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|Revised Romanization||Heungseon Daewongun|
|Revised Romanization||Yi Ha-eung|
Heungseon Daewongun (흥선대원군, 1820–1898) or The Daewongun (대원군), Guktaegong (국태공, ‘The Great Archduke’) or formally Heungseon Heonui Daewonwang (흥선헌의대원왕) and also known to period western diplomats as Prince Gung, was the title of Yi Ha-eung, regent of Joseon during the minority of King Gojong in the 1860s and until his death a key political figure of late Joseon Korea.
Daewongun literally translates as "prince of the great court", a title customarily granted to the father of the reigning monarch when that father did not reign himself (usually because his son had been adopted as heir of a relative who did reign). While there had been three other Daewongun during the Joseon Dynasty,^ so dominant a place did Yi Ha-eung have in the history of the late Joseon dynasty that the term Daewongun usually refers specifically to him.
The Daewongun is remembered for the wide-ranging reforms he attempted during his regency, as well as for his "vigorous enforcement of the seclusion policy, persecution of Christians, and the killing or driving off of foreigners who landed on Korean soil".
The Daewongun was born Yi Ha-eung in 1821. He was the fourth son of Yi Ch’ae-jung, a member of the royal family who in 1816 was given the name Yi Ku and the title Prince Namyeon. The Daewongun was a direct descendant of King Injo.
The Daewongun was well schooled in Confucianism and the Chinese classics. He reputedly excelled in calligraphy and painting. His early government career consisted of minor posts that were mostly honorary and ceremonial. For the beginning of his life, his connection to the royal house seemed of little help to him. He was poor and humiliated by the rich in-laws of the royal house.
Rise to Power
The Daewongun came to power when his son, Yi Myeong-bok, was chosen to become king.
In January 1864, King Cheoljong died without an heir. The selection of the next king was in the hands of three dowagers: Queen Sinjeong, mother of King Heonjong; Queen Myeongheon, King Heonjong’s wife; and Queen Cheorin, Cheoljong’s wife. The “designation right” resided with Dowager Queen Sinjeong, as she was the oldest of the dowagers.
In an apocryphal story, Queen Cheorin sent a minister to fetch the son of Yi Ha-eung, eleven-year-old Yi Myeong-bok, who was flying a kite in a palace garden. The son was brought to the palace in a sedan chair, where Queen Sinjeong rushed forward and called him her son, thus producing the new Joseon king, King Gojong, adopted son of Crown Prince Hyomyeong. This story may or may not be true.
These facts, however, are known to be correct. On January 16, 1864, Yi Myeong-bok was appointed the Prince of Ikseong by Dowager Queen Sinjeong. The next day, his father was granted the title Daewongun. On January 21, Yi Myeong-bok was enthroned as King Gojong, and Dowager Queen Sinjeong began her regency. Yi was apparently chosen because “he was the only suitable surviving male member of the Yi clan and closest by blood to the royal house”.
Since Gojong was so young, Queen Sinjeong invited the Daewongun to assist his son in ruling. She virtually renounced her right to regent, and thought she remained the titular regent, the Daewongun was in fact the true ruler.
Once Gojong became king, there still remained the question of his marriage. Gojong’s mother, the Daewongun’s wife, decided upon a daughter of the Min clan, Lady Min. The Daewongun remarked that Min “was a woman of great determination and poise” and was slightly disturbed by her. However, he allowed her to marry his son, and unknowingly created his greatest political rival.
During his regency, the Daewongun attempted several reforms. His main goal was to “crush the old ruling faction that had virtually usurped the sovereign power of the kings earlier in the century”.
When he took power in 1864, the Daewongun was determined to reform the government and strengthen central control. He led an anti-corruption campaign, disciplined the royal clans, and taxed the aristocracy, the yangban. Cumings notes that this was not a revolution but a restoration, as the Daewongun was attempting to return to the days of King Sejong in the fifteenth century.
One of the Daewongun’s effective acts as regent was the reconstruction of Gyeonbok Palace. The palace had been built during the reign of the first Joseon king. Much of the building was destroyed in a fire in 1533 and the rest was destroyed during the Japanese invasion of 1592. The rebuilding took seven years and five months. It was perhaps the most costly project during the Joseon dynasty.
The Daewongun’s reforms were not very successful, as some scholars say he was “too highhanded and tactless”. Not only that, but his policies did not have a lasting effect, as once Gojong came of age in 1874 and forced the Daewongun into semiretirement, he undid many of the Daewongun’s reforms.
Return to Power
The Daewongun enjoyed a brief return to power during the Imo Incident in 1882. On the second day of the mutiny, a group of rioters were received by the Daewongun, “who reportedly exhorted them to bring down the Min regime and expel the Japanese”. King Gojong asked his father, the Daewongun to come to the palace. The Daewongun’s appearance, escorted by 200 mutineers, “put an immediate end to the wild melee.” Gojong gave the Daewongun “all the small and large matters of the government” and thus the Daewongun resumed his rule. Both Japanese and Chinese forces headed towards Korea to put down the rebellion, and Ma Chien-chung, a Chinese diplomat in Korea, decided that it was time to remove the Daewongun.
The Chinese had three reasons they wanted to remove the Daewongun: First, he attempted to overthrow the pro-Chinese Min faction. Second, “he created a situation which invited the Japanese troops to Korea, thus precipitating the danger of a military conflict between Japan on the one hand and Korea and China on the other.” And third, “the Taewongun [Daewongun]-inspired disturbance threatened the foundation of a lawfully constituted government in a dependent nation”.
Ma arrested the Daewongun on the charge of disrespect to the emperor for “usurping the power which the emperor had invested in the king of Korea”. However, as he was the father of the king, he was dealt with leniently. One hundred Chinese soldiers escorted the Daewongun to a waiting Chinese warship, and from there to Tientsin.
Return to Korea
In the fall of 1885, the Chinese returned the Daewongun to Korea, “despite strong objections from the queen and her followers”.
In 1894, the Japanese were strengthening their hold over Korea. They needed someone amenable to them to be a leader in Korea during the Gabo Reform. They approached the Daewongun as a potential leader. When he agreed, on July 23 Japanese soldiers liberated him from the house arrest Gojong had placed him under. In exchange for his help, the Daewongun asked for a promise that if the reforms succeeded, “Japan will not demand a single piece of Korean territory”. The soldiers took him to the palace, where they approached the king. The Daewongun reproached King Gojong and announced that he would be taking over.
The Japanese became nervous after placing the Daewongun in charge, as he seemed interested “only in grasping power and purging his opponents and did not see the need for a reform policy”. By September 1894, the Japanese decided that the Daewongun was not to be trusted. By early October, it became clear that “the plan to use the Taewongun [Daewongun] as a vehicle for the reform program had misfired”. A Japanese statesman, Inoue Kaoru, was sent to Korea as the new resident minister, where he told the Daewongun, “You always stand in the way,” and forced the Daewongun to promise that he would “abstain from interference in political affairs”.
Involvement in Queen Min’s Death
In 1895, Japanese officials in Korea were plotting the removal of Gojong’s wife, Queen Min. Miura Gorō, Inoue Kaoru’s successor as Japanese advisor to the Korean government, and Sugimura Fukashi, a secretary of the Japanese legation, planned the attempt. The two decided to involve the Daewongun in the plot, and after making inquiries, learned that he was “indignant enough to plan a coup” and would cooperate with them. On October 8, 1895, early in the morning, Japanese policemen escorted the Daewongun to the palace. His involvement from that point on is unclear, but on that morning, Japanese agents assassinated Queen Min.
The Daewongun died in 1898.
- Father: Prince Namyeon (남연군, 1788–1836)
- Mother: Unknown
- Wife: Yeoheung, Princess Consort to the Prince of the Great Court, of the Yeoheung Min clan (여흥부대부인 민씨, 1818–1898)
- Yi Jae-myeon (이재면, 1845–1912)
- Yi Myeong-bok (이명복, 8 September 1852 – 21 January 1919)
- Yi Jae-seon (이재선, ?-1881)^
- 1.^ In chronological order: Seonjo's Father (Deokheung Daewongun), his son (Jeongwon Daewongun; Injo's Father), and Cheoljong's Father (Jeongye Daewongun). Gojong's Father is the fourth and last
- 2.^ He is an illegitimate son.
- Conroy, Hilary. The Japanese Seizure of Korea, 1868-1910: A Study of Realism and Idealism in International Relations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960.
- Choe Ching Young. The Rule of the Taewŏn’gun, 1864-1873: Restoration in Yi Korea. Cambridge, Mass.: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1972.
- Cumings, Bruce. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.
- Kim, C.I. Eugene and Han-Kyo Kim. Korea and the Politics of Imperialism: 1876-1910. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967.
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