In the morning of the 6th day of the 6th month, 1849, the 24th Joseon ruler King Heonjong suddenly passed away without any successor. The right to name the next king was in the hands of the most senior member of royal family at that time, the Grand Royal Queen Dowager Queen Sunwon. The new king was decided two days after Heonjong’s passing. The person-in-charge tasked with the mission of escorting and greeting the new king was the Premier at that time, Jung Won-yong. He received the royal order from Queen Sunwon and was dispatched to Ganghwado Island, where the new owner of the throne was living. But then, Jung Won-yong himself did not know anything about the new king: who he was, how old he was, and how he looked like.
He described the situation then in his journal Gyeongsan’s Diary, which was a daily record he wrote from when he was 19 until his death when he was 91 years old, covering more than 70 years of events in his life, including his journey as a government official after he scored first place in the national examination. At that time, the only clue he had was the name written on the letter from the dowager. The Special Administrator of Ganghwa County Jo Hyeong-bok was on standby when Jung alighted from his ship at the Gapkot Port. But then, even the administrator could not identify the name either. It was when they arrived at a thatched house that someone pointed at a man, saying, “this is the person named so-and-so.” The name was the exact one written on the letter, and that person – Yi Won-beom, also known as Ganghwa’s Young Master – would soon become the 25th king of Joseon, Cheoljong.
There was actually another competent candidate to be the successor to the throne. Yi Ha-jeon was the son of Grand Internal Prince Deokheung (Seonjo’s birth father)’s 12th generation descendant, Prince Wanchang. Although he was only 8 during Heonjong’s passing, he proved himself to be intelligent and brimming with spirit even at such a young age. However, Andong Kim clan, the real power behind the court at that time, did not need a smart person like him to become the king. Queen Sunwon, who was also the daughter of Kim Jo-soon, the person who paved the way for Andong Kim’s Sedo Politics, chose Yi Won-beom, considering that they needed a ‘puppet king’ who would not become a hindrance to their influence.
Yi Won-beom was still a royalty, but he was also the descendant of a family charged with treason. He was the grandson of Crown Prince Sado’s illegitimate issue, Prince Euneon. Prince Euneon was implicated in the accusation of treason towards his eldest son Prince Sanggye; as a result, he was exiled to Ganghwado in 1779. Later, his wife and daughter-in-law were revealed to be Catholics, hence he was impeached and sentenced to death by poisoning together with them. His illegitimate son Grand Internal Prince Jeongye (Cheoljong’s birth father) was also implicated because of the crimes of his family and was banished to Gyodong. He was released and then exiled repeatedly for unclear reasons (he was even reduced to the status of a slave at one time) until his death in 1841. Yi Won-beom, who was son with his concubine Lady Yeom, was only 11 at that time.
The family’s misfortune did not end there. In 1844, the eldest brother of Yi Won-beom, Yi Won-gyeong (Prince Hwepyeong), who was 15 at that time, was again embroiled in the accusation of treason, leading to his death. As a result of this, the rest of the family – his second brother, him, and his cousin – was exiled to Ganghwado. Four years late, it was not the officer bearing the poison who came knocking on Yi Won-beom’s door; it was a formal greeting to escort him as the new king. The fact that a man sentenced to life in exile because of his family’s crimes of treason suddenly became a king was the first of its kind not only in Joseon, but in Goryeo as well.
Andong Kim clan put their utmost effort in promoting the new king as someone competent for the position. The procession to greet Cheoljong was a flashy one and had no end in sight. There were a total of 500 people involved in the procession, including the civil and military officials, the royal relatives, and the army. It started from Gapkot Port in Ganghwado and ran through Gimpo and Yangcheon until it reached the capital. The coronation ceremony was carried out on the 9th day of the 6th month in Changdeokgung Palace, 4 days after Heonjong’s death. The whole journey of the procession covered a total distance of 120 li (about 47 km) and attracted the attention of citizens gathering at every turn just to catch a sight of it. The scene was immortalized in a 19th century painting Ganghwa Parade Illustration, which has been converted into a 12-panel folding screen and stored today in Korean Art Gallery in Pyongyang, North Korea. Queen Sunwon even ordered for records related to Cheoljong’s family to be completely destroyed, since his family background might be the target of people who wanted to question his legitimacy to inherit the throne. That was how the records of Cheoljong’s family and the traces of him prior to him becoming the king were mostly gone.
Perhaps, it could be due to the public’s backlash towards Sedo Politics, but the image of Cheoljong that was strongly engraved in the citizen’s minds was of him being a country bumpkin and an illiterate who was lacking in his studies, although he mostly spent his lifetime in the capital and only became a farmer during his 4-year exile at Ganghwado Island. The movies produced in the 1960s about Cheoljong also highlighted the image of Ganghwa’s Young Master who had to learn the court etiquettes after he became the king and he even brought the person he loved secretly into the palace.
Although he became a king overnight, it was not that Cheoljong completely lacked the qualifications as a monarch. As someone who had experienced living in Ganghwado himself, he was concerned about the difficult lives of the people. He was also determined to reform the Three Tax Administrations that had been in disarray. After the regency of Queen Sunwon took place in his first 3 years of reign, Cheoljong attempted to keep Andong Kim clan under control and strengthen the royal authority. The first thing he did was to propose the elevation of posthumous status for his great-grandfather Crown Prince Sado to a king. An institution to reform and push for the abolishment of the Three Tax Administrations was also set up by the king’s personal request. (The Three Tax Administrations was a system of three taxes – land tax, military service tax, and grain loan tax – collected by the nation from the commoners. The corruption running rampant among the officials who were supposed to manage the system turned it into a way of exploiting people, causing uprisings on a national scale towards the end of Joseon Dynasty.
Being the third king after Sunjo and Heonjong who reigned under the strong influence of Andong Kim clan, it was impossible for Cheoljong to overcome their power. His effort to elevate Crown Prince Sado’s status failed due to objection from the Noron, who were mostly from Andong Kim clan themselves. The institution to reform the tax system was also abolished 3 months after It was set up because of the opposition coming from the controlling clan.
Cheoljong’s eventually lost interest in state affairs in his later years of reign, sensing his shortcomings. It was written in the Veritable Records that he frequently avoided the royal lecture sessions to discuss state affairs with his courtiers. He passed away in 1863 at the age of 33 after suffering from dysentery. He had 5 sons and 1 daughter from his marriage to Queen Cheorin and the other 7 concubines, but all his issues died young and he did not leave behind any surviving successor.
Cheoljong might had lacked determination, but he was surely not illiterate.
“A person of carefree and beautiful energy enjoys himself;
the auspicious and bright things will come to him everyday.”
This is a sample of Cheoljong’s handwriting stored in the National Museum of Korea. Written slowly with the thick strokes, the writing gives off a polite and elegant impression to those who see it. Although it is not splendid, it is still a remarkable piece which showcases the writing style of the late Joseon period, as well as the dignity of the royal family of Joseon.
The royal portrait of Cheoljong painted by the Bureau of Painting in 1861 was the only portrait of Joseon king in the royal military attire; unfortunately, it was partially damaged due to fire during Korean War. “His forehead was wide and his nose bridge high; his cheekbones were covered with the hair from below his ears. His earlobes were wide and circular; his lips are thick and his hand were big.” The description in Gyeongsan’s Diary matched with the royal portrait. It was also interesting to note that he was drawn as being cross-eyed despite it being a royal portrait. Although he was unable to escape from the influence of Sedo Politics, it might not be fair to simply brand him as an unreasonable and foolish king.
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