Jo Gwang-jo
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Jo Gwang-jo
Jo Gwangjo

Jo Gwangjo (Korean; Hanja???, 23 August 1482 - 10 January 1520), also often called by his pen name Jeong-am (Korean; Hanja??), was Korean Neo-Confucian scholar who pursued radical reforms during the reign of Jungjong of Joseon in the early 16th century.

He was framed with charges of factionalism by the power elite that opposed his reform measures and was sentenced to drink poison in the Third Literati Purge of 1519. He has been widely venerated as a Confucian martyr and an embodiment of "seonbi spirit" by later generations in Korea. Some historians consider him one of the most influential figures in 16th century Korea. He's one of the 18 Sages of Korea (Hangul: 18?) and honored as Munmyo Baehyang (Korean?; Hanja?).[1]


Early years

Jo Gwangjo

Jo Gwangjo was the son of Jo Wongang (, ) and was from the Hanyang Jo clan (?, ?). Jo studied under neo-Confucian scholar Kim Gwoeng-pil, Kim Jong-jik's disciple who was in exile at the time following the First Literati Purge of 1498. When Kim Gwoeng-pil was later executed (by poison) following the Second Literati Purge of 1504, Jo was exiled for being Kim's disciple.

At this time, Joseon Dynasty politics was primarily marked by power struggle between two aristocratic yangban factions - the established "Hungu" power elites who were generally conservative and the upstart Sarim scholars called seonbis, who belonged to neo-Confucian school of Kim Jong-jik and other thinkers. Sarim faction had entered the court politics during the reign of King Seongjong but suffered two bloody purges under his successor Yeonsangun. When Yeonsangun was eventually deposed in 1506, Jungjong was placed on the throne as the eleventh king of Joseon by the Hungu leaders who led the coup. For first ten years of his reign, Jungjong could not truly rule the country with regal authority (he was forced to depose his faithful queen because her father was killed by the coup leaders, and they feared that the queen might take revenge.) However, three main coup leaders died of natural causes by then, and Jungjong began to welcome Sarim scholars to his court to check Hungu faction's power. The Sarim faction considered Hungu faction as a whole as greedy and corrupt men unworthy of respect and sought to establish ideal neo-Confucian society. (Indeed, many of coup leaders had enjoyed Yeonsangun's favor during most of his reign, and their chief Park Won-jong led the coup mainly for personal revenge for his sister was raped by Yeonsangun.)

Jo Gwangjo came from a prominent family that belonged to Hungu faction but was called "crazy man" and "source of disaster" by people around him for studying neo-Confucianism under exiled Sarim scholar Kim Gwoeng-pil at the height of persecution of the Sarim faction. In 1510, Jo Gwangjo passed the Gwageo exam and became a student at Royal Academy called Seonggyungwan. He was often recommended for a court position by high officials and fellow students at Seonggyngwan, but he delayed entering civil service to pursue further study until 1515, when he was recommended to King Jungjong by Minister of Personnel Ahn Dang and 200 Seonggyungwan students and was immediately appointed to a position of junior sixth rank. However, he was ashamed to take office with others' help and took Al-seung-si exam, and his essay caught Jungjong's attention.

By then, Jo was already known for unbending and outspoken character as he soon emerged as the leader of Sarim faction. For instance, when he became a jung-un, lowest position at Office of Censors, the first thing he did on the following day was to petition the king to fire all his superiors at the Office of Censors and Office of Inspector General. At the time, two Sarim officials had petitioned the king to restore status of the deposed queen, who was deposed by Hungu faction. Office of Inspector General and Office of Censors had them exiled for their impertinent petition. Jo Gwangjo argued that two offices violated their given function by suppressing free speech and petitioned the king to fire his superiors or accept his resignation since he could not work with them. To the surprise of everyone, Jungjong replaced everyone in two offices except Jo. This event reflected Jungjong's complete trust and confidence in Jo, who rose in a series of unprecedented promotions from rank of junior sixth rank to junior second rank in only three years.

Jo Gwangjo's reforms

Jo Gwangjo

King Jungjong wanted to bring new talents to the royal court that was dominated by Hungu faction, and Jo complied by introducing a new system of government recruitment via recommendations that were based on the candidates' moral character as well as scholarship. He argued that existing officer examination were too philosophical and placed too much emphasis on literary skills, detached from the practical needs of the government. The supplementary examination that Jo introduced was called an "examination for the learned and the virtuous" (hyeollanggwa). This was an abbreviated examination for candidates recommended by local magistrates as men of highest integrity in the presence of the king, who chose the winning candidates. This system allowed Jo to recruit many talented Sarim scholars who had been living secluded life in rural provinces. However, it also left him open to Hungu faction's attack that Jo formed a clique of his supporters by placing them in key positions.

Jo and his supporters then pushed forth a series of radical reforms as they established local self-government system called Hyang'yak to strengthen local autonomy and communal spirit among people. In this system, deference was placed according to senority of villagers rather than their social status. The Sarim faction also sought to reduce gap between the rich and poor with a land reform that would distribute land to farmers equally and limit amount of land and number of slaves that one could own. This measure also targeted Hungu faction's accumulation of land and wealth.[2]

Deeply influenced by Zhu Xi's neo-Confucianism, Jo Gwangjo believed that ideal world of mythical Chinese Emperor Yao and Shun, could be achieved if all people from the king down to low-born became morally refined and followed Confucius' teachings. The Sarim faction therefore promulgated Confucian writings among the populace by translating them in Korean hangul and distributing them widely. They also suppressed Buddhism and Taoism as superstitious religions by destroying the royal Taoist temple and confiscating properties of Buddhist temples. As Inspector General, he impeached many officials for corruption and bribery. According to Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, it was said that no official dared to receive a bribe or exploit the populace during this time because of such strict enforcement.[3] He also sought to trim the size of government by reducing the number of bureaucrats and their wages.

Jo also believed that any talented people including slaves should be appointed as officials regardless of social status. He was said to judge people by moral character and did not greet superior officials if he considered them of unworthy characters while he was courteous even to his servants. For instance, he formed a friendship with a butcher/tanner of lowest class (baekjeong) who did not even have a name and admired his learning so much that he discussed state affairs with him and wanted to appoint him as a court official. But the tanner repeatedly refused Jo's offer and then disappeared without a trace according to Records of Yeonryeoshil (), a collection of official and unofficial history books compiled by Yi Geung-ik in late Joseon Dynasty. (It is said that King Injong, Jungjong's successor who admired his tutor Jo Gwangjo, listed the "tanner" as Chief State Councillor for his future cabinet for he was greatly admired by Jo.) According to famous Korean philosopher Yi I, Jo was admired so much by populace that when he appeared on streets people gathered before him saying, "Our master is coming." [4]

Sarim's Power Base

Letter of Jo Kwang-jo

Jo Gwangjo's radical reforms were popular with the populace, who called him the "living Buddha",[5] but he faced fierce opposition and hostility from the Hungu faction. In early 1519, several Hungu officials began a plot to assassinate Sarim officials, though they were discovered in time.[6] Jo's power base was concentrated in four offices: Inspector General's Office (; whose main function was to impeach corrupt or unprincipled government officials in court and local administration), Office of Censors (; whose role was to criticize wrong policies of the king or ministers), Hongmoongwan (; an advisory council that answered the king's questions and educated the king with history and Confucian philosophy), and Royal Secretariat (; which served as liaison between the king and ministries). The first three offices were collectively called Three Offices, or Samsa (), as they provided checks and balance on the power of the king and the ministers and also served as organ of press that influenced general opinion of the court.

However, the Sarim faction did not control any army nor had financial base. Sarim's power was solely dependent on the king's support, which Jo believed to be steadfast in their mutual pursuit of reforms. However, Jo's unbending character and his frequent remonstrations to Jungjong to support his radical programs began to irritate the king. Even when he disagreed with Jo, Jungjong almost always ended up adopting Jo's petition because Jo would refuse to bend his will and Three Offices would threaten to resign en masse. Furthermore, Jo and Hongmoongwan officials often instructed Jungjong on the ways of king in long lessons. Because Jungjong was not a crown prince, he had not received a thorough royal education expected of future king, and Sarim scholars sought to rectify this, believing that only learning could prevent a despot like Yeonsangun. Jungjong began to feel hounded by his subjects and resented it.

The Hungu faction, which sensed Jungjong's irritation with Jo Gwangjo, found an opportunity to strike Sarim faction when Jo Gwangjo decided to go after the "heroes" of the 1506 coup that brought Jungjong to power. According to Jo, many officials who were awarded with special privileges including tax exemptions and huge stipends did not actually contribute much to the coup but gained their status through bribes or familial connections. He petitioned Jungjong to revoke such status from two thirds out of 110 people who received special status in connection with the coup. This move infuriated the Hungu faction, and they soon after proceeded to frame Jo Gwangjo with charges of disloyalty.

"Cho will become the King"

At the behest of Hungu leaders including Hong Kyung-ju, Nam Gon, and Shim Jung, Consort Gyeong of Park clan and Consort Hui of Hong clan (Hong Kyung-ju's daughter) sought to estrange Jungjong and Jo Gwangjo by often questioning Jo's loyalty and claiming that popular support was shifting to Jo. They told Jungjong that people were saying that it was actually Jo Gwangjo who ruled the country and that populace wanted to make him their king. Even if Jo was not disloyal, he would not be able to stop his supporters from doing so, they said.[7]

According to Annals of Joseon Dynasty, Nam Gon now set out to slander Jo and wrote a phrase "Ju cho will become the king" (?, ?)" with honey or sugary water on mulberry leaves so that caterpillars left behind such phrase on leaves in the palace.[8] When two Hanja (Chinese) characters "ju"(?) and "cho"(?) are put together, they form a new Hanja character "jo"(?), which happen to be Jo Gwangjo's family name. Consort Hong or Consort Park showed the leaf to Jungjong and claimed that this was the heaven's warning that Jo would take the throne himself after eliminating Hungu faction. Jungjong, who himself rose to the throne through a coup d'état, began to distrust Jo Gwangjo. [When Goryeo dynasty fell and was replaced by Joseon dynasty, there was popular saying "Son of wood will gain the country" (? ?). When two Hanja characters meaning wood(?) and son(?) are combined, they form a new character "yi"(?), which happens to be the family name of Yi Seong-gye, who deposed the last king of Goryeo and founded Joseon dynasty. These phrases helped Yi Seong-gye win popular support for the new dynasty as heaven's will.]

When Jo petitioned Jungjong to revoke special privileges of people who falsely contributed to 1506 coup, Jungjong's suspicion was further heightened. Now feeling certain that Jungjong was sufficiently estranged from Jo, Hong Kyung-ju secretly entered the palace to warn King Jungjong that the court was filled with Jo's supporters and that no one could dare oppose him openly. Jungjong dispatched a secret letter to Hong Kyung-ju, expressing his fear that Jo Gwangjo would next go after Hungu officials who did contribute to the coup by questioning legitimacy of the coup and then turn against the king himself.[9] Jungjong instructed Hungu leaders to kill Jo Gwangjo and then inform him. On November 15, 1519, Hungu leaders entered the palace secretly at night to bypass Royal Secretariat and present to the king written charges against Jo: he and his supporters "deceived the king and put the state in disorder by forming a clique and abusing their positions to promote their supporters while excluding their opponents, and thereby misleading young people to make extremism into habit, causing the young to despise the old, the low-born to disrespect the high-born." [10] Inspector General Jo Gwangjo, Justice Minister Kim Jung, and six others were immediately arrested, and they were about to be killed extrajudicially without trial or even investigation.[7] The whole event had appearance of coup d'état except that it was sanctioned by the king.

"What is their crime?"

They would have been immediately killed except that War Minister Yi Jang-gon, who arrested Sarim officials, entreated that ministers should be consulted for such decision. The cabinet meeting on the following day regarding Jo's fate is described in detail in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. Most officials expressed their shock at Jo Gwangjo's arrest and Jungjong's intention to kill him.[11] They entreated that he may have been extreme in his youthful zeal to improve the country but could not possibly have private agenda. Chief State Councillor Jeong Gwang-pil said in tears: "I have frequently witnessed horrid calamities during the reign of deposed king (Yeonsangun), but how could I imagine to see such thing again even after meeting the wise king?" [9] When Jungjong tried to leave, he even grasped the royal cloth to entreat further.[12] He "could not understand on what charges the king wanted to punish them" for "mere demotion of 2-3 ranks would be already excessive." [13] Eighteen younger officials requested to the king to imprison them with Jo Gwangjo.[14]State Council and Six Ministries jointly entreated that punishing Jo and others on such charges without evidence would become a blot on the king's reputation.[15] Even Hong Sook, who became Justice Minister overnight and interrogated Jo, reported to the king that he was "deeply moved" by Jo's loyalty.[13]

New Inspector General Yu Eun, who replaced Jo, protested in even stronger terms: "If Jo Gwangjo is guilty of crime, he should be punished in open and just manner... Instead, Your Majesty is handing out such punishment according to secret words by two people in the middle of night... What is so difficult about punishing few seonbis with authority of king that Your Majesty should do so covertly by sending a secret message?... If there is a crime, it should be dealt with clearly and justly, but Your Majesty appeared to trust and be friendly with them on the outside while thinking of eliminating them in mind." [16] He was finally dismissed after asking Jungjong to "cut my head to please the wicked people." [17] Meanwhile, 150 Seonggyungwan students stormed the palace to protest Jo's arrest and filled the palace with shouts of entreaties,[18] and later 240 students petitioned to claim Jo's innocence and requested to be imprisoned together.[19] There was such popular outpouring for Jo's release that it may have increased Jungjong's suspicion and anger.[20]

Third Literati Purge of 1519

Portrait of Jo Gwangjo

Jo Gwangjo was completely caught off guard with turn of the event. The Sarim faction had scored its biggest victory just four days ago when Jungjong granted their petition to revoke special status for 70 Hungu officials. He continued to believe that Jungjong was misled by his enemies and was confident that he could persuade the king of his loyalty once he could face him in the interrogation. He wrote to Jungjong of his fear for this incident becoming a bloody purge and entreated that he would not regret dying ten thousand times if only he could be granted an audience.[21] However, he would never have a chance to see Jungjong again. Amid petitions for leniency, Jungjong commuted the death sentence to exile, and Jo Gwangjo was exiled to Neung-ju.

Nevertheless, Jungjong was determined to put Jo Gwangjo to death. In the Annals, there was no official demand for Jo's death, not even by Hong Kyung-joo, Nam Gon, and Shim Jung, except for a petition by three Seunggyungwan students [22] (as opposed to 300 who petitioned for his release).[23] Nam Gon rather urged against executing Jo multiple times even as he was adding more and more names to the list of people to be purged through exile or dismissal.[24] Yet Jungjong turned against Jo with the same intensity as when he favored him. He reinstated death sentence by poison for Jo less than a month after their exile. He fired many ministers who entreated on Jo's behalf including Chief State Councillor Jeong Gwang-pill, Deputy State Councillor Ahn Dang, and even War Minister Yi Jang-gon, who took part in arresting Sarim officials.

Jo Gwangjo still could not believe Jungjong's heart really turned against him and hoped to be recalled by the king, keeping a north door open each day during exile. Even when soldiers arrived with poison, he was suspicious that Hungu leaders might be trying to kill him without Jungjong's approval. But when he learned that Nam Gon and Shim Jung became Vice State Councillor and Minister of Personnel, he finally realized that Jungjong's change of heart was final.[25]

Before drinking the poison, Jo wrote a poem declaring his loyalty, asked his people not to make coffin too heavy, and apologized to the owner and servant of the house for not paying his debt and instead showing them terrible sight and desecrating their house. He then bowed four times toward the north in the direction of palace.[25] (It was customary to pay respect to the king in gratitude for granting poison, which was not an official method of execution and was considered more honorable form of death, instead of beheading or hanging.) When he drank poison, he did not die immediately and soldiers tried to strangle him. Jo rebuked them saying that the king intended to spare his neck by sending the poison and requested for another bowl of poison.[12] He died at the age of 37. Later when there was a severe drought in the country, the populace blamed that it was heaven's punishment for killing an innocent seonbi.[26] Many of remaining Sarim scholars left the central government in protest and retreated to rural provinces. Most of Jo's reforms were revoked with his fall.

The Third Literati Purge of 1519 (? ?) was widely viewed as a missed opportunity to reform Joseon Dynasty by later generations because Joseon politics soon degenerated into power struggle among in-laws and relatives of the royal family. A year after the purge, a histographer wrote that bribery and corruption became widespread in the court and local administrations.[27] Later, purge victims were venerated as "Wise Men of Gimyo" (Gimyo is the Korean calendar name for year 1519) while three main instigators (Hong Kyung-ju, Nam Gon, and Shim Jung) were collectively called "Evil Three of Gimyo".

Hong Kyung-ju died two years later of natural causes, but Shim Jung and Consort Kyung of Park clan were later executed on a framed charge of cursing the crown prince in a plot concocted by their rival Kim Anro (Kim Anro was killed by rival Yoon Won-hyung, who in turn was purged by King Myeongjong - Shim, Kim, and Yoon are all considered some of the most corrupt officials in Joseon dynasty). Nam Gon, who was reportedly deeply saddened at Jo's death,[25] regretted his role in the purge and willed that all his writings be burnt, saying that he "deceived the world with vain name," so no writing of his remains except for one short poem although he was one of the most famous writers of his time. Nam Gon, initially of Sarim faction as a disciple of Kim Jong-jik, was a moderate supporter of reforms and supposedly sought Jo Gwangjo's friendship but was rebuffed by Jo and his supporters as a petty Hungu official.[28]

Ten years after the purge, King Jungjong again began to advance Sarim scholars by recalling them from exile and reappointing them to the royal court. Nevertheless, Jungjong did not rehabilitate Jo Gwangjo's name to the end despite endless petitions, saying at one time that what happened in 1519 was "neither right nor wrong." [29] (There is speculation as to what Jungjong really believed about the leaf incident since Jungjong never accused Jo of disloyalty or anything but pure intentions after first few days of Jo's arrest. From very early on, Jungjong's official position has been that Jo intended well but caused a situation that could only be rectified with a purge.[19]) Jo Gwangjo was finally rehabilitated by his son Injong of Joseon, and was posthumously honored as a chief state councillor by Seonjo of Joseon in 1568.


Jo Gwangjo was greatly venerated by later generations of Korean neo-Confucianists as their spiritual head, but was also criticized for mistakes that led to the failure of his reforms. Yi Hwang and Yi I, often considered Joseon's two greatest Confucian philosophers, lamented that he entered politics too early before his scholarship was completed and pursued his reforms too rapidly. Nevertheless, Yi Hwang praised him as one of "Four Wise of the East" along with Kim Gwoeng-pil, Jeong Yeo-chang, and Yi Eonjeok and said that Jo showed the direction for all seonbis to aim and follow and unveiled the foundation of governing a country. Jo Gwangjo's emphasis on neo-Confucian ethics as practical philosophy has been very influential as the previous focus has been on more literary aspects of Confucianism. It was also during his time that Confucianism finally took roots deeply among the common populace. Even though Confucianism was the official state religion since the founding of Joseon Dynasty, Confucian practices were largely limited to aristocratic class. His dream of making neo-Confucianism the predominant philosophy of Joseon was soon accomplished by the reign of Seonjo, fifty years after his death. He was canonized and enshrined in the Seonggyungwan in 1610, one of only eighteen Korean Confucian scholars so honored by the Joseon Dynasty. However, Sarim faction that venerated Jo Gwangjo's name did not attempt to carry out his reforms when they seized political power during Seonjo's reign and all the while they maintained power until the end of Joseon dynasty. Some people blame Jo Gwangjo for dogmatism of Korean Neo-Confucianism, which became very conservative and caused Korea to resist changes and new learnings from abroad.

Today his name remains a byword for reform in Korea, and his example is often raised when there is a controversy about a reform.

Modern portrayal

his disciple and successor Baik In-geol

Jo Gwangjo was the protagonist of 1996 KBS TV series Jo Gwangjo and was a prominent character in 2001 SBS TV series Ladies of the Palace.

In MBC TV series Dae Jang Geum (2003-4), he does not appear as a character, but his name is mentioned frequently as the political foe of fictitious villain Right Minister Oh. Main protagonist Jang-geum and Lady Han are falsely accused of being in conspiracy with Jo Gwangjo while male protagonist Min Jung-ho is portrayed as his supporter (Min Jung-ho found a doctor for him and is shown recruiting his followers to return to politics). In the musical version of Dae Jang Geum, Jo Gwangjo is a prominent character as a friend of Min Jung-ho.

In KBS TV series Immortal Admiral Yi Sun-sin (2004-5), Yi Sun-shin's grandfather is described to have been executed for supporting Jo Gwangjo and Yi's father is arrested while holding a memorial rite at Jo's abandoned house.

In 2006 KBS series Hwang Jini, the male protagonist Kim Jeong-han is portrayed as Jo Gwangjo's disciple while another character Lee Saeng become Hwang Jini's bodyguard after he leaves his father's home in disgust because his father is Jo Gwango-jo's friend but betrays him to become prime minister.

In these three dramas, Jo Gwangjo does not appear as a character but serves as a plot device to set the main characters as righteous people by association.


  • Kalton, Michael (1988). To Become a Sage. Translation from Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning by Yi T'oegye (1501-1570). Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-06410-1. Retrieved .


  1. ^ Joseon Annals, September 15, 1604. No. 4
  2. ^ KBS World, January 23, 2010, "Jo Gwangjo, Reformer who dreamt ideal neo-Confucianism"
  3. ^ Annals of Joseon Dynasty, October, 1520
  4. ^ Annals, September 21, 1562: "When Jo Gwangjo became Inspector General and passed the streets, everyone on street bowed to pay their respects. The slanderers claimed that he tried to gather popular support with a different purpose."
  5. ^ Annals, January 19, 1520
  6. ^ Annals, March 2, 1519
  7. ^ a b Annals, December 21, 1544
  8. ^ Annals, September 21, 1568
  9. ^ a b Annals, April 13, 1520
  10. ^ Annals, November 15, 1519
  11. ^ Annals, November 16, 1519, No. 12
  12. ^ a b Yi Geung-ik, Records of Yeonryeoshil
  13. ^ a b Annals, November 16, 1519, No.12
  14. ^ Annals, November 16, 1519, No.7
  15. ^ Annals, November 16, 1519, No.20
  16. ^ Annals, November 18, 1519
  17. ^ Annals, December 30, 1528
  18. ^ Annals, November 16, 1519, No.13
  19. ^ a b Annals, November 17, 1519
  20. ^ [1], Reformer Jo Kwang-jo (in Korean)
  21. ^ Annals, November 16, 1915, No.11
  22. ^ Annals, December 14, 1519
  23. ^ Annals, November 19, 1519, No.2
  24. ^ Annals, December 14, 1519, No.3
  25. ^ a b c Annals, December 16, 1519
  26. ^ [2] Weekly Donga, "Dream of reform cut by the conspiracy" December 15, 2009
  27. ^ Annals. November 16, 1520
  28. ^ Originally consulted from this page in Korean
  29. ^ Annals, April 7, 1544

See also

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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