Posted : 2014-08-04 18:18
Updated : 2014-08-05 16:02

Academic value of King Jeongjo's letters

King Jeongjo was the only one among Joseon's monarchs who published an extensive anthology of personal literary works

By Kim Deok-soo

King Jeongjo, the 27th sovereign of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), is frequently portrayed in Korean period dramas or movies, so his dramatic life is familiar to many of us. He ascended the throne after facing the tragic death of his father, Crown Prince Sado (also known as Sado Seja) and strong opposition from Noron (Old Doctrine) faction but he repressed the consort clan to realize the ideals of Tangpyeong (‘magnificent harmony') policy and led a variety of reform policies, and measures for the promotion of literature.

King Jeongjo was the only one among Joseon's monarchs who published an extensive anthology of personal literary works, which is composed of 100 books. Furthermore, he was well-versed enough in literature, history and philosophy to instruct a galaxy of government officials by himself. It is safe to say that King Jeongjo was a true ‘King and Mentor' as he considered himself.

We encounter traces of King Jeongjo mainly in official documents such as the Annals of the Joseon Kingdom or Ilseongnok (Daily Records of the Royal Court and Important Officials).

King Jeongjo's letter to his uncle Hong Nak-im dated Dec. 24,
1799 Courtesy of Jangseogak Archives

King Jeongjo we see in those records exudes a solemn aura of the sovereign in royal robes against the background of Irworobongdo (a folding screen of five mountain peaks with the sun and the moon symbolizing sovereign right). However, it is extremely rare to find his individual torments and inner feelings as a man, Yi San, not as the King Jeongjo in such documents. King Jeongjo wrote an unprecedentedly large number of letters.

Today we can easily communicate with others and exchange information via mobile phone, email, and instant messages regardless of physical distance. But, letters were the only means available for such communication in the past and the king was no exception In recent years, the news of the finding of King Jeongjo's letters attracted great interest from scholars and the public alike, because these letters reveal the man Yi San's everyday life and personal feelings, as well as the dark side of politics in his time.

"I will convene the officials tomorrow; Step forward from the ranks and speak firmly. Then go down to the yard immediately and take off your official hat to request a reprimand."

This is a part of the King Jeongjo's letter, dated March 6, 1799, to Shim Hwan-ji, the leader of Byeokpa of Noron (a conservative party of Old Doctrine who led the death of Crown Prince Sado). According to the records in Silok (The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty), the next day Shim Hwan-ji prostrated himself and took off his official hat underneath the stone steps, after firmly requesting his dismissal in the presence of the King.

The attitude of Shim Hwan-ji vetoing the king, as portrayed in Silok, may seem defiant; however, he only acted in accordance with the scenario King Jeongjo instructed in a letter to him.

Shim Hwan-ji has been recognized as a political rival to King Jeongjo, to the extent that he is often pointed out as the mastermind behind the poisoning of King Jeongjo. But, he was actually a political partner of whom King Jeongjo made the best use, and the right-hand man with whom the King discussed political situation. King Jeongjo spread the politics of communication and integration by coordinating the opinions regarding various pending issues in advance with the person who amounts to today's majority opposition party leader through letters. King Jeongjo sent more than 300 letters to Shim; there were times when they corresponded up to four times in a day.

Hot-tempered king

King Jeongjo was so hot-tempered as to describe himself as having ‘Taeyang disease (a disease thought to be caused by having too much yang energy in Sasang constitutional medicine).' He was meticulous in managing the state affairs and never delayed anything. He wrote to his officials to command that they "work fiercely and doggedly" but also took the lead and set an example himself.

The letters show us that King Jeongjo frequently stayed up all night to look after his people's livelihood and national affairs and that he devoted his spare time to reading and writing. Jeongjoeochalcheop (a book of letters written by King Jeongjo) housed in the Jangseogak Archives consists of letters to his maternal grandfather, Hong Bong-han and his uncle, Hong Nak-im. The following is an excerpt from a letter King Jeongjo wrote to his uncle on Oct. 20, 1799:

"I studied answer sheets of yusaeng (students studying Confucianism at the Seonggyungwan Academy)until a rooster crowed; then I have been doing my feeble best after I clothed myself before dawn. I am eager to take care of everything but what can I do as I feel that I become weak day by day?"

King Jeongjo even took on the task of the examiner by himself. It was due to his belief that talented people are fundamentals for the nation. Such his belief is echoed in another letter where he writes: "I'm putting my heart into writing exam questions for chaekmun (essay on political policy) with my head buried and my brush pointed." His habitual statements such as "I am living in a whirl of business." or "I am getting old and exhausted day by day as I have to concern my people's livelihood and national affairs." make us feel solemn and sympathetic.

King Jeongjo never hesitated to reveal his feelings, sometimes resorting to proverbs or vulgar expressions such as ‘a son of barbarian,' ‘ha-ha-ha,' ‘like a pheasant bitten by a dog,' or ‘punched with hips exposed.' This reminds me of an actor who played the role of King Sejong the Great in a TV drama a few years ago and repeatedly uttered ‘damn' and ‘heck.' Just as he was when expressing his thoughts in letters, King Jeongjo was informal when selecting stationery or writing a letter. The below statement is from the Jeongjoeochalcheop housed in the Jangseogak Archives.

"Clean and thick stationery is so extravagant to use that I have made stationery from scrap papers recycled between every summer and autumn. So I am sending 300 sheets of paper to you."

The king who was at the center of power used recycled paper made from scrap papers instead of high quality rice paper or Chinese-made paper usually used in royal palace. Could you imagine a president who owns a compact car rather than a luxury sedan, and uses a pencil stub rather than a brand-name fountain pen? This attitude of King Jeongjo not allowing any small foppery is the late King Yeongjo's lesson on saving put into action as well as manifestation of his love for the people. King Jeongjo used to write a letter in a cursive style but adjusted his writing style and letter size to write in the margin when he ran out of space on paper.

Furthermore, learning about his personal reflections or affectionate feelings towards his family and relatives is another appeal of reading the letters of King Jeongjo. In the letter in clumsy handwriting he sent to his aunt around the age of four or five, saying hello and asking her to put his beoseon (traditional Korean socks) on his cousin as they were now too small for his feet and in the letter to his mother Crown Princess Hong, worrying about her health and prescription, or in the letter where he took care of all the household affairs, one can find the humane side of King Jeongjo as a man, Yi San.

There is another unusual scene where, when King Jeongjo squeezed to complete Choonchoo (history of China) in at his age of 48, his mother Crown Princess Hong prepared food in celebration of such a feat, just as she did when young Jeongjo finished a book in his childhood. A letter with unknown date is included in Jeongjoeochalcheop housed in the Jangseogak Archives.

"I have nothing to tell you as my bitter grief gets deeper on this day every year! You (Crown Princess Hong) do not have any symptoms but I am deeply concerned that you have skipped your meals for nine days."

This day was July 21, 1772, which was the anniversary of his father Crown Prince Sado's death. During the time they had to remain silent about the death of Crown Prince Sado in accordance with the order of late King Yeongjo, what must have crossed his mind when he witnessed Crown Princess Hong declined any food and drinks for nine days but had to suppress his heartbreaking feeling?

Thousands of letters King Jeongjo wrote before and after his accession to the throne. The existing theories on the political history of the 18th century have been significantly revised thanks to these letters of King Jeongjo reveled to the public. Also, it is hope that more letters will be excavated and give boost to the research on King Jeongjo. The value of the letters of King Jeongjo goes beyond their value as cultural assets bearing the king's own handwriting.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Jangseogak Archives.

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