By Yang Sung-jin
In a poll released last week in the U.S., 53 percent of those surveyed by Public Agenda described children in the U.S. as “rude, spoiled and lazy.”
Surveys conducted elsewhere would probably produce similar results. Kids are seldom courteous as they could be in the eyes of wary parents, be they American or any other nationality.
Unruly children were sometimes a serious headache for the Choson royal family and court officials — especially when the child in question was a Crown Prince preparing to take over the throne.
For instance, officials filed an appeal to King Yongjo in October of 1740, seeking to begin the education of the young prince: “Since the Crown Prince has reached the age of six, he is required to attend formal lectures immediately.”
Persuading a six-year-old child to study difficult Chinese classics would be far from easy under any circumstances, especially in the case of Yangnyong Taegun (1394-1462).
Yangnyong, the eldest son of King Taejong, was named as Crown Prince in 1404. At age 11, Yangnyong remained uninterested in the so-called royal education.
In June of 1405, Saganwon (Office of Censor-General) duly put forward a formal suggestion to King Taejong regarding the mischievous future king: “It is deeply regrettable that the Crown Prince is absorbed in mischief and play, while showing no interest in his studies.”
Yangyong was unmoved by this warning and continued to live a life of leisure, frustrating court officials.
King Taejong, worried about Yangnyong’s education, decided to take stern measures. On Oct. 21, 1405, the king ordered the cudgeling of the eunuch who served Yangnyong.
Slap the Eunuch!
The rational was simple: The crown prince couldn’t be cudgeled in consideration of his noble status, even if he was responsible for the slow progress of his own study.
The only solution, therefore, was to punish the lowly eunuch instead of the intractable crown prince in a show of the king’s strong will to “teach” royal principles.
At the insistence of Saganwon, King Taejong finally fixed his son’s study hours in December, 1408.
“The crown prince should attend regular study sessions twice a day and the supervisor in charge must provide detailed records of what he learns in each session. If the prince fails to achieve his daily targets, punish his supervisor,” the king ordered.
In 1409, two local chiefs presented arrows and bows to Yangnyong as gifts, unaware that the court was preoccupied with the prince’s education and that hunting was definitely not part of the curriculum.
Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) immediately filed an impeachment charge against the gift-givers, Park Shin and Kim Kye-ji: “These officials induced the prince to ignore his studies by presenting him with hunting equipment.”
But the king did not punish the local chiefs in question. Instead, King Taejong ordered the prince to practice archery in the court, which sparked strong opposition from disgruntled officials.
“If crown prince is allowed to study and practice archery at the same time, he may pay little attention to his studies in the future. Let him focus on learning until next year,” high-ranking official Min Sol said.
Yet the king, who was a military officer himself before ascending to the throne, remained firm in his convictions that “Powerful and courageous kings can easily dominate subjects while weaklings are likely to fail.”
Despite the enthusiastic efforts by the king and his officials, Yangnyong made little progress in his studies.
On May 19 of 1412, Saganwon filed an appeal which shed light on the everyday life of the prince: “It is high time for the prince to study hard. But looking into the records of the prince’s activities, we find he has rarely persisted in his studies for five days in a row.”
In the appeal, Saganwon said the prince may show more diligence if five royal teachers take turns giving the lectures in an effort to pique the interest of the bored royal student.
In November of the same year, the king was reported on the new obsession of Yangnyong: falconry and wayward night life. It turned out that flattering officials had given falcons to the prince as presents.
In 1418, the trouble-making prince, aged 24, had still not ended his unruly behaviors. He took an official’s concubine as his own mistress and attempted to bring in her into the court. But the scheme was exposed and the concubine was kicked out, having given birth to Yangnyong’s child.
According to the Annals, King Taejong deeply regretted that he had raised such “unqualified” prince, shedding “a shower of tears.”
On June 2 of 1418, court officials, Sahonbu and Saganwon issued a joint statement calling for the withdrawal of Yangnyong’s crown prince status.
Four days later, the king decided to give up on Yangnyong and delivered the final message: “Although you are wild, I have long wished you would change into a new person. How come you refuse to repent? Since every official calls for you to give up your status as crown prince, I have no other choice but to comply. You yourself have invited this misfortune.”
King Taejong conferred the status of crown prince on his third son, Chungnyong Taegun, who later became King Sejong, one of the greatest monarchs in Choson history.
In hindsight, King Taejong’s painful efforts to choose a suitable successor among his children bore fruit in later years.
King Taejong’s ordeal is undoubtedly an exceptional case. But being a parent is always tricky since it means taking on a great deal of responsiblity.
It is hardly surprising that in the Public Agenda poll in the U.S., about half of those surveyed said parents were to blame for their children’s lack of civility and morality.