Ch 9 - A Centralized Society
Give Me Land ... Lots of Land
The turbulent succession of twelve-year-old King Danjong to the throne in 1452, set off a bloody usurpation of power. King Sejo ruled Choson's Confucian-oriented government with a strong will and an iron fist, opening fractures in Yi society that never healed. Land ownership in Choson meant wealth and the aristocracy began expanding their real estate holdings by whatever means came to hand.
King Sejong frequently suffered from illness of one kind or another in the latter years of his reign. Worried about the stability of his government and the future of the dynasty, he handed the reigns of government to his thirty-seven-year-old son, Yi Hang. In his remaining years, King Sejong, the man who had once overtly decimated the position of Buddhism in Yi society, found the bonds of tradition too compelling to resist. The aged monarch turned to Buddhism for comfort and ordered the construction of a small Buddhist temple within the grounds of Ch'angdok Palace. King Sejong died just five years later, in 1450.
Crown Prince Yi Hang, an heir to the throne since 1421, had already assisted his father with state affairs for more than twenty years when he dutifully ascended the throne as King Munjong in 1445. Yi Hang took the throne in failing health and with the knowledge he would not have a lengthy reign. To ensure his succession, he immediately named his ten-year-old son as the new Crown Prince. Realizing that his son could not rule unassisted and would have a difficult time surviving the ambitions of his uncles, Yi Hang created a regency council of his most trusted advisers and relegated his son's welfare to them. While the move was logical, it inevitably put the young heir's royal tutors in a position from which they could increase their influence over the court.
King Munjong placed his greatest hopes for the future welfare of his son in the scholar officials of the Chiphyonjon, men with whom he had been closely associated throughout both his father's reign and his own. Among the young boy's advisers was High State Councilor Hwangbo In, the prominent son of a military family whose father had been a general under Yi Song-gye; High State Councilor Kim Chong-so, a powerful minister who secured fame in establishing six military garrisons in the northeast under King Sejong's expansion of Choson's frontier region, and the influential Song Sam-mun, whose own father had been a high ranking military officer. When King Munjong passed away in 1452, his then twelve-year old son assumed the Choson throne as King Danjong.
The adolescent King Danjong came to power in an atmosphere fraught with danger. The political voice of the scholars in the Chiphyonjon research institute carried greater weight in the Yi court as a consequence of their appointment to the regency council. The literati came to believe that in practical terms, if not in actuality, the Confucian scholar-officials of young Danjong's regency council held control of the government in their hands. King Sejong fathered a large family of eighteen sons, several of whom were capable and ambitious men who now saw an opportunity to seize the throne. Sejong's second and third sons emerged as the two chief contenders for the throne. Many of the Confucian literati favored Prince Anp'yong, an acknowledged master calligrapher. Prince Suyang, the eldest, most intelligent, and most ruthless of Danjong's uncles organized a cadre of supporters among influential yet disaffected literati and gained the backing of the army to further his ambitions.
In 1453, less than a year after Danjong ascended the throne, Prince Suyang assaulted the royal court in a carefully planned bid for power. He began by eliminating all those who opposed him. Alleging that a plot existed within the council of regents, Suyang and his forces murdered Kim Chong'so, Hwangbo In, and their sons. Prince Anp'yong, whose close alliance with the regents made him a prime target as well, was forced into exile on Kanghwa Island where he was later "presented with death," a euphemistic way of saying he was forced to drink poison.
Prince Suyang and his supporters took control of virtually all the important posts in government. He had himself concurrently appointed Chief State Councilor and Minister of the Boards of War and Personnel. Prince Suyang became the de facto ruler of Choson in all but name. Prince Suyang's bloody usurpation of power triggered a number of protests in the country. In the northeast it brought open rebellion. Yi Ching-ok, a military commander in Hamgyong Province, led a major, albeit a short-lived, peasant revolt against the government. When Prince Suyang tried to replace him with a more trustworthy commander, Yi Ching-ok formed an alliance with local Jurchen tribesmen. Although the revolt was quickly crushed, it exemplified the attitude of many military men not only toward Suyang, but toward the excessive amount of governmental interference in local affairs.
Prince Suyang finally deposed the fifteen-year-old king in 1455, after brutally eliminating all opposition in the royal court. With the teenaged monarch held under close guard in a separate part of Ch'angdok Palace, Suyang took the throne for himself as King Sejo, seventh king of the Yi Dynasty. In one of his first official acts he abolished the State Council. The move placed the Six Departments directly under his control and further tightened his control of government by greatly weakening the authority of the higher level bureaucrats. The scholar-officials of the Chiphyonjon had been raised to eminence by the late King Sejong and they considered Prince Suyang's usurpation an invasion of their proper authority. They quickly rallied to the cause of the young deposed King Danjong, determined to restore him to the throne. During a state visit to Ming China in 1456, a group of six of the young king's loyal advisers carefully laid plans to carry out a restoration movement. The following year, King Sejo uncovered their plot.
The resulting purges against the Danjong restoration movement took the lives of hundreds of people in what can only be described as a bloodbath. The leading figures in the plot, Song Sam-mun, Pak P'aeng-yon, Ha Wi-ji, Yi Kae, Yu Ung-bu, and Yu Song-won, men who served King Sejong as officials of the Hall of Worthies, and over seventy of their followers in the Chiphyonjon were cruelly tortured and put to death. The six men later won undying fame as the "Six Martyred Subjects," sayuksin. A large number of men viewed King Sejo with great distaste on moral grounds. Although many eventually reconciled themselves to the new regime, a few groups followed the ancient maxim that one cannot serve two masters and resigned from government service in protest. One such group that was particularly revered for its expressions of loyalty to Danjong came to be known as the "Six Loyal Subjects," saengyuksin.
The severity of King Sejo's reaction to the plot against him was marked not only by the manner in which he chose to eliminate the individuals directly involved, but by the murder of their sons, their grandsons, and their families as well. Several hundred others involved in or even linked to the restoration movement were branded as criminals and either killed or banished. Five of the "Six Loyal Subjects," were later murdered and one committed suicide. King Sejo ordered the boy-king and his mother, the Queen Dowager Hyondok, demoted to the status of commoners and exiled under military guard to the mountainous east coast town of Yongwol.
In the autumn of 1457, shortly after he uncovered the Danjong restoration plot, King Sejo discovered that his brother, Prince Kumsong, the sixth of Sejong's sons, had set in motion yet another restoration attempt. The prince was soon captured and jailed in the city of Andong in southeast Choson. King Sejo decided his rule would never be secure so long as potential threats such as Danjong and Kumsong lived. On orders from the king himself, Sejo's seventeen-year-old nephew, Danjong, and Prince Kumsong were offered the final solution earlier given to Prince Anp'yong. Both men were compelled to drink poison. Sejo's crown was now secure.
Over the years, as Choson developed a deeper commitment to abstract Confucian morality, the tragedy of King Danjong, the "Six Martyred Subjects," and the "Six Loyal Subjects" became the subject of much literature and folk-lore. People began to consider the "Six Martyred Subjects" to be more glorious than the "Six Loyal Subjects" because of their courageous example of loyalty to King Danjong. Their deaths represent an example of the truth that political patriots and heroes have long ruled the spirit of Korea. Korean patriotism is written in blood. In contrast, western traditions have been ruled more by cultural heroes, those created by culture and the arts.
King Sejo, a practicing Buddhist at the head of a Confucian-oriented government, ruled with a strong will and an iron fist. His path to the throne was lined with disaffected officials. The deep and bitter feelings both for and against his usurpation of the Choson throne split the literati in ways that profoundly influenced generations of Korean intellectuals. Those who miscalculated Sejo's strength and identified themselves with the cause of royal legitimacy were punished, banished or executed. The cruel purges that put Sejo on the throne and later kept him there opened fractures in Yi society that never healed.
Following his initial move against the throne in 1453, Sejo issued one merit subject list to reward those who joined him in the killing of Danjong's highest ministers. Soon after taking the throne he issued another merit list, creating a total of seventy-seven new Merit Subjects, each rewarded with land and slaves at a level equal to those on earlier merit rosters. Sejo's Merit Subjects resided for the most part in the districts clustered around Seoul and constituted the political force that held the actual reins of power in the Choson capital. The rule of this elitist faction, appropriately known as the "capital faction," did not go unchallenged.
Those who had abandoned their official careers in Seoul, either remaining in seclusion behind the gates of their own estates or living unsettled lives in havens outside the capital, were highly critical of the capital faction's privileged position. Many of these men judged Sejo's usurpation immoral and unrighteous, and they invoked the Confucian principle that one could not serve two masters. They had pledged their loyalty to a previous king and their conscience would not let them serve anyone who had seized the throne by force. Even in the face of such criticism however, the capital faction enjoyed a solid political position. Like other yangban, they possessed large agricultural estates and their economic foundation left them feeling quite secure.
The matter of land ownership remained Choson's most pressing economic problem. At the beginning of the Yi dynasty, all land had been nationalized and redistributed under the Rank Land Law, which also fixed the maximum allowable rent. Public lands were allocated to provide income for palace maintenance and the various agencies of the central and local government, including the military. Private lands were designated according to either property use or the income they generated. Rank land yielded income to the members of the bureaucracy on the basis of their personal rank, regardless of whether they held office or not. Merit Subject land rewarded those listed on the several active merit rosters. In addition, men of individual merit received special award land.
All rank lands were originally located in the capital district near Seoul in an attempt to preclude officials from establishing themselves as independent powers in areas remote from the capital. The increased allocation of private land however, placed unexpectedly heavy drains on the available real estate in Kyonggi Province. It became necessary to reclassify lands in the three southern provinces of Kyongsang, Cholla and Ch'ungch'ong for use as rank land and all privately held land became taxable. In truth, most of it was already taxable in one form or another. The Board of Taxation collected government taxes on public land, while tax collections on private land were entrusted to the royal clansmen, individual officials, Merit Subjects, and others to whom the land had been assigned. These landholders generally kept the bulk of the taxes themselves, passing only a small percentage to the Board of Taxation.
King Sejo's rise to power resulted in the appointment of many new merit subjects, each of whom had to be granted hereditary land. Each new political crisis in Choson compelled the king to seek out and suitably reward new supporters, and with each appointment of new Merit Subjects their numbers grew. As time passed, the numerous collateral branches of the royal clan also grew in numbers and they too could not be denied economic support. Since holders of hereditary land grants kept them in perpetuity, the various branches of the royal clan and the king's Merit Subjects soon accumulated large tracts of Choson real estate. Ironically, Merit Subjects were high-ranking officials, the same men who were supposed to enforce edicts against the accumulation of great estates. To get a grip on this problem, King Sejo replaced the rank land system in 1465 with a post land system that allowed only actual office holders to hold land. Furthermore, Sejo ordered the government to control tax collections on post land and paid the bureaucrat's salary from the proceeds. This eliminated the privilege of allowing land holders to receive their income in the form of personally collected taxes. Despite the government's best intentions however, a rising class of rich landlords reappeared in Choson and set about expanding its power.
Land was Choson's chief source of wealth, almost the only source of its wealth, and therein lay the heart of the problem. Since time immemorial, the nation's aristocrats, whose personal wealth depended on land ownership, battled with the central government, whose revenues were derived in the main from taxes on his land, taxes the aristocrats reluctantly paid and evaded whenever they could. King Sejo's new post land system required that a person had to hold a government position before he could receive a land allocation. This meant that entering government service became the direct route to acquiring real estate. Virtually every yangban family went to considerable effort to place at least one of its own in government service where they would then be in a position to protect and increase the family's holdings. If a government appointment was not possible, then, just as happened during the Koryo dynasty, the yangban went about expanding their estates by whatever means came to hand; clearing wastelands, purchasing freely held lands, exercising foreclosures, using fraudulent documents, or seizing land by force when they could get away with it.
The yangban were also the landlord class, and in them was rooted a contradiction that caused considerable trouble throughout much of Choson's history and the history of China, Japan and other East Asian states. Their land holdings were neither large, nor even continuous, and they commonly avoided direct personal involvement in real estate management, preferring instead to live in Seoul. As government officials, the yangban saw their responsibility as ensuring the strength and efficiency of the central government, not managing real estate. They left daily operations to slave overseers who supervised the work of the tenant farmers and slaves and collected the rents for the estate.
As Confucian scholars, the yangban were supposed to insist that all government actions be based upon the Confucian ideal of virtue. The obligations of family and clan however, impelled them as landlords to increase their estate holdings by whatever means they could. Government service became secondary to service to the clan. This was possible only by evading the very laws which they themselves had made or to which they had given their assent and support. This stark conflict of interests continued right to the end of the Yi dynasty. As the government lost control of the yangban's expanding real estate holdings, the entire system of paying government officials from the output of farming the land became a self-defeating proposition.