Regal slangThe former chief of the Cultural Heritage Administration, Yoo Hong-joon, on one occasion likened ex-President Roh Moo-hyun to the visionary Joseon monarch King Jeongjo, saying both endeavored to move the capital to decentralize power, enduring endless confrontations with opponents.
Yoo’s motive for making the comments was unclear - were they words of comfort after Roh relinquished his ambition of moving some key government offices out of the capital, or just plain old flattery?
It’s up to history to assess leaders, but few can argue with the accolades King Jeongjo has been accorded for his reforms.
However, censorship by the otherwise reform-minded king generated resentment even among his greatest admirers. In contrast with his progressive and pragmatic approach to other fields of governance, King Jeongjo in 1792 banned enlightened publications widely circulated among the common public. Such works included the “Yulha Diary” by Park Ji-won, who championed modernization and social progress, as well as books imported from China.
He called the contemporary writings shallow and vulgar, noting the need for literature to return to the elegance of the classics.
Park Ji-won refused a high administrative post when the king demanded he write a letter agreeing to switch to a “model” writing style.
To intellectuals at the time, their style of writing was a tool with which they presented their thinking.
The impediments that Jeongjo placed on freedom of writing can be viewed as censorship aimed at derailing the budding social and intellectual movement toward change and progress.
But some scholars interpret the move as a part of the king’s broader ambitions for tolerant, nonpartisan politics.
Following the incident, many political foes came to the side of King Jeongjo, and scholarly stalwarts like Jeong Yak-yong found it easier to make their voices heard.
Recently released letters by King Jeongjo make it difficult to believe he championed a conventional writing style.
The letters were filled with profane words and expressions used by the common people.
On one occasion the king even referred to one of his subordinates as the “seed of a savage.” The use of such a slang phrase by a dignified monarch is simultaneously refreshing and appalling.
Sim Hwan-ji, a notable political opponent to King Jeongjo, had kept the letters despite the king’s order to discard them.
We cannot know how King Jeongjo would feel about these new revelations about him - whether he would be upset or tolerant of Sim’s disobedience. But his descendants are happy to see his human side.
The writer is a deputy political news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Yeh Young-june [firstname.lastname@example.org]