Christopher LovinsJan 6, 2020
An Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea
SUNY Press 2019
Though traditionally regarded as a monarch who failed to arrest the gradual decline of his kingdom, the Korean king Chŏngjo has benefited in recent decades from a wave of new scholarship which has reassessed both his reign and his role in Korean history. The latest to do so is Christopher Lovins, who in his book King Chŏngjo: An Enlightened Despot in Early Modern Korea (SUNY Press, 2019) explains how as king Chŏngjo governed not as a weak ruler but as an absolute monarch. Lovins situates this within modern definitions of absolutism, showing how their conceptualizations apply to Chŏngjo just as effectively as they do to such period rulers as the Chinese emperor Qianlong and the French monarch Louis XIV. Motivated by the experiences with court factionalism that he blamed for the death of his father, Chŏngjo drew upon Confucian thinking to strengthen his position ideologically. These arguments he used to centralize power in his hands, most dramatically in his strengthening of the traditionally weak Korean army. Though many of Chŏngjo’s changes were undone after his death in 1800, Lovins makes the case that Chŏngjo’s legacy should be considered separate from the failings of his successors rather than as part of them.