A Heritage of Kings: One Man's Monarchy in the Confucian World

A Heritage of Kings: One Man's Monarchy in the Confucian World

A Heritage of Kings: One Man's Monarchy in the Confucian World

A Heritage of Kings: One Man's Monarchy in the Confucian World

Excerpt

This book is a study of the Confucian kingship as it was understood and practiced by Yŏngjo, the twenty-first king of Yi Korea (1392-1910), who ruled from 1724 to 1776. The Confucian kingship, guided and formed as it was by the ideal of the sage king, was an exceedingly demanding one. The ruler was an ordinary mortal, not a divine being, yet his virtue had to be such that his mandate was premised upon it. Not only was he expected to perfect himself; he was also burdened with effecting perfect order in his realm. This, or the lack thereof, was seen as the index of his virtue. The practice of sage kingship, however, was another matter. Like other political ideologies, it was used in the context of institutional, political, and social realities. In China, where our ideas of rulership have been significantly clarified by such illuminating works as those by Professor Jonathan Spence on the Emperor K'ang-hsi and Professor Harold Kahn on the Emperor Ch'ien-lung, the emperor was enshrined in a nearly mythic aura. As the Son of Heaven, the Chinese emperor was the mediator between Heaven and the civilized world. The monarchical institution also developed in such a way as to enhance the awesomeness of imperial authority. The bureaucracy grew vast and, by the Sung dynasty (960-1279), it came to be staffed by professional, rather than aristocratic, bureaucrats selected by the civil service examination. From the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the throne acquired a nearly unchallengeable power. In this context, the emperor could with impunity avail himself of the rhetoric of the sage king to buttress the imperial image.

The Yi monarchy shared with China the concept and rhetoric of the sage king, but it employed it in a very different situation. Neither was the Korean king the Son of Heaven as the Chinese . . .

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