Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Amhaeng-eosa: secret royal inspector in Joseon Kingdom


A scene from “Amhaeng-eosa,” an epic drama series in the 1980s

This is the seventh of a 20-part Jangseogak Archives series in collaboration with the Academy of Korean Studies. ― ED.

By Sim Jae-woo (The Academy of Korean Studies)
Professor Sim Jae-woo of the Academy of Korean Studies
These days, news of a modern version of the “amhaeng-eosa” or secret royal inspector prevails throughout the country.

There was a story about a military unit that introduced an undercover system to unearth internal problems in its barracks. Meanwhile, undercover election observers have reportedly worked against fraudulent and manipulated elections.

This shows that the concept of the Joseon Kingdom-style secret royal inspector is still being applied today.

So, who actually were the amhaeng-eosa in the Joseon Kingdom? They were undercover officials directly appointed by the king and were sent to local provinces to punish corrupt officials and comfort the sufferings of people while traveling incognito. The amhaeng-eosa system was one of the most excellent inspection systems in the world, the likes of which is very unique and hard to find in other countries.

In early China, there were royal inspectors appointed by the emperor looking over local provinces, but they did not perform inspections incognito like the Joseon secret royal inspectors did.

The secret royal inspectors were dispatched to local provinces to monitor government officials and look after the populace on behalf of the king. If the inspectors found cases that were unjustly judged, they presided in a retrial to redress wrongdoing. Consequently, they became welcome guests to the public. Amheeng-eosa were the secret officials dispatched by the king in the era but their achievements are worth reviewing from this point of time.

Generally, young and incorruptible officials were recommended for amhaeng-eosa by retainers and were appointed directly by the king, though their positions were not as high a rank as people may think. For their secret missions, they received a letter of appointment or “bongseo” from the king, and a description of their destination for surveillance was written in the letter. The appointed officials were basically required to leave as soon as they received their missions.

The secret royal inspectors kept "horse requisition tablets" called “mapae” and “rulers” called “yuchuk” with them throughout their missions. Mapae was a symbol of the secret royal inspector. There were horses carved on the mapae, meaning the inspectors could commandeer as many horses as were carved on the mapae. The mapae was used not only to ask for horses but also to prove identity. Whenever the inspector made an appearance, a team of royal inspectors reportedly exclaimed: “Now entering, the secret royal inspector,” presenting the mapae in hand. The mapae was used as a stamp of the inspector.

Yuchuk is a brazen ruler and usually two yuchuk were given to the secret royal inspector. One was to measure the implements of punishment for criminals, to restrain the overuse of punishment by checking whether each province implemented the right punishment according to the code of law. The other one was to investigate whether the measurement system for taxation was correctly followed.

However, the mission of a secret royal inspector was not an easy job. Although they were the rigorous royal inspectors who even terrified tyrannical officials, they faced many challenges. They traveled wearing ragged robes, broken hats with little money. Sometimes they had to sleep in an old inn, were exposed to danger or even got mysteriously killed while performing surveillance and concealing their identity.

After the completion of their mission, inspectors presented reports to the king called “seogye” and “byuldan.” In seogye, rights and wrongs committed by former and active local officials were written in detail, and the byuldan included indictments of the province that they inspected, the mood of the populace and virtuous villagers for awards. The Joseon Kingdom took actions based on the reports of the inspectors, for instance, taking disciplinary measures against corrupt local officials and conferring awards on virtuous women and exemplary sons.

Of the secret royal inspectors of the Joseon era, Park Mun-su (during KingYeongjo's reign) is considered to be the most famous figure. He had a lot of administrative experience and was thoughtful and caring about the lives of ordinary people, so he insisted that the government help people starving from famine and make a national effort to encourage old maids to marry. It is obvious that such a person must have left a strong impression on the people when serving as righteous a judge and secret royal inspector.
Although the extraordinary works of the inspectors have been known as Park's achievements in many legends and folk tales so far, it is important to remember that there were numerous scholars and officials who served as inspectors besides Park.
Representative figures who served in the Middle Joseon period include Yi Hwang, who is the most prominent Korean Confucian scholar; Park Se-dang, who had advanced views and ended being accused as a samunanjeok (one who causes social agitation by interpreting the dogma of Confucianism samunanjeok from a different standpoint); Nam Gu-man, who was active during Sukjong's reign; Jeong Yak-yong and Kim Jeong-hui who were the greatest scholars of the 19th century; and Uh Yun-jung and Lee Gun-chang during Gojong's reign.

There were a large number of inspectors who tried to share the suffering, joy and sorrow of the people by travelling in rags instead of donning official uniforms.
As mentioned above, various secret royal inspectors were in action during the 500 years of the Joseon Kingdom.

The system was very effective in reducing corruption in provinces and tightening discipline among government officials. Therefore, we need to inherit and develop the secret inspector system and its sprit as an exemplary case for bureaucratic operations.

Currently, the Jangseogak Archives contain many documents about government officials who served as royal inspectors, and even literature related to the 21st King, Yeongjo, who made a special effort to solve the civil complaints of people by sending secret royal inspectors frequently.

In this ideal season for an outing, why don’t you come visit the Jangseogak Archives and see the vivid tracks of the Joseon secret royal inspectors?
Source: The Korea Times

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