The world was stunned last month by the sudden announcement that Pope Benedict XVI was standing down, the first pope to resign in almost 600 years.

In the history of East Asian and Vietnamese monarchies, however, there have been many instances of emperors or kings resigning. They either retired completely or, in Japan and Vietnam, continued to exercise power from behind the scenes. The last emperor emeritus in China was the Qianlong emperor, who abdicated in the 60th year of his reign, 1796; but the last East Asian monarch to go into retirement was Emperor Gojong of Korea.

In 1897, the then King Gojong severed Korea's millennium-old tributary ties with China and declared the founding of the Empire of Korea, with himself as emperor. Such grandiose gestures and titles belied the reality that the "empire" was a puppet state and that Emperor Gojong was completely under Japan's thumb. Gojong did make several failed attempts to break free from Japanese control but when he tried to seek international support for Korean independence at the Hague Peace Convention in 1907, his fate was sealed. The Japanese forced him to retire, as Emperor Emeritus (Taehwangje), and pass the throne to his son. In 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea and demoted Gojong to King Emeritus (Taewang). He died suddenly in 1919 and it was widely rumoured that he had been poisoned by Japanese agents. In death, the unfortunate Korean king-emperor became the rallying figure for his country's independence fighters.

Illustration: a yip