Saturday, January 25, 2020

[Review Part 3] The History

The story takes place in 1614. But the events are going back to the past and into the future – we are transported for a short while into the Imjin War that lasted for 6 years (1592-1598) and the last episode jumped 9 years to the year 1623, the year of Injo Revolt. Japanese invasion ruined Joseon on many levels, economically, politically, artistically. The people’s trust towards royal family, never especially high, deteriorated to never recover. 

That mistrust is a recurrent theme, actually, during all kingdoms, dynasties and even in contemporary times[1]. The invasion left the country in ruin, ransacked, and culturally thrusted backward some half a century[2]. The scars were also left on the society itself – thousands of people dead[3], hundreds of women raped and therefore dishonored who had no place to go back to. The very first episode starts with giving us so called Widows’ Village where no man could enter, where every woman who was a widow or seeking refuge could stay and be safe. 

It is also a very hard time – the economy just started to get better while King Gwanghae started to get worse. And of course, a King who behaved irrationally or even in a slightly off way was a good pretext to stage a revolt against such an unfit ruler. Therefore, different circles of power play started to mess around – mostly factions called Westerners (seoin) and Easterners (dong-in, which in turn split in 1592 into nam-in and bug-in) that came from the divided sa-rimpa. As always, completely oblivious to what was happening outside.
[side note] Before the Japanese invasion, the government was getting alarming information about Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s plans. Well, Hideyoshi wasn’t the most stable man in 1592 and his delusion of grandeur pushed him to this. Even one of the greatest Korean philosophers of that time, Yi I, advised as early as 1583 to prepare for an upcoming storm, but he was deemed a fear monger and dismissed. So, in 1592, a governor of the south province went to falcon hunting on the shore and lo and behold! – he saw a sea of ships. Busan and Dongnae were looted and their citizens killed. What happened next is another tale of incompetence. Maybe some other time. [side note ends]
And outside, a new force was moving onto the Dragon Throne – Ming Dynasty was crumbling (it eventually succumbed to the last imperial dynasty of China that is Qing, which, funnily, was not Chinese in origin) under the constant pressure from the Manchu.
[side note] The famous Ming loyalist – Zheng Jing (Koxinga) fled to Taiwan when Qing started to gain dominance on the continent. He then ousted the Dutch from the island and turned it into pro-Ming place[4]. [side note ends]
The first Manchu invasion of Joseon took place in 1627, that is merely few years after Grand Prince Neungyang took throne as King Injo. 

Injo Revolt:
King Seonjo (1567-1608) was the nephew of the previous King Myeongjong and he himself fathered a dozen of sons. The problem was – not every of these sons came from the legal wife. The only legal heir was Prince Yongchang (1606-1614) but he was a toddler and the memories regarding regents in place of earlier rulers were just too fresh to risk enthroning a kid. Two oldest sons were taken under consideration and only one emerged as victorious – Gwanghae. This caused new factional wars especially because King Seonjo was still alive when the voting was performed. Anyway, he wasn’t alive for much longer as he died two months later and let’s say the death was natural. King Gwanghaegun started to propose means to lift his ruined country up from the war devastation – he also introduced muskets and guns into the army (they were manufactured locally, not imported), he restored the National Archives, regulated ho-pae system again. However, he got involved in the factional war between daebuk and sobuk (parts of bug-in) and in turn both princes – Yongchang and his older one Imhae were banished and then killed. Moreover – Prince Yongchang’s mother was stripped of her Queen title which just infuriated many people. Seo-in faction was desperate to remove Gwanghaegun (who was supported by daebuk) and in 1623 they succeeded[5].
The next king – Injo (1623-1649) was the son of prince Jeongwon, who was an illegitimate son of king Seonjo, which allowed Prince Neungyang to live comfortably as a royal, especially that he wasn’t considered a threat. [side note] In hindsight it becomes clear how and why the guardsmen he called on during the palanquin scuffle came as fast as they did and what is more – why they could not be bribed or threatened. [side note ends]

It’s hard to ascertain how active Grand Prince Neungyang actually was in all this coup. He was backed by seo-in faction, that is a fact, but who was the actual mastermind behind the action – different sources say differently. Among many who didn’t support the reforms that Gwanghaegun wanted to implement were the most prominent ultra-seo-in members like Kim Jajeom, Kim Ryu, Yi Gwi and Yi Gwal (remember that last one).
After the enthronement Yi Gwal decided he was not compensated enough for all his work by King Injo, so the very next year he staged a rebellion – he led over 10 thousands of people (among them some Japanese who defected after the conflict and stayed on the Peninsula) onto the capital – and managed to win. King did what Korean kings did best – he fled to Gongju (this time, unlike Ganghwa island) and only one of his generals managed to defeat Yi Gwal who was murdered.
This proved how weak the royal grasp on power in reality was. King Injo ascended to the throne only because seo-in wanted it and I can bet my minerals against dollars that if they supported someone else – that person would be the king. Grand Prince Neungyang was a nobody and that is why he was chosen as the ideal puppet ruler. The irony bent heavily over that period of history. Gwanghaegun was always opposed because he was an illegitimate son of King Seonjo. The thing is – so was Injo’s father as well. The double standards worked well and what was a great negative point against Gwanghaegun was completely omitted in Injo’s case. However – the legitimacy issue will come again in his son’s reign time. Injo’s coup is known as Injo’s Restoration (Injo Banjeong) – a thinly veiled attempt to dress up a treason as a moral movement.
The series changed a bit the history for a dramatic effect because it touched the real events only peripherally, it wasn’t the main crux of the story. Here we had Great Prince Neungyang as the main force behind the events.

Manchu Invasions:
Gwanghaegun tried to maintain the neutral relationship with the Manchu and not to antagonize the more and more volatile neighbor any further. What is more – he also managed to not make the Ming angry with all his avoiding and neutral maneuvers. He managed to establish a trading posts on the northern borders, was into integrating the people into the society through marriages with Korean women and in general was pursuing a very careful politics towards Manchu.
Manchus began to gain strength under Nurhaci since 1589, they stopped paying Ming the tribute and in 1618 he started to raid Ming borders as a self-proclaimed Emperor. The decline of the Ming was more and more obvious but the seo-in faction, made of conservative Confucianists was stubbornly loyal to the ailing dynasty. Joseon was caught between Scylla and Charybdis – from the one side there was Ming dynasty: crumbling but still able to gather thousands of soldiers, and from another – a budding, fierce new leadership that wouldn’t take no for an answer (as evidenced in a famous letter from the Emperor Taizong to King Injo (from 1636) in which he threatened to “lay waste on the land”[6].
Gwanghaegun was behaving like an eel – trying to navigate murky and dangerous waters; even when he was asked for help by Ming against the Manchus he obliged and sent his troops but ordered to surrender the moment they would be attacked.
King Injo began the reorganization of the army – heeding Yi Gwi’s advice, he turned the Military Training Agency into a permanent establishment and use its troops as the capital guards. Another movement that proved fatal later was concentrating more troops around the capital than on the northern frontier. It does seem logical given the way how Injo took power – he was constantly afraid someone else might snatch it from him the same way he did to Gwanghaegun. What is more, Yi Gwal’s rebellion in 1624, put out in two months, convinced the King to focus more on the capital, on fortifying Namhan Fortress. The main line of defense in the north was the line of forts and walled towns – King Injo was reluctant to send more troops into the north, because dangerous shifts started to appear within factions. The first invasion took place in 1627 and the Manchus had no problem of amassing thousands of troops and moving them at will. The peace treaty was quickly signed but it was obvious that the Korean side was in no will to preserve it, especially that seo-in faction was still very much pro-Ming.
Prince Sohyeon was firmly in the pro-peace faction that wanted to end the conflict as soon as possible to spare the civilians even more suffering (but also they had battered and broken soldiers formations on mind), he even offered to go as hostage to the Manchu:

I already have a son and also have younger siblings. How can I selfishly keep my own body and not preserve the plans of the Royal Ancestral Shrine and Altars? I will leave the fortress tomorrow, and I request that you prepare my convoy and a horse.[7]

What is more – another problem with command and strategy appeared: King Injo was on the throne thanks to some military leaders so he was in no position to criticize them. The military leaders were divided over the strategy of how to deal with Manchus. Within seo-in appeared a crack – one part opted for strengthening the capital region and another was more concerned about the northern frontier. In 1632 and 1636 two demands were neglected by King Injo – they spoke of shifting the ties from Joseon-Ming to Joseon-Manchu. He issued a declaration of war which was made known to the Manchu. And that prompted the second invasion (1636-37 known as Byeongja horan). The defense strategy of clearing the fields and making ghost towns with troops behind walls turned out to be ineffective. Kim Jajeom tasked with preparations of the defense line made yet another strategic error. He was convinced the Manchu would not attack in the winter so when he got signals of marching troops – he ignored it. He kept ignoring it almost to the moment the Manchus appeared on his doorstep and only then, 14 days after receiving the first signals, he decided to send a warning to the capital. It did absolutely no good because two days later the invading troops (a force of over 120 thousand men) stopped at the capital. A month after the invasion began, Injo accepted terms and signed the treaty.

Injo’s submission:
One of the most humiliating acts performed by any Korean ruler was the traditional bowing done before the Qing Emperor. According to the treaty it had to be done and King Injo bowed nine times. It was that much bitter because seo-in faction members treated Manchu as the wild tribe of barbarians, as people not civilized and not worthy of any relationship. This cultural racism turned quickly against them and led to the event that clearly traumatized King Injo and made him even more suspicious and unhinged than before.
Factions at the court were split again in their policy towards the Manchu – some were still on Ming side, believing the old empire could rise yet again and push back the usurpers; and some were looking at the whole situation realistically and tried to placate the hostile factions. Some of the later were even arrested and the paranoia started to seep in. Accusations (mostly false) were made against the milder members of the group, blaming them for plotting a coup against King Injo or killing the guards of Prince Sohyeon. The purge that followed removed those politicians that were accommodating of the new world order. The intrigue was spreading even further and claimed the life of Prince Sohyeon and his Princess Minhoe.

Prince Sohyeon:
Both sons of Injo – that is Prince Sohyeon and Prince Bongrim spent some years (since 1637) as the hostages of the Qing dynasty in Shen-yang and only after their coming back to Joseon is when the troubles started. Prince Sohyeon got in contact with foreign ideas through the Qing court – he was interested in western astronomy, cartography, Christianity and philosophy. With all these revolutionary thoughts in his head he came back to Joseon, inclined to change the society.
He never took the throne.
After 1642 both sides – the king and fiercely anti-Manchu politicians started to suspect that Prince Sohyeon is plotting to take the throne by force. The thing is – he was already an heir, so there was absolutely no reason for him to overthrow his own father. Injo, haunted by his own demons from the past and what he had done to Gwanghaegun, believed his officials and merely two months after coming back to Korea – Prince Sohyeon was dead. The circumstances regarding his death and subsequent behavior of King Injo afterwards may lead to assuming a filicide took place. Prince Sohyeon died so quickly and unexpectedly and the funeral took place in such a haste it gave assumptions to mistrust towards the King. One version says Injo threw a slab of ink into his son splitting his skull open. The other version, slightly more believable says the young Prince was poisoned – in his agonizing moments his body was dotted with black spots and after his death on his skin appeared black blotches and it emitted such a horrible odor, he was buried without proper rites observed. Princess Minhoe demanded a specialist to take a look at her husband’s body and cause of death but her plea was ignored. What is more – her words were twisted against her later.
The King was convinced that his son and his daughter-in-law plotted against him, so he obtained through torture testimonies of countless palace ladies-in-waiting about the heinous acts performed by Princess Minhoe (like burying the bewitched dolls under the floor of the Injo’s favorite consort’s rooms). Then the ladies were killed. He exterminated Princess’ whole family (brothers, mother and extended family members), and she herself was ordered to drink poison in 1646. The pair’s three sons were exiled and then killed.

King Injo’s days until his death in 1649 were fueled by fear of domestic unrest, his hatred towards the Manchus and also by his opium addiction. Prince Bongrim, his second son, became the next King Hyojong and his legitimacy to the throne was strongly questioned – he surpassed his older brother, that’s first, and even if Prince Sohyeon died naturally – he had three sons and the throne should pass to one of them. But the kids were killed as well[8]. His son, the future King Hyeonjong was also involved in a similar strife that paralyzed the court (about the mourning period: 1 year or 3 years – and the difference implicated the legitimacy or lack thereof)[9].
Today, King Injo is considered to be one of the worst rulers of Joseon period. Certainly worse than then-maligned Gwanghaegun. He caused two invasions, internal strife, weakening of the country and decline of politics. And yet he kept his royal name.

Fun fact:
Some people were intellectually baffled how a King could order his own son to be killed just because he was born on a date signifying the bad outcome for the King. Wang Geon, the founder of Wang Dynasty and Goryeo Kingdom received a prophesy (cue Howard Shore’s music) that his dynasty will crumble because of the plum tree from Han-yang. So, he ordered thousands of them to be planted in the lovely valley and after few years he ordered them to be all cut down. Few centuries later came Yi Seonggye, removed the Wang Dynasty and founded his own. Then in 1394 he ordered the capital to be moved from Gaeseong to han-yang. The hanja character for Yi family – plum tree.

I like to think the Manchu storm did not touch the island where Nokdu and his merry band of outcasts were living. I like to hope he did not have to go to fight and die in vain for a King who hated him.

[1] It was recently most visible in 2016 when people, having enough of nepotism, corruption and incompetence – initiated the impeachment of the President, Park Geun-hye.
[2] When Japanese army retreated, whole artisanal villages from the south were snatched. The knowledge of lacquer artistry, ie. has propelled the development of pottery, prints, inrō and lacquered utensils.
[3] Only during the second siege of Jinju over 60 thousand people died – mostly civilians who found shelter at the castle.
[4] Spence J. D., The Search for Modern China (Second Edition), W.W. Norton and Company, 1999. Also here:
[5] Rurarz J.P., Historia Korei, DIALOG, 2005.
[6] In: Palais J.B., Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty, University of Washington Press, 1996. This book is my main source of information.
[7] Nam Keup, Namhan ilgi (1637.1.22) in: Quartermain T., Besieged on a frozen mountain top: Opposing records from the Qing invasion of Choson, 1636-1637, Acta Koreana Vol. 21, No. 1, 2018, p. 158.
[8] More about the legitimacy and the throne in: Hahm C., Ritual and Constitutionalism: Disputing the Ruler's Legitimacy in a Confucian Polity, The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 57, No. 1 (Winter, 2009), pp. 135-203.