COVID Creative Events, Projects / May 29, 2021



The following historical events, in our view, had a major impact on the life of Emperor Gojong (1852 -1919) as also the manner in which he was depicted in his caricature in ‘Vanity Fair’.

1. Till the year 1860, Korea maintained very little contact with the outside world. It connected with the West only in the last quarter of the 19th century which earned the country the epithet of “Hermit Kingdom”. 

2. Our findings show that Korea regarded China as its suzerain and had a relationship of equality with Japan. Such a foreign policy, combined with its long period of isolation from the outside world, was to turn out costly both for Emperor Gojong and his country. 

3. The impact of the abovementioned policy was that Korea had no friends in the international arena who could come to its aid during a crisis or even speak on its behalf in international fora such as the Hague Peace Convention (1907).

No doubt, Emperor Gojong received some support from the Russian Consul, Ivanovic Weber as when he was under threat, he was given refuge in the Russian Legation. This help, however, did not make any material difference.

4. In contrast, China had to open up to the West as it lost the Opium Wars. Japan, as a result of the Meiji Restoration, modernised itself by opening up to the West. Among other things, it modernised and strengthened its armed forces. This would later have a very major impact on the region.

5. As Japan grew more powerful, it began to eye Korea for colonization. Some European countries, like France, also had a similar outlook. The victory of Japan in the First Sino- Japan War (1894 – 95) and in the Russo – Japanese War (1904-5), sealed the fate of Korea. 

Japan had also entered into a treaty with Britain and it had the support of the US President, Theodore Roosevelt. This ensured there would be no opposition to Japan’s colonisation of Korea. There was also no international outcry in respect of the forced abdication of Emperor Gojong in favour of his son Sonjong, in 1907, after conclusion of the Hague Peace Convention. His son remained a puppet of Japan. 

6. As the Dowager Queen Sinjeong desired to rule for a longer period as Regent, she picked Gojong over his elder brother, Yi Jaemyun. Hemgseon, the father of Gojong,  who ruled together with the Dowager Queen, favoured isolation. This would have unfortunate repercussions for the son.

7. When Gojong ascended the throne of Korea in 1863, he tried to make amends for the long years of Korea’s isolation by opening up his country to the outside world. His wife, Queen Min Jayoung (1851-1895), who was seen as the real power behind the throne, advocated an open door policy. It is perhaps for this reason that her brutal assassination was engineered by the Japanese. 

8. It appears that Emperor Gojong was devoted to his country and worked for its betterment. However, circumstances and some delay on his part in taking decisive steps, made the tenure of his rule ineffective and led to its tragic end.

9. The tenacity and sense of devotion of Gojong to his country even under adverse circumstances, needs to be appreciated. Even though he was, for all practical purposes, out of power, he sent representatives to the Hague Peace Convention in 1907 to speak about the predicament of Korea.

10. Japan prevented them from attending the Conference but the representatives could at least brief the press. They spoke about the threat which Japan had the future potential to  pose to the US and Britain. Their words were prophetic and speak well of the foresight of Gojong.

11. Emperor Gojong was loved by his countrymen which is apparent by the attempted revolt against the Japanese after his death.

12. It seems that a number Western powers had a poor opinion of Emperor Gojong and held him in contempt. The language used in the news item in the Western Gazette of 26th July, 1907 is evidence of this.       


1. It appears that the caricature is based on a picture of Emperor Gojong where he is shown wearing a  golden gown with an orange collar and a decorative band across his chest. In the picture he has an intelligent and dignified look. His hands are seen only up to his elbows.

2. In the caricature it is not clear, at least to us, whether Gojong is sitting or standing. His hands are shown as resting on the table. Somehow, his posture appears like that of a supplicant and not that of a King or an Emperor.

3. The robe in the caricature looks a little ill-draped and the material has also been made to look poor or inferior in quality and unbefitting royalty. The colour of the band across his chest has also been changed. All these detract from the appearance of the Emperor. Was it deliberate on the part of the artist?

4. The face of Gojong, as depicted in the caricature has clear lines of worry and there is fear in his eyes. He appears to be frightened.

5. It appears to us that the negative perception and contempt with which many in the west regarded Emperor Gojong and perhaps for his country as well, is reflected in his caricature.

6. One possibility is that by presenting him in unimpressive clothes in a dishevelled state and showing him with fright writ large on his face as well as with fear lurking clearly in his eyes in his caricature, the artist deliberately wanted to depict the helpless situation of both Emperor Gojong and of Korea at that point of time.

7. To sum up, we feel that Emperor Gojong had many laudable qualities and he was extremely devoted to his country. He tried to govern his country under difficult circumstances, some of which were inherited. The people of Korea loved him. These aspects should have surfaced in his caricature. Sadly, justice does not seem to have been done to Emperor Gojong in the caricature which appeared in ‘Vanity Fair ‘.

It appears that this caricature is a reflection of the perception of the East by the Western powers in the Victorian and Edwardian era.

By Amar Peter Chandra   & Suman Chandra nee Tandon 

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