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    Chapter 131: Change (1)

    The ministers pondered what Hyang’s words meant and soon began to voice their thoughts one by one.

    “A tax on property… you mean to levy taxes based on the ownership of slaves?”

    “Imposing taxes… There will be considerable resistance, but if implemented, it could be a good strategy.”

    “The problem is the resistance.”

    “I too find the Crown Prince’s proposal innovative, but I believe resistance will be an issue.”

    The ministers’ reactions were largely similar.

    ‘The idea seems good, but the worry is the resistance to taxation.’

    Hyang’s response to the ministers’ answers was straightforward.

    “If they resist, we simply crush them.”

    “What?”

    The ministers were stunned by Hyang’s extreme hardline approach, asking briefly with bewildered expressions. In response to their expressions, Hyang asked:

    “Originally, to whom does the land of Joseon fundamentally belong? Fundamentally speaking.”

    After a moment of thought, Maeng Sae-seong replied.

    “Fundamentally, it belongs to His Majesty the King. Fundamentally speaking.”

    “Correct. Therefore, we’re essentially paying rent for using His Majesty’s land. Wouldn’t you agree?”

    ‘The concept of public land isn’t so different!’

    Maeng Sae-seong nodded at Hyang’s point.

    “Fundamentally, that is one way to see it. You are advocating the idea of royal land ownership, Your Highness. However…”

    Hyang cut off Maeng Sae-seong.

    “But! That’s exactly the problem! It’s His Majesty’s land, but we recognize it as owned through generations. If someone passes the civil service exam, it’s natural for them to start a government position. But! If they choose to further their studies and then enter public service, they are granted tax exemptions.”

    Hyang paused to catch his breath before continuing.

    “Through numerous ‘buts,’ they have amassed wealth. This is shameless! And now, they resist? Where are such shameless people!”

    At Hyang’s outburst, Lee Jik and Maeng Sae-seong quietly conversed.

    “The Crown Prince is on a rampage again.”

    “But fundamentally, he’s correct. Fundamentally…”

    “That’s the problem.”

    While Lee Jik and Maeng Sae-seong conversed quietly, Hyang continued.

    “That’s why I implore His Majesty. If these landowners consider slaves as property, then tax them accordingly!”

    Hyang then explained the tax system he had in mind.

    – The people of Joseon pay a basic tax once a year. This tax will be named ‘Property Income Tax.’

    – This Property Income Tax is calculated based on the income earned and the assets owned over the year.

    – Assets include owned land, houses, slaves, livestock, etc.

    – A progressive tax rate will be applied.

    – A particularly high progressive rate will be set for slaves.

    “By doing this, the landowners will have no choice but to reduce their number of slaves. As the number of slaves decreases, they will have to either give their agricultural land for sharecropping or employ wage laborers.”

    “Hmm…”

    The ministers nodded thoughtfully at Hyang’s explanation.

    The income from sharecropping was significant for the regional landlords, but their primary source of revenue came from the fields directly cultivated by their slaves. Most of the land being sharecropped had originally belonged to small-scale farmers who had been forced into tenancy.

    If Hyang’s proposal to impose a high progressive tax rate on owned slaves was implemented, the regional landlords would have no choice but to reduce their number of slaves.

    “The problem is the resistance from these landlords. Most of them are registered in the local registers.”

    Hyang responded firmly to Maeng Sae-seong’s point.

    “If the local registers are the problem, then we simply abolish them.”

    “What!”

    The ministers were shocked by Hyang’s decisive response, but Hyang looked at them with a puzzled expression.

    “Why are you so surprised? Didn’t King Taejong already abolish the Yuhyangso?”

    [TL/N: Yuhyangso or ‘Local Government Advisory Committee’, is an organization made up of retired high-class officials in charge of watching out for immoral politico-cultural behaviour and conduct of the local authorities.]

    “Well, that’s true, but…”

    The ministers replied with hesitant expressions at Hyang’s point.

    ***

    Retired high-ranking officials sought to distinguish themselves from the local villagers in their hometowns. To assert their dominance in rural society, they needed an organization centered around themselves.

    This led to the creation of the Yuhyangso.

    However, the Yuhyangso constantly clashed with the local officials. The main reason was that the members of Yuhyangso often belittled the local officials due to their higher social status.

    While going through the records, Hyang chuckled upon reading this.

    “Even in the Joseon era, the problem was ‘back in my day…'”

    As these conflicts intensified, the Yuhyangso was eventually abolished.

    ***

    “If the Yuhyangso could be abolished, what’s the problem with the local registers?”

    “Well… that’s true.”

    When Hyang mentioned the Yuhyangso, the ministers backed down.

    As the ministers stepped back, Hyang pressed forward.

    “The local registers are also a problem. What are they? They’re just records of the noble families in the regions, right?”

    “Yes.”

    “Isn’t that a problem? As I’ve said before, and repeatedly, those who pass the civil service exams should serve the country. Is it right for them to hole up in their hometowns, reaping benefits without contributing? Is that the way of the wise?”

    “That’s not right…”

    Unable to refute Hyang’s points, the ministers had no choice but to retreat further. As they stepped back, Hyang continued to press them.

    “When the initial 30-year tax exemption was granted, those with integrity should have devoted themselves to their studies and then served the state. However, those who prolong their stay in their hometowns under the excuse of ‘inadequate learning’ fall into two categories. One, the genuinely dull who lack scholarly talent, and two, the cunning opportunists who use this as an excuse to enrich themselves. Neither type is needed in Joseon.”

    Maeng Sae-seong responded almost to himself.

    “Well, that is true, but…”

    “Therefore, it’s only right to redirect the benefits not only from the slaves but also to those who truly need them.”

    Upon hearing Hyang’s words, Heo Jo spoke up.

    “And who are those who truly need them?”

    “They are the families of those who died or became disabled before reaching retirement age while serving the country. Their children should be taken care of by the nation at least until they reach adulthood and can fend for themselves.”

    “I see…”

    Heo Jo nodded in agreement with Hyang’s words.

    With Heo Jo’s agreement helping to clarify the situation, Hyang summarized the discussion.

    “In summary, reducing the number of slaves is not just about decreasing their numbers; it’s about diminishing the power held by the regional landlords.”

    The ministers nodded in agreement with Hyang’s final words. The ministers present were high-ranking officials, and reflecting on their own hardships to reach their positions, they had little sympathy for those who lived comfortably in the regions without much effort.

    “Regarding the related policy…”

    “Wait…”

    As Hyang was about to explain the related policy, King Sejong raised his hand to interrupt him.

    “Listen, Crown Prince.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    “Your opinion is good, but it requires further discussion. Let’s end it here for today.”

    “I obey Your Majesty’s command.”

    “And…”

    King Sejong paused for a moment, looking at Hyang with a slightly worried expression.

    “I understand somewhat what you’ve learned from examining the records in the Royal Archives, but do not forget that the regional landlords are also subjects of our Joseon.”

    “I will bear it in mind.”

    “Good. You’ve worked hard today. Go and rest.”

    “Yes.”

    Following King Sejong’s command, Hyang bowed respectfully and then left the Kangnyeongjeon Hall.

    After Hyang left, King Sejong sighed.

    “Hmm… What do you think of the Crown Prince’s opinions?”

    Responding to King Sejong’s question, Lee Jik answered.

    “Though extreme, his words are not incorrect.”

    “Is that so? What do the Left State Councilor and the Minister of Personnel think?”

    Addressing the question to Maeng Sae-seong and Heo Jo, known moderates in the court, they took a moment to organize their thoughts before replying.

    “In the past few years, the increase in slaves due to frequent famines is a fact. However, it is also true that the number of new slaves being born has sharply decreased due to the Slave and Concubine Law reducing the number of female slaves. But overall, the increase in the number of slaves is undeniable, so some adjustment is necessary.”

    Following Maeng Sae-seong’s response, Heo Jo continued.

    “It’s true that the regional landlords have expanded their influence by exploiting frequent famines. Their growing power challenging the authority of His Majesty and the court is also a fact, necessitating a response,” Maeng Sae-seong acknowledged.

    With Maeng Sae-seong and Heo Jo showing support for Hyang’s proposal, King Sejong stroked his beard thoughtfully.

    “I too find merit in the Crown Prince’s opinion. However, the problem lies in the backlash from the regional landlords.”

    The ministers hesitated to respond immediately, wary of making a slip of the tongue that could lead to repercussions or leave a significant blemish on their record.

    While the ministers were carefully formulating their thoughts, Kim Jeom spoke first.

    “Regarding the budget, it’s true that the landlords are exploiting tax exemptions, causing issues in revenue. This is indeed shameless and disloyal.”

    “Is the Ministry of Taxation suggesting that we actively adopt the Crown Prince’s proposal?”

    “That is our position.”

    “What if the regional landlords respond with armed resistance?”

    At King Sejong’s question, Jo Mal-saeng stepped forward.

    “Thanks to the smooth progress of the northern frontier development, there is flexibility in troop deployment.”

    King Sejong seemed pleased with Jo Mal-saeng’s response but cautiously confirmed the reality.

    “Does this mean that we can suppress any armed resistance that may arise?”

    “The majority of the troops stationed in the northern region are cavalry. I believe suppression is feasible.”

    “Hmm…”

    As King Sejong pondered Jo Mal-saeng’s response, Kim Jeom intervened again.

    “Your Majesty, as you have been reforming the administration both centrally and regionally by setting examples and conducting experiments, I suggest using the same approach for tax reform. This way, if any rogue elements resort to armed resistance in the experimental areas, they can be effectively subdued, serving as a strong example to other regions.”

    “A strong example… An example…”

    Mulling over the idea of setting an ‘example,’ King Sejong looked around at his ministers.

    “Make an example of them… The Ministry of Taxation’s view is correct. Ministers, based on the Crown Prince’s and the Ministry of Taxation’s opinions, deliberate and devise a policy.”

    “We obey Your Majesty!”

    Thus, in this session led by King Sejong, a decision was made to implement one of the most drastic policies.

    The historian recording these events added a note:

    – Accordingly, the ministers began to deliberate policies concerning slaves and landlords.

    The historian comments:

    It’s true that the regional landlords abused their privileges. However, the court’s decision is extremely harsh, and the landlords’ backlash is foreseeable.

    It seems a storm is brewing.

    ***

    The next day, King Sejong summoned Hyang.

    “Crown Prince, announce your proposal related to the policy discussed yesterday.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    Following King Sejong’s command, Hyang first outlined some precautions before discussing his proposal.

    – All these policies are interconnected with strategies regarding war, construction, and slaves.

    – Thus, each policy requires careful consideration, but overall coordination and adjustment are also essential.

    “I understand the precautions. Now, tell me about the policies you’ve thought of.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    Hyang cleared his throat and began to explain.

    – First, we need to impose restrictions on the interest rates charged by landlords on their tenant farmers.

    “I’ve thought about this aspect too. I plan to prohibit charging interest exceeding the principal amount.”

    “That seems appropriate.”

    Responding to King Sejong, Hyang continued:

    – Limit the proportion of rent paid by tenant farmers, and prohibit additional charges for seeds and fertilizers.

    – Develop large-scale horse breeding, especially large breeds, using horses brought in by traders, to enhance terrestrial transportation.

    – Utilize this improved land transportation to enhance the movement of goods and facilitate the relocation of people.

    “In simple terms, we use post stations to operate horse-drawn carriages.”

    “Horse-drawn carriages?”

    – Distribute a standardized identity document, made by the state, to all adult citizens.

    – Make it mandatory for citizens to register their departure and arrival when relocating, enabling accurate tracking of their movements and efficient management of household registration.

    – Strengthen the management of household registries to enhance the mobilization capabilities of the military.

    As Hyang’s speech grew longer, the faces of Heo Jo and Kim Jeom gradually turned pale.

    Hyang’s proposals continued for a considerable duration.

    “…That is all.”

    “Whew…”

    As soon as Hyang finished speaking, King Sejong and the ministers let out a collective sigh of relief, while the historians and clerks massaged their sore wrists.

    King Sejong, after reflecting briefly on Hyang’s words, instructed the historians.

    “Historians, listen.”

    “Yes, Your Majesty.”

    “The Crown Prince’s remarks are quite extensive, and there might be parts that the ministers missed. Therefore, summarize those parts and distribute them to the ministers.”

    “We obey Your Majesty’s command.”

    At King Sejong’s command, the historians and clerks answered with gloomy faces.

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