Seongjong of Joseon

From New World Encyclopedia
Seongjong of Joseon
Hangul 성종
Hanja 成宗
Revised Romanization Yeonsan-gun
McCune-Reischauer Yŏnsan'gun
Birth name
Hangul 이혈
Hanja 李娎
Revised Romanization I Hyeol
McCune-Reischauer I Hyeŏl

King Seongjong of Joseon (Hangul: 조선 성종, Hanja: 成宗, 1457-1494) was the ninth ruler of the Joseon Dynasty (대조선국; 大朝鮮國) in Korea. He succeeded King Yejong (예종 睿宗 the eighth monarch) in 1469 and ruled until 1494. Seongjeong was only 13 when he ascended the throne, so his mother and grandmother, Queen Insu and Queen Jeonghee, ruled on his behalf until he reached the age of 20.

Seongjeong was a gifted ruler and his reign was characterized by the prosperity and growth of the national economy. During his reign, the Gyeonggukdaejeon (經國大典; Code of Managing the Nation), a legal code first ordered by King Sejo 90 years before, was completed and put into effect, establishing a system of governance by law, rather than human governance. Seongjong also encouraged a resurgence of Confucianism, welcoming scholars to his court, eliminating Buddhist rituals and other old traditions from court life, and curtailing the privileges of the aristocracy in favor of a merit-based bureaucracy. However, his policies unwittingly encouraged the growth of large agricultural estates, as yangban and the aristocracy turned to agriculture as a source of income, and reclamation of agricultural land made more territory available.

Succession to the Throne

Seongjong was grandson of King Sejo ( 세조 世祖; seventh king of Joseon), and nephew of Yejong ( 예종 睿宗; eighth king of Joseon) . When the weak King Yejong died in 1469 without any sons to succeed him, 13-year-old Seongjong became heir to the throne.

Regency of Queen Insu and Queen Jeonghee

When Seongjong succeeded King Yejong, he was only 13 years old. It would have been risky to entrust matters of national policy to such a young king. In such cases the first Yi Dynasty had a policy (垂簾聴政) to choose an assistant or advisor for the king. Throughout Korean history, even in emergencies, such a policy had existed. Ordinarily, it would have seemed logical to choose a popular and capable bureaucrat, or a man of ability from the royal family, to advise the young king. However, in a dynastic system this was unwise, since a popular bureaucrat could initiate a revolution, and a capable member of the royal family could declare himself king.

The Yi Dynasty had already experienced this danger during the reign of Danjong of Joseon (단종 端宗; 1441–1457, reigned 1452–1455), the sixth king of the Joseon Dynasty. Danjong had succeeded his father at the age of twelve, and since he was too young to rule, the responsibilities of government fell to the premier, Hwangbo In, and his vice-premier, General Kim Jongseo. In 1455, this government was overthrown in a coup led by the king's uncle, Sejo of Joseon, supported by a number of scholars and officials. Hwangbo In and Kim Jongseo were seized and murdered in front of the gate of Gyeongbokgung; Danjong was forced to abdicate and exiled. The following year, six officials of the court attempted to restore Danjong to power, but their plot was discovered and they were immediately executed. Perceiving that Danjong would present a continuing threat to his rule, Sejo then accepted the advice of the court and ordered that he be disposed of. In 1457, assassins were sent by Sejo to Danjong's place of exile, where they locked his bedroom door and overheated the room, burning the boy to death.

It was clear that the king’s advisor must be someone who was unable to ascend the throne. In the case of young King Seongjeong, only his mother and grandmother met this requirement. Confucianism restricted a woman’s role in the political world, and even the first two characters of the word “assistance policy” (垂簾聴政), “垂簾,” represented a hanging bamboo (rattan) blind which signified that women should never interfere in politics. Nevertheless, the same day that young Seongjong succeeded King Yejong in 1469, two elder statesmen and ministers asked Queen Insu to act as regent. At first she rejected this proposal, pleading ignorance of the Chinese language and of secular and political matters, and recommended the young king’s grandmother, Queen Jeonghee. Queen Jeonghee was interested in politics, understand Chinese well and often read books; she also had a sharp temper. The elder statesmen and ministers persisted in requesting Queen Insu. Finally Queen Insu accepted, and until Seongjong reached the age of 20, though her husband had never been king, she ruled with the king’s authority, assisted by Queen Jeonghee.

Grand Code of Managing the Nation (Gyeonggukdaejeon, 經國大典)

Seongjeong’s reign was characterized by the prosperity and growth of the national economy, based on the laws laid down by kings Taejong, Sejong, and Sejo. Seongjeong himself was a gifted ruler. In 1474, the code of law, first ordered by King Sejo 90 years before, was completed and put into effect; Seongjong also ordered revisions and improvements to the code.

Although some regulations to maintain law and order had already existed, the completion of the Gyeonggukdaejeon (經國大典) marked the culmination of the effort to establish a full legal system of governance, rather than relying on human governance. Since the founding of the Joseon Dynasty, the process of creating a single standard law code had been ongoing. During the reign of the King Taejong, the third Joseon king, the KyungJae-LeukJun, which became the foundation for the Gyeonggukdaejeon, was completed. During the reign of the fourth king, King Sejong (世宗大王), there was a tendency to replace the iron-fisted military rule of the earlier Joseon kings with Confucian ideals of democracy and legalism. During Sejong's reign, Sok Leuk Jun was completed, incorporating policies to ensure the observance of Confucian ethics, such as a system of court appeals, the prohibition of abusive criminal punishment, and an injunction against arresting minors or seniors. There were also guidelines for the corporeal punishment and the maintenance of prisoners’ health.

When the seventh king, King Sejo (世祖), ascended the throne in a military coup, he wished to introduce a Confucian system of government and to establish himself as the second founder of the Joseon Dynasty. He began to write the Gyeonggukdaejeon, complaining that the laws added during the reigns of his predecessors were too complicated and too specific to be applied generally. His successor, King Yejong (睿宗), appointed a bureau (the LeukJung-SangJungSo) to finalize the Gyeonggukdaejeon. He planned to complete it by September of the first year of his reign and present it on February of the following year, but died suddenly before this could be accomplished. Upon assuming the throne, King Seongjong immediately began to revise the Gyeonggukdaejeon. It was completed and put into effect on January 1, 1471, as the SinMyo-DaeJun. A revised version, the Kab-O-DaeJun, was presented three years later. Later, 72 more clauses were added as an appendix. In September of 1481, discussions began to prepare yet another revision of the code of law. The main code and the appendix were revised by Kam Kyo Chung, and announced on January 1, 1485. the new code, called the YulSa-DaeJun, was declared the final revision and became the fundamental code of law for the Joseon Dynasty. It is the only extant law code from the Joseon Dynasty, and the longest-lasting code of law in Korean history.[1]

Resurgence of Neo-Confucian Rule

Besides establishing the code of law, Seongjeong also encouraged Confucian scholars. He established Hongmungwan (홍문관), the royal library and secretary to the king. For the first time since King Sejong, he brought many liberal Confucian scholars to his court, whose political views went against those of the conservative officials (members of the nobility) who had helped kings Taejong and Sejo to power. He made his rule more effective by appointing able administrators regardless of their political views. His policy resulted in many positive innovations, increasing the number of his supporters. The king himself was an artist and scholar, and liked to argue about the finer points of politics with more liberal scholars. He encouraged scholars to publish numerous books about geography and social etiquette, as well as about areas of knowledge that benefited the common people.

When young King Seongjong ascended to the throne, the anti-Sejo intellectuals instituted “royal lectures” to try to eliminate Buddhist rituals and other old traditions from court life. Even the child Seongjong was made to listen to two to four royal lectures every day. The Office of Study Promotion was expanded to conduct censorship in addition to providing royal lecturers. Members of the court were heavily indoctrinated with Confucianism, and state support of Buddhism gradually diminished.

During King Seongjong's reign, the rights of officials to use taxes and rent from official land as personal income were curtailed. Young scholars were welcomed to a newly established Hall of Leave for Study, and Confucianism once again found its place in the royal administration. Books were published, including a compendium of Korean historical geography, an anthology of Korean-Chinese literature, and an illustrated text on traditional music.

These efforts did not satisfy the scholarly class, because their economic circumstances did not improve a great deal. After the collection and distribution of rent on the officials' land was centralized, the officials and yangban sought the right to farm, encroaching upon the peasants’ land ownership rights. Reclamation of agricultural land contributed to the growth of their large agricultural estates, though the dynasty tried to prevent this. Some of these large agricultural estates gathered bondsmen and peasants, who abandoned their free status in order to escape the taxes that were being imposed on them. As the quest for land ownership became more competitive, those yangban who already owned land rights came under criticism.

Neo-Confucian doctrine demanded the performance of costly clan rites, which impoverished scholars and officials who did not own land as a source of income. They came to rely heavily on assistance from appointed officials of their same kin group. These relationships of mutual assistance affected both the officials in the capital, and the landed yangban in the rural areas.

Kim Jong-jik (1432-1492), a leading scholar-official during King Seongjong's reign, represented the culmination of the resurgent Neo-Confucian school. He advocated the Neo-Confucian rectification theory, which implied condemnation of King Sejo's usurpation of the throne.[2]

Military Campaigns

Like many of his predecessors, in 1491, King Seongjong also conducted several military campaigns against the Jurchens on the northern border. The campaign, led by Gen. Heo Jong 허종(許琮) was successful, and the defeated Jurchens (Udige; 兀狄哈) retreated to the north of Abrokgang.

King Yeonsangum

King Seongjong was succeeded by his son, Yeonsangun, in 1494. Yeongsangun was a cruel and ruthless ruler, and many attributed his cruelty to the extreme jealousy and bad temper of his mother, Yoon. [3] Yoon was a low-ranking court lady 12 years older than Seongjong, but she helped to serve the young king and he fell in love with her as a mother-figure. When Seongjong’s first Queen died after five years of marriage, he married Yoon and made her the second Queen. Two years later, she conceived a son. While Yoon was pregnant with Yeonsangun, the king refrained from sexual intercourse with her, according to the etiquette of the Joseon royal house. However, he spent time with two of his concubines, who also became pregnant. When she learned about this, Queen Yoon became wildly jealous of them and quarreled with King Seongjong. Her character was wild and intemperate; she drank heavily and ignored the king, interfered inappropriately in court politics, and would often burst in and confront Seongjong when he was with one of his concubines. Her behavior became intolerable, and in 1479, Seongjong divorced her and deposed her as queen. This was the first royal divorce and was considered a scandal, because the royal family was supposed to provide a moral example for the rest of society. In 1489, Seongjong discovered that she had tried to kill the concubines by putting poison on the skins of ripe persimmons, and began to worry that she might attempt to murder him. She was also found to be practicing witchcraft, which she had learned from a shaman, to prevent the concubines from conceiving any sons. Seongjong poisoned her, but anticipating her death, she wrote a letter in her own blood on a handkerchief, detailing the cause of her resentment and asking her son to avenge her if he ever read the letter. This letter was kept hidden until Seongjong had died and Yeonsangun assumed the throne. Then the letter was brought to Yeonsangun, and he is said to have held the handkerchief and cried all night, and afterward to have been the most cruel and vicious king.[4]


  1. Typography&Books, Korean Net. Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  2. Early Joseon Period, Korea Net. Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  3. Kwawg-Pyo Lee. The Education of the Joseon Royal Household,, 2005. Retrieved September 22, 2007.
  4. “朝鮮王朝史”上。李成茂 著。李大淳 監修。金容権 訳。P 297 – 299。P 328 – 329 。 2006年 6月 15日 第一版発行。株式会社 日本評論社。東京都。

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Preceded by:
Emperor of Korea
(Joseon Dynasty)
Succeeded by:
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

Korean Empire: Emperor Gojong | Emperor Sunjong


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