KOREA FOCUS
Humanities Studies of the Kings of Joseon Linked with State Policies
Kim Do-yeon

Staff Reporter
The Munhwa Ilbo


“Royal Lectures, the Scholarly Activities of Joseon Kings”
By Kim Tae-wan, Yeoksa Bipyeong (Historical Criticism) Publishers, 432 pages, 22,000 won
 
Heo Chim: Vice Minister Sin Jeong has a sagacious temperament, but he is not the type of person to meet popular expectations. How have these two individuals discharged their duty in selecting officials? I fear that the selection and advancement of officials lacks exactitude.
King: What do you mean that Vice Minister Sin Jeong does not meet popular expectations?
Heo Chim: It is said that he lacks integrity.
King: The Ministry of Personnel is an immensely important agency. If his character is lacking in integrity he should not have been appointed to that position. Each of you tell us what you know about this situation.
 
This scene is from a royal lecture (gyeongyeon) on October 7, 1478, the ninth year of the reign of King Seongjong,and is recorded in The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. On that occasion during the royal lecture the king and scholars were discussing the “Record of Rites” (Liji) and the gap between the norms prescribed in that text and actual contemporary practices. The official in question was Sin Jeong.
 
Could one lack a scholarly temperament and become a king? Absolutely not; not even in the patrimonial authoritarian society of the Joseon Dynasty. As mirrors representing and reflecting the standards of the state, endless scholarly inquiry was required of the kings of Joseon. This was the purpose of the royal lectures. The king would study philosophy and history and debate state policies with the most erudite scholars of the period. These “humanities seminars” were the foundation for the probing of standards and values through the study of philosophy and history, and then in light of the abundant experiences in the past, the attempt to discover verifiable solutions to contemporary quandaries.
 
The book covers all aspects of the royal lectures in the court of Joseon, including their genesis and aims, the textbooks used in the lectures, the procedures for appointing royal instructors, and the processes of lectures. The royal lectures were constituted by the morning lecture (jogang), the noon lecture (jugang), and the afternoon lecture (seokgang), which began at dawn, noon, and 2 p.m., respectively. Special or supplementary lectures (sodae) which consisted of scholars reporting their opinions on specific subjects in front of the king, were held at any time. Thus, these were sometimes referred to as unscheduled lectures (bulsi gyeongyeon). Late night supplementary lectures (yadae) were also held after the palace doors were closed for the evening.
 
However, even the most zealous of kings was unable to maintain a daily schedule of the three regular lectures and special lectures. Therefore, at times the lectures were held every few days and at times, it is said, the lectures suspended for a while. We know that King Sejong and King Seongjong held lectures most frequently. Extant records tell of numerous and varied lectures held by these kings, which contributed to the blossoming of Confucian state policy of Joseon. The “problem children” of the royal lectures were Sejo and Yeonsangun. Although Yeonsangun, as had Sejo, did not completely avoid the royal lectures, he did so at the height of his tyranny late in his rule and threatened to abolish the lectures, saying that his scholarship had reached a peak.
 
The purpose of the royal lectures was to “make a monarch wise.” Scholarly knowledge and a highly moral view attained through the lectures produced wise monarchs. The author states that, “the faces of successive Korean rulers glimmer in the study and writing of this book.” And he prods, “I hope that Korea’s president would be a person who has insight into the humanities and is well educated.”
[August 19, 2011]