King Sejo and His Drinking Party Politics

(4) King Sejo’s Drinking Banquets, Where Sudden Promotions and Death Sentences Were Delivered According to One’s Drinking Habit 

Sejo as featured in Queen Insoo (2011)

When King Sejo’s name is mentioned, one would instantly be reminded of the ruthless king who killed his own young nephew in order to have the throne to himself. After the success of his coup in 1453 (Gyeyu Jeongnan), Sejo, then Grand Prince Suyang, became the de facto ruler of Joseon despite having Danjong sitting on the throne, before the young king was pressured into relinquishing his throne two years later in 1455 to Sejo. Because of his illegal way of coveting the power, legitimacy with regard to his succession became an issue throughout his reign.

In addition, the act of Six Martyred Ministers in their effort to restore Danjong also became a huge political burden to Sejo. Hence, in order to recover the declining royal power under the short rules of Munjong and Danjong, Sejo reinforced the importance of Six Ministries over the State Council in his politically charged move, apart from commissioning the complication of National Code of Joseon (Gyeongguk Daejeon) and Comprehensive Mirror of the Eastern State (Dongguk Tonggam) in his effort to strengthen the foundation of the dynasty.

Frequently organizing drinking banquets was one of Sejo’s unique ways of strengthening his royal authority and his very own method of spreading his influence. This fact can be confirmed through a search of the term ‘drinking party’ in Veritable Records of King Sejo, in which 467 times it is mentioned. It is the highest number recorded among the Joseon kings; for comparison, the total number of times it is mentioned in the whole Joseon Annals is 974, so that makes up for almost half of it. If those banquets are considered the marker for a great king, then Sejo can be considered the greatest.

What was the reason Sejo arranged for so many drinking parties during his reign?

It was through these frequent parties and banquets that Sejo created a rendezvous for him and his loyal subjects who put him on the throne. There were numerous instances that Sejo and his retinues, consisting of Han Myeong-hwe, Shin Suk-ju, and Jeong In-ji among others, seen enjoying their drinks as recorded in the Annals. Conversations, impromptu games, and even dancing when the excitement took over them were among the activities Sejo participated in with his loyal subjects, providing him a space to communicate with them without any reservation.

Perhaps, because of the power amassed through his sword, Sejo was always viewed as someone with a strong image; hence, mingling around in such banquets probably helped others to see him in his easygoing, humane self, showcasing the soft side of the so-called ruthless king.

Another reason was because of Sejo’s awareness; he was very much aware that the loyal subjects in his court were double-edged swords. Just like how they held their swords for him, Sejo realized the danger that they could be pointing their swords at him on another day. Through these parties, he sought to entertain them as well as renewing their loyalty towards him.

The first drinking banquet organized by Sejo after his ascension to the throne was a month after the coronation.

“The king paid respect to Prince Nosan (Danjong) and threw a banquet, hence the royal relative Prince Yeonghae, Minister of War Yi Gye-jeon, Royal Secretary, and others gathered for the event. As the musician played their tunes, the king (Sejo) ordered Yi Gye-jeon to rise from his seat and dance. The banquet ended with everyone enjoying their time there. The fun did not stop there, as the royal procession headed towards Prince Yeonghae’s house and a smaller scale party was held there. The king stayed there for a long time before returning to the palace.”

It is interesting how Sejo was reluctant to end the banquet with just the first round that he had to go for the second round. Plus, knowing that those figures we know from the historical records were dancing is somewhat amusing. But then, it is not something out of place back then. King Taejo organized a banquet and invited his ministers including Jeong Do-jeon. When the musicians sang a song requested by the attendees, Taejo approached Jeong and said, “This was a song you composed, so you should rise from your seat and dance along to it.” Jeong Do-jeon complied and removed his outer robe before dancing. This was recorded in the Annals of King Taejo.

Sejo also enjoyed having all his guests – from the royal relatives to the officials – to dance during the drinking banquets he had in Gyeonghui Palace. This was recorded during a banquet thrown to appease the soldiers leaving for the Jurchen expedition in the North:

“The Crown Prince offered drinks and Prince Guseong offered his well wishes, followed by other royal relatives. As they were just getting drunk, Sejo ordered Prince Guseong, Jeong In-ji, Shin Suk-ju, Han Myeong-hwe, Hong Yoon-seong, and Hong Dal-son to get up and dance. He also bestowed drinks to generals and commanders, telling them to drink to their heart’s content.”

In another banquet held in the eighth month of 1455, Sejo left his place and held Yi Gye-jeon’s hand on his left, at the same time reaching for Shin Suk-ju using his right hand as he wanted to exchange drinks with them. Surprised with the sudden gesture of their king, those present prostrate themselves and did not dare to raise their heads. Sejo then remarked, “We used to be comrades. Is it such a big deal for you to just rise so that we can exchange our drinks?” The officials had no choice but to follow Sejo’s intention. He wanted to reinforce the fact that he acknowledged them as his comrades through exchanging drinks nonchalantly. The king picked out his favourites and threw an enjoyable banquet for them, enjoying the drinks and music until late. He made it a common thing to compliment his loyal subjects for their accomplishments during the banquets and there were instances where Sejo was recorded drinking until early morning.

Apart from the guests, Sejo also had thoughtful considerations on the royal bodyguards, offering them drinks as recorded in the Annals:

“The king called the royal bodyguards and the royal litter-bearers to offer them some drinks, and they gathered for their share after they have finished their duties for the day.”

Still, as much as Sejo enjoyed dancing and drinking in his drinking banquets, he also turned them into his political arena. Hong Yoon-seong was involved in a bribe case related to his acquaintance and he was impeached as a result, so Sejo called him personally and bestowed him drinks for Hong to drink as his punishment, reminding him to repent for his mistakes.

There was a funny story about Sejo’s drinking table.

Sejo, who had too much to drink, grabbed Shin Suk-ju’s arm sharply before twisting it as a prank. Shin also pulled and twisted Sejo’s hand in return. However, the drunk Shin pulled a little too hard, causing Sejo to feel pain and the king was not happy at all about it. Sejo thought that Shin was using the excuse of being drunk in order to humiliate him. Han Myeong-hwe, who was known to be bad at drinking, witnessed the event soberly, and he was left worrying about his friend’s future.

Shin Suk-ju had this habit of reading books once he returned home, no matter how drunk he was at that moment. On the day of that incident, Han managed to pass a message to one of Shin’s servants, telling the servant to make sure that Shin would go straight to bed. True to Han’s prediction, Sejo sent people to Shin’s house to check on him, but he received the report that Shin went straight to bed that night. The king was probably suspecting that he was sober, but upon confirmation, he realized that Shin was really drunk earlier and his anger subsided. Han’s quick thinking did manage to save Shin’s life.

There were also sudden promotions which happened at the drinking table. Eo Hyo-cheom, a secretary at Ministry of Personnel, was known to commit no mistake in his words even when he was drunk, hence Sejo promoted him instantly to the Mnister of Personnel. His original position was senior third rank, below the position of minister and vice minister. Thanks tho Eo’s admirable drinking habit, Sejo did not hesitate even for a bit to offer the position of a minister to him.

On the other hand, there were instances where the drinking sessions became a place to deliver the death sentence. Yang Jeong, a military chief who contributed to Sejo’s Coup in 1453, harboured resentment because he was assigned to border defense after Sejo’s ascension. When he returned to Pyeongan-do Province in 1466, he had an audience with Sejo. The king organized a banquet and invited over Han Myeong-hwe, Shin Suk-ju, Seo Geo-jeong, and others with the intention of celebrating Yang Jeong’s hard word over the years. Everyone was having a good time over the drinks, so Sejo asked those present to give their honest opinion on him. Overcame with his temper and borrowing the courage from his drinks, Yang Jeong delivered his bomb, “Your Majesty has been sitting on the throne for a long time already, so it is only right for you to take a rest idly.”

The mood of the party changed because of the mention of Sejo’s abdication. Despite the shocking situation, Sejo’s face remained calm. “How could I become someone who lusts over the throne?” The king said as he ordered his eunuch to bring his seal and call the Crown Prince. His loyal subjects shed tears upon hearing this and criticized Yang Jeong loudly. In the end, a slip of tongue at the drinking table cost Yang Jeong his life; he was executed for only that. Although Sejo was tolerant in his drinking banquets, it was impossible for him to forgive people who mentioned the throne, even in passing.

Sejo, the king who turned the drinking banquets into his political arena. Was it because of the emotions that would pile up during such events? Before his death, Sejo assigned his trusted subjects such as Shin Suk-ju, Han Myeong-hwe, and Jeong In-ji in a temporary advisory position known as wonsang 원상(院相). This continued his influence in the politics even after his passing. The phrase wonsang refers to ‘the ministers who worked in the Royal Secretariat, seungjeongwon‘. Sejo appointed a total of 17 ministers as wonsang, grouping them into four groups in rotation to make decision on court matters together with the Crown Prince (Yejong).

Sejo’s arrangement before his death became a power base for his loyal subjects during the reigns on Yejong and Seongjong, leading to the formation of Hungu faction that wielded their influence thanks to the strong base provided during Sejo’s era.

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