family and in the country is concisely expressed in the names he gave to his immediate family members.

Yeongjo was a studious ruler. Throughout his life, he never ceased to study and left behind an enormous amount of literary works. We are told that the king held more than 3,500 sessions of gyeongyeon, a discussion of history and Confucian philosophy with government officials.

In 18th-century Qing and Joseon, humanist monarchs ruled wearing a double hat as both a sovereign and a teacher. Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty is named one of the most prolific writers among the Chinese rulers. Kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo of Joseon authored many publications and ruled as a ‘sovereign-teacher.'

The Jangseogak Archives hold 5,000 pieces of eoje (king's literary works) by Yeongjo. Each of Yeongjo Eoje is the sole manuscript by hand and consists of poems. One could say that the spirit of Yeongjo dwells in the Jangseogak Archives in some sense.

Many of the Yeongjo Eoje describe the reason behind and the dates of the composition. They also provide a glimpse intoYeongjo's private emotions. In this regard, Yeongjo Eoje is a critical historical record in understanding the royal culture of the 18th century Joseon as well as private daily life of the king. For this reason, the Academy of Korean Studies undertook a Yeongjo Eoje Annotation Project spanning two years from September 2005 to August 2007.

The results of this effort were published in 10 volumes ofAnnotated Yeongjo Eoje and a single-volumeCatalogue of Annotated Yeongjo Eoje, during a period spanning from 2011 to late April of 2014. The personal voice of King Yeongjo that is absent fromsilok (the official annals) and Seungjeongwon Ilgi (Journal of Royal Secretariat) can now be heard again with all its vividness.

The contents of Yeongjo Eoje cover a wide range of forms and topics from righteous indignation at injustices to poems written together with his officials. As he moved closer to the end of his life, the king often recited exclusively his sentiments.

He often expressed sorrow while reflecting on the past; he also lamented the decline of his health, political situation or current affairs.

Yi Cheolbo, one of his officials, succinctly characterized the Yeongjo Eoje as "either feelings or sadness." Yeongjo's heart always ached for his people. It can be said that the contents of Yeongjo Eojemainly consist of the king's life and sentiment, his introspection and reminiscence.

The Yeongjo Eoje housed at the Jangseogak Archives is a precious historical record that illustrates a true picture of the 18th-century Joseon monarch's humanist scholarship, governing philosophy and the royal court culture.

I believe the Yeongjo Eoje, along with the literary works of Qianlong Emperor of Qing, can help us better understand the court culture and governing philosophy of the 18th-century East Asia.

Kwon Oh-yeong is a professor at The Academy of Korean Studies.

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