King Chǒngjo, an Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea

By Christopher Lovins

Subjects: Korean Studies, World History, History, Biography
Hardcover : 9781438473635, 246 pages, April 2019
Paperback : 9781438473642, 246 pages, January 2020

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Table of contents


1. Early Modernity and Absolutism

2. Politics in Early Modern Korea

3. The Politics of Confucianism

4. Power and Factions

5. Building a System

6. Military Matters

7. Chŏngjo in an Early Modern World


The first detailed analysis in English of monarchy and governance in Korea during King Chŏngjo’s reign.


Were the countries of Europe the only ones that were "early modern"? Was Asia's early modernity cut short by colonialism? Scholars examining early modern Eurasia have not yet fully explored the relationships between absolute rule and political modernization in the highly contested early modern world. Using a comparative perspective that places Chŏngjo, king of Korea from 1776 to 1800, in context with other Korean kings and with contemporary Chinese and European rulers, Christopher Lovins examines the shifting balance of power in Korea in favor of the crown at the expense of the aristocracy during the early modern period. This book is the first to analyze in English the recently discovered collection of 297 private letters written by Chŏngjo himself. These letters were a vital channel of communication outside of official court historians' scrutiny, since private meetings between the king and his ministers were forbidden by custom. Royal politics played out in an arena of subtle communication, with court officials trying to read the king's unstated, elliptically hinted at intentions and the king trying to suggest what he wanted done while maintaining plausible deniability. Through close analysis of both official records and private letters, including Chŏngjo's "secret letters," Lovins shows that, in contrast to previous assumptions, the late eighteenth-century Korean monarchs were not weak and ineffective but instead were in the process of building an absolutist polity.

Christopher Lovins is Assistant Professor of Korean History at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, Korea.


"…a welcome addition to the scholarship … King Chŏngjo: An Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea considerably illuminates the Korean kingship of the period and deftly outlines Chŏngjo's ability to shift the balance of power back toward the throne. " — Journal of Asian Studies

"…this book revealed interesting facts about various overseas research findings from different cultural areas, and in this respect it is a very useful text. It was quite a rewarding experience to read a refreshingly solid piece of scholarship dealing with the reign of Chŏngjo. " — Seoul Journal of Korean Studies

"This book is a fascinating and highly detailed account. It fills a gap in scholarship by illuminating Korea's neglected eighteenth century. " — George Kallander, author of Salvation through Dissent: Tonghak Heterodoxy and Early Modern Korea