(Translation) 湖西暗行御史封書

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During the reign of Jeongjo (Chŏngjo), the famine relief policy became systematized and established as a routine government operations. For example, the published a series of publications such as that provided the previous examples of famine relief policy 八道賑穀假令, 惠政年表, and 惠政要覽1. As the relief policy become elaborated, the supervision of the actualization of the policy by the local magistrate also took on more significance. The authority of the under-cover sensor(amhaengeosa, or amhaengŏsa, 暗行御史) was elevated around the reign of Jeongjo to strengthen their supervisory role over the local magistrate’s famine relief operations. During his reign, an effort was made to standardize the items that the undercover censor has to evaluate regarding the works of local magistrate2.

In the year of 1799, a severe famine struck Chungcheong (Ch'ungch'ŏng) province. As the local magistrate enacts the famine relief policy and reports back, Jeongjo sent Sinhyeon (Shinhyŏn) (申絢) as the undercover sensor to supervise the work of famine relief and evaluate various government officials and local clerks. Jeongjo outlines the overall situations regarding the relief operations and assigns the Ups for the under-cover censor to be in charge of. Of the particular interest are the enumerated matters that particularly concerns Jeongjo. First, he mentions the problem of classification of the disaster strict administrative district. In the late Choson, the fraud regarding classification were prevalent for various reasons. One of the reasons is the local magistrate’ desire to gain fame by classifying the unites under his government to the categories that exaggerates the severity of the disaster. By that, the tax burden of people was reduced, and thereby the local magistrate could gain reputation as being a benevolent magistrate. The phrase that refers to this problem was yoye (要譽). This problem also appears in the standardized items for the under-cover censor3. He also points out the difficulty in classifying at the household level. A more fine-grained classification system at the household level is introduced for Jeolla(Chŏlla) province in the 18th year of Jeongjo. We can see the same classification is being used in this famine in Chungcheong province, and Jeongjo is worried about the accuracy of classification.

Another problem was the meddling of the local clerks in the famine relief operation. With various means, they intervene in this operations through various means and steals the benefit that must have been given to the people, or they would deceive the central government so that when people pay the taxes that was put off, they would just take over this payment. This problem is specifically referred in this document (停退之偏於官屬而不及貧殘者) and was later reported in detail back to the government by the under-cover censor4. He also refers to the failures such as incorrect pricing of the grain taxes and the defective central direction, and the various extortions like promulgating deceptive government regulation by the local clerks.

Finally, we can also see what other measure were used to alleviate the famine situations. For example, the government prohibited people from consuming(or making) liquor and from butchering the cow. The former is likely to be formulated to prevent people from wasting the grains on making liquor. The latter perhaps aims to protect the future labor force provided by cows which is likely to be consumed in the severe famine situation.

  • References:

(1) 문용식. 2016. 1794년 전라도지역의 기근과 환곡의 활용. 역사와 실학, 제 61권. 90쪽. (2) 정조실록 16권, 정조 7년 10월 29일 정해 3번째기사 1783년 청 건륭(乾隆) 48년 “비변사에서 올린 제도 어사 사목” http://sillok.history.go.kr/id/kva_10710029_003 (3) ibid. (4) 정조실록 51권, 정조 23년 5월 9일 병인 1번째기사 1799년 청 가경(嘉慶) 4년 “충청도 암행 어사 신현이 각 고을의 폐단에 대해 올린 별단” http://sillok.history.go.kr/id/kva_12305009_001

Original Script

Classical Chinese English










 牙山 平澤 泰安 延歧
























As to the whole region of Hosŏ1 its soil is barren and do not produce many [crops], its people are lazy and do not work hard. As for the sources of clothing and eating, originally it does not match those of Yangnam2; in addition, this year the ûp3 [of Hosŏ] to be relieved are more than [those of] Yangnam. [Even if I am] conceiving these places with the same eye , I particularly do not bear feeling reassured. This is how it is. In general, to those who are under the jurisdiction of this measure, give 60.000 chŏn (RR: jeon) of money and nearly 40.000 units of crops. But if [the situation is] particularly severe, then following the precedent of the Ŭrhae (RR: Eulhae, pinyin: Yihai) year4 grant those who are willing to pay the certificate of honorary title. If you dispatch Senior Subalterns and obtain such people, within the 1000 li of the lakes and mountains, people will likely turn their tears into laughter. But every ûp has difficulties in appointing officials, everyone has difficulties in fulfilling their duty. Thence, even if you empty the millet of the Ao Granary5 and dispel the wealth of Shuiheng6. Thereby, how could you help all the people in the abyss? Those who wear embroideries are called the straight pointers because of the straightforwardness of their pointed statement. You should not be afraid of those in power; you should not be hindered by personal affection. The list of matters is explained very expensively. Aside from this [list], the places which have been selected, you can refer [to them] on the record to the left. And apart from the ûp that you are assigned, along the road of the neighbouring prefectures, you can make a list and judge altogether at your discretion.

Assigned ûp:

Asan (RR: Asan) / P'yŏngt'aek (RR: Pyeongtaek) / T'aean (RR: Taean) / Yŏn'gi (RR: Yeon’gi)

The classification in myôn (RR: myeon) and li administration is considered to be meticulous. It is meticulous, therefore it is difficult. Let alone people’s households. In the designation of “particularly severe,” there is also a designation of "the most particularly severe", and the ranking of households should emulate the ranking of ûp. As to the suspension [of grain taxes], the amount is reduced gradually according to their ranks. Although the ûp is the second worst, the households are now in "particularly severe" state. Comparing the ‘particular severe’ ûp and the ‘particularly severe’ household, it indeed reflects the saying, “Grass and green share the same color.” Between cows and sheep, which to choose? First, we should rank them, according to whether they are good or bad, then conduct a thorough investigation over each of them, and as to cases where the postponement was biased and went to the local functionaries than to those who are impoverished and injured; we should examine it in a more conscious manner. As the number of relieved people, we should rank according to the households. In one case [the relief] went to those who are in ‘particularly severe’, but did not go to those whom received the relieve. In another case the relieve was delivered [to the localities], but initially it did not go to those of the “particularly severe”; within these two cases, one is wrong.

We see that now the circulation of disease has eventually ceased, and the desolation after the disaster begins to appear. This is the moment to administer nourishment and nurturing, but the distribution of the so-called Hyulchôn7 has no direction from the government. In the graveyard and swallow soil, passer-bys are still lamenting. As to the sick people and the relief of emergency, [even] the amount [of rice] has distinction. And the cunning clerks and the like extort [from people] and oversee [the extortion] as if following government orders. They do not only benefit from not being inspected, they unexpectedly begin to be calamities. I would rather be not terrified by the pain, and strictly punish [them] at their place.

Tempted by the year’s bad harvest, they opportunely commit extortion. Prohibiting beef and alcohol, and [so] establishing their mind aim to have them punished and redeem themselves; they do not aim at having them abiding the law. As for the disease that the people suffered, there is nothing greater than this.

As to this province’s Army of Rotation8, for the ûp of the particularly severe category, reduce the rotation duty next year. Under the ûp seat of each eup, there are so-called Toga (RR: Doga)9. When the head of each military unit visits the office regarding in general the matters of lawsuit and grain loans, the daily expense costs hundred chŏn, and meats and wines are abundantly offered. When their rotating duty is due, the Toga suddenly demands the payment of debt to the soldiers of the military units. Each person almost pays around ten yang. This has become a chronic disease of the people of Hosŏ.

Mount Kanggyŏng (RR: Ganggyeong) of Ŭnjin (RR: Eunjin) and Kwangch'ŏn (RR: Gwangcheon) river of Kyŏlsŏng (RR: Gyeolseong) are the metropolis areas of Hosŏ. It is where fishes and salt are produced, where boats and carriages are assembled; people are rich and the customs are honest and sincere; from ancient times it is called the land of joy. But lately it gradually does not match the ancient times: signs of people’s habitation become sparse daily and merchants rarely arrive. This must be the result of local functionaries’ extortion that is worsening daily, so the livelihood of the country people is deteriorating accordingly. As to the strategies that they used to raise sicknesses and flourish evils, there were separate reports that were memorialized to me.

As for P'yŏngt'aek, it situated at where the capital area and Hosŏ meet, and as for the main roads to Honam, over half come from here. Thus, as to the violation of the regulation on cow butchering, it was repeatedly committed since the distant past. Officials’ ostentation and extravagance are also priceless. Officials not only did not prohibit [it], on the contrary they cause people to do so. In a place less than a hundred fifty li from the capital, the situation where the law does not promulate has already become such state. What to say about the other ûp?

1 湖西:Hosŏ (RR: Hoseo, now Ch’ungch’ŏng (RR:Chungcheong) province)

2 兩南:Yangnam (RR: Yangnam) refers to the two Southernmost regions: Honam (湖南, now Chŏlla (RR: Jeolla) province) and Yŏngnam (嶺南 , now Kyŏngsang (RR: Gyeongsang) province).

3 邑:Ŭp (RR: eup) are equivalents of counties (or towns).

4 There was a famine in the autumn of the Ŭrhae year, 1755, but we are not sure which measure is being referred, see http://sillok.history.go.kr/id/wua_13108016_002.

5 A granary built by the First Emperor of Qin of China (220-210 BCE) to collect all the grains in his realm

6 A government official during the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE) responsible for overseeing the royal treasury and coinage

7 恤典: Hyulchôn (RR: Hyuljeon) is a law that the royal court applies to give financial support to relatives of people who have died or to those who suffered serious injury.

8 This refers to the practice of taking turn to send the local army to the capital.

9 This refers to the monopoly merchants.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who first had the idea of relying on "undercover censors" (暗行御史) to ensure the respect of the central government's policies? Is this specific to the Kingdom of Chosôn?
  1. How many undercover censors would be dispatched at a time?
  1. How did the Choson court select the "undercover censors"? What sort of qualifications were they expected to meet?
  1. Did the undercover censors only work well? If not, would there be any documents in which they were complicit with their corresponding local magistrates, and indulged in any corruptions(e.g.extortion)?