The Kings of Late Choson
King Chongjo died in 1800 at the age of 48. The next three kings did not have heirs—the dynasty was literally and symbolically running out of energy. Furthermore, royal in-laws interfered in politics for the first time since the mid-Koryo period. In fact, the 19th century is often called “the time of in-law politics.”
Each of the three successors of King Chongo—King Sunjo (r. 1800–34), King Honjong (r. 1834–49), and King Cholchong (r. 1849–63)—was married to a woman from the Andong Kim clan; Honjong’s mother, who was his regent, was from the Pungyang Cho clan.
The in-law clans Kims and Chos dominated key government appointments, and the father-in-law of the king in each case was considered one of the most powerful men in the country.Honjong and Cholchong both became king through adoption from branch lines of the royal family.
When Cholchong likewise had no heir, the court again had to find someone to adopt into the king’s line. This time they settled on a 12-year-old boy. He was not yet married, and the royal court determined that he would not marry a Kim or Cho in order to free the court from the domination of the powerful in-laws. The boy-king, who became known as Kojong (r. 1864–1907), was not to be free from in-law problems, however, and he was to have an additional level of interference in his rule—his biological father.
Adopted posthumously as the son of Cholchong, Kojong had a living father known as Taewongun, a title for the father of a sit-ting king who himself had not been the previous king. This was an anomalous situation, since the father of the king would ordinarily be dead. Korea had had other Taewongun in its history, but Hungson Taewongun (his formal title) was unlike all the others.
Since Kojong was only 12, a regent had to be appointed, and the court chose Queen Dowager Cho, his adoptive grandmother. But Hungson Taewongun stepped in, and by dint of his unassailable authority as father of the king, he started running the government. Although he was never legally appointed as such, he was de facto regent, and some histo-ries even refer to him as the regent when, in fact, he had never been legally appointed as such.
The Decade of the Taewongun (1863–1873)
The Taewongun ruled for 10 tumultuous years. Because the dynasty was declining, he considered it necessary to move decisively to restore it. He began to tax the yangban (the aristocracy), who heretofore had been tax exempt. Over the 470 years of the dynasty to that point, the yangban class had grown, and the tax base had narrowed.
The Taewongun also cut into the yangban class, dividing the aristocracy and delineating the “true” yangban from the “lesser” yangban by attacking the symbol of their scholarly status, their schools.The educational system of the Choson dynasty was twofold, consist-ing of a government system and a private system. The government-sponsored schools were called hyanggyo (country schools); there were about 250, one in each county.
Beginning in the late 16th century, a pri-vate school system began with a school in the heart of north Kyongsang province, modeled after the school at which the Chinese master Zhu Xi taught. These schools, called sowon (private academies), proliferated to the point that many counties had three or four. In 1871 the Taewongun closed all but 47 of them. He chose which sowon to support and which to shut down based on their signboards.
Historically, a sowon was established to enshrine a noteworthy scholar. If the scholar happened to be an adviser to the king, and if that king chose to honor him with his own calligraphy, then the sowon had the king’s calligraphy on its signboard.
A king would personally write the title of such a sowon with his own brush. Thereafter, the king’s cal-ligraphy, written on paper, would be carved onto a wooden plaque and hung from the eaves of the main hall of the academy. Some sowon, on the other hand, had signboards signed by prominent scholars.
Such schools functioned in a manner similar to the royally recognized schools until the Taewongun outlawed them. Sowon with a king’s calligraphy were considered approved and allowed to continue to function. Those with-out that honor were closed. The members of the 47 sanctioned sowon supported the closure of the other schools; these scholars appreciated recognition as members of the inner circle.
Both private (sowon) and government (hyanggyo) academies had two main buildings—a lecture hall in the center of the courtyard and a shrine toward the rear or innermost part of the complex. In front of the lecture hall, to each side of the main courtyard, were dormitories. The shrine building contained the “spirit tablet,” a wooden plaque about a foot tall with the name of the person honored as a sage inscribed thereon.
The enshrinement process was important in Confucianism. One of the ideals in Confucianism was to become a sage, a scholar. When a man reached exceptional heights in scholarship or government service, he would be made a sage. His spirit tablet would be kept for endless generations in a shrine.
All ancestors could have a spirit tablet, often of paper, but ancestor ceremonies honored the tablet for only the first four generations after the person’s death. To retain a spirit tablet beyond four generations required permission of the king, and such a process was tantamount to making the ancestor a “sage.”
The hyanggyo all held the tablets of Confucius, his four disciples, the 16 Chinese sages, and, by the end of the Choson dynasty, 18 Korean sages. The hyanggyo was a replica of the National Shrine, the Songgyungwan, in Seoul. Each sowon, however, was dedicated to a specific individual, such as one of the 18 in the National Shrine or some other scholar of Neo-Confucianism.
Those sowon deemed unworthy by the Taewongun also housed spirit tablets of ancestors who were outstanding scholars. The destruction of those places at the order of the Taewongun was an act far more severe than tearing down a number of schoolhouses; each demolition was a renunciation of the scholar-ancestor enshrined in a Confucian hall of worship. It meant the repudiation of the scholar and all his worshippers, who were both literal descendants of the man and scholarly descendants, the descendants of his disciples.
The Taewongun, in his determination to restore the dynasty, also rebuilt the main palace in Seoul in 1865, which had been destroyed during the Hideyoshi invasion 270 years earlier. To him it was an important symbol, and it was an embarrassment that the government and royalty were housed in lesser palaces in Seoul. He would rebuild it at any cost. When, two years into the rebuilding effort, he started running out of money to pay the workers, he printed paper money without support, and its use set off a spiral of inflation that damaged the economy for years thereafter.
Contact with Western Countries
Though at the time Koreans may not have realized it, nothing in the eventful Taewongun decade was more significant than the direct contact that Korea began to have with Western countries. During the preceding few decades China, the greatest Asian power and the first to face Western encroachment, had been weakened in ways that shocked its neighbors, to whom China’s might had been a fact of nature.
In the 1830s the Chinese threatened to expel the British from China if they did not cease importing opium, a highly addictive narcotic, which British merchants purchased in India (already under British control, though not yet officially a colony) for the Chinese market.
In the Opium War (1839–42) the Chinese were easily defeated and forced to sign a humiliating treaty very advantageous to England. Other Western powers soon demanded and received similar terms from China. Within a few years China was almost torn apart by a religiously inspired upris-ing, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), which aimed to expel foreigners and overthrow the Qing dynasty.
The Chinese government was able to defeat the Taipings only with the help of the French and British. Korea knew about the Western incursions into China and had followed the events of the Opium War, after which China had reluctantly agreed to open its markets to the British. But the West’s attempts to initiate trade with Korea had thus far failed. Korea’s borders were closed to trade with nations other than China and, to a limited extent, Japan.
America made its first attempt to open the Korean market for trade in 1866. An American commercial ship, the SS General Sherman, sailed up the estuary of the Taedong River to a point where they met Korean officials. The foreigners said they wanted to trade and were told by Korean officials to wait for orders.
Heavy rain and a high tide allowed the ship to steam farther upward, to the outskirts of Pyongyang, where, when the waters receded, the ship was stranded. By this time the response arrived from Seoul that the sailors were to leave or be killed. Since they were stranded, they could not leave, and thus hostili-ties began. The Koreans sailed several burning barges into the General Sherman and eventually caught it on fire. As the sailors attempted to flee, they were killed.
There is some controversy about what happened. One report says the Americans held hostage the Korean official who came to negotiate with them and who agreed to provide them with some food for their onward voyage. There is also a question about whether the ship was truly a commercial ship; it had been a gunship and still had reinforced armor on its sides.
However, there is little question about the result. The ship was burned, and nothing was left of it but the metal frame and anchor chain; the latter would be used for years as the chain that opens and shuts the main gate to Pyongyang at night and dawn. All the crew was killed, and the incident provoked several American investigations, including one that resulted in some fighting on Kanghwa Island a few years later in 1871.
Later in 1866 one of the strangest episodes in Korean history came to pass. A Hungarian adventurer named Ernst Oppert, sailing a German ship, hatched a plot that he hoped would make him the sole broker of trade in and out of Korea. Oppert had learned that Korea was not open to trade and had no interest in opening its borders and ports to outsiders.
Oppert had spent enough time in China to learn of the East Asian belief in geomancy, also called pungsu in Korean and feng shui in Chinese, a system of controlling fortune. Chinese and Koreans believed that the descendants of a man would have good or bad for-tune depending on where his ancestors’ bones were buried.
Oppert reasoned that if he could kidnap the bones of the Taewongun’s father and hold them hostage, he could blackmail his way into controlling the Korean trade the way some Westerners already were controlling trade in Hong Kong. He knew he could not break into the tomb of a king—the royal tombs were large stone and earth mounds, but the father of the Taewongun was not royalty; his tomb was ordinary. Oppert took his chances. He was able to locate the tomb near the coast, and he came ashore with some paid Korean guides.
He was actually digging into the tomb when they were discovered. It turned out grave robbing was a bigger job than he thought, and it took too long to get into the tomb. Oppert and his band ran off when the local authorities came to investigate.These two experiences reinforced the Taewongun’s conviction that the barbarians were indeed barbarous but could be defeated and kept off shore.
The events of 1871 only confirmed his judgment. U.S. authorities sent a small expedition to inquire into the fate of the miss-ing merchant ship the SS General Sherman, and the French sent a small expedition to inquire into reports of the execution of French priests in anti-Catholic purges.
First they had to get to the capital, Hanyang, or Seoul, located a safe 20 miles up the Han River. Kanghwa Island, with its fortifications, served as the defensive outpost for Seoul.
Both expe-ditions had similar outcomes: They sailed close to Kanghwa Island, in the estuary of the Han River.
Though heavily fortified for its time, Kanghwa’s defenses were easily overcome by the advanced firepower of each of the Western powers in turn.
Each delegation found what it had come for (verification of the deaths of their countrymen), and each sailed off for its homeland.
Knowing what is known now, it seems clear that the Koreans would have been better off to invite the attentions of the Americans or even the French or British, whose imperialism in East Asia was basically commercial—they wanted trade on terms highly favorable to them, but they were not interested in actually colonizing, still less annexing, Japan, China, or Korea. America or Britain might have exploited Korea, but they would not have conquered it.
The Japanese did eventually conquer Korea. They were considering the possibility by the 1870s, less than 20 years after their own opening to the West at the hands of the Americans. The method they eventually used closely echoed the means by which Japan itself had been opened to the Western world by Commodore Matthew Perry (1794–1858).
In 1854, to persuade Japan of the benefits of trading with the United States, Perry had brought with him a miniature steam locomotive and a section of track. The United States had been sure that Japan’s isolation was irrational and that its opening, though made under duress, would eventually benefit both parties.
The Japanese opened Korea with a similar mixture of self-inter-est, altruism, smugness, and aggression, but the nearness of Korea to Japan increased the ingredient of aggression.
Some 15 years later Japanese bureaucrats were debating ways of restoring the national honor, which they felt had been tarnished by their brush with America’s gunboat diplomacy and the trade agree-ments with the West, treaties whose inequality the Japanese came to understand as they had more contact with Europe and the United States.
Some Japanese were also aware that colonies were a part of the Western formula for success, which they were determined to imitate. They had been infected with the anxiety that afflicted the industrial-ized countries of Europe and the United States by the late 19th cen-tury—they worried that if they did not hurry, there would be no more underdeveloped countries available for colonization.
As early as 1869 Miyamoto Okazu, a lower-level official in Japan’s foreign ministry, is on record as fretting that Russia and Western pow-ers had their eyes on Korea and might acquire it, to Japan’s “everlasting harm.” He suggested that since Japan was not yet strong enough to annex Korea, it ought to send an emissary (backed by gunboats, like America’s 1854 emissary to Japan) and to negotiate a “fraternal alli-ance,” joining Korea to Japan in a “united federation.”
Okazu proposed that Japan take control of Korea’s diplomacy and reform its calendar, finances, and armed forces. All this would help to “wash away the stain of outmoded customs” in Korea (Duus 1995, 34).In late 1869 Japan sent Sada Hakubo, an official who favored an aggressive Japanese foreign policy, to Korea on a peaceful, fact-finding mission. On his return Sada advocated a military expedition to force the opening of Korea.
His advice, which was unrealistic at the time—Japan was not ready to mount the invasion he proposed—summed up several of the motives that would ultimately lead Japan to annex Korea: to preclude its colonization by some enemy of Japan’s; to benefit economi-cally; to find an outlet for Japan’s military class, the samurai, which had been disgruntled by the Meiji Restoration; and to restore the national honor.
If Imperial Japan passes this great opportunity to the foreigners we will lose our lips [i.e., Korea] as a consequence, and one day our teeth will surely suffer from the cold. . . . Korea is a gold mine, and rice and wheat are abundant. With one sweep we can mobilize the manpower, the mineral resources and the grain [in Korea] and use them in Hokkaido. . . . [Japan] is suffering from the problem of too many military men rather than a short-age thereof. . . .
The belligerent, when discontent, contemplate revolt. At this time when there is fear of civil war in our country, if we undertake the Korean expedition and make the bitter cup of samurai grievance spill [in Korea] we can massacre Korea in a single stroke, polish our military system, and demonstrate to the world the imperial glory. (Duus 1995, 35–36)
Japan’s next move was much more modest than the one Sada pro-posed. Traditionally, the very limited amount of trade that Korea per-mitted between itself and Japan was conducted in the waegwan, a small trading post in Pusan, which was invariably run by a representative of a single Japanese family, the So family.
In 1873, in a calculated viola-tion of this precedent, a Japanese foreign minister in charge of Korean relations was sent to Pusan for the purpose of transferring control of the trading post to the Japanese foreign ministry.
As the historian Peter Duus notes in The Abacus and the Sword: Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895–1910, this move had a symbolic value that both the Japanese and the Koreans recognized. “
No longer a symbol of traditional subordina-tion of the So family to the Korean court, the waegwan had become a foothold for the new ‘civilized’ set of institutions through which the Japanese intended to conduct their formal relations with Korea” (Duus 1995, 37).
In late May 1873 local Korean authorities posted a wall notice on the residence of the chief guard of the waegwan that condemned Japan’s illegal actions and called on it to honor the established rules and regula-tions.
This Korean response to Japan’s latest maneuver sparked a debate in Japan on the feasibility of a policy that would enable Japan to “subdue Korea.”
According to Peter Duus, the Japanese who used this phrase were not yet thinking of colonization but merely of a commercial open-ing of Korea on terms favorable to the Japanese (Duus 1995, 38).
The Taewongun’s Reaction
The Taewongun misunderstood the significance of the French and American invasions. He had heard of China’s travails and its loss of territory to several European powers—the British in Hong Kong, the Portuguese in Macau, and the French and Germans in the northern areas. With the retreat of the Western forces, the Taewongun celebrated his victory in the French War and the American War and sent a mes-sage to the Chinese emperor to that effect.
Of course, from the point of view of the French and the Americans, there had never been a war, let alone one lost. When the Taewongun was forced out of power in 1874, he had little idea of the actual geopolitical situation in the world. His actions were bold, but he was essentially a conservative ruler who did not understand the threats that Korea faced in the new world of 19th-century imperialism.
Though he reduced corruption and cen-tralized political power during his time in office, he also bankrupted Korea at the worst possible time. His very strength as a politician had tragic consequences for Korea, since his policies, which were continued by his son, King Kojong, did not prepare Korea for its encounter with moder-nity, with the West, and with Japan (Palais 1991).
When Kojong was 22 he was able to take over the throne for himself, and the bureaucracy and king were able to side-line the Taewongun. However, Kojong was not without prob-lems from within his own fam-ily. One reason Kojong had been selected king was that he was not yet married, and the royal family made sure that he did not marry a woman from either of the most pow-erful clans, the Kims or the Chos.
In 1866 a marriage was arranged with a young woman from the Min clan of Yohung who had no brothers—an ideal choice, it would seem. In the late Choson period, however, there was no such thing as a yangban man with-out a son; if he had no children or only daughters, he would surely “adopt” a nephew. Later, Queen Min’s father adopted a son from within patrilineal lineage (agnatic adoption was well established in Korea at this point).
Thus, Queen Min suddenly had a brother, and that brother had brothers. The court was once again plagued with in-law problems. Apart from this, Queen Min herself turned out to be the most powerful of all the queens of Korean history. Her role in the crucial events of the next few decades, a time of foreign pressure and internal disorder, was to be pivotal.