Filial Son and Renaissance Leader, King Jeongjo of Joseon

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Jeongjo (1752-1800, r. 1776-1800) was the 22nd king of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). He is remembered for the cultural golden age which began during his reign and for his filial devotion to his parents.

Born as Yi San to Crown Prince Sado (1735-1762) and Lady Hyegyeong (1735-1816), Jeongjo witnessed the execution of his father at the age of 10, after his father had shown signs of violent madness for some years. Despite his father’s unfavorable demise, his grandfather, King Yeongjo, had no other sons, making Jeongjo next in line to the throne.

Jeongjo began his reign in 1776 upon Yeongjo’s passing. To store and honor his grandfather’s writings, portrait, and personal artifacts, he had a pavilion, named Gyujanggak, built in the rear garden of Changdeokgung Palace. This pavilion can still be visited today. Gyujanggak served as a royal archive cum library and was the first of its kind in Joseon. Its collections quickly grew, and an Outer (Oe) Gyujanggak was constructed on Ganghwado Island in 1782 to facilitate additional storage. Today, the collection – which contains a number of UNESCO Memory of the World heritages including the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, the Royal Protocols of the Joseon Dynasty, and more – is stored at Seoul National University.

Gyujanggak was staffed with the best and brightest, regardless of their social class. The staff not only oversaw the archives, but also took on the responsibilities that had traditionally belonged to other government offices, such as serving as secretary for the king’s meetings and overseeing educational policies. The value Jeongjo placed on art and culture was reflected in Joseon society, which saw cultural golden age during his reign. Paintings and writings began to feature native Korean, rather than Chinese, scenes - as seen in the "true-view landscapes" (jingyeong sansuhwa) and genre paintings of Kim Hong-do and Sin Yun-bok, while not only the upper class, but also commoner class, experienced widespread cultural development.

Jeongjo is also remembered for his filial devotion to his parents. Immediately upon ascending the throne, Jeongjo reaffirmed to the high officials that he was the son of Crown Prince Sado – a name which was feared as many of those high officials had encouraged Sado’s execution. He also posthumously made his father a king, which allowed his mother to have the status of Queen Dowager. In 1789, Jeongjo had his father’s tomb relocated to Hwasan Mountain (in present-day Suwon) and rebuilt to the scale of that of a late king. He visited the tomb yearly to hold ancestral rituals, and in 1792, he ordered the design of a large fortress with a travel palace (haenggung) to be built nearby. The fortress, named Hwaseong, was completed in 1796. In 1795, the royal procession to the tomb was held in particularly grand fashion, as it was the 60-year anniversary of the birth of both his late father and living mother. The procession, which included some 5,000 people and 800 horses, and the following banquet was recorded in the royal protocols (uigwe) and depicted on an eight-panel folding screen. Today, this procession is reenacted each year at Hwaseong Fortress, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage in 1997.

Jeongjo died at the age of 48 from complications from a sudden abscess. He was survived by his mother. His son, Sunjo, became the next king.

[Suwon Hwaseomun Gate (K-HERITAGE)]

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