King Yongjo and Chongjo

Yongjo and Chongjo

The epitome of the Confucian ruler was King Yongjo (r. 1724–76), who reigned 52 years, the longest reign in Korean history. In all ways he was the exemplary king. He knew the classics better than his officials did, and he seemed to relish the opportunity to debate Confucian philosophical issues with them. Confucianism, of course, was the only serious philosophy of the day.

The strong leadership of Yongjo and his immediate successor, Chongjo, gave Korea the closest thing it ever had to a golden age during the late Choson period. The tax system was made more rational. The law code was revised and supplemented. Factionalism was reduced through the direct action of the monarchy, which saw to it that posts were given to members of more than one faction.

Some of the most interesting works of the Sirhak school were written during this period. These thinkers proposed democratic and egalitarian principles that were in sharp opposition to Korean practice. One leading Sirhak thinker, Yi Ik (1681–1763), a polymath who wrote about astronomy, geography, law, and mathematics, advocated the abolition of class barriers (Han 1970, 326).

Yongjo was faced with an acute problem regarding his successor. He had two sons, but one died young, leaving him only one heir to the throne. One heir would have been sufficient had he not had a mental illness. The crown prince, Sado, was severely ill, erratic, and violent in his behavior. He wantonly killed people both inside and outside the palace and was given to extremes in sexual behavior as well.

In all ways, he was the opposite of his circumspect and proper father. Yongjo tried everything, including abdicating the throne to his son, to give him a chance to become serious, rule on his own, and thereby become a fit king, but that did not work either. Thus, Yongjo had to face the unthinkable—to see to the death of his son. Sado had a son who could become the next heir to the throne.

On several occasions Yongjo told his son to commit suicide, but Sado would not. The king could not bear to inflict the fatal wound himself, nor would he allow any court member to kill his son. He could not try his son in court for crimes, although they were numerous, because his grandson would be tainted by having a father who was judged a criminal.

The only solution was the enforced “suicide” of his son. Not knowing how long he himself would live, Yongjo saw to his son’s death in 1767. Yongjo ordered a wooden rice chest large enough to hold a man if he sat with his legs folded to be placed in the middle of the courtyard on a hot August day. He ordered Sado to crawl into the chest, which he did, perhaps thinking that his father would relent, as he had in the past. After eight days in the rice chest, Sado died of suffocation. Yongjo lived another nine years. By that time Sado’s son Chongjo was old enough to rule on his own.

Chongjo (1752–1800) ruled from 1776 to 1800, spending much of his reign trying to repair the legacy of his father. Believing his grand-father had been manipulated by some of his advisers, he led a purge of those who had been strongest in understanding and supporting his grandfather’s action in the death of his father. Chongjo built a second-ary palace 50 miles south of Seoul in Suwon to be closer to his father’s tomb. The wall he built around the city is an outstanding example of architecture of the late premodern period and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Spread of Roman Catholicism

Christianity, a belief system that had earlier excited the curiosity but not the enthusiasm of the Sirhak thinkers, began to make serious inroads in Korea during Chongjo’s reign.

In 1784 a yangban notable named Yi Sung-hun, who had been to China as part of a diplomatic mission, was baptized in Beijing by a Catholic priest. Over the next few years the number of converts to Christianity grew, particularly among the chungin class of technical specialists. In Korea Old and New, the Korean historian Ki-baik Lee notes:

These early believers had, as it were, converted themselves, through reading treatises brought back from China. What they seem to have sought in Catholicism was a means to grapple with a host of evils that then beset the Choson’s social and political order. . . . Accordingly the acceptance of Catholicism may be seen as constituting a challenge to the grasping and predatory nature of the Choson state and the intellectual rigid-ity of Neo-Confucianist orthodoxy. (Eckert 1990, 170)

The growing importance of Christianity led to its persecution, partly because Roman Catholic doctrine was in direct contradiction to some of the central tenets of Confucianism—in 1742 the pope had ruled that ancestor worship was incompatible with Christianity. In 1785 Chongjo declared Catholicism a heresy. The following year he forbade the importation of books of any kind from Beijing.

As was often the case in the Choson dynasty, what happened officially was different from what happened in fact. Until Chongjo died Catholicism was tacitly permitted. As soon as Chongjo died, the threat of Catholicism became an issue in one of the factional disputes that so often accompanied the succession in Korea.

A persecution of Catholics began immediately, and within a short time about 300 of Korea’s several thousand Catholics were executed or died in prison. Among those executed in 1801 was a Chinese Catholic, Chou Wen-mu (James Chou), the first ordained priest ever to enter Korea.

That same year, in response to these events, a Catholic name Hwang Sa-yong tried to send a secret letter to the French bishop in Beijing requesting that a battleship be sent to Korea to protect Korea’s Catholics. The letter was intercepted and used thereafter as an additional justification for the persecution of Catholics. Catholicism nevertheless continued to spread in the face of periodic persecutions; Catholics would number more than 23,000 by 1865 (Han 1970, 349).