King Taejo and the Disappearing Messengers

(1) Why Taejo refused to return from Hamheung? The father and the son who became political enemies.

Taejong and Taejo as featured in Six Flying Dragons (2015)

‘Hamheungchasa’: a messenger who never returns.

It is a phrase being used frequently these days. Used to describe someone who has disappeared for a long time without any news, the origin of the phrase can be traced back to the founder of Joseon Dynasty, King Taejo (Yi Seong-gye), who was in discord with his son. The phrase was originally used for the messengers sent by King Taejong (Yi Bang-won) to change his father’s heart but ended up being killed by Taejo. ‘Chasa’ means the messenger entrusted with such task, hence ‘Hamheungchasa’ originally meant the person who was chosen as a messenger to Hamheung back in the days.

Yi Seong-gye was a prominent figure in late Goryeo Dynasty who overcame the difficult times of that era by founding Joseon Dynasty, but what was the reason for his relationship with his son, who had a huge contribution to the founding of the new nation, to change from his political comrade to a thorn in his eye?

It all began around the time Joseon was founded, aggravated by the event that was Jeong Mong-ju’s death. Jeong Mong-ju was an important member of the rising sadaebu class in Goryeo and used to be on the same side with Jeong Do-jeon when Yi Seong-gye took control of the country. However, upon knowing that both Yi Seong-gye and Jeong Do-jeon would eventually walk on the road leading to the fall of the Royal Family of Goryeo, he decided to carry out reforms for Goryeo instead of abolishing the dynasty in entirety.

In the fourth month of 1392, Yi Seong-gye fell of his horse while he was hunting in Haeju, and Jeong Mong-ju seized the chance to start a rebellion by persuading Goryeo’s last ruler, King Gongyang, to eliminate both Yi Seong-gye and Jeong Do-jeon.

At that time, the person who step up and took charge against it was no other than Yi Bang-won. He met Jeong Mong-ju, who visited the bedridden Yi Seong-gye, and recited the poem ‘Hayeoga’ to persuade him to change his mind. But then, Jeong Mong-ju replied with the famous ‘Danshimga’, showing his unchanged heart that was the Heaven’s will. In the end, Yi Bang-won ordered his men to kill Jeong Mong-ju and succeeded. The event took place on the fourth day of the fourth month in the lunar year of 1392.

Yi Seong-gye was furious upon learning about Jeong Mong-ju’s death.

“Everyone knew that our household’s root was filial piety but you killed a minister at your own discretion/as you wish. People would think that I failed to recognize this act. Now that you have conducted such an undutiful act like this, I feel like drinking poison and die.”

It was probably because of that ill-fated relationship of the father and son, Yi Seong-gye remained hostile towards Yi Bang-won after Joseon was established and did not appoint him in any important position.

Seventh month of the year 1392. The person who received Yi Seong-gye’s absolute trust after the founding of the new nation was not Yi Bang-won, but Jeong Do-jeon. He was the one who designed the new country aside from providing support for the new king. Jeong Do-jeon’s plan of setting the Prime Minister as the center of the country’s politics did not sit well with Yi Bang-won. He protested, saying that it would be impossible to have a country whose royal authority got shafted by the ministers. Taejo’s decision to make his youngest son as his Royal Successor only made Yi Bang-won even more riled up.

Hence, Yi Bang-won instigated the First Strife of Princes in the seventh month of 1392. He put his political rival Jeong Do-jeon and his half-brother Yi Bang-seok to death. Taejo fell into depression after losing his most trusted advisor Jeong Do-jeon and his beloved youngest son. As for Yi Bang-won, power fell into his hands overnight, and Taejo ended up cutting his ties with his son.

Jeongjong sat on the throne briefly after the first strife, but Yi Bang-won ascended to the throne as the third king Taejong after the Second Strife of Princes happened in 1400.

In his eyes, Taejo saw his son who became the king, Taejong, as a political enemy who killed his most trusted people. Taejo hated the fact that he was staying in the same palace as his son at that time and thought of moving out to Soyo-san Mountain in Yangju or Hoeamsa Temple, but he chose to return to his hometown in Hamheung and live the rest of his life there. Since his old father was in Hamheung all by himself, it became a huge pressure on Taejong in political sense. Isn’t filial piety the most important virtue in a Confucian society?

Thus, Taejong begun to send messengers to Hamheung with the aim to persuade Taejo into moving back to the capital. But then, Taejo beheaded the messengers as an indirect message to his son that he would never forgive Taejong, hence the origin of the phrase ‘Hamheungchasa’.

Accounts of Yeollyeosil (‘Yeollyeosilgisul’) recorded several instances where Taejo did not commit the act (of killing the messengers), known as ‘Hamheungjupil’. (Jupil – a condition in which a king in a royal procession stopped the royal carriage and stayed there without moving.)

First was about a dispatched messenger named Seong Seok-rin.

Seong Seok-rin was Taejo’s friend in the past and Taejong gave him the permission to persuade Taejo into changing his mind when Seok-rin offered himself for the task. He rode a white horse but dressed in hemp clothes. When he arrived at the place, he got off his horse and acted like a passerby, making a fire and cooking rice before trying to get through the eunuch watching over Taejo. Seok-rin said, “I was preoccupied by my work and only had time to get on my horse after it was dark.” Taejo was happy to know about this and summoned him. When he expressed his duty to silently handle the problem of humanity (referring to the troubled relationship of Taejo and Taejong), colours were drained off Taejo’s face and the abdicated king asked him, “Did you come running to me here because of your king (Taejong)?” Seok-rin answered, “If that was this servant’s intention to come here, my descendants would be blind.” Taejo believed his words and the relationship between Taejo and Taejong improved a bit since that. But then, Heavens did not forget Seok-rin’s lies because later, his two sons became blind. Seok-rin lied for Taejong’s sake and successfully persuaded Taejo but he was punished by the Heavens for his lie.

The account then highlighted another messenger by the name Park Sun. One by one messengers sent to Hamheung failed to return to the capital after greeting Taejo, so Taejong asked his ministers who would go next and Park Sun volunteered to do so. He travelled there without bringing any servant with him, only riding a dam (mother horse) and bringing along the foal. When he reached the place where Taejo could see it, he tied the foal to a tree intentionally and rode the dam towards Taejo’s palace. The dam refused to move forward and kept turning around since it was worried about its child. Taejo was curious about the reason why the horse acted like that and Park Sun answered him:

“The foal encountered some disturbance on the road and is being tied outside, hence the dam could not bear the parting. Although the distance is not that much, such behaviour is due to its strong affection for its child.”

Taejo did not want to let Park Sun, who was also his friend in the past, to return to the capital. Thus, they spent the time together in Hamheung. One day, they were playing chess when they witnessed a rat holding its child tightly. Even when they were falling down from the corner of the room, the rat did not let go of its baby even at the risk of dying. Park Sun abandoned the chess game and cried while pleading to Taejo with more desperation. In the end, Taejo gave him the permission to go back to the capital.

Apart from Seong Seok-rin and Park Sun, there was another Hamheung messenger who accomplished the task but also won Taejo’s trust. That person was a Buddhist monk, Mu Hak. Taejo was filled with anger when he met Mu Hak for the first time, but his way of mentioning Taejong’s weakness in front of Taejo every time he went for an audience with the King Former (the abdicated king) earned Taejo’s trust.

“Frankly speaking, (Yi) Bang-won made a lot of mistakes, but Your Majesty’s beloved sons were all dead except for him. If Your Majesty ended up abandoning this son (Taejong) too, who will carry out the cause You Majesty have worked hard for all this while? Rather than leaving the work in other’s hands, it will be better to let Your Majesty’s own bloodline handle it.”

Taejo was eventually moved by Mu Hak’s persistent self and made the decision to return to the capital.

When Taejo made the decision to return from Hamheung, Taejong went out of the town to welcome his father personally and ordered for a huge tent to be installed. Ha Ryun, Taejong’s advisor at that time, suggested, “Since Taejo’s anger has not completely cooled off, there are things we have to worry about. We will have to use a big tree trunk as one of the tent posts to be used as a shield.”

As predicted, Taejo’s anger flared upon seeing Taejong and he used his bow and arrows, which were always in his possession. Taejong took cover behind the shield as the arrows shot by Taejo hit the shield. Ha Ryun’s prediction turned out to be true. Taejo eventually released all the anger burning inside him and accepted it as God’s will.

The story of ‘Hamheungchasa’ was not recorded in the official historical records that was the Annals but was rather compiled in the unofficial history as a part of Accounts of Yeollyeosil before being passed down to us. Hence, there are different versions that exist apart from what recorded in Yeollyeosil.

In the end, the truth remains: the outcome of the father-son conflict because of appointing a successor after establishing a new country was much more serious that what we imagined.

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