|Cheoljong of Joseon|
King Cheoljong (1831 - 1863) (r. 1849-1863) was the 25th king of the Korean Joseon Dynasty. Cheoljong was only a very distant relative of his predecessor, King Heonjong, and was living far away from the court and the capitol, uneducated and working as a farmer on Ganghwa Island.
When he took the throne in the middle of the nineteenth century, the Joseon Dynasty, starting with Emperor Taejo in 1392, had been on the throne for four and a half centuries, the royal bloodline was beginning to deteriorate, and the other noble families, rather than focusing on the good of the country and providing support for the monarchy, were concerned only with their own interests and were accelerating the decline of the country by fighting with each other for control from behind the throne.
Without the checks and balances provided in the structure of a constitutional government, the monarchy was rapidly becoming ineffective. Cheoljong's reign marked the beginning of the final decline of the Joseon Dynasty. His sucessor, Emperor Gojong, put in his best effort, but was finally forced from the throne by Japanese, who took over the governance of Korea a short time later.
When King Heonjong died in 1849, the social and political climate in Korea were poor. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, power had been siphoned from the seated monarchs by various factions of the nobility, particularly by the influential Andong Kims, a clan of nobles that had produced several queens in the preceding years, and subsequently maneuvered themselves into a position of considerable control, taking advantage of the deterioration in the royal line of the Joseon Dynasty, which had been on the throne more than 450 years, since 1392.
The social stagnation that resulted from the ineffective governance was a breeding ground for unrest. Corruption and embezzlement from the treasury and its inevitable exploitation were taken to extreme levels, reaching staggering proportions. To make things worse, the debilitating effects of one rebellion after another were accompanied by floods, droughts, fires and other natural disasters. Indeed it was one of the most gloomy periods in the country’s history.
Largely unconcerned with the welfare of the nation as a whole, the primary goal of the Andong Kim clan was preserving their sphere of influence. Their bloody campaign to dominate the royal house had led to a situation in which almost all of the representatives of the royal family had fled from Seoul. When the royal family produced intelligent and appropriate candidates for the accession, they were either accused of treason and executed or sent into exile, so when Heonjong died, leaving no son, it was difficult to find a candidate who could succeed to the throne.
Finally the choice settled on Yi Byeon (이변, 李昪), who was later referred to as King Cheoljong. Although the prior successions in the Joseon Dynasty had been primarily from father to son, and on occasion had included brothers, grandsons, uncles or nephews, it was necessary to search much further back the royal bloodline to find a successor for Heonjong, Joseon's 24th king. Cheoljong was the grand-nephew of King Jeongjo, Joseon's 22nd King, and the great-great-grandson of King Yeongjo, the 21st Joseon king.
Cheoljong's father, Grand Prince Jeonggye, had been one of three sons born to Prince Eunyeon, the younger brother of King Jeongjo. Jeonggye's two brothers were both killed in political rebellions, leaving only Grand Prince Jeongye. Jeonggye also had three sons, of whom the eldest was implicated and killed in a power struggle and the second died of disease, leaving only the third son, Cheoljong.
After a long search, the royal envoys (dispatched for finding the future king) finally located the future Cheoljong on Ganghwa Island where the remaining clan of the Yi's, the Joseon royal family, were barely surviving in wretched poverty. Cheoljong's mother and grandmother had been killed for being Catholics, and his father was also dead. Though from the start of the Joseon Dynasty Korean kings had given top priority to the education of their sons, the situation of the royal family was now so bad that at the age of 18, Cheoljong was not yet able to read, and could not decipher even a single word on the notice delivering congratulations to him on his elevation to the royal throne.
For the Andong Kims, Cheoljong's illiteracy was an asset. His lack of education made him manipulable and vulnerable to their control. Proof of this can be found in reports that even though Cheoljong ruled the country for 13 years, until his very last days he had not yet learned on how to move with dignity or on how to wear royal clothes, so that in even the most luxurious of robes he still looked like a fisherman. As part of the Andong Kims' manipulation of Cheoljong, in 1851, the clan arranged for Cheoljong to marry Queen Cheolin, the daughter of clan member Kim Mun-geun.
Due to Cheoljong's youth, the Dowager Sunwon served as regent during the first part of Cheoljong's reign. After three years, Cheoljong began to rule himself, although in reality the real power lay with the Andong Kims. As he came to realize how little power he had, Cheoljong turned to women and wine, and his health began to deteriorate.
During the time of Cheoljong's reign, the number of Christians in Korea increased dramatically. During most of the Joseon dynasty, Confucian ideals were given priority over Buddhist teachings and Christianity was discouraged. Under some Joseon rulers, Christians were persecuted and even killed. Cheoljong was sympathetic to the Christians because his mother had been a Christian, and during his reign the opposition to Christianity was relaxed, and as a result, the number of Christians began to increase, particularly in the urban areas. In the rural areas, Cheondogyo, also referred to as Donghak, a new religious and social movement, began to develop. Donghak encouraged taught equality, and encouraged people to fight corruption in the government. This made it unpopular with the Andong Kims, and Donghak's founder Choe Je-u was arrested, tried, and executed in 1863.
The expansion of Christianity brought an influx of Western priests and missionaries into Korea. At the same time, the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) against the Qing Empire brought extensive western and Christian influence into neighboring China. With the end of Cheoljong's reign, the court of King Gojong, led by his father and regent Daewongun, once again instituted policies opposing Christianity and Western influence in Korea, and the Qings also succeeded in quelling the Taiping Rebellion about the same time. Thus, widespread Western influence in Korea was postponed for another half century.
Cheoljong died at the age of 32 in January 1864 (by suspected foul play by the Andong Kim clan, the same clan which made him king), without a male heir qualified for the throne, as his only son was born to a lower ranked consort, and not to Queen Cheolin. Once again, it became necessary to search far back in the Yi lineage to find a candidate for the throne.
The King's personal name in Hanja is 李昪. In Korean, it is Yi Byeon. However, in most Chinese materials, his name is often misrepresented as 李昇, which is pronounced as Yi Seong. This is a very serious yet very popular error, as the character 昪 is a very rare, while 昇 is much more common. Therefore, care must be taken when searching for information regarding Cheoljong.
|Rulers of Korea
|Monarchs of Joseon and The Korean Empire|
|Joseon: Emperor Taejo | King Jeongjong | King Taejong | King Sejong the Great | King Munjong | King Danjong
King Sejo | King Yejong | King Seongjong | Yeonsangun | King Jungjong | King Injong | King Myeongjong
King Seonjo | Gwanghaegun | King Injo | King Hyojong | King Hyeonjong | King Sukjong
King Gyeongjong | King Yeongjo | King Jeongjo | King Sunjo | King Heonjong | King Cheoljong
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