King Yeongjo of Joseon was born in 1694, the second son of King Sukjong and Consort Suk of the Haeju Choi clan. After his older brother Gyeongjong’s ascension, he was controversially named the Royal Prince Successor Brother. Despite the controversy, he ascended to the throne four years later and embarked on a dramatic, 52-year reign, which included the shocking scandal that led to his own deranged son’s execution. Read on for 42 facts about this formidable ruler.
1. The Last Dynasty
The Joseon dynasty was founded in 1392 by Yi Seong-gye and lasted for five centuries before being replaced with the Korean Empire in 1897. Not a bad run!
2. Teenage Ruler
Yeongjo’s father, King Sukjong, became crown prince at age six and assumed the throne at age thirteen. While Sukjong was renowned as a politician, he found himself stuck in the middle of a series of nasty wars between the Western and Southern political factions in Korea. Ironically, despite frequently swapping one faction with another to strengthen the power of the crown, things were generally pretty good under his reign.
3. Royal Noble Consort
The Royal Noble Consort was the title given to the concubines of the Korean kings. They were of lower rank than the queen, but higher in rank than most court ladies, making them part of the royal family. Yeongjo’s mother Suk earned the favor of the king and worked her way up to the rank of Bin—the highest ranked of the noble consorts.
4. Shadow King
While Gyeongjong, Yeongjo’s older brother, was king, he suffered ill health and was unable to produce an heir—or to do much of anything for that matter. The Noron political faction wanted to outright replace Gyeongjong with his younger brother. While that didn’t quite happen, Yeongjo was made Royal Prince Successor, which allowed him to handle state affairs while Gyeongjong was ill.
5. Power Struggle
A weak king leads to a weak kingdom, and in the four years Gyeongjong sat on the throne, the Noron and Soron factions battled for power. The Sorons were the ruling political faction and supported Gyeongjong, but the Norons were trying to replace him with his brother. This led to two horrific massacres under his watch, one in 1720 and one in 1722.
These terrible events have collectively become known as the Sinim-sahwa.
6. Something’s Fishy
Gyeongjong finally kicked the bucket in 1724, and some members of the Soron party suspected Yeongjo of poisoning his brother. Historians now believe that Yeongjo didn’t have anything to do with his brother’s death and that Gyeongjong died from eating bad shellfish. That’s what you call a fishy death!
7. Protecting the People
Yeongjo cared deeply about the well-being of his people. Once, during a particularly wet rainy season, he worried the non-stop rain would ruin the harvest and lead to the starvation of his people. In order to prevent this from happening, he not only had his courtiers reduce taxes on the people, but he also cut back on his own food to prove to the heavens that his concern for his people was genuine.
Twenty-five years after the year he reduced his food portions, Yeongjo was faced yet again with continuous rain, and once again chose to reduce the food on his own table out of concern for his people.
9. The Ideal King
A strong believer in Confucianism, Yeongjo genuinely worked hard at living according to Confucian values, which helped his reputation in the face of the more controversial elements of his reign (more on those later).
10. Failed Uprising
In 1728, anonymous posters appeared in two South Korean towns accusing Yeongjo of poisoning the previous king, and this led to the Musin Revolt. In the failed seventeen-day revolt, two men stole gunpowder, intending to blow up two notable public sites. Although the rebellion failed, the rebels did manage to gain a great deal of support from the people and the government lost 13 county seats, so it wasn’t a total loss.
11. Historic Eight
During the long reign of the Joseon dynasty, the Korean territory (modern day South Korea) was reorganized and divided into eight provinces. This era lasted until 1895 when Gojong, the first Emperor of Korea, replaced the eight provinces with 23 districts. Time to redraw the map!
12. Magnificent Harmony
At the time of Yeongjo’s reign, most of the fighting in Korea was between the different political factions, so Yeongjo implemented a policy called Tangpyeong. The goal of the policy was to bring the four parties together for regular feasts to create harmony. He chose his politicians and officials with complete disregard to party affiliation, and his success with these feasts is widely seen as his greatest achievement.
13. Four Ingredients
At the start of each of his Tangpyeong feasts, Yeongjo would serve his guests the Korean dish tangpyeongchae, showing them how the four different ingredients of individual colors and flavors worked together to create a harmonious and delicious dish. The metaphor was an effective lesson for all who attended, and tangpyeongchae is still featured in Korean cuisine today.
14. The People Want It
In order to gain support for his military-tax system reform, Yeongjo consulted the common people on what they wanted no fewer than three times. He found that for most of the commoners, the taxes were too strict and the collecting process was unjust. During this process, Korean politicians came to see how the wants and needs of the common people were an important part of the legislative process. How novel!
15. Stopping the Floods
Since the early years of the Joseon Dynasty, the Cheonggyecheon Stream that flows through Seoul had become prone to flooding after a heavy rain, and the people living inside the city would suffer damage. One of Yeongjo’s biggest accomplishments was the Cheonggyecheon dredging project. Basically, the bottom of the river was dug up to create a deeper waterway for a smoother flow of water, which stopped the flooding.
16. Seven of Five
The detailed portraits of the Joseon Kings were the best window into the royal culture of the kingdom, as the portraits were said to be extremely realistic. Unfortunately, all that’s left are seven portraits of five kings, as all of the other portraits were destroyed in or before the Korean War. One of the surviving portraits is of King Yeongjo, painted in 1744 when he was 51 years old.
17. Reflection of the Self
There is one other surviving portrait of King Yeongjo, which was first painted when he was twenty-one and still a prince. It portrayed him as calm and quiet, but in the 1744 portrait, he was painted as he ruled—stubborn and charismatic. Yeongjo was apparently satisfied with the latter image and told his servants that he hoped his descendants would view the portrait and be reminded to continue what he started.
18. Putting the Rumors to Rest
Yeongjo was aware of the controversy that had surrounded his ascension, and he wrote the book Eoje Daehun to finally clear up the misconceptions and set the record straight. His writings were a reflection on his succession and were another attempt to try and stop the fighting between the country’s different political factions.
19. First Son
Yeongjo’s firstborn son was the Crown Prince Hyojang. He was illegitimate, but his birth was kept quiet so it never caused too much a scandal. The poor kid didn’t make it to his tenth birthday, dying from an unknown illness at nine years old.
20. Honor King
In his extremely short life, Crown Prince Hyojang still managed to get married. His father coupled him with his vice-prime minister’s daughter. Though this royal power couple never had much of a chance to make a splash, they were still elevated to the position of Honor King and Honor Queen-consort by Yeongjo’s successor King Jeongjo—a full 48 years after Hyojang’s death. Better late than never?
21. So It’s Her Fault!
The ill health of Yeongjo’s brother Gyeongjong was generally blamed on his mother Lady Jang. It’s said that upon being sentenced to death, she begged to see her son one last time. When she ran towards him in greeting, she apparently caused a serious injury to his abdomen that left him sterile and sick. Thanks, Mom!
22. Assassination Plot
The Soron Faction didn’t want Yeongjo to become king, so they hatched a plot to kill him. They would claim that a white fox was haunting the palace, and under the guise of hunting the creature, they would assassinate Yeongjo. Luckily for Yeongjo, his stepmother, the Queen dowager Inwon, protected him and the plot failed.
23. You’re Banished!
Yeongjo’s father, King Sukjong, was a pretty fickle dude, and it didn’t take much to fall out of his favor. His first wife Queen Inhyeon ticked him off by refusing to adopt Gyeongjong, the son of his favorite concubine, so he could make Gyeongjong the Crown Prince. Technically, she couldn’t have anyway since the court refused, but that didn’t matter. She was exiled, and he purged the government. Not a guy to cross!
24. Onto the Next
After the banishment of Queen Inhyeon, Sukjong elevated Gyeongjong’s mother, Consort Jang Hui-bin, to Queen Consort. Her promotion led to a bloody conflict known as the Gisa Sahwa, which resulted in the Soron Faction taking power and her son, Gyeongjong, being named Crown Prince.
25. She’s Out
Things were going along swimmingly for Jang Hui-bin up until around 1694 when she also lost the king’s favor. He was a bit ticked off with how much power her family was gaining and attempted to force her out of his court.
26. She’s Back!
As Queen Jang and her family were becoming a headache for the king, he was starting to show preference to a new concubine: Yeongjo’s mother, Lady Choi. Lady Choi was an open supporter of Sukjong’s old Queen, Inhyeon, and Sukjon didn’t need much more convincing than that. He demoted Jang, banished her brother and the Soron party leaders, and brought back Queen Inhyeon.
27. Favored Daughter
Of all of Yeongjo’s children, his third daughter, Princess Hwapyeong, was said to be his favorite, and he called her his “intimate friend.” He loved her so much that it was even noted in the Sillok, which was Korea’s annual record. He showed his love by giving her a wedding far grander than her older sister’s. He even attempted to gift her a royal residence, but she refused.
28. Make Way
In 1748, Princess Hwapyeong died in childbirth, leaving her father absolutely heartbroken. He was apparently inconsolable after her death and stopped everything to mourn for her. He moved to Changdok Palace so he could personally handle her funeral arrangements, and even stole ancestral land from the Paju Yun family and kicked people out of nearby villages to make room for her tomb. Now that’s devotion!
29. Hereditary Fighting
The conflict between Korea’s political factions didn’t start with Yeongjo, or even with his father. From the beginning of the Joseon dynasty, there were two key factions within the government. There were those who wanted a true monarchy and those who wanted a figurehead monarch with a government led by Confucian scholars—something similar to a modern constitutional monarchy like England. The former side won, but the divide continued from generation to generation, and really came to a head during the reign of Yeongjo’s father, Sukjong.
30. Reluctant King
Remember when some plotters attempted to kill Yeongjo by claiming they were hunting a white fox? Well, this assassination attempt really rattled the young prince, and he told the king that he would rather live as a commoner than be the Crown Prince. The king refused his son’s plea this time—and each of the several other times Yeongjo attempted to renounce his claim to the throne. Yeongjo turned out to be a really effective and long-reigning king, even if it wasn’t what he wanted.
31. Educating the Peasants
King Yeongjo felt strongly about improving the lives of the peasants, and one of his means of doing so was through education. He gave out important books in the Korean script, such as the Book of Agriculture, and created a number of policies intended to elevate future generations of common folk.
32. Not a Boy
Princess Hwahyeop was the seventh daughter of King Yeongjo, but despite her beauty and devotion to her parents, her father apparently disliked her because she was not a boy. He was supposedly such a jerk to her that he wouldn’t even allow her to stay in the same house as his favorite daughter, Princesses Hwapyeong, and was equally awful to her husband when she married. The one relative who did like her was the Crown Prince Sado, who mourned her deeply when she died from a bout of measles at age 19.
King Yeongjo had no tolerance for corruption in his kingdom and appointed Park Mun-Su as his Secret Royal Agent, or Amhaeng-eosa, to go around the country sniffing out and arresting corrupt officials in his name. Mun-Su became something of a legend himself, and there are numerous stories about his achievements.
34. Can Do No Right
At age 15, Crown Prince Sado (Yeongjo’s second son) was appointed regent by his father and given the power to make important administrative decisions—but according to the memoirs of Sado’s wife, Lady Hyegyeong, nothing Sado did would ever satisfy his father. No matter what decision he made it was wrong, and Yeongjo would deliberately humiliate Sado by criticizing him in front of a crowd. No wonder the poor kid had issues.
35. Only Ally
Princess Hwapyeong was the full-sister of Sado, and often his only ally. According to Sado’s wife, Hwapyeong felt bad that her father gave her all of his affection, and whenever Sado was chastised by their father, she would take his side and act as his protector. What a good sister!
36. Not Exactly Close
Princess Hwawan, the ninth daughter of King Yeongjo and Sado’s mother, Consort Yeong, was the sister Sado didn’t like. He resented her closeness with his father, and allegedly stalked her and broke into her rooms. Fear for Hwawan’s life was one of the reasons that Sado was executed. Sado’s son Jeongjo didn’t seem to care much for her either—he had her permanently exiled in 1784. At least he didn’t kill her!
37. Acting Out
Grief definitely makes people do strange things, but Sado’s reaction to losing his stepmother and grandmother in the same month totally sent him over the edge. To say he didn’t take it well would be a gross understatement. He beat his eunuchs, killed palace staff, and assaulted several ladies-in-waiting. In one instance, he walked into his rooms holding the recently severed head of a eunuch who he’d just killed. He then forced anyone who was around, including his own wife, to look at it.
38. Do Something!
Eventually, Sado’s behavior got way too out of control for his mother, Consort Yeong. Sado’s wife had spoken to her about his killings but begged her not to say anything for fear of what he’d do if he found out she’d told her. Yeong stayed silent for a while, but when a rumor started circulating that Sado had entered the palace with the intention of killing his father, enough was enough. She apparently went to Yeongjo that same day and told him that Sado was out of control and had to be executed.
39. How Do You Solve a Problem Like Prince Sado
When it came to dealing with Sado, Yeongjo had a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, he knew that killing Sado was pretty much his only option, but on the other hand, it was against the law to spoil a royal body, and his innocent wife and son could also be killed if he was executed as a criminal. Yeongjo’s solution was to force Sado to climb into a rice chest and be left to die. It took seven days for him to finally starve to death, but technically, he wasn’t executed.
40. In the Movies
The story of King Yeongjo’s decision to kill his son Sado has been covered numerous times in film, and one of the more successful instances is 2015’s The Throne, which covers the tumultuous relationship between Yeongjo and Sado, and Sado’s execution. The movie won three Korean Association of Film Critics Awards, including Best Film, but failed to earn a nomination at the Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Can’t win ‘em all!
After Sado’s death, his son Yi San became the new heir to the throne, but there was still a problem. Yeongjo was totally freaked out at the idea that Yi San could be labeled “Son of a Psycho” or “Son of a Prisoner,” and ineligible to take the throne, but he had an idea. Yeongjo made Yi San the adopted son of his own son, Crown Prince Hyojang—remember, the one who had been dead for years?
Twelve years after this unprecedented step, Yeongjo died of dementia, and Yi San took the thone. However, when Yi San, now known as King Jeongjo, took the throne, he made his origins clear. On the day he was crowned, he sat on his throne, looked at each person in the room and declared “I am the son of the Crown Prince Sado.”
42. New Reforms
Sado’s son, who went by Jeongjo when he became king, turned out to be a worthy successor to his grandfather Yeongjo and he made many new positive reforms of his own. He founded the royal library Kyujanggak with the goal of improving Joseon’s cultural impact, and he attracted highly talented people to help run the country. He was also pretty touchy about class issues and opened up government positions to people who would previously have been considered too low class to do so.
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