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Book review: Christopher Lovins on King Chŏngjo

Jeongjo: Enlightened DespotThus far this year I’ve been focusing on literature in translation. As I wait for the next major wave of publications to hit the shops, I’ve turned my attention to non-fiction. And the first title I reached for was Christopher Lovins’s King Chŏngjo: An Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea, which came out in paperback this year.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Jeongjo: I was first introduced to him by his mother Lady Hyegyong in her fascinating diaries covering her long life as wife to a Crown Prince and mother to a King. But Jeongjo’s name hasn’t featured much in the general histories of Korea that I’ve read. The history I grew up with was Lee Ki-baek’s A New History of Korea: in that volume, Jeongjo is noted for the continuation of his grandfather’s Policy of Impartiality (trying not to favour one of the political factions over another), and his reign is also noted for the growth in Catholicism and in Practical Learning. In the latter context the foundation of the Royal Library, the Kyujanggak, is noted as a significant contributing factor. Meanwhile for Bruce Cumings’s Korea’s Place in the Sun, Jeongjo features only as Sado’s son, who “forever resented his father’s death. He built a wall around Suwon, south of Seoul, thinking to move the capital there. But he never did.”1

Of course, the “wall around Suwon” is the UNESCO-listed Hwaseong Fortress (of which more later), a lasting monument to his reign, and a landmark which is on any diligent tourist’s itinerary. When visiting the fortress in 2009 I went the extra mile and visited the tombs of Jeongjo, Sado and their wives, and on the way stopped off at Yongjusa. This temple was established by King Jeongjo (on the site of an earlier temple) in honour of his father – an unusual act of filial devotion for a Joseon dynasty king: in fact the Jogye Order consider Jeongjo’s reign to be a period of “Buddhist revival”. Another instance of Joengjo’s accommodating attitude to Buddhism is in his honouring of Seosan Daesa, leader of the monk armies against the Japanese invaders at the end of the 16th Century: Jeongjo bestowed the name of Pyochungsa on a shrine to the memory of Seosan within the precincts of Daeheungsa temple in Haenam-gun, and even provided the calligraphy to go above the shrine doorway.

The Pyochungsa, with its calligraphy by King Jeongjo
The Pyochungsa in Daeheungsa, with its calligraphy by King Jeongjo (photo: LKL)

The revival of Buddhism under Jeongjo is not examined in Lovins’s book, which is more about power politics: the steps Jeongjo took to set himself above his scholar-officials, making himself the centre of power in the country rather than a king who simply follows the guidance of his counsellors. And in this context some of the other aspects of his reign mentioned in the generalist history books above take on a greater prominence.

Firstly, Jeongjo’s continuation of his grandfather’s Policy of Impartiality. For Jeongjo, this meant selecting the most able people for official duties, regardless of the faction they came from, partly in the hope of securing the official’s loyalty to the throne rather than to his faction. This meant trying to reform the selection process, achieved in part by modifying the existing structure – trying to curtail the powers of the selection secretaries who controlled who was appointed to the various positions – but also by establishing a completely new route to high office: service in the new Royal Library, whose officials were selected by the king himself. Officials who served in the Library could graduate and enter into the mainstream civil service.

Lovins focuses on the role of the Library in the new political structure that Jeongjo was trying to build, rather than its role in the promotion of learning. This is fair enough as the theme of his book is Jeongjo’s attempts to ease power away from the entrenched yangban families and centre it more on himself. It would nevertheless be interesting to have a detailed study of the mission of the Library in sponsoring new researches, as is implied by Lee Ki-baek’s history. Lovins himself notes that a fertile area for further work would be a comparison of Joeongjo’s Royal Library with Sejong’s Hall of Worthies.

If Jeongjo’s Library was an institution that was open-minded when it came to Practical Learning, Jeongjo himself was no slouch when it came to the Classics. His grandfather Yeongjo, according to Cumings, had to endure years of study under his tutors when he was on the throne.2 Jeongjo however was extremely well-schooled before he ascended the throne, to the extent that he appears to have been the academic match of his scholar-officials. He discontinued the practice of Royal Lectures – where the king had to be lectured by his officials – and instead turned the tables by delivering the lectures himself. And the aspects of the Classics he chose as his theme were those that emphasised the right of the king to exercise discretion, rather than be hide-bound by rules and precedent. And of course, the greater flexibility the king had in exercising discretion, the greater his personal power.

Other attempts at reform included an increase in royal processions outside of the capital – allowing ordinary folks to make petitions direct to the king, bypassing the officials – attempts to find talent for the civil service outside of the main families and metropolitan area, and attempts to give secondary sons equal access to jobs in the civil service. In each of these attempts he would naturally face resistance from the entrenched yangban interests.

One of the other big landmarks of Jeongjo’s reign was the construction of Hwaseong Fortress. The construction of a major fortress to guard your father’s tomb might sound a bit extreme to a modern reader, but it seems not to have been so extraordinary to court officials at the time: as a sign of exemplary filial devotion to the memory of his father Prince Sado it was hard for a Confucian official to criticise. But Jeongjo wasn’t content with a run-of-the-mill fortress: cheap earthen walls were not good enough for him. Instead, stone was used, and the latest construction techniques. More importantly than this, the garrison that manned the fort was commanded by an officer appointed by Jeongjo himself. Lovins sees this as a deliberate attempt by Jeongjo to strike a balance in military power: to reduce the threat of rebellion by troops commanded by disaffected yangban commanders, as had threatened the reign of his grandfather Yeongjo in the Musin rebellion of 1728. Lovins also points to attempts to boost the economy in the area around Suwon, again to bolster loyalty of that region to the King rather than to a yangban clan.

One particularly fascinating chapter in the book examines the private correspondence between Jeongjo and one of his leading officials, Sim Hwan-ji. The correspondence indicates that memorials presented to the King were not necessarily written by the official presenting them: Jeongjo in fact virtually dictated some of the passages in Sim’s memorials, and gave what amounted to stage directions in how the memorial should be delivered. One wonders how far other Joseon kings attempted to influence policy proposals in such a way.

Lovins also attempts to compare and contrast the power structure around Jeongjo with that of the Qing emperors and European monarchs, particularly Louis XIV of France, and interestingly finds more parallels with distant Europe than neighbouring China.

It is a mark of a good book that it makes you want to follow up on the subject more. Each time I touch on this period in history I feel the need to read Jahyun Kim Haboush’s The Confucian Kingship in Korea: Yongjo and the Politics of Sagacity. Now I’ve added to the list James B. Palais’s 1996 volume Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty despite its intimidating length at over 1200 pages. That, though, will have to wait until retirement or maybe a further extended period of lockdown.

But this has been an extremely stimulating journey into late 18th century history, and I shall undoubtedly return to Lovins’s highly readable volume again.

Christopher Lovins: King Chŏngjo, an Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea
State University of New York, 2019, 222pp


  1. Korea’s Place in the Sun, p72. []

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