Yngjo (1694-1776) was a Korean king who ruled from 1724 to 1776. His reign was the longest and one of the most brilliant of the Yi dynasty.
The formal name of Yngjo was Yi Kum; in the years before acceding to the throne he was known as Prince Yning. His first posthumous name was Yngjong, but this was changed to Yngjo in 1889. Born on Oct. 31, 1694, he was the fourth son of King Sukchong (reigned 1674-1720) and the younger half brother of King Kyngjong (1720-1724). From his childhood, it was evident that Yngjo was the most intelligent and capable of Sukchong's sons. Kyngjong's four-year reign was torn by constant political crises. Because he was childless, Yngjo was made his heir in 1720; later he became in addition prince regent, sharing authority with the dowager queen. He became king on Oct. 16, 1724, five days after Kyngjong's suspiciously sudden death.
Yngjo's greatest achievement was the restoration of political order, and it was accomplished early in his reign. Political factionalism had been endemic to Korean life since the end of the 16th century, but it had raged with particular intensity since the 1690s, when certain court officials had split over a number of issues into factions called the Noron and the Soron. The Soron had protected the interests of Kyngjong, but when he came to the throne in 1720, the Noron occupied the chief ministerial positions. The Noron succeeded in having Yngjo designated heir and prince regent.
Once on the throne, Yngjo was determined to end the Noron-Soron struggle. Early in 1725 he proclaimed his famous policy of "broad equity," whereby worthy men of both groups were to be given key government positions. He, however, grew increasingly cool toward the Soron, and they soon lapsed into a dormant, if still live, political force.
Yngjo's achievements during his long reign were typical of those which traditional eastern Asian historians expected in a "vigorous ruler." He restored order, revised legal codes, built up military strength (emphasizing the capital rather than the frontiers, which were not threatened in his lifetime), refurbished buildings, expanded Seoul's sewer system, reformed the corvée labor system, encouraged agriculture, rationalized taxation practices, forbade certain cruel punishments, elaborated channels for the communication of popular grievances, promoted scholarship and education, reformed court ritual and music, supported printing and publishing, and in general presided actively over a state then enjoying its most prosperous age.
In spite of these very real achievements, there were flaws in Yngjo's character that contradict the historical stereotype and at the same time render his personality somewhat mysterious. He was arbitrary and capricious in many of his decisions, and he was given to sudden outbursts of uncontrollable rage. Certainly his terrible unpredictability was a factor in the control in which he constantly held his officials. His vanity knew no bounds. But in his calmer moments he was solicitous of his officials and generous with subordinates, and he showed a genuine concern for the welfare of the common people. He was strict and firm in his decisions, worked long and hard at his duties, and was always intimately familiar with governmental affairs.
Death of His Son
In one matter only was Yngjo disappointed: the arrangement of a smooth succession. His first son, Prince Hyojang, had died in 1728. In 1735 one of Yngjo's consorts produced a son, Prince Sado. Yngjo made him crown prince in 1736 and spared no effort in his upbringing and education. But eventually something went wrong in their relationship; the early hope turned into bitterness and hatred and ended, in 1762, in filicide. The reasons are unclear, mostly as a result of the expurgation of historical records. But judging from what has survived, and other clues scattered through unofficial sources, it is apparent that officials sympathetic to the Soron cause had attached themselves to the crown prince. They may have suggested to Sado that his father was responsible for the death of Kyngjong.
Through the 1750s the political tension grew. Yngjo frequently reprimanded his son for both his personal behavior and his princely decisions. The final crisis in the affair began in October 1761. Yngjo discovered that Sado had taken a pleasure trip in May without reporting it to his father; this was an extremely serious breach of filial piety and court protocol. Yngjo nominally forgave Sado this indiscretion, but he had certainly not forgotten it when, in June 1762, a palace employee submitted a memorial charging Sado with "unspeakable" crimes. To the end Sado denied all the charges. On July 4 Yngjo demanded Sado's suicide. Sado attempted to hang himself but was courageously released from the rope by his own loyal retainers. Yngjo next stripped Sado of his rank and offices, decreed him a commoner, and locked him in a box, where he died eight days later from starvation. Immediately after his son's death, Yngjo forgave Sado, restored his rank and titles, and gave him the name by which he has since been known—Sado Seja, which, according to the conventions often used in interpreting post-humous names, can mean "Contritely Lamented Prince." The bizarre method of execution, strange even in consideration of the traditional Korean prohibition against the shedding of royal blood, and the tardy and oddly sudden remorse combine to suggest Yngjo's disturbed personality.
Yngjo lived for nearly 14 years after Sado's death, and some of his most famous enactments date from this period. Yngjo died on April 22, 1776, in Kynghui Palace in Seoul.
There is no biography of Yngjo in English. The events of his reign can be perused in survey histories such as Takashi Hatada, A History of Korea, translated and edited by Warren W. Smith and Benjamin H. Hazard (1969), and Woo-keun Han, The History of Korea, translated by Kyung-sik Lee and edited by Grafton Mintz (1970). Much of interest concerning the reigns of both Yngjo and Kyngjong can be found in Chao-ying Fang, The Asmai Library (1969). □