The character of Cheoljong in the Sat-Sun tvn drama Mr. Queen was closer to his image in real life, rather than the usual image portrayed through the mass media. His character there possesses decent knowledge and never lets the books leave his side. Of course, the drama is a work of fiction, but the image of the king itself matches the real history. Instead of making use of the image of ‘illiterate Ganghwa’s Young Master’ that is familiar to the public, the drama definitely strays far away from such image.
Although the image of illiterate Cheoljong owes it to the media consumed by the public, it is actually being spread further by the historians and historical writers who are being influenced by such media. Perhaps, the reason why that kind of image easily spreads around is because of Cheoljong’s background; he was the fallen royalty who lived in poverty in Ganghwado Island and then chosen to become the Andong Kim clan’s puppet on the throne. The view that it would be impossible for him to become the puppet king if he was smart only helped to strengthen such image of him.
Actually, the question of ‘being or not being a puppet king’ is not always related to one’s intelligence. One’s political savviness might be more important than one’s intelligence when it comes to deciding the possibility of him being the puppet king. However, Cheoljong’s image of being illiterate is not only ingrained in the modern minds because of the media, but it was also because of Cheoljong himself when he was about to sit on the throne; he acted as if he was lacking in studies for some time.
The person who received the royal order to escort the new king from Ganghwado Island after Heonjong’s death was a Premier named Jung Won-yong, who also documented his whole life in his daily journal, Gyeongsan’s Diary. He started writing it when he was only 19 until few days before his death at the age of 90. He was someone who spent his life recording every single thing he did daily. Jung Won-yong was also the person who got to observe the new king from a close distance during few days prior to Cheoljong’s coronation, while recoding everything about it.
One of the things Jung Won-yong paid attention to at that time was Cheoljong’s intelligence level. He had to observe intently how the young new king fared when it comes to his intelligence, being someone who was almost unknown to the royal family and the court prior to that. There was also the assumption that he could not continue his studies well due to his financial difficulties after being exiled despite being a royalty in name.
Jung Won-yong was someone who placed first in the state examination at the age of 19, 17 years younger than the average age of first place winners at that time. He was someone who possessed outstanding literary abilities, and the conclusion he made after observing Cheoljong was ‘someone who is talented but has no will to learn. This was his entry in his diary on the 9th day of the 6th month in evaluating Cheoljong’s literary skills.
“Now that I have seen it myself, his talent is great, but he did not put any effort in polishing his writing and knowledge. Although he has already reached the adult age of 19, his skills are more or less of someone who is in his early teens.”
This is similar to the act of giving encouragement to a student who has been neglecting his studies in a nice way by saying, ‘This student has the talent but he doesn’t go for it.’ That was how Jung Won-yong evaluated Cheoljong. Although he got the knack for it, he did not continue to study, leaving his knowledge level to still be at the level of an early teenager.
Cheoljong himself played a part in contributing to such evaluation, by intentionally acting like a lacking student. Even when he met the royal elders and the courtiers right before the coronation ceremony, he continued to act like that around them. When asked about how much he had read, he answered that he had read the first volume of both Comprehensive Mirror and Elementary Learning and continued, “But I did not read anything in the recent years.” The Comprehensive Mirror he mentioned was the Essentials of Comprehensive Mirror, which was the abridged version of the Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance, wirtten by a team of Song Dynasty’s historians led by Sima Guang and chronicling the history of Chinese history from 403 BC to 960 AD. Elementary Learning is the Confucian textbook for young learners. Cheoljong also answered the same thing when Jung Won-yong asked him before that.
The statement he made before his coronation was treated not as a humble remark by his courtiers; they took it at face value. They only reacted to the statement of ‘I have not read anything in recent years’ and made a request for Cheoljong to start his studies with the Records of the Grand Historian in order to set a direction for his studies later. They suggested for the new king to start with learning about history. Joseon officials would usually suggest Confucian texts to be studied by the kings, since they viewed it as a way for their ruler to cultivate his mind, at the same time developing Confucian values and being on the same page as the courtiers, who were all scholars and the products of Confucian upbringings and teachings themselves. If their king happened to be immersed in the historical texts, then he might be well-versed in politics and then served as a source of problem for the courtiers themselves later, since they would be wary of a king who knew too much. Hence, suggesting more Confucian texts would be a better solution. But then, the courtiers of Cheoljong recommended for him to start reading historical texts, with the view that he should start learning the way the world works before getting into Confucian texts. Perhaps, they were underestimating the new king, and it was a show on Cheoljong’s side.
The real side of Cheoljong was immortalized 6 years later in the records written by Choe Ik-hyeon, who had the chance to meet the king in 1855. The 21-year-old Choe then would later be known as a vocal nationalist towards the end of Joseon Dynasty. At that time, he was still a student at the Sungkyunkwan Academy, and the king who appeared before his eyes on that day was unbeatable when it comes to his knowledge, even when he stood against the learned young Confucian students. According to Choe’s collection of works Anthology of Myeonam, he sat for the special examination only for Sungkyunkwan students Chundogi held in the spring of 1855, in which he placed first in that examination. On that day, Cheoljong appeared at the site not simply to become a spectator, but he was there to oversee and even grade the answers himself. The king, who was around 25 at that time, had a one-to-one session with each student and graded them using questions according to the Book of Documents on the spot.
However, Cheoljong’s expression was not great for the whole session. Choe remarked it as “It was an expression hinting that the king did not enjoy the moment.” It was because he did not find the students’ answers satisfactory to him. Choe was the last student to face the king, and it was his answer which managed to switch Cheoljong’s expression. He answered without pausing, to Cheoljong’s satisfaction and leading to him being announced as the first-place student. It would be difficult for someone to reach such level over the span of 6years even if he did put his utmost effort into studying; plus, being able to evaluate the elite students of Sungkyunwan by personally asking them questions and listening to their answers while frowning was something that could be done by someone who had the ability to teach them. The only reasonable explanation was for Cheoljong to be already at a decent level from the beginning in 1849 for him to be able to do such thing in 1855. Maybe it was just his intention to make his appearance before his coronation as a show to people around him; something he could not avoid in order to appease the officials and the royal family. Or maybe it was a planned lies to rise to the throne safely without any incident, which started from a small lie in front of Jung Won-yong, who was 38 years older than Cheoljong but still ended up with error in his judgment.
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