Korean mainlanders often describe Jeju Island as Korea’s tropical paradise but several hundred years ago it was anything but for a mainlander. During the Joseon era (1392-1910), politics was a dangerous game and those who played poorly often lost not only their positions but also their lives. If they were lucky, they were merely banished to the ends of the kingdom – which often meant Jeju Island.
Cho Kwan-bin (1691-1757) was one of those nobles who found himself banished to Jeju. His family had been quite powerful but due to a sudden change in politics, found itself no longer welcomed in the Korean court. In 1723, Cho’s father and several other members of his family were executed. Cho was spared through the efforts of one of his distant relatives and exiled to Naro Island (where the present South Korean spaceport is located).
In 1724, King Yeongjo ascended the throne as Joseon Korea’s twenty-first monarch. Yeongjo was one of Joseon’s longest reigning monarchs – holding the throne until his death in 1776 at the age of 81.
With Yeongjo’s ascension to the throne came a reprieve for Cho and in 1725 he was permitted to return from exile. His favor in the Korean court was relatively short-lived though.
According to Cho, in 1731 he ventured to speak his mind “concerning certain rebels, relatives of the king, and other flatterers who basked in [the king’s] favour” and for this he was arrested and brought before King Yeongjo.
Cho claims that there was “only a foot of space between me and [the king’s] threatenings of thunder and lightning” but he spoke his mind and was “indifferent to life and death, reward or punishment.”
It was a dangerous game he played for while Yeongjo was known for being a rather austere king – having chosen to live a life of frugality and abhorring the consumption of alcohol – he is perhaps better known for his notorious temper. No one was safe, even his son, Sado – the crown prince. Perhaps one of the most infamous acts in Korean history was perpetrated by Yeongjo when, in 1761, he sentenced his own son to death.
Depending on the sources, Sado displeased his father through his sexual depravity and cruelty while other sources claim he was suspected of plotting against his father. Yeongjo ordered Sado to be sealed in a large rice box and left out in the hot sun where he soon perished.
Fortunately for Cho, in 1731 Yeongjo appears to have been more understanding and instead of ordering Cho to immediately be executed he banished him to Taejong-hyon on Jeju Island.
But this was no light punishment.
“A man must be a sinner in order to see [Jeju Island], not an ordinary sinner but one who just escapes the death sentence,” declared Cho and crossing from the mainland to the island was more “feared than the hand-cuffs, the cangue collar or a deadly sickness.”
Cho’s family was convinced that “being a poor thin specimen as far as physique goes, given to all kinds of ills and ailments and overly sensitive to every change of climate” he would surely perish. But they were wrong.
Accompanied by two of his servants, whom Cho described as “most faith[ful], kindly creatures” he arrived on Jeju Island on the last day of the year. It had been no easy journey. Crossing the strait had been extremely difficult due to the pounding of the waves. “The strongest men on board were found deathly sick, vomiting in the last gasp,” wrote Cho. “Some lay unconscious, their spirits completely gone. Others, not knowing what they said called on God and Buddha.”
Yet, despite his earlier fears, Cho seemed completely undisturbed by the passage across the strait and, in fact, relished the opportunity he had been granted through the grace of his king. He claimed that while others prayed for relief he merely laughed and recited poetry.
During his exile on Jeju, Cho wrote a great deal of poetry under his pseudonym Hoehon in which he described life on the island, the myths surrounding it and Mt. Halla and the conditions of his exile. His stay on the island had not only an impact on his writing but also his life. After witnessing the hardship the women divers went through in harvesting abalone, Cho swore he would never again partake of the delicacy.
After a relatively short banishment, Cho was once again allowed to return to Seoul where, after a few years, he again entered into the arena of politics. His career was like that of the ocean’s waves – rising to power quickly and then as quickly falling. Once again, in 1753, he ran afoul of those in power and was again exiled but, just as quickly, pardoned and made a magistrate. Four years later he was dead.