Caterpillars

Jungjong was a fundamentally weak king because of the circumstances that placed him on the throne, but his reign also saw a period of significant reforms led by his minister Jo Gwang-jo, the charismatic leader of Sarim scholars. He established the local self-government system called Hyang’yak to strengthen local autonomy and communal spirit among the people, sought to reduce the gap between the rich and poor with a land reform that would distribute land to farmers more equally and limit the amount of land and number of slaves that one could own, promulgated widely among the populace Confucian writings with vernacular translations, and sought to trim the size of government by reducing the number of bureaucrats. According to the Annals of Joseon Dynasty, it was said that no official dared to receive a bribe or exploit the populace during this time because as Inspector General, he applied law strictly. These radical reforms were very popular with the populace but were fiercely opposed by the conservative officials who helped to put Jungjong on the throne. They plotted to cause Jungjong to doubt Jo’s loyalty by writing “Jo will become the king” (주초위왕, 走肖爲王) with honey on leaves so that caterpillars left behind the same phrase as if in supernatural manifestation. Jo Gwang-jo was executed, and most of his reform measures died with him in the resulting Third Literati Purge of 1519. For nearly 50 years afterward, the court politics was marred by bloody and chaotic struggles between factions backing rival consorts and princes. In-laws of the royal family wielded great power and contributed to much corruption in that era.

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