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The political might of Kingdom's Prince Lee Chang

By Cara Gabrielle Olaguer Published Aug 28, 2020 12:00 am

A lot of discussion towards the excellence of the original Netflix TV series Kingdom has been entertained, so this article is dedicated to the study of its central character, Lee Chang, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Joseon.

Warning: The following has [SPOILERS] for the first and second season of Kingdom.

More specifically, we will scrutinize how his leadership led Joseon to stability following a monstrous plague. To do this, we will explore the main issues in the series and examine the solutions Prince Chang provided throughout Seasons One and Two of Kingdom.

The Crises of Joseon

Queen Cho and Lord Cho Hak-ju meet by a pond, where beneath lay corpses of dissidents to their rule.

The following were the prevalent issues encountered by Prince Chang and his retinue towards their aim to provide safety and security for the Kingdom of Joseon: (1) lack of accountability among Joseon leaders and the nobility towards the suffering of citizens, (2) food insecurity faced by Joseon citizens amid the aftermath of a war and pandemic, and (3) monstrous plague caused by the resurrection flower of uncertain origins.

We discern that the origin of Joseon’s issues centered on the overwhelming power and control of the Haewon Cho Clan – a fact substantiated by the limited sphere of influence Prince Chang has over Joseon courts as an illegitimate son of the King and a concubine. Further, we saw the threat of the Cho towards the kingdom in three levels:

PoliticalThe Haewon Cho, as a clan of elites, installed members into key positions across Joseon, which is why we saw Queen Cho, Chief State Councilor Cho Hak-ju, Cho Beom-il as Commander of the Royal Army, and Cho Beom-pal as Magistrate of Dongnae in power. Given this overwhelming political capital, they used any means necessary to preserve their hold over the kingdom.

The most notable examples of this included the manipulation of information regarding the King’s disease, torture and imprisonment of dissidents, and abduction of pregnant women under false pretenses to secure a male heir.

Martial – With the Haewon Cho in control, they manipulated state forces to execute their nefarious schemes across Joseon. We saw this occur when they used the plague as a weapon of war against Japanese invaders three years prior the events in the series, and again, towards Joseon citizens throughout the seasons in Kingdom. Further, they mobilised troops to quell Prince Chang’s revolution in Sangju and Hanyang each time their hold over Joseon was threatened.

Social-Economic – The Cho further abused their power when they exploited the system by earlier raising the tax the common people had to pay following the war with Japan. In another instance, they made refugees out of citizens living in Joseon’s southern regions when they closed the borders surrounding Gyeongsang’s province under the context of preventing the plague from reaching the city capital of Hanyang, thereby saving themselves.

In doing so, various areas suffered a food crisis, making local leaders refuse to accept citizens as the plague overwhelmed the province.

On the other hand, we have nobility under the Cho’s influence willingly going along with their schemes by levying their privilege over the common people. This was illustrated when nobles (1) consistently wasted food in lavish celebrations despite the economic recession following the war with Japan that left common people with little to eat, and (2) abandoned common people seeking refuge from the plague in Dongnae and Sangju despite Prince Chang’s attempts to save the survivors.

Military officers and nobles of Dongnae escaping, abandoning the common people to the monstrous plague.

It’s easy to see why these negligent acts greatly crippled the kingdom’s progress and led to the endless suffering of its citizens. That being said, it was also what made Prince Chang choose to become the antithesis of those who used their status and authority to prioritise their lives at the cost of sacrificing the common people.

The “New World” of Prince Chang

Prince Lee Chang and Mu-Yeong with the citizens of Dongnae seeking refuge from the threat of the plague.

We thus define political might as the moral (credibility and sincerity) and executive (determination and ingenuity) command a leader has over those they are responsible for. Throughout the series, we consistently saw the Prince evince this quality to improve the status quo for Joseon citizens. Further, in contrast to the Cho’s displays of dominance, Prince Chang chooses to become a paragon of hope amid the pandemic crisis. We thus illustrate Prince Chang’s resolve towards the crises of Joseon:  

PoliticalAs he strived to be the antithesis to the Cho, Prince Chang exercised his authority with responsibility. We first saw this in his plan to overrule the Cho with a call for his ascent to the throne – a scheme that failed given the Cho’s maneuver to brand him and his supporters a traitor.

Despite this failure, he still continued to establish stability for Joseon when he: (1) prevailed upon the authorities of Dongnae to quarantine the city, (2) led survivors to hold out against the monsters in Jiyulheon, (3) stripped an inconsiderate magistrate to save refugees in Sangju, (4) convinced soldiers in Mungyeong Saejae to help him provide safety for the refugees; and (5) persuaded Hanyang authorities to help him end the Cho’s reign of terror in the Kingdom.

MartialThe Prince, as de facto chief commander of Joseon’s forces, used various tactics to provide security for Joseon citizens against the plague. This was exhibited in his careful consideration of the Cho’s and the monsters’ strengths and weaknesses as he outlined several defensive strategies to save the people from the abuses of the Cho and onslaught of the plague.

A prime example of this is the fortresses his group utilised in Jiyulheon clinic at Dongnae, and Byeongsang Stream and Unpo Wetland in Sangju. Further, we saw the Prince continuously fight in the frontlines with his group against the monsters and Cho’s forces in Gyeongsang province and the state’s capital at Hanyang.

Prince Chang and the survivors prepare to hold out against the beasts in Jiyulheon.

Social-EconomicTo deal with the adverse situation – food and refugee crises – that followed the Cho’s abuse and the plague, Prince Chang worked with his group to resolve the issue with determination. We first saw this when he shared his food with the survivors in Jiyulheon, and again used ingenious schemes to deliver food for the refugees in Sangju when their food stores were wasted in a blaze of fire.

Refugees flock to the citadel of Sangju.

More than this, however, was his compassion for the citizens when he still continued to aid desperate Gyeongsan villagers after understanding that poverty caused them to steal cargo from a state ship and attempt to betray his group. We also saw this earlier when he asked Mu-Yeong, his personal guard, to help him despite his betrayal since he understood that the guard was doing his best to provide for his wife and realised that he was facing threats from the Cho. Another instance of this is his decision (1) not to abandon his group against the plague and (2) stay his hand against the young prince despite his earlier desire for the throne.

The refugees of Sangju look helplessly to the food supplies wasted in a blaze of fire.

Aside from this, his plan of action typically comprised of: (1) consulting people with experience and knowledge of the situation, (2) challenging the status quo by doing away with social classes to work together for solutions for the problems, and (3) re-formulating strategies towards the plague and the Cho’s maneuvers after failures and amid criticisms towards him.

All this is a testament to Prince Chang’s desire to do right by the citizens of Joseon.

If there’s one thing to criticize of the Prince, it will be his tendency to overwhelm himself by taking on fighting the plague too readily when they are faced by a horde of them – which is why it is likely that the certain pauses he makes are especially emphasised in order for him to re-evaluate his assertive undertakings. While some viewers may take this as a sign of weakness of the Prince, there may be another explanation instead.

Prince Chang and his group makes a stand against the monsters that were released in the palace.

Rather than it being a weakness, it is instead meant to highlight the Prince’s determination against the seemingly insurmountable crisis. It signifies that Prince Chang is not a leader who speaks of excuses and apologies. Rather, he is a man of action and firm resolve. After all, if a leader’s sentiment is not followed by commitment, there’s no credibility to be found at all.

Thus, his executive command is founded on a mutual trust and respect for the capabilities of his retinue – i.e. he respects people based on their empathy and contributions rather than their social and economic status. More than that, his moral command compared to the Haewon Cho and others is nonpareil since he prioritises the safety of his people above all. Further, he encourages and supports those who choose to serve the people for the greater good.

It’s not hard to see why those around him would go to great lengths to support him because he is consistent in resolve to help the people of Joseon. Hence, the political might of Prince Lee Chang was what saved the kingdom of Joseon from the pandemic crisis.

(Images from Kingdom)