(Translation) 湖西慰諭御史封書

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The late 18th century has not only been called a renaissance period for the Joseon dynasty, owing to the competent rule of the Kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo, but also saw a large rise in crop output on the Korean Peninsula due to the widespread use of new agricultural technologies, like improved fertilizers and wet-paddy fields. The increased reliance on irrigation, however, also made the agricultural production of the Joseon kingdom more vulnerable to delayed rainfalls or droughts, which resulted in famines. [Meteorological reasons?]

Traditionally, the need to mitigate the consequences of such disasters, such as mass starvation, the deterioration of the rural social order, and the threat of local rebellions, had led the state to develop a large range of measures to relief famine, its main tool being tax exemptions. By the late 18th century an elaborate system of tax exemption and relief aid existed to alleviate the burdens on disaster stricken parts of the population. This system was based on hyuljeon 恤典, also known as royal compassion, an institutional borrowing from China. Originally, the term was used for measures to honor people in high official positions who died unnatural or accidental death. Later, however, the range of people upon whom royal compassion could be bestowed widened and the system was no longer being limited to high officials, but could be used to give material aid those who lost family members in natural disasters or accidents.

The implementation of such disaster relief always proved to be problematic as the extent of tax exemptions had to be assessed properly in order not to diminish the state’s tax income too radically. Therefore an evaluation system was put into place, which classified the counties according to the severity of crop-failure. The three categories were: 1. Severe emergency (usim 尤甚), for a county that only produces 25% of its normal output. 2. Secondary emergency (jicha 之次), for a county that only produces 50% of its normal output. 3. Some yield (chosil 稍實), for a county that produces 75% of its normal output. As such evaluations were done at the local level and then reported upward for confirmation; the court often feared that the numbers were exaggerated by collusion between regional officials and land owners to illicitly reduce the tax burden. Moreover, governors also often lobbied to receive large amounts of tax exemptions in order to strengthen their local position.

Therefore the state began to dispatch Comforting and Admonishing Officials from the capital to coordinate these relief measures. They were appointed by the central government to help disaster-stricken people and secure social order. The duty of the official was to investigate the situation and visit the most affiliated area in person, evaluate the work performed by magistrates and report any misconduct, make plans for measures to restore people’s livelihoods and for future famine relief, make estimation for future land-taxation, gather those affiliated by the calamity to relay the king’s compassion by reading out his royal message to the people of the province, and execute the relief measures. He was also supposed to investigate the general conditions of local administration and correct any malpractices in legal enforcement, taxation and granary management.

The following document is a letter presented to Hong Daehyeob 洪大協 (1750-?) in 1794 and instating him as Comforting and Admonishing Official for the Chungcheong province. The peninsula had been struck by famine in years before and the situation was not yet stable. In his research Anders Karlsson has shown that the provinces closer to the capital of the Joseon kingdom, i.e. Gyeonggi and Chungcheong received more lenient and favorable help during times of disaster. This is visible in this letter by a reference and alteration by the King of a passage appearing in the Book of Poetry and the Book of Documents stating that: “[…] be gentle to the distant ones and be kind to the near ones, in order to (settle:) stabilize our king (柔遠 能邇, 以定我王).” The document further documents how Hong, besides his duties to investigate the need of tax exemptions and to enact them, is also charged with other tasks of subduing thieves, ensuring ritual spaces are proper and other local problems.

Original Script

Classical Chinese English






































一祀典所重京外何異  祭享之致愼壇壝之精掃亦皆探察



Letter presented to Hong Daehyeob (Hong Taehyŏp) at his leave as Comforting and Admonishing Official to the forty-four counties and one town under severe and secondary emergency in the Hoseo region.

The area Hoseo[1], next to the suburbs of the capital region, gives a great deal of worries. Even in years of good harvest and happiness, much more compassion and concern are needed there than in other provinces. Moreover, this year is a year of poor harvest that hasn’t be seen in recent times. From autumn to winter, I get up early and eat my dinners late at night, as what troubles me most in my mind is Hoseo. If we are kind to those who are close and try to comfort those who are faraway, then people close will be pleased and people faraway will be delighted to come and submit. If we abandon policies that are applied to reduce the taxation and strategies that are used to save the people, but on the contrary apply these in Yangnam[2], then that would be to abandon what is close and seek for what is far. How could I value what is distant and neglect what is close? That is the reason why there are some actions beyond convention and common practice, which also should be applied to cities and towns designated as secondary emergency. Under severe emergency are the following twenty counties, Seokseong,Pyeongtaek,Yeongi,Seosan,Biin,Seocheon,Jiksan,Sinchang,Eunjin, Iseong, Yeongdong, Dangjin, Myeoncheon, Hansan, Cheonan, Asan, Yesan, Nampo, Haemi and the following twenty five counties and one town are under secondary emergency Buyeo, Imcheon, Hongsan, Boryeong, Gyeolseong,Deoksan,Onyang, Cheongju, Eumseong, Jinjam, Hoedeok, Cheongpung,Cheongan, Yeongchun, Yeonsan, Cheongsan, Boeun, Daeheung, Hongju, Yeonpung, Munui, Mokcheon, Okcheon, Chungju, Pyeongsin. As recorded in the lower part of this letter these places are instructed to stop offering tributes and to enact reduced taxation. You should exert all your strength and wisdom to clearly instruct the fellow countrymen and provide them with stable residence, so that nobody will sigh because of the loss of residence. The articles to be administered are listed on the left [below].

One: [In terms of taxation,] it is easy to mix up "exemption", "remission", and "substitution", but difficult to distinguish them. You should [know how to] correctly discriminate and announce the measures without distortion. Thereby both common people and soldiers will be clear about the amount of their subvention, and local clerks will have no chance to commit irregularities. As to those counties graded as secondary emergency, which were not included when reliving Yeongnam and Honam area, though they are designated as secondary emergency, as a matter of fact, the situation is as the same as the regions of severe emergency. So to speak, people who have only one meal every two days and people who have one meal every day sit together. What the people who have one meal every two days received is so abundant that exceeded one square zhang. In contrast, the people who have one meal every day received nothing. How he could not heave a sigh at the corner? Therefore, we would rather make mistakes by indiscrimination than leave any people affected by famine out. My Minister should entirely know my intention and carry out the mission by covering all bases.

One: Even though relief measures are different from comforting local people, the way to understand the local situation is to enter the region, to inquire about the local customs, to listen to the people and to examine achievements. As for those who commit major crimes that cannot be tolerated and should be immediately report to the king and be judged, acting as examples for other regions.

One: The various goods submitted as tributes still can be reduced, however, if like in the past that people were unreasonably pressured or plundered by officials, there should be inspection officers in each province and magistrate in each district to perform individual inspections, listening and report to the king.

One: When appraising the households poor and rich can be delusive, plenty and scarce can be hard to distinguish. Some that should be excluded will use their power to be included and some that are poor and weak and should be included will be excluded. Chang and Yi live in different worlds; the southern and northern village each has its own heaven. This special grace is a special grace, and a special instant is a special instant, that will not be instituted again. Use the papers and instructions, discard the regular, be strict and precise and in time there will be concrete results.

One: The first most important task is now said to be the apprehension of thieves. It has been passed on to the local leaders and in order for each to clean up their territory the court has issued a proclamation. If there are some that are not diligent in this, grab those below the military generals and flog them. The soldiers should be used to report to the king and for punishment. If local leaders are neglectful, if their wrongs are small they are to be replaced and punished, if they are big it is to be reported to the king.

One: [As for the matters of] the prohibition of trading supplies, the clear distinction between households that are to receive relief and that are to repay it, not managed wrongful treatment, not yet commended filial behavior, grievances of the soldiers, and abuses of tax collection are to be investigated one by one. If the offense is large it is to be reported to the king, if it is small it is to be presented after the return to the court.

One: When the leaders outside the palace ride sedan chairs and on the side of the roads there are abandoned children, Make sure that surely there is no neglect of orders or grievances for crossing over.

One: With rituals it is important that they are different in the capital and outside of it. Make sure that worship is done cautiously and the ritual spaces are all clean.

One: Winds are felling the pine trees of Anmyeon Island. It was already ordered to allow the people to sell them off to support the relief efforts. Let this have concrete results for ordering the counties and managing the villages.

  1. The Province of Chungcheong
  2. lit. the two souths, Honam: The Province of Jeolla, and Yeongnam: The Province of Gyeongsang