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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Testing the limits : king Chŏngjo and royal power in late Chosŏn Lovins, Christopher


The present work examines the attempt of Chŏngjo, King of Korea from 1776 to 1800, to shift the balance of power in late Chosŏn Korea in favor of the crown. It examines the official court records, the King’s official writings, and the recent discovery of Chŏngjo’s “secret” letters to high official and ostensible enemy Sim Hwan-ji, using them to illustrate how the King navigated the labyrinthine webs of power. Chapter 1 lays the groundwork of late Chosŏn history and examines Chŏngjo’s legitimacy issues arising from the death of his father. Chapter 2 deals with political philosophy, as Chŏngjo struggled with the aristocracy over the proper interpretation of Neo-Confucian ideology. Chapter 3 addresses how Chŏngjo dealt with the various power groups at court. After looking at his early struggles with the machinations of Hong Kuk-gyŏng, it examines the intrigues against his half-brother Prince Ŭn-ŏn, his aunt Princess Hwawŏn, and his uncle Hong In-han, and reveals how the King sought to protect royal relatives to preserve the majesty of the royal clan and to dispel any pretensions his mother’s family may have had of dominating the throne. The chapter then turns to Chŏngjo’s handling of the major political factions and his subtle refinement of the Policy of Impartiality. Chapter 4 looks at Chŏngjo’s efforts to institute a system to perpetuate royal power. After briefly examining his struggles with the bureaucracy over a key government position, the chapter investigates his creation of two new administrative organs to strengthen royal power: a system to train future administrators in his own particular throne-centered interpretation of Confucianism, the ch’ogye munsin, and a locus of power outside the traditional bureaucratic ladder, the Royal Library. Chapter 5 addresses Chŏngjo’s military reforms. After gutting the established military organizations, he set up a new army under the command of his personally-selected governor in the city of Suwŏn, headquartered at the newly-constructed Illustrious Fortress. The sixth and final chapter concludes with an assessment of Chŏngjo’s reforms: He was largely successful in creating space for royal autonomy during his lifetime but was largely unsuccessful in perpetuating that power beyond his reign.

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