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Seonjo of Joseon
Hangul 선조
Hanja
Revised Romanization Seonjo
McCune–Reischauer Sŏn-jo
Birth name
Hangul 이연
Hanja 李蚣
Revised Romanization I Yeon
McCune–Reischauer I Yŏn

King Seonjo ruled in Korea between 1567 and 1608. He was the fourteenth king of the Joseon Dynasty. At first, King Seonjo was a caring king who loved the people, but in later years, he became greedy and corrupt. During the Japanese invasions of Korea, the Japanese general Hideyoshi Toyotomi tried to conquer Korea. Although this attempt failed, King Seonjo and his retinue were forced to flee north of Pyongyang, until the Ming Dynasty Emperor Wanli came to Joseon's aid. After King Seonjo returned to Seoul, he was the first to use Deoksugung as a palace since all the other palaces in Seoul had been burned during the war. Today, King Seonjo is regarded as one of the most incompetent rulers in Joseon history, especially due to his treatment of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, whom many felt had deserved praise for constantly winning against superior Japanese forces, but instead at one point even lowered his position to just a regular soldier.

Contents

Background

King Seonjo was born Yi Yeon in 1552 in Hanseong, capital of Korea, as the third son of Prince Deokheung. At first he was given the title Prince Hassong, and was not much known to the people since he did not have much political influence until he became king.

The king while Seonjo was Prince Haseong was King Myeongjong, who in practice did not rule the nation until the latter days of his reign. His mother, Queen Munjeong, had ruled the kingdom in her son's name until her death in 1565. Unfortunately for Myeongjong, he soon followed her two years later. The king had no sons to succeed to the throne, so officials had to find another royal family member to be made king. Prince Haseong was at last selected to be the next in line, since he was politically 'fresh' and young. He was finally crowned in 1567.

Early Reign (1567-1575)

At first, King Seonjo was a very good king; he devoted his life and reign to the improvement of the lives of the common people, as well as rebuilding the nation after the political corruption during the brutal reign of Yeonsangun and weak rule of King Jungjong. He encouraged many Confucian scholars, who were persecuted by many wealthy aristocrats during the days of Yeonsan and Jungjong. Seonjo continued the political reforms of King Myeongjong, and put many famous scholars, including Yi Hwang, Yi I, Jeong Cheol, or Yu Seong-ryong, in office.

Seonjo also reformed the civil service examination system, particularly the civil official qualification exam. The previous exam was mainly concerned with literature, not with politics or history. The king himself ordered the system to be reformed by increasing the importance of these other subjects. He also restored the reputations of executed scholars such as Jo Gwang-jo, and denounced the accomplishments of corrupt aristocrats, notably Nam Gon, who was Prime Minister under Jungjong and contributed greatly to the corruption of the era. These acts earned the king the respect of the general populace, and the country enjoyed a brief era of peace.

Political division and East-West feud (1575-1592)

Among the scholars King Seonjo called to the government were Sim Ui-gyeom and Kim Hyowon. Sim was a relative of the queen, and heavily conservative. Kim was the leading figure of the new generation of officials, and called for liberal reforms. The scholars who supported King Seonjo began to split into two factions, headed by Sim and Kim. Members of the two factions even lived in the same neighborhood; Sim's faction lived on west side of the city while Kim's followers gathered on the east side. Consequently the two factions began to be called the Western Faction and the Eastern Faction; this two-faction political system lasted 400 years and later helped bring about the collapse of the dynasty.

At first the Westerners earned the favor of the king, since Sim was related to the queen and also had larger support from wealthy nobles. However, their attitudes on reformation and Sim's indicisiveness helped the Easterners take power, and the Westerners fell out of favor. Reforms were accelerated during the first period of influence of the Easterners, but then many Easterners began to urge others to slow down the reforms. These became the Southern Faction, since most of them lived in the south side of Hanyang, including its leader Yu Seong-ryong. The rest of the Easterners—now a left-wing faction—were called Northerners. Later, the Northerners divided even further after arguments over many issues; the Greater Northerners Faction was an extreme leftist faction, while the Lesser Northerners Faction became less reform-minded than the Greater Northerners Faction, but still more leftist than the Southerners.

The political divisions caused the nation to be weakened, since the size of the military was also one of the issues on the reform agenda. Yi I, a neutral conservative, urged the king to increase the size of the army to prepare against future invasions from the Jurchens and Japanese. However, both factions rejected Yi's suggestions, and the size of the army was decreased further since many believed the peaceful period would last. The Jurchens and Japanese used this opportunity to expand their influence in East Asia, resulting in the Seven-Year War, and the foundation of the Qing Dynasty in China, both of which would lead to devastation on the Korean Peninsula.

King Seonjo faced many difficulties dealing with both new threats, sending many skilled military commanders to the northern front, while contending with Japanese leaders Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu in the south. However, after Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan, the Japanese soon proved themselves to be the greater threat; and many Koreans began to fear that their country would be taken over by the Japanese. Many officials concerned with the defense of the kingdom urged the king to send delegates to Hideyoshi, their major purpose being to find out whether Hideyoshi was preparing for invasion or not. However, the two government factions could not even agree on this issue of national importance; so a compromise was made and one delegate from each faction was sent to Hideyoshi. When they returned to Korea, their reports only caused more controversy and confusion. Hwang Yun-gil, of the Westerners faction, reported that Hideyoshi was raising huge numbers of troops, but Kim Seong-il, of the Easterners faction, told the king that he thought these large forces were not for the war against Korea, since he was trying to complete his reforms quickly to prevent lawlessness and quash the bandits now roaming the countryside. Since the Easterners had the bigger voice in government at the time, Hwang's reports were ignored and Seonjo decided not to prepare for war, even though the attitude of Hideyoshi in his letter to Seonjo clearly showed his interest in the conquest of Asia. Many aristocrats still leaned heavily on the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and they thought China would help them if war broke out. Most wealthy people refused to believe that Japan and the Jurchens were actually stronger than China and Korea, and even considered fleeing their nation when war broke out.

Seven-Year War (1592-1598)

In 1591, after the delegates had returned from Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi sent his own delegates to visit King Seonjo, and asked permission to pass through the Korean Peninsula to invade China, in effect declaring war against the Joseon kingdom. The king was surprised; after refusing the Japanese request he sent a letter to Beijing to alert the Chinese that the Japanese were actually preparing for full-scale war against the Korean-Chinese alliance. He also ordered the construction of many forts in the coastal regions and sent generals Sin Rip and Yi Il to the southern coast to prepare for war. While the Koreans were busy making their preparations, the Japanese manufactured muskets for many of their soldiers, mobilized warriors from across the entire country.

On April 13th, 1592, about 700 Japanese ships under Konishi Yukinaga invaded Korea. Konishi easily burned Fort Busan and Fort Donglae, killed commanders Jeong Bal and Song Sang-hyeon and marched northward. On the next day even more troops under Kato Kiyomasa and Kuroda Nagamasa landed, also marching toward Hanyang. A huge Japanese fleet under Todo Takatora and Kuki Yoshitaka supported them from the sea. General Yi Il faced Kato Kiyomasa at the Battle of Sangju, which was won by Japanese. Then Yi Il met General Sin Rip, but their combined forces were also defeated at the Battle of Ch'ungju by Kato Kiyomasa. Then Seonjo appointed General Kim Myeong-won as Commander-in-Chief and Field Marshal, and ordered him to defend the capital. Then the king moved to Pyongyang, since the Japanese began to seize the capital. He later moved even further north to the border city of Uiju just before the fall of Pyongyang. While the king was absent from the capital, many people who had lost hope in the government plundered the palace and burned many public buildings. This resulted in even more damage than that perpetrated by the Japanese after they had captured the city.

Although the army continued to lose men and battles, the navy successfully cut the Japanese supply line from the sea; Admiral Yi Sun-sin defeated the Japanese fleet several times and did much damage to the supply ships. With the navy blocking supplies, Chinese forces under General Li Rusong arrived, and began to push the Japanese southward, eventually retaking Pyongyang. Konishi Yukinaga successfully blocked a Chinese advance at Battle of Byeokjegwan, and again tried to push the Koreans northward; but the crucial blow came at the Battle of Hangju, where General Gwon Yul defeated the Japanese with a much smaller force. The Japanese then decided to enter into peace negotiations, while both sides continued fighting. During these negotiations Koreans retook Seoul, but the palaces had all been burnt to the ground, so Seonjo repaired one of the old royal family's houses and renamed it Deoksugung, making it one of the official palaces.

The peace negotiations between the Chinese and Japanese ended unsuccessfully, due to a lack of understanding between the two sides and misrepresentation of the Koreans. The Japanese again invaded Korea in 1597; but this time all three nations were ready for war, and the Japanese were not able to advance as easily as in 1592. The Japanese tried to take Hanyang from both land and sea routes. At first the plan seemed to work well when Todo Takatora defeated Admiral Won Gyun at the Battle of Chilchonryang, but the plan was abandoned when the Korean navy under Admiral Yi Sun-sin defeated the Japanese fleet under Todo Takatora in the Battle of Myeongnyang with only 13 ships. The battle effectively ended the war, and in 1598 the Japanese at last withdrew from Korea after the sudden death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Battle of Noryang marked the end of the war, with the last Japanese units under Konishi Yukinaga leaving Korea.

Although the war was won by Korea, the damage was too great for the country to recover from, and the Joseon Dynasty never regained its former prosperity.

Later Days (1598-1608)

After the war, even the reconstruction of the nation was impeded by the quarrelling between the two factions. The Easterners came out strongest after the war, with many of them hailed as military heroes (including Prime Minister Yu Seong-ryong). Division between the Easterners followed, and the conflict between political factions became even stronger. King Seonjo lost hope in governing the nation, and let his Crown Prince Gwanghaegun rule in his place. However, when the queen gave birth to a son (Gwanghaegun was the second son of Lady Kim, the king's concubine), the succession also became a matter of contention. King Seonjo died in 1608, while political division and outside threats still darkened the skies over Korea.

Family

  • Father: Prince Deokheung (덕흥군)[1]
  • Mother: Hadong, Princess Consort to the Prince of the Great Court, of the Jeong clan (하동부대부인 정씨)
  • Consorts:
  1. Queen Uiin of the Park clan (의인왕후 박씨)
  2. Queen Inmok of the Kim clan (인목왕후 김씨)
  3. Royal Noble Consort Gong of the Kim clan (공빈 김씨)
  4. Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan (인빈 김씨)
  5. Royal Noble Consort Sun of the Kim clan (순빈 김씨)
  6. Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Min clan (정빈 민씨)
  7. Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Hong clan (정빈 홍씨)
  8. Royal Noble Consort On of the Han clan (온빈 한씨)
  • Issue:
  1. Grand Prince Yeongchang (영창대군), Only Son of Queen Inmok of the Kim clan.
  2. Prince Imhae (임해군), 1st Son of Royal Noble Consort Gong of the Kim clan.
  3. Prince Gwanghae (광해군), 2nd Son of Royal Noble Consort Gong of the Kim clan.
  4. Prince Uian (의안군), 1st Son of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  5. Prince Sinseong (신성군), 2nd son of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  6. Prince Uichang (의창군), 3rd Son of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  7. Prince Jeongwon (정원군), 4th Son of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  8. Prince Sunhwa (순화군), Only Son of Royal Noble Consort Sun of the Kim clan.
  9. Prince Inseong (인성군), 1st Son of Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Min clan.
  10. Prince Inheung (인흥군), 2nd Son of Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Min clan.
  11. Prince Gyeongchang (경창군), Only Son of Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Hong clan.
  12. Prince Heungan (흥안군), 1st Son of Royal Noble Consort On of the Han clan.
  13. Prince Gyeongpyeong (경평군), 2nd Son of Royal Noble Consort On of the Han clan.
  14. Prince Yeongseon (영선군), 3rd Son of Royal Noble Consort On of the Han clan.
  15. Princess Jeongmyeong (정명공주), Only Daughter of Queen Inmok of the Kim clan. Great-great-grandmother of Hong Bong-han, father of Lady Hong Hyegyeong and maternal grandfather of King Jeongjo
  16. Princess Jeongsin (정신옹주), 1st Daughter of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  17. Princess Jeonghye (정혜옹주), 2nd Daughter of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  18. Princess Jeongsuk (정숙옹주), 3rd Daughter of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  19. Princess Jeongan (정안옹주), 4th Daughter of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  20. Princess Jeonghwi (정휘옹주), 5th Daughter of Royal Noble Consort In of the Kim clan.
  21. Princess Jeongin (정인옹주), 1st daughter of Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Min clan.
  22. Princess Jeongseon (정선옹주), 2nd Daughter of Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Min clan.
  23. Princess Jeonggeun (정근옹주), 3rd Daughter of Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Min clan.
  24. Princess Jeongjeong (정정옹주), Only Daughter of Royal Noble Consort Jeong of the Hong clan.
  25. Princess Jeonghwa (정화옹주), Only Daughter of Royal Noble Consort On of the Han clan.

His full posthumous name

  • King Seonjo Sogyung Jeongryun Ripgeuk Seongdeok Hongryeol Jiseong Daeeui Gyeokcheon Heeun Gyungmyung Sinryeok Honggong Yungeop Hyeonmun Euimu Seongye Dalhyo the Great of Korea
  • 선조소경정륜립극성덕홍렬지성대의격천희운경명신력홍공융업현문의무성예달효대왕
  • 宣祖昭敬正倫立極盛德洪烈至誠大義格天熙運景命神曆弘功隆業顯文毅武聖睿達孝大王

References

  1. ^ He was given the title "Deokheung, Prince of the Great Court" (덕흥대원군)

See also

Preceded by
Myeongjong
Rulers of Korea
(Joseon Dynasty)
1567–1608
Succeeded by
Gwanghaegun







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