When a well-run country was a sight for sore eyes

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When a well-run country was a sight for sore eyes

Koreans tend to be ambivalent about the history of their monarchy. While proud about the culture and heritage of their ancient kings, they also consider the rulers relics of a backward and stagnant past; cries for the restoration of the monarchy are never heard.

One historian who works to put a human face on Korea's kings is Shin Myeong-ho. A researcher at the National Institute of Korean History, Mr. Shin just completed a new book, "Life, Etiquette and Palace Culture of the Joseon Period," which provides an intimate look at daily life in the palace during the Joseon Dynasty.

Mr. Shin's book provides a look into all aspects of the king's life, from meals to dress codes to funeral rites. A candid picture emerges of the kings as persons who dutifully serve their country and act as a model for their subjects, not as tyrannical rulers. Here are some of Mr. Shin's descriptions of palace life:

The mornings

Kings were roused from sleep well before dawn by the sound of steel drums, which signaled the opening of the city gates. As an early meal, kings ate a bit of rice porridge. Later they ate a 12-course breakfast, including stew, steamed vegetables and chowder. Then they donned the formal headpiece and the regal attire.

A day of work and study

Before noon, the kings met with ministers and administrators to discuss state affairs. Because so many reports needed attention, it was impractical for the kings to sign everything with the royal calligraphy brush. So they provided the eunuchs with an official stamp to make their royal mark.

The kings were supposed to study three times a day, in sessions called gyeongyeon. Scholars, secretaries, advisers and other officials attended the classes. The scholars would read classical books, then explain the verses. Often the sessions turned into a heated debates.

Most of the Joseon kings had extremely poor eyesight, perhaps because they sat and read official documents for a long time. Many suffered from swellings or growths in their eyes. Since the third King Taejong the malady seemed to become congenital. One king, Jeongjo, had a large infection in his eye that spread to his shoulder and ruptured. Also, because they got little physical exercise, the kings tended to suffer from obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Funeral customs

On the day of the king's death, his head and upper body were washed in water that had been steeped in rice and millet; the lower body was washed in water that had been boiled with fragrant leaves and flowers. Then a shrouding procedure began, with the number nine having significance. The king was wrapped in nine satin sheets and his mouth was stuffed with rice and pears, and his body was laid on a plank with great care. On the third day, the corpse was wrapped in 19 more sheets, and rituals were conducted to slow decomposition. On the fifth day, 90 more shrouds either wrapped the king or went in the casket. The casket, with the corpse, was kept in a special building until an auspicious day for burial arrived, which could take up to five months. Then an elaborate funeral was conducted.

Naming of the tomb

The name of the tomb, usually two words, served as an evaluation of the king. High-ranking ministers recommended three names and the succeeding king chose one among them. If the name ended with "Jo" or "Jong," it meant the king achieved great things.

by Hong Soo-yeon

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