Cho Kwangjo

Cho Kwangjo

The government installed the king’s brother, Chungjong (r. 1506–44), as the next king. His reign was long and peaceful, but he did enact one purge in 1519 (Sung Moon Kim 2002, 233). This purge was quite dif-ferent in nature from those conducted under Yonsangun. In this case a bright and ambitious young scholar who had passed the civil service exam was the center of the problem: Cho Kwangjo (1482–1519).

Cho found the king open to new and liberal ideas and argued that the exams were too philosophical, too detached from the practical needs of the government. Their basic idea was that good men make good govern-ment, a “good man” being one who understood the classics; by admin-istering a test to see who knew the classics, one could identify good men and establish good government.

Cho basically agreed with the need for an exam to determine which candidates were best qualified, but he argued that some of the questions ought to deal with practical matters and not just Confucian philosophy. The king agreed, and Cho was allowed to administer the next exam. He thus recruited a corps of young scholar-officials to help him in leading the government in a new and more practical direction.

In his idealism, however, Cho also attacked the conservative ele-ments close to the king. The king had rewarded a large group of more than 100 men with lands and slaves for helping him secure the throne. Cho was able to convince the king that 76 of those men should be eliminated from the rosters of merit. This, of course, enraged those cut off from power and wealth, and they in turn convinced the king that Cho was dangerous and ambitious. The king accepted their indictment, and Cho and several of his closest allies were executed, with several others exiled.

The way the enemies of Cho Kwangjo got the king to turn against him is one of the more unusual stories in Korean history. His accusers found leaves of trees on the palace grounds chewed through by insects, leaving holes arranged in such a way that they seemed to spell out the words “Cho would be king.” Cho’s enemies were able to convince the king that it was an omen. In reality, someone had written on the leaves with honey, and insects had eaten away the sweetened areas, thus creat-ing the holes and the message.

At only 37 years of age, Cho was executed by poisoning in 1519 along with a handful of his colleagues. In Choson Korea, however, issues sur-rounding an individual and what he did, right or wrong, did not end with his death. In subsequent years Cho was restored posthumously. His offices and honors were all restored to him, meaning that his descen-dants got the benefits of their ancestor’s position. Above and beyond restoration, Cho Kwangjo was one of those selected for enshrinement in the National Confucian Shrine, one of 18 to be named a sage.

The fourth in the series of purges unfolded in 1545. King Chungjong died in 1544 and was replaced by his son Injong (r. 1544–45), who chose as his advisers allies of Cho Kwangjo, but King Injong died after eight months as king. He was replaced by his half brother Myongjong (1545–67), who was only 11 years old. Injong and Myongjong, sons of Chungjong, were born of different mothers; coincidentally, both women were named Yun.

Each also had an uncle, known as “Big Yun” and “Little Yun,” with tremendous influence over the king and the court. Injong and Big Yun leaned toward Cho Kwangjo’s supporters, but Myongjong and Little Yun were on the side of those Cho had removed from the merit roster. They led the purge of 1545 in which more of Cho’s young Neo-Confucian idealists were banished.