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Author: Djun Kil Kim
Date: 2014
The History of Korea
From: The History of Korea(2nd ed.)
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Series: The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 33
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Military Regime

The Goryeo military officials had been discriminated against under the hereditary aristocratic rule of the Confucian munbeol, or the central yangban descent group. They were neglected in promotions and rewards in spite of their meritorious services during the frequent wars against the Khitan and the Jurchen. It was a tradition in Korea since the Greater Silla period to set a civilian as supreme commander over the military, as the court had valued diplomacy and scholarship as a better means to secure peace under the civilized East Asian world order. In the pax Sinica world, belles-lettres was a much more important subject for the state exam. Military men, therefore, were disdained for their unlettered qualities and thus treated as inferiors among the ruling class with whom neither the royal family nor the aristocratic elites wanted to intermarry.

In 1170, discontented military leaders, headed by Jeong Jungbu (?–1178), succeeded in a coup d'état. Thereafter, the military power ruled by a junta known as jungbang went far beyond the established Page 76  |  Top of Articleauthority of the monarchy, replacing the throne as they willed. This period, however, was marked as a time of disorder, when the early military leadership was challenged by internal struggles among themselves as well as with local revolts and peasant uprisings. It is notable that the 1198 slave insurgency in the capital, though brutally suppressed, aimed to overthrow the strict status system of medieval Korea. Finally, Choe Chungheon (1149–1219), son of a military general, rose to power after liquidating all his military rivals in 1196. Strengthening his private political army, known as the Sambyeolcho, he stabilized Goryeo politics and established a 62-year-long rule of the Choe House, which became a hereditary shogunate.

Under the military regime, some Confucian literati continued to serve the court bureaucracy, while others hid themselves in Buddhist monasteries in the mountains, developing a Belles-Lettres School of Buddho-Confucianism. The hereditary aristocracy was reorganized considerably by intermarriages between the royal families, those literati officials who remained, and the military, a few of whom were of mixed blood from the slave class. Choe Chungheon, known as a learned man of statesmanship despite his military family background, invited many Confucian scholar-officials to join his government. Among them, Yi Gyubo (1168–1241) served as prime minister of the Choe regime. He was recruited by Choe Chungheon in 1192 when he wrote the epic ballad King Dongmyeong (the posthumous name of Jumong, the legendary founder of Goguryeo), in which he praised Goryeo as the genuine successor of Goguryeo. A rather romantic visionary, he rejected the rational realism of Kim Busik's Samguk sagi, or Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms, which had instead underscored the Greater Silla origin of Korean national identity that conquered the other two Han-Ye-Maek kingdoms on the Korean peninsula.

Forty-Year War with the Mongols

At the turn of the thirteenth century, Genghis Khan (1165–1227) united all the warring clans and tribes in Mongolia by force, conquered all the polities and kingdoms in Central Asia, and occupied north China, defeating the Jurchen Jin dynasty. The Mongol relationship with Goryeo started in 1219 with an alliance against the Khitan, who were invading the peninsula, taking advantage of the fall of the Jin, their former overlords. During this brief period of diplomacy, conflicts between the two allies swelled after the murder of a Mongol envoy who had demanded disagreeable tribute from Goryeo. Page 77  |  Top of ArticleIn 1231, the Mongols invaded and reached the capital, Gaegyeong. They withdrew after a peace negotiation, under which Goryeo recognized Mongol overlordship. The Mongols in turn left officials behind to occupy the northwestern territory.

The heirs of the Choe House, finding Mongol intervention in Goryeo affairs unacceptable, finally decided to fight against the invaders. In 1232, Goryeo moved its capital to Ganghwa, an island located off the west coast of the central peninsula, believing that the Mongol forces were weak when it came to fighting over sea. The military regime was able to defend its island capital for almost 40 years against a series of Mongol invasions. The Mongol forces, however, rained devastation on most of the Goryeo mainland, destroying many precious cultural heritages, including the first Tripitaka Koreana, made during previous wars with the Khitan. Led by the exiled island court, the Korean people continued to fight against the invaders in spite of enormous loss and sacrifice, even killing off a Mongol commander in the guerrilla war that ensued. Praying to Buddha for peace, the court endeavored over 10 years to reproduce 81,258 pieces of woodblock printing plates of the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures, completing them in 1251. This second Tripitaka Koreana is still well preserved today in the Haeinsa temple in South Korea, designated by UNESCO in 1996 as a World Cultural Heritage.

Due to the Koreans' metallurgical skills and the ability to manufacture high-quality paper, it should be noted that Korean printing technology developed remarkably during this period of war. In 1234, a book of ritual ceremonies was said to be printed by the first metallic movable type, more than two centuries earlier than Johannes Gutenberg's 42 lines of the Bible. The oldest book printed with the metallic type now in existence, however, is a Buddhist book of tenets, printed at a Korean temple in 1377 and preserved today at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

Yuan Overlordship

As the war with the Mongols dragged on, the Choe regime on the island capital suffered from financial pressure. Although taxes could be collected by seaways, their grip over the inland territories was nonetheless loosened. In 1258, a palace coup against the fourth heir of the Choe House by another military ruler ended the regime's 62-year-old reign. Shortly thereafter, the new regime quickly sued for a peace negotiation with the Mongols, who had softened their stance. Kublai Khan (1215–94), now ruler of the Mongol dynasty, welcomed

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The 81,258 pieces of woodblock printing plates of the second Tripitaka Koreana, the Buddhist scripture, which were completed by the Goryeo court in 1251 to pray to Buddha for protection of the kingdom from the Mongol invasion. The Tripitaka Koreana, The 81,258 pieces of woodblock printing plates of the second Tripitaka Koreana, the Buddhist scripture, which were completed by the Goryeo court in 1251 to pray to Buddha for protection of the kingdom from the Mongol invasion. The Tripitaka Koreana, designated as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage in 1996, is preserved at Haeinsa temple near Daegu, South Korea. (Ralph Paprzycki/

the peace offer from Goryeo, a kingdom that had persistently resisted for so long. For him, peace with Goryeo became a political advantage in the bloody succession struggles among his brothers in the 1250s. Meeting the Goryeo crown prince in the Mongol capital, Kublai accepted all the conditions Goryeo offered, including the continuance of the monarchy and the immediate withdrawal of Mongol forces from the peninsula. After the peace treaty with the Mongols, the Goryeo military rulers began to contend with the monarchy, which used Mongol influence to restore the power of the kingship. In 1270, the Goryeo monarch finally returned to the old capital, inviting Mongol intervention to end the reign of the military rulers who opposed the Mongols' request for Goryeo support in their expedition to Japan. As a result, the Sambyeolcho, the political army of the military rulers, revolted against the monarchy and continued their anti-Mongol resistance in the south islands until they were suppressed in 1273. Thus, the 42-year war with the Mongols virtually ended the military regime period.

In 1271, Kublai Khan, who had been cultivated by Chinese tutors since his youth, proclaimed the Yuan dynasty, thus sinicizing his reign. In 1274, Goryeo became known as an in-law kingdom to Yuan China when the Goryeo king was made to marry a Mongol princess. Page 79  |  Top of ArticleFor eight generations thereafter, all the Goryeo crown princes were forced to continue this practice of intermarriage with the Yuan imperial family. Under Yuan overlordship, Goryeo conceded to the Yuan direct rule over its northeastern territory and accepted downgraded titles for the king and chancelleries in the central bureaucracy. Moreover, in 1274, Goryeo was reluctantly mobilized, forced to build warships and supply troops for a Yuan expedition to Japan. However, Kublai Khan's first attempt to conquer Japan by mobilizing the Goryeo navy was wiped out by a typhoon that the Kamakura shogunate in Japan called the kamikaze, or “godly wind.” Nonetheless, Kublai's ambition did not end there. After conquering the last remnants of the old Song dynasty in 1279, he remobilized Goryeo the year after to prepare for a second expedition against Japan. In 1281, the Yuan-Goryeo forces again launched toward the Japanese archipelago, while the former Song navy sailed around the islands to attack from the west. This time, too, the allied expedition forces met with strong seasonal typhoons, the kamikaze, having hesitated for several months on the sea. During these two forced mobilizations, Korean labor and resources were wasted considerably.

Under Yuan overlordship, the Korean people in general suffered severely from the burden of enormous tribute requirements, which included gold, silver, ginseng, medicinal herbs, hunting falcons, and so on. In addition, the Yuan demanded many Korean artisans and women every year. It was a fashion for the polygamous Mongol aristocracy to take a Korean woman as one of their wives. The Mongol overlordship, moreover, resulted in a prevalence of pro-Yuan collaborators in Korea who gained privileges for their cooperation. The character of the Goryeo aristocracy had changed as it intermarried with the military during the rule of the junta, and now it changed once more with the inclusion of these collaborators. In the provinces, great estates, known as nongjang, increased as this new aristocracy seized state lands improperly. The greater the nongjang, the less the state taxes on those lands. Ironically enough, most of the Goryeo kings, though of mixed Mongol blood, showed nationalistic enthusiasm for reform politics and fought against the profiteering collaborators for national interest, using the personal influences of their Mongol mothers in the Yuan court.


As much as the Korean people had paid the price under Yuan overlordship, Korea was able to join the global civilization of the Mongol Page 80  |  Top of Articleempire. Compared with the pax Sinica periods during the eighth through the twelfth centuries, Korean trade and commerce increased remarkably not only in scale but also in diversity due to new contacts with the Islamic world. These new developments entailed advances in science and technology. Cotton cultivation had already spread over Yuan China in the thirteenth century. Mun Ikjeom (1329–98), an envoy to the Yuan, brought back cottonseeds from south China and first cultivated them on Korean soil in 1364. Shortly after, mass cotton production, using the new invention of the wheeled loom, created a revolution of clothing at a time when only rugged hemp cloth, expensive silk, or ramie fabrics were used. The Yuan further developed gunpowder, invented by the Chinese in the eleventh century, into powerfully explosive cannons. This technology was learned from the Central Asians conquered by the Mongols. Yuan forces used explosive gunpowder during the Japanese expeditions but kept its production methods secret from Goryeo. Later, in the fourteenth century, Choe Museon (?–1395) learned these methods from a visiting Yuan merchant. Choe was recruited by the Goryeo court in 1377 in order to produce the gunpowder with which Goryeo was able to crush the Japanese marauders who frequented the Korean coasts.

In the early fourteenth century, new agricultural technologies, such as irrigation and deep plowing, were introduced to Korea by books on rice cultivation from Yuan China. Interestingly enough, scholars believe from recent empirical studies that a remarkable population growth in Korea occurred beginning in the fourteenth century with a prominent decrease of infant mortality rates. This was mainly due to new developments in the use of local herb medicines, which led to an increase of books published on the subject. Local herb medicine was studied and promoted mostly by the local hyangri literati, who were trained in Confucian studies. Above all, the most critical change in this period occurred in spiritual circles. As Buddhism disappointed Korean scholar-officials by its decadence due to the hereditary privileges bestowed by the monarchy, they turned more toward Neo-Confucianism. This new philosophy, known as seongrihak (Nature Principle Learning) or jujahak (Zhuzi Learning), was created a couple of centuries earlier by the Song sage Zhu Xi (1130–1200), who reinterpreted the Confucian classics with a new metaphysical and spiritual perspective in order to counter the sophisticated metaphysics of Buddhism. The thoughts of Zhu Xi dominated intellectual society in the Yuan capital, which some Korean scholar-officials, such as An Hyang (1243–1306) and Yi Jehyeon (1287–1367), had frequented in their studies and exchanges with Yuan scholars. Page 81  |  Top of ArticleAn Hyang is credited with being the first ancestor, symbolically, of Korean Neo-Confucianism.

The decline of the Yuan dynasty in the fourteenth century had loosened the grip of its dominance over the kingdom of Goryeo. After Kublai Khan died in 1294, the Mongol empire was weakened by fierce succession struggles within the imperial family and sporadic rebellions of the ethnic Chinese people under the Mongol rule. By the mid-fourteenth century, the Chinese continent was occupied by several rebel powers, among which Zhu Yuanzhang from south China succeeded in founding a new Chinese dynasty, the Ming (1368–1644), driving the Mongols from the Central Plain back to their homeland in Mongolia.


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Choe Yeong versus Yi Seonggye

For Goryeo, the foreseeable disorder in the East Asian world would be either another crisis or an opportunity to recover the former glory of Goguryeo. Taking advantage of disorder in the continent, King Gongmin (1330–74), the last king anointed by the Yuan, purged the pro-Yuan aristocracy after creating a new diplomatic relationship with Ming China and restoring by force Goryeo rule over the northeastern territory that was under the Yuan directorate. The reform-minded king began to confer with a newly rising group of scholar-officials who, unlike the gwonmun sejok, or the powerful descent clans, passed the civil service exam and were determined to put Neo-Confucian ideology into practice. The kingdom of Goryeo, however, was still plagued by external problems. Chinese rebels from the north, called Red Turban bandits, and Japanese marauders from the south harassed the kingdom incessantly. At one point, Red Turban bandits sacked the capital, Gaegyeong, while continued waves of Japanese marauders made their way inland and devastated vast areas. Internally, the powerful hereditary aristocracy obstructed King Gongmin's radical attempts to reform their corrupt, lavish lifestyles and eventually arranged the assassination of the king himself.

During the turmoil created by the invasions of bandits and marauders, two generals emerged as war heroes: Choe Yeong (1316–88) and Yi Seonggye (1335–1408). While both of them were renowned for their prowess in the military arts and strategies, they contrasted in their policies as well as personal backgrounds. Choe Yeong, descendant of the capital bureaucracy, insisted on a northward invasion of the Page 82  |  Top of ArticleLiaodong Peninsula now occupied by a Ming garrison. Yi Seonggye, son of a local strongman on the northeastern border, anticipated another pax Sinica world order under Ming China and opposed the expedition as impractical. Thus, we have a contrast of two ideologies and political groups: idealistic nationalism versus realistic globalism, and central bureaucracy versus local strongmen.

Gaining power after the death of King Gongmin, Choe Yeong in 1388 launched Goryeo forces toward the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria despite the opposition of Yi Seonggye and others. General Yi Seonggye, a reluctant commander of the expedition forces, decided to use this impractical expedition as a pretext to replace the powerful descent clans in the capital. In the summer of that year, Yi stopped on his way north at Wihwado, an islet on mouth of the Yalu River, and instead turned his army south to Gaegyeong. Diplomatically, Yi chose pragmatic realism in respecting the East Asian world order of the pax Sinica system under Ming China, just as Kim Chunchu and Kim Yusin had done in the seventh century under Tang China. Politically, Yi defeated his rival Choe by the support of the reform-minded Neo-Confucian scholar-officials in Gaegyeong. They expected him, as their leader, to eradicate the deep-rooted corruption and irregularities of the powerful descent clans in the capital.

Indeed, Yi Seonggye, once in power, started land reform in 1391 backed by the Neo-Confucian scholar-official group. He eventually implemented gwajeonbop, or the Rank Land Law, a prebendal land-allotment system. In medieval Korea, land was the major economic source for the state, ruling class, and people. The early Goryeo land system was in disarray because the powerful descent clans, both civilian and military, as well as pro-Yuan families had increased their private lands into large-scale tax-exempt nongjang estates. In the fourteenth century, therefore, taxable lands decreased enough to threaten state finance, military provisions in particular. There was no more available land to be taxed for the salaries of the newly appointed officials. These rising Neo-Confucian scholar-officials, known as sadaebu, supported the landreform policy, whereas most of the hereditary aristocracy opposed it. Under the Rank Land Law, the reformists aimed to redistribute all state land according to the new bureaucratic hierarchy in exclusion of the old aristocracy. For the powerful descent clans, this meant the loss of their privileged private lands, of which those not distributed to the new elite would return to the peasantry. Thus, the peasantry would be better off and the state would earn more taxes.1

The rationalist Neo-Confucian scholar-officials then turned to the Buddhist temples and monasteries enriched by privileged tax Page 83  |  Top of Articleexemption and private donations, strongly criticizing their decadence and corruption. To the rational eyes of the Neo-Confucians, the lavish Buddhist ceremonies sponsored by the throne and the ruling aristocracy were merely a waste of resources. Moreover, since the Goryeo dynasty was founded, the Buddhist priests had not only been protégés of the monarchy but also strong allies of the powerful descent clans. Thus, the anti-Buddhist movement of the new power group aimed to end the religion's political engagements in medieval Korea. Yi Seonggye and the Neo-Confucian scholar-official group had thereby finished groundwork for the founding of a new dynasty.

Jeong Mongju versus Yi Bangwon

Due to his scholarship and martyrdom for his loyalty to the Goryeo dynasty, Jeong Mongju (1337–92) became the most prominent among the earlier Neo-Confucian scholar-officials in Korean history. Although he belonged to one of the powerful descent families, he was recruited by the civil service exam and pursued the pragmatic pro-Ming policy, supporting the land reform and anti-Buddhism policies of Yi Seonggye. He opposed, however, the shift of dynasties promoted by the pro-Yi group because it betrayed the Confucian principle of wangdo, or rule of right, which forbade disloyalty to the king. Therefore, he attempted a political coup to crush the pro-Yi plot to change the dynasty, but failed when he was assassinated.

Yi Bangwon (1367–1422), a son of Yi Seonggye, was also recruited by the civil service exam and trained as a Neo-Confucian literati, joining the new scholar-official group that supported his father. He contributed greatly to the dynasty shift by eliminating political opponents and countered Jeong Mongju's arguments based on the rule of right with the other contrasting Confucian concept of paedo, or rule of might, to rationalize a heaven-mandated new dynasty founding. It is said that Yi Bangwon first attempted to embrace Jeong Mongju before taking action to assassinate him. Dialogue between the two was encapsulated in two Korean traditional poems called sijo, a verse in three tightly structured lines. In entreating Jeong Mongju for his support, Yi Bangwon recited,

What does it matter, whether it's this way or that?
Consider the vines of the arrowroot trees twisted and entangled on Mt. Mansu;
Page 84  |  Top of ArticleWe could be so entwined and live happily for one hundred years.2

And Jeong Mongju responded,

Though I die, and die again, and die a hundred times,
Long after my bones have turned to dust; whether my soul exists or not,
My heart, ever loyal to my Lord, shall never fade away.3

In 1392, supported by the reformist Neo-Confucian scholar-officials, Yi Seonggye was enthroned as the founder of the Joseon dynasty, which would last until 1910. Although Yi used military might to launch the coup d'état from Wihwado Islet, the dynasty shift was a relatively peaceful transition only through several purges and reforms, unlike the Later Three Kingdoms period or the Warring States eras in the Chinese continent and the Japanese archipelago.4 Respecting the Ming Chinese suzerainty, Yi consulted the Ming court and decided to name his new dynasty Joseon—the name originated from the ancient Han-Ye-Maek chiefdoms led by legendary Dangun and Gija. In 1394, the first Joseon King Taejo, posthumous title of Yi Seonggye, moved the capital of his new dynasty from Gaegyeong to Hanyang (today's Seoul), which is located in the center of the Korean peninsula near the mouth of the Han River. He constructed a 17-kilometer wall that connected the four cardinal mountains surrounding the round valley. Behind these walls, palaces, ancestral shrines, offices, stores, and schools were built according to a grandiose master plan. The initial population of this walled city began at about 100,000 and eventually doubled by the end of the nineteenth century. Today, old Hanyang has expanded to the vast metropolis of Seoul, with a population of approximately 20 million.

Architect of the Yangban State

Among the ardent supporters of the shift of dynasties, Jeong Dojeon (1337?–98) was prominent for his anti-Buddhist Neo-Confucianism and his master plan for a sociopolitical system in the new dynasty that he modeled after the Jurye (Ch. Zhou li), or The Rites of Zhou, a canonical Confucian work created by the sage-kings in ancient China. He believed that the utopian political system should be based on sovereign king power, but supported by an elite yangban literati trained Page 85  |  Top of Articleby Neo-Confucianism and practiced in the rites and rituals of the Confucian canon. As a visionary, Jeong suggested a kingdom ruled by a patrimonial bureaucracy of Neo-Confucian yangban scholar-officials, whose power was delegated from a benign monarch. However, he later became victim of a political struggle over royal succession. His assassinator, Yi Bangwon, the third king of Joseon (posthumously named Taejong), was far from a benign monarch. Nonetheless, Jeong Dojeon's vision of the Neo-Confucian rule was eventually realized throughout the dynasty by most of the royal successors and their court officials.

In a modern perspective, the Joseon dynasty in medieval Korea was an authoritarian monarchy, whose power was more concentrated than that of the previous Goryeo dynasty. Technically, the Joseon king, though a surrogate of the Ming cheonja's mandate of heaven on the Korean peninsula, wielded absolute authority over his subjects.5 However, just as in Jeong Dojeon's utopian vision, he delegated his political power to a patrimonial bureaucracy of the yangban scholar-officials. In the provinces, hyangri, the local elite, were degraded to mere working-level clerks, known as ajeon, in service of the yangban magistrates dispatched from the capital. To prevent these magistrates from taking root in local power, each was given limited terms of office. Unlike the hereditary vassals in medieval Europe, the Joseon yangban were rigorously recruited through the civil service examination, known as the gwageo. Despite this, social mobility was limited between classes in various ways, such as the exclusion of the many descendants of the yangban secondary wives, known as seoja, from the exam. A school system was created for yangban and elite commoners both in the capital and the provinces.

Once recruited through the gwageo, the Korean yangban, loyal to the monarch, served as executors of the delegated monarchical power. In the earlier period of the Joseon dynasty, the yangban consisted of merely 10 percent of the total population. Civilian yangban were literati who cared primarily for the cultural humanities rather than administrative professionalism. While they openly disdained economic profiteering, they were nonetheless obsessed with bureaucratic power. The military yangban, unlike the knights of medieval Europe, were merely one wing of the bureaucracy under civilian supreme commanders. Both civilian and military yangban made their living solely by salaries and allowances. Unemployment for them meant downfall. Therefore, many were desperate to pass the gwageo, through which they could achieve their status and prestige. In history, however, one can see that many high-ranking officials were chosen from political or military groups that supported the king's policies. For instance, long Page 86  |  Top of Articlelists of yangban who were rewarded with the title of merit subjects, known as gongsin, were usually drawn up after political coups.

Though the Joseon political system was based on the ideal that the king was responsible for the life of the people—a Confucian interpretation of the parent-child relationship—most of the real politics throughout the dynasty's history tended to follow the interests of both the monarchy and bureaucracy in power. Nevertheless, there was enough freedom in the yangban bureaucracy for debate and criticism on policies to curb the king's autocracy. The Joseon king was obliged every day to study the Chinese classics or Korean history and debate issues and policies with his scholar-officials. The words and behavior of the king were recorded exactly by an official court historian in order to be later judged according to Confucian morality by future readers. The king was forbidden to read what the historian had written about him. The articles were only available for others to read after the king had passed on. These records were compiled in Joseon wangjo sillok, the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, which still exist today thanks to a dispersed storage of these volumes. The annals were listed in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 1997.

Sejong the Great

In fact, not all the kings were sagely and learned enough to fit the Confucian ideal of leadership. However, the fourth king of the Joseon dynasty, known as Sejong the Great (1397–1450), was an extraordinary monarch who achieved some of the best works of the yangban state of medieval Korea. King Sejong was enthroned in 1418, when Joseon Korea was placed in the sun in East Asian world. By this time, Joseon had well prepared for this season of prosperity with its newly architected politico-economic systems based on Neo-Confucian ideals. Sejong had an attentive father, Taejong, who eliminated any political obstacles for his heir. Though not the eldest son, Sejong was fortunate as well to have passive elder brothers who conceded the throne in favor of their younger sibling. Moreover, he was surrounded by the efficient military officials who were previously trained by his father and would expand Joseon territories to the north.

As a sage-king, Sejong the Great restored an old Tang-style royal think tank known as the Jiphyeonjeon, or Hall of Worthies, where he debated and discussed policies and issues with a score of brilliant young scholar-officials. One of the great tasks of this think tank was creating the Korean script. Known as hangeul, this is the alphabet still used by Koreans today. Hangeul is a unique writing system

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Joseon dynasty. Joseon dynasty. (Korean Culture and Information Service)

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of phonetic signs. In the preface of his proclamation of hangeul, which was written in vernacular Korean in 1446, one can read King Sejong and his scholar-officials' consciousness of national identity:

The Korean spoken language is different from that of Middle State [China], and not fit for writing in classical Chinese ideograms. Therefore, the people, though they have something to say, are mostly unable to express themselves in writing. In taking compassion on the people, here are newly made scripts of twenty-eight letters. Let the people learn them with ease and use them in everyday life.6

The development of hangeul is just one example of how Sejong the Great helped define the territory, language, and culture of fifteenth-century Joseon into the traditions of the Korea we know today. Indeed, Sejong published a plethora of books translated into hangeul on such subjects as a eulogy of the royal ancestors, Confucian ethics, Buddhist scriptures, agriculture, and sericulture. Publishing flourished due to the remarkable improvement of metallic type and printing technology. Given that literacy was restricted to the ruling elites in premodern society, to invent a writing system easily learned by the common subjects was a revolutionary idea. Furthermore, Sejong sponsored the invention of astronomical instruments such as rain gauges, water clocks, and observatory instruments. All these inventions and publishing developments were in relation to Sejong's interest in the promotion of agriculture.

Population of the fifteenth-century Korea was estimated as five to six million, a remarkable increase in comparison with the previous century. This was due to continued exploitation of local herb medicines and progress of agricultural technologies. However, the state only counted about four million in the censuses it took every three years. A considerable number of people are assumed to have escaped from the list to avoid taxes. Common independent farmers or tenants of the yangbanowned land made up majority of the population. Though both of these paid taxes to the state, the tenants were further burdened by high rent to the landed yangban. The other third of the population were bondservants, known as nobi, both state and privately owned.

Sadae Gyorin Diplomacy

The international relations of the Joseon dynasty were based on the doctrine of sadae gyorin (sadae: attendance on the great; gyorin: goodwill to neighbors), named after the Confucian diplomatic principle of

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ye (Ch. li) in the Mencius. When Qi prince Sen asked Mencius for how to keep good relations with the neighboring principalities, the master answered: “… Only the wise ruler of the small state may pay attendance on the great (sadae) … The greater state ruler who civilizes the small state pleases the Heaven. The small state ruler who pays attendance on the greater one respects the Heaven.”

Thus, the traditional East Asian diplomacy of jogong chaekbong (Ch. zhaogong cefeng; Ja. chōkō sakuhō; Viet. triêùcô′ng sachphong) was institutionalized under the East Asian world order by the Confucian ye (Ch. li; Ja. rei) between the Chinese dynasties in the Central Plain and the autonomous satellite kingdoms in the peripheries. In classical literary Chinese, jogong (Ch. zhaogong; Ja. chōkō; Viet. triêùcô′ng), or the “courtesy compliment to the court,” and jogong (Ch. zhugong; Ja. sōkō; Viet. tô′công), or the “enforced tribute” or “taxes” are two different words pronounced dissimilarly in Mandarin and Japanese, but pronounced similarly as “jo” only in Korean. When the Son of Heaven received the courtesy compliment from the rulers of the periphery states, he bestowed titles to them through the process of chaekbong (Ch. cefeng; Ja. sakuhō; Viet. sachphong), literally, “investiture” in English. In the East Asian world, therefore, yeonho, (Ch. nianhao, Ja. nengō), or reign title (nom de règne in French) of the Son of Heaven in the Central Plain dynasties was generally shared by all the people in East Asia, like the Gregorian calendar in the European world, until the East Asian world order ended in the nineteenth century.

The sadae gyorin doctrine of the Joseon dynasty was dualistic in adopting the traditional jogong chaekbong system in East Asia. As for the Joseon-Ming relationship, the Joseon king sent the jogong (Ch. zhaogong), or compliment, according to the sadae, or attendance on the great, protocol. Then Ming cheonja returned it with the chaekbong (Ch. cefeng) by the investiture of the Joseon king. In this case, Ming is the greater state while Joseon is small. On the other hand, the Joseon-Japan and Joseon-Jurchen relationships applied the gyorin, or goodwill to neighbors, doctrine. In accordance with the gyorin diplomacy, the Joseon dynasty bestowed the chaekbong with the Korean ranks on the Jurchen chiefs on the Manchurian border, the Japanese daimyo of Tsushima Island, and the Ryukyu kings, who sent their jogong compliment to the Joseon court. As for the gyorin relationship with Japan, it was indirectly done through the Tsushima lord. Through the sadae gyorin diplomacy, not only the exchange of compliment and the return gifts between courts flourished but also trade between Joseon and its neighbors. In the capital of Ryukyu Island, for example, there was a small Korean enclave that engaged Page 90  |  Top of Articlein trade with Namman (Ch. Nanman), which included Siam and Java.

During the first half of the fifteenth century, King Sejong launched military campaigns to the northern border with the Jurchen and south across the sea against the Japanese. In 1434, Sejong dispatched expedition forces to construct six fortresses along the Tumen River. Later, he sent another expedition force to the northwestern border to establish four prefectures along the Yalu River. Thus, today's northern border of Korea with China is still fixed along these two rivers. Before the northern campaigns, however, Sejong dispatched forces in 1419 to the Japanese Tsushima Island, where there was located a base of marauders. The expedition was planned and carried out by Sejong's father, the retired Taejong.

Literati Purges

Unlike Sejong, his grandson Danjong (1441–57) was ill-fated to have an ambitious uncle, Prince Suyang (1417–68), who eventually usurped the throne. Organizing a palace coup, Prince Suyang eliminated most of his political rivals, including his own brothers and his nephew king as well. Posthumously known as Sejo, he was enthroned in 1455. King Sejo contributed to the consolidation of the Joseon dynasty with his great achievements. He began codifying previous legislations into the Joseon State Code, known as Gyeongguk daejeon, completed later under his grandson's reign. The State Code describes not only the basic power system of the monarchy but also the Confucian-oriented socioeconomic structure of the yangban state.

Afterwards, the political shift of Prince Suyang's coup became a great issue among the Neo-Confucian yangban literati, who were divided into two groups: those who opposed the coup and those who supported it. To the former, Sejo's succession of the throne by might not only lacked political legitimacy but also violated the Neo-Confucian concept of the rule of right, known as wangdo. The latter supported the rule of might, known as paedo, believing that for the prosperity of the kingdom the weak throne needed a change toward a more vigorous monarch. Again here, one sees the contrast of idealism versus realism. Six loyal scholar-officials who opposed Sejo and attempted to overthrow him were put to death. Another six left the court and hid in the countryside. People named the former the Sayuksin (Six Dead Loyalists) and the latter the Saengyuksin (Six Living Loyalists). These loyalist groups, as years went by, were regarded compassionately by the people, while the supporters of the coup fell Page 91  |  Top of Articleinto disrepute. In the late fifteenth century, a new group of yangban literati, sympathetic to the loyalists, rose to take their place. Many scholar-officials educated in the southern provinces were able to enter the court by the civil service exam thanks to royal encouragement of provincial education. Most of them were taught by retired scholar-officials who advocated the Neo-Confucian concept of rule of right. Jeong Mongju, who did not cooperate with the changing of the dynasty in the late fourteenth century, was esteemed among them as a role model. These new scholar-officials were known as sarim, or rustic literati, because they had emerged from the countryside.

The sarim entering the court from the provinces threatened the vested interests of the royal family and the capital aristocracy, known as hungu, or meritorious yangban, consisting of officials who had been rewarded with the title of “merit subject” after the coup. The latter wanted to maintain the established order of politics. During the early sixteenth century, the conservative capital yangban were able to defeat the progressive sarim scholar-officials through a series of literati purges, known as sahwa, in 1498, 1504, 1519, and 1545.7 The 1498 literati purge was instigated by an article in the annals of the previous king, written by an official historian who belonged to the sarim. In this article, he had quoted a poem of his deceased mentor, which implied that Sejo's rise to the throne was illegitimate. Thus, Sejo's heir, to protect his legitimacy, brutally purged this writer-historian and his group of rustic literati.

In sixteenth-century Korea, due to trade with Ming China and Japan as well as a new beginning in village market commerce, the private land-ownership of the extended royal family, the capital aristocracy, and the rustic yangban continued to increase. This led to the eventual dissolution of the earlier Rank Land Law. These private lands were either tilled by the landowner's nobi, the bondservants, or rented to commoner tenants for as much as 50 percent of the harvest. The commoners were further burdened with taxes and obligated military service. Therefore, they eked out an even more difficult living than the base people, who were exempt from these burdens. In this age of medieval Korea, Jo Gwangjo (1482–1519), a leader of the reform-minded sarim, attempted once more to realize the Neo-Confucian dream of the rule of right. His reform movement, however, was brutally suppressed in the 1519 literati purge. The capital aristocracy feared their merit-title rewards would diminish under his reform policies. Disappointed in the central politics and economically exploited, the people in the countryside began to rebel while supporting various bandit groups. For example, Im Kkeokjeong (?–1562), leader of one of Page 92  |  Top of Articlethese bandit groups, harassed travelers along the major roads connecting the capital and northwestern provinces for three years. Himself a son of a butcher, a base status in Neo-Confucian society, Im led a bandit group comprised of people from various social classes like slaves, commoner peasants, and even fallen yangban.

Literati Cliques

Some of the rustic yangban, who were discouraged by the series of literati purges, abandoned central politics and hid themselves in the mountains, studying and teaching Neo-Confucianism. They opened Confucian academies, known as seowon, which were a sort of Neo-Confucian monastery. Since the first seowon was established in 1543, they increased remarkably to more than 100 by the late sixteenth century, more than 700 by the seventeenth century, and more than 1,000 in the latter part of nineteenth century. As the seowon-educated yangban scholar-officials participated in the court politics, the seowon turned into political power bases of the sarim. The other group of the Neo-Confucian scholars in the seowon, however, concentrated more on metaphysical studies of cosmic principles and human nature than on the practical statecraft of power and prosperity. They believed that adherence to the rule of right, which could only be understood through metaphysical understanding of the cosmos and mankind, would make the state thrive and prosper. Though Neo-Confucianism had started in China, it was now exploding in Korea.

Three scholars were prominent in this apogee of Korean Neo-Confucianism: Seo Gyeongdeok (pen name Hwadam, 1489–1546), Yi Hwang (pen name Toegye, 1501–70), and Yi I (pen name Yulgok, 1536–84). In the Neo-Confucian metaphysical approach to the cosmos and mankind, Hwadam, with his philosophy on the primacy of psycho-physical energy, known as gi (Ch. qi), influenced most of the yangban based in the central region of the peninsula near his hometown, Gaeseong, the former Goryeo capital Gaegyeong. Meanwhile, Toegye advocated the primacy of principle, known as i (Ch. li). His followers were based in Andong in the rustic southeastern region. However, Yulgok, based in the capital region, synthesized the two, advocating a dualism of principle and psycho-physical energy.

In the latter half of the sixteenth century, the rusticated yangban, trained in these numerous private academies in the provinces, reemerged at court through the civil service exam. They organized into literati cliques known as bungdang and strove against each other for political hegemony. However, these cliques, which were first classified Page 93  |  Top of Articleby their seowon connections, later factionalized further according to their political interests. In 1575, the first two groups of literati cliques were called the Easterners and the Westerners, according to the location of their leaders' houses in the capital. Generally, most of the Easterners were the followers of Toegye, the advocate of i, whereas the Westerners were followers of Yulgok, who promoted both i and gi. When Yulgok passed away in 1584 after failing to reconcile the two cliques, the court became dominated first by the Easterners until they were soon fractioned into the Southerners and the Northerners. Clashing for political initiative, all three literati cliques thereafter continued until 1863 to branch off in all directions.


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The Imjin War

Toward the end of the sixteenth century, Nurhachi (1559–1626), later the founder of the Qing dynasty, united numerous Jurchen tribes in Manchuria and began to threaten the East Asian world order under Ming China. Meanwhile, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98) subdued most of the warlords on the Japanese archipelago and began to harbor a naive ambition of conquering the cheonha, the East Asian world. In order to satisfy the warlords, Hideyoshi planned to invade the Korean peninsula and divide the territory among them. Since the Japanese depended on grain, linen, and cotton obtained from Korea, Hideyoshi first asked Joseon to resume trade, which had been suspended after insurrections by Japanese merchants in Korean ports. Upon a lukewarm response from the Joseon court, he threatened invasion if Joseon did not let him make use of Korean roads for Japanese expedition forces in attacking Ming China. Needless to say, the Joseon court, loyal to the Ming suzerainty, rejected his demand. Hideyoshi eventually mobilized a force of more than 150,000. In the spring of 1592, the year Imjin according to the Chinese zodiac, the invaders landed in Dongrae (today's Busan), the southeastern port of Korea. The Imjin War had started.

The kingdom of Joseon at the time was unprepared for this war. By the sadae gyorin diplomacy of the East Asian world order under Ming China, Joseon Korea could maintain national security, if not build its own military power. In Joseon, therefore, the yangban and nobi, the bondservants, were exempt from military service; the enlisted commoners were thus demoralized by this inequality, and those Korean soldiers lacked sufficient training. By contrast, the Japanese forces

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The Imjin War. The Imjin War. (Korean Culture and Information Service)

were well trained and had much war experience from the century-long Warring States period in Japan. Moreover, they were armed with musket rifles that had been obtained from Portuguese merchants Page 95  |  Top of Articleduring the sixteenth century. In terms of military forces and weapons, Korea, except for its cannons, was far inferior to Japan.

The Japanese forces soon crushed with overwhelming power the hastily organized Korean defenses. Only three weeks after landing, they reached and sacked the capital, Hanyang, today's Seoul. After a series of defeats, the Joseon king, who escaped with his court to the northern border on the mouth of the Yalu River, appealed to the Ming cheonja to send reinforcements. Ming China, however, wavered for months before deciding to send troops to punish the invaders for violating the East Asian world order. After sacking Pyongyang and occupying the northeastern coast of the peninsula, the Japanese generals offered to negotiate for peace, giving unfair conditions from their position as victors. The Joseon court rejected their demands.

With the Japanese forces occupying the major roads connecting the main citadels like Hanyang and Pyongyang, many yangban literati in the vast countryside began to organize volunteer guerrilla forces. Although the Korean yangban were not trained as warriors like the Japanese samurai, their instilled sense of Confucian loyalty to the monarchy drove them on in war against the invaders. In fact, the national crisis brought by the Imjin War would be an opportunity for the Korean people to strengthen their solidarity under the yangban leadership. Although the army of the central government was consistently defeated, the volunteer guerrilla militias, mostly peasant commoners led by the yangban, dealt substantial blows to the Japanese. As the war was prolonged, other local government forces, cut off from the court, began to join the resistance too.

Yi Sunsin

Heroes always appear whenever crises arise in history. An unknown admiral, one of the four navy commanders assigned to the southern coast, played a decisive role in defending the kingdom of Joseon. Yi Sunsin (1545–98), born in a waning yangban family, was one of the few military officials who had prepared themselves for national emergencies. Previously, to circumvent Japanese piracy, he had invented wooden warships clad with iron (called the turtle ships for their shape), which now became a powerful tool against the Japanese navy. Given that the Japanese forces largely depended upon overseas supply lines to their home archipelago, Admiral Yi's relentless naval battles certainly disrupted the Japanese expedition on the peninsula. Through four major clashes, the admiral's fleet defeated most of the Japanese ships by luring them into the many narrow bays Page 96  |  Top of Articlealong the southern coast of the peninsula. Indeed, the military prowess of Admiral Yi Sunsin impressed the sixteenth-century invaders so much that the later Japanese supreme naval commander during the 1904–5 Russo-Japanese War performed ceremonial rites to him as a war god before he was to meet the Russian Baltic Fleet on the Korea Strait.

In the beginning of 1593, the Ming court sent a full-scale dispatch of troops to recapture both Pyongyang and Seoul. Yu Seongryong (1542–1607), the Korean prime minister who eventually recommended the king nominate Yi Sunsin as a naval commander in chief of the southern coast, returned to Seoul and wrote in his memoir the miserable scene he found there:

The Japanese had already abandoned the capital the day before. I entered the walled city, following the Ming troops. I saw the people who had remained there. Less than 1 percent of the population had survived, and they were so sick and starved that they looked like ghosts. The weather at that time was very hot. The corpses of both men and horses, scattered here and there, gave out such a strong stench that people passed by hurriedly, covering their noses. All the houses and buildings, private or public, were completely gone. Only a few that were used as the quarters of the enemy were still standing at the bottom of Mt. Namsan in the east side of South Gate. The buildings, including the Royal Ancestral Shrine, the three palaces, the belfry, and all the government offices and schools, which used to be in the north above the main street, were burned to ashes. The Residence of the Little Princess was able to survive because it was occupied by Ukida Hideiye, commander of the Japanese expedition forces.8

After an exchange of wins and losses, the Ming and the Japanese forces began to consider peace negotiations. Thanks to the Korean navy's dominance, the Japanese forces withdrew to the southeastern coast, and the Ming troops advanced southward to confront them. In the summer of 1593, a truce was declared so that diplomacy between Ming China and Japan could get underway. Nevertheless, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a megalomaniac in his own right, would not duly honor the Ming suzerainty, whereas the Ming court, for its part, would not acknowledge the rising independent power of Japan. The negotiations broke down, and in 1597 the war resumed.

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For the Japanese generals, Yi Sunsin, now commander in chief of all the navy forces on the southern coast, was a serious obstacle. Thus, they plotted to alienate Yi Sunsin. Sending a spy, they provided misinformation to the Joseon court about the location of the Japanese forces. The court then ordered Admiral Yi to attack that location. However, Yi, skeptical of the information, disobeyed. The court then fired Yi Sunsin from his post and imprisoned him. Thus, the Korean navy, which Yi had finally succeeded in organizing earlier in the war, was again set in disarray. Without naval support, the Joseon-Ming forces on land were pushed back to the capital by the Japanese. Desperate, the Joseon court finally decided to reinstate Yi Sunsin as navy commander in chief. Upon his release he discovered that the Korean navy had only 12 warships left. On the fifteenth day of the ninth month in 1597, before he launched this tiny fleet to meet the 55 ships of the enemy, he wrote in his war diary,

At a staff meeting, I told all the captains, “Common military practice states that if you fight to die, you shall live, and if you seek to live, you shall die. It also says that if one man guards a narrow passage he can fend off a thousand soldiers. This is our situation. If you disobey even the least of my orders you shall be punished without mercy according to military law.” They gave me their solemn promise.9

Indeed, Admiral Yi fought to die. He defeated the 55 enemy ships with his mere 12 and survived. Yi Sunsin regained the command of the sea with the support of the newly arrived Ming navy. On land, the enemy retreated to the southeastern coastal area as the cold winter closed in. The next year, in 1598, Toyotomi Hideyoshi died. The Japanese invaders had no choice but to withdraw from the Korean peninsula. Chasing the retreating enemy on the sea, Yi Sunsin again fought heroically, burning hundreds of Japanese warships and killing numerous soldiers. Unfortunately, he was caught by a stray bullet from the retreating enemy, and thus passed away a great figure in Korean history.

The War's Aftermath

The Imjin War devastated most of Korea, killing hundreds of thousands of Korean people. Tens of thousands were taken prisoner, and arable lands, houses, palaces, temples, and numerous precious cultural heritages were destroyed. The war, though tragic, was one Page 98  |  Top of Articleof the few interactions between Korea, Japan, and China in the secluded premodern history of East Asia. This period, like the Mongol invasions in the thirteenth century, marked an enormous trafficking of population on the Korean peninsula. More than 150,000 Japanese troops as well as another 200,000 Chinese troops traversed Korean soil. The Ming troops, in particular, consisted of various ethnic groups from the continent. As their stay prolonged, a few of them, marrying into the populace, settled on the peninsula. Many Japanese prisoners of war became naturalized subjects by Korean marriages as well and formed their own communities. Many Korean people moved abroad, too. Most of those who married the Ming troops left Korea with their Chinese spouses for the Chinese continent. Tens of thousand of Koreans were brought to the Japanese archipelago as prisoners of war. Many of these returned after the peace settlement between the Joseon court and the Tokugawa shogunate that had succeeded the hegemony of Japan after Toyotomi Hideyoshi's death. Most of these prisoners, however, stayed in the archipelago, while a few were sold to Portuguese merchants as slaves in Southeast Asia and Europe. As for the gyorin (goodwill to neighbors) side of the doctrine, the Joseon court was satisfied to resume its traditional protocol of diplomatic superiority toward Tokugawa Japan. The protocol dictated that the Japanese envoy, the Tsushima lord, was not allowed to enter the capital but made to stay at the Wa House in Busan while his letters from the shogun were delivered. On the other hand, the Joseon court would send its envoy directly to Edo, the capital of the shogunate. This diplomatic policy would last until the nineteenth century, when the East Asian world order collapsed.

Among the Korean prisoners of war, many scholars and artisans were honorably received by the Japanese warlords, who rewarded them with official posts, salaries, and stipend lands. Japanese Neo-Confucianism in the seventeenth century is largely indebted to the Korean scholar prisoners of war, who became tutors of the shoguns and the warlords. Following the counsel of their Buddhist-monk advisers, some warlords collected many books about Neo-Confucianism, agriculture, and medicine during their occupation of Korean territory. Most of these books were reprinted in Japan after the war by using the printing technology obtained from the Korean prisoners. Among the artisans, the potters in particular were welcomed and highly compensated by the warlords. Since the earlier centuries, Japanese marauders had especially targeted Korean ceramics in their pillaging. The ceramics, used as mere vessels in Korea, were valued as precious treasures in Japan, where only wooden vessels were common. Given that the Zen Page 99  |  Top of ArticleBuddhist tea ceremony became a fashion among the Japanese ruling class, ceramic tea instruments were thought of as a sort of art collection. Thus, the Japanese warlords, when invading Korea, kept their eyes open for Korean potters and their technology, as well as the raw material for producing ceramics. In Korea, as Goryeo celadon began to wane, porcelain known as buncheong (Ja. mishima) was developed with the establishment of the Joseon dynasty. While the former, with its unique color of blue monochrome, reflects the feminine taste of the sophisticated Goryeo aristocracy, the latter, with its gray-blue or gray-yellow engravings, represents the dynamic and masculine temper of the early Joseon yangban. From the late fifteenth century, another type of porcelain was produced with the development of native glazes. These are the typical Joseon white porcelains known today, on which blue or red figures are gracefully engraved on a gray-white background. Japanese warlords brought back not only the potters and the earthen materials of Korean soil but also the kilns themselves. After the war, Japanese ceramic manufacturing advanced remarkably thanks to those captured Korean potters. Today their descendants on Kyushu Island have proudly inherited the ancestors' ceramic artisanship. Indeed, the Imjin War was a ceramic war.

The War's Impact

At the turn of the seventeenth century, the Jurchen Manchu, under Nurhachi, strengthened their hegemony in Manchuria and north China, taking advantage of the ailing Ming dynasty, which was harassed on all sides by the Mongols in the north, the Turks in the west, Europeans such as the Portuguese in the south, and finally, the Japanese in the east. After conquering the Liaodong Peninsula in 1616, Nurhachi proclaimed the state of Later Jin, taking the name of the former Jurchen dynasty. Thus, he was in a position to contend with Ming China and threaten Joseon. Among the literati cliques of the Joseon court after the Imjin War, the dominant and pragmatic Northerners chose a smart policy of neutrality toward the conflict between the Manchus and Ming China. The Westerners clique, however, soon overthrew the king in a coup d'état and turned to a more orthodox Neo-Confucian policy that insisted on loyalty to the Ming dynasty. As Joseon became openly anti-Manchu, the Later Jin invaded the peninsula in 1627 on the pretext that the political coup was illegitimate. The Joseon court, overpowered by the invaders, negotiated for peace. Though the court did not officially recognize the Later Jin suzerainty, it was forced to accept their superiority on a diplomatic level. By the Page 100  |  Top of Articletime Huang Taiji succeeded his father Nurhachi, the Manchus had grown strong enough to conquer the Chinese continent. Huang Taiji, later given the posthumous title of Taizong, changed the name of his dynasty in 1636 to the Qing and demanded that Joseon recognize his suzerainty. When the Westerners-dominated court rejected these demands, Taizong attacked Joseon that very same year. He himself led a force of 100,000, consisting of Manchus, Mongols, and even Koreans who had previously surrendered to the Later Jin. Within five days, the capital was sacked. The king and the court escaped to a small fortress in the mountains and resisted for 45 days. Finally, the king surrendered. Humiliated, he was made to kowtow before Taizong during a ceremony in which he grudgingly accepted the sadae relationship with the Qing dynasty.

The Imjin War resulted in dynasty change both in Japan and in China, but Korea, the greatest victim of the war, did not see any change of dynasty. This factor of dynastic resilience is an important feature of Korean history that is seen repeatedly.10 Whereas the Japanese were driven off with tremendous aid and expense from Ming China, the Manchus came and left quickly, staying only long enough to secure a pledge of loyalty from the Korean court. Moreover, the devastation wrought by the Manchus was minimal compared to that of the Japanese. Ming China, which came to the aid of its “younger brother” Korea, suffered the heaviest political casualties. Weakened by the war effort against Japan and the incompetence of its cheonja, the Ming court was toppled by the Manchus in 1644. Surprisingly enough, the Korean people, who saw their king kowtowing to the haughty barbarian conqueror, did not show disdain toward their incompetent monarch and the ruling yangban class but instead turned their strong animosity against the invaders. During the Imjin War as well, though the people suffered disappointment when their king abandoned the capital and fled to the north, they fought in the resistance under yangban leadership. There is no other reason to explain the people's support of such a weak ruling class but for the Neo-Confucian value of loyalty.

Moreover, the people's predisposition to xenophobia was revitalized after the two invasions from the neighboring “barbarians.” After the Manchu invasion, the people's reaction is implicit in how they idolized three literati heroes who were executed by the invading forces for their anti-Manchu stands. Furthermore, specific plans for northward expeditions against Qing China, though not implemented, were promoted by the next king, who, as one of the princes, had been imprisoned by the Manchus. The pride and prejudice of the Korean Page 101  |  Top of Articlepeople reconfirmed the traditional foreign policy doctrine of the Joseon dynasty: sadae gyorin. Sadae, or attendance on the great, meant that Koreans felt a moral obligation toward their “elder brother” Ming China, who had saved Korea from the Japanese invasion. Placing the international relation in familial terminology was one of the manifestations of a Confucian orientation to the world. Koreans outwardly practiced sadae to the Qing dynasty after the fall of Ming China, but inwardly they began to believe that they, not the Qing dynasty, were the true legitimate heir of East Asian civilization, even using the reign title of the last Ming cheonja until the nineteenth century.

The early Western travelers and, later, traders, missionaries, and diplomats, who met Joseon Korea in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, did not apprehend the Confucian ye-oriented East Asian world order. Hendrik Hamel (1630–92), author of the earliest travelogue on Korea written in a European language,11 served as the bookkeeper of a Dutch East India Company ship that encountered a mishap on the Korean coast in the seventeenth century. He observed people of the Joseon kingdom who were burdened with “tribute” to the Qing court. Hamel misunderstood the different characters in classical literary Chinese, the Tradition (Ch. zhaogong), or “compliment,” as the Tradition (Ch. zhugong), or “tribute” for the “enforced payment of the vassal state to the overlord state” as was the case in ancient European history. Moreover, he was not able to understand the diplomatic delicacy of the Korean attitude to the Manchu barbarian conqueror in the Central Plain in the Chinese mainland.

It is interesting to note here that in 1712 Korea erected a monument on Mt. Baekdu, which came to be seen by a twentieth-century nationalist historian12 as the spiritual home of Korea and, in a sense, the symbol of the origin of the people. This important mountain peak, the highest point in Korea, was on the border with China. And although it is considered an important symbol, the border was never clearly defined and was thus the subject of some dispute with China. From this point in the eighteenth century, however, Korea's claim to the southern half of the mountain, which is the headwaters of the two rivers that form the kingdom's northern borders, the Yalu and the Tumen Rivers, has been well established.

Social History of Change

The Joseon dynasty was marred by the Japanese invasion in the late sixteenth century, but the majority of the long, 514-year dynasty was characterized by great periods of peace, stability, and progress on a Page 102  |  Top of Articlenumber of fronts. Most of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in particular were the monotonous hallmarks of the period. Below a quiet political surface, however, many important changes took place. Some changes were tied to national and international events, while others were the product of a quiet evolution of the society. Some histories dismiss the seventeenth century as simply a time of slow recovery from the two invasions. While that is true, that economic and social recovery took place, there were other things going on which were independent of the wars.

During the reign of King Hyojong (1619–59), an event occurred that seemed inconsequential at the time but was to have a lasting impact on Korean society. The incident was a debate over ritual. According to Confucian ritual texts, the degree to which one mourns for the passing of a relative is defined by the duration of the mourning period. For instance, sadaebu, or scholar-officials, were to mourn for the passing of their parents for three years. The issue at court was complicated. The king's step-grandmother had died. One literati clique at court argued that the king should mourn for three years; the other argued that one year of mourning was appropriate. The division at court was led by two senior scholar-officials. Song Siyeol (1607–89) and the Westerners' clique on one side argued for one year of mourning, whereas Heo Mok (1595–1682) and the Southerners argued for three years. The Southerners won the debate and thereby secured positions in the court for members of their party, and the Westerners were left out.

To understand the depth of the impact of the ritual controversy at the court, we need to examine what was happening in the wider society. In the latter half of the seventeenth century, the Neo-Confucian revolution that helped launch the Joseon dynasty nearly three centuries earlier finally revolutionized the family. Prior to the mid-seventeenth-century household, matters could be characterized as pre-Confucian in many ways. For example, Confucian texts prescribe that ceremonies for the ancestors are the responsibility of the eldest son. The inheritance was also prescribed by primogeniture. But the earlier Korean practice was to divide the inheritance equally between the sons and the daughters, and the ceremonies were conducted on a rotational basis, with each sibling, male or female, oldest or youngest, taking turns hosting the ceremonies. This was in spite of the fact that the ritual texts said the eldest son had the responsibility alone.

The evidence for transformation from these earlier practices is found in inheritance documents from the late seventeenth century. In one, for example, the siblings that were dividing the inheritance after the death of the parents wrote that henceforth daughters were no Page 103  |  Top of Articlelonger to host the ceremonies. It said that somehow Korea had lost the way of the sages—it assumed that in the golden age of antiquity, Korea had done it right, had practiced primogeniture, but over the centuries had fallen into an uncivilized pattern of rotating the ceremonies between the siblings. The document then said that with the current division of property, daughters would no longer be given an amount equal to the sons, but rather they would be given one-third as much. The explanation was that since, by the ritual texts, sons mourned for three years at the passing of a parent and daughters mourned for only one year, the daughter should have one-third as much property. The document went on to say that the daughters should no longer take a turn in the hosting of the ceremonies. In subsequent generations, the daughters' inheritance was reduced to zero (although one could argue that the dowry given a daughter at marriage became a kind of inheritance).

Another aspect of the Confucian transformation of Korea can be seen in the practice of adoption. As daughters lost their rights to inheritance, Korea borrowed another custom from China to solve the problem of not having a son—adopt the son of a brother or cousin, someone from the same bloodline. In the early Joseon period, a man without a son might adopt an heir, but the heir might have come from the mother's side of the family as much as from the husband's. And if a man had daughters in the first half of the Joseon dynasty, he did not have a need to adopt. In the latter half of the dynasty, he would certainly arrange to adopt a nephew. At this time, the percentage of families involved in adoptions rose to over 15 percent of the population, a figure close to the percentage of people in the population who did not naturally have a son. In other words, everyone who could adopt did adopt.

Confucian Family Life

As with adoption and inheritance, other aspects of family life changed with this process of Confucianization. Marriage patterns that were once more flexible and pragmatic became almost completely patrilocal. That is to say, in the early half of the Joseon dynasty, newly married couples would in some cases live with the bride's family, in some cases with the groom's family, and in some cases they would set up a residence in a new place. After the transformation, the ideal case was to marry and live at the home of the groom, and the daughter-in-law would come from outside the village. This practice led to the development of the single-lineage villages that are so commonly found in Page 104  |  Top of ArticleKorean rural areas. These features of the Confucianization were particularly true of the upper class, the yangban sadaebu, although the lower classes eventually came to emulate the upper-class ideals to the extent that they could. In the case of villages dominated by a single-surname group, a single lineage or clan, known as jipseongchon, this shows that it was a yangban village. Mixed surnames in a village meant that it was the village of commoners. When one asks the residents of the typical single-lineage village when the village was founded, the answer is often in the seventeenth century.

In fact, the development of the Korean jok, or kinship system, was one of the features of the Confucianized society of the later Joseon period.13 These patrilineally organized lineage groups, who shared the sijo or bijo, common apical ancestor, either factual or imaginary, with the common seong, or surname, from the common bongwan, or ancestral seat, became the dominant feature of society. The organization was represented in a document, often in multiple volumes of a printed genealogy, known as jokbo. The genealogy came to be a document that recorded the male descendants in some detail for all generations possible but only listed the daughters as marrying out to a particular household of another lineage group. The daughters' descendants were usually not recorded at all, but an exception was made if one of their sons, or sometimes a grandson, achieved a prominent position in the government; otherwise, the daughters' line ended with the notation of whom she married. Printed genealogies of the early Joseon period were not like that at all. Rather, since all descendants were equal, sons and daughters and their lines of descent were kept in full detail. Thus, the Andong Gwon genealogy of 1476, the earliest such document extant, contained over 10,000 names, but only a minority of them was named Gwon. In post-transformation documents, they did not list the surname with each entry because everyone obviously had the same surname. The clan or lineage (or, perhaps more accurately, the patrilineage) came down to groups of people thought to be related to one another. As such, it was a group of men related to men through male ties. Wives came from outside, did not change their surnames, and, although buried with their husbands, were not considered members of the lineage. Daughters married out and were not considered members of their natal lineage. A man with grandchildren would consider those of his surname (that is, members of the patrilineage) as his real grandchildren, whereas those born to his daughters had different surnames, were not considered part of the lineage, and were called oeson, or “outside grandchildren.” Page 105  |  Top of ArticleIf a man had three grandchildren by only his daughters, when asked if he had any grandchildren, he would most likely say no.

In various ways—inheritance, adoption, marriage, clan organization, village structure, and even the popular genealogy—we see that the social life of Koreans changed radically in the late seventeenth century.14 There were probably three causes for the change to take place at that time. First was the natural development of Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism. Confucianism had been around since the fifth century or so, and its influence had gradually grown. Neo-Confucianism created a new following when it was introduced in the late fourteenth century, and gradually it came to play a greater role in society and ideology. These changes in society were probably a result of population pressures. We know that the population of Korea was growing, and that sometime in the seventeenth century it reached a kind of saturation point where population density began to push the limits of the productivity of the land. Prior to the seventeenth century, a bad year or famine did not necessarily mean death. However, after the seventeenth century, there were several cases where bad harvests meant starvation. In other countries, too, growth in population has led to changes in inheritance and social practices. The final cause of change may have been that revealed by the ritual controversy at court mentioned above. Underlying the great concern over proper ritual in the late seventeenth century was the fact that the Ming dynasty had fallen and had been replaced by a barbarian Manchu dynasty. With the demise of Ming China, without an older brother, and with the court in the Central Plain in the hands of barbarians, Korea felt the impetus to step up and become the standard-bearer of Confucianism in the East Asian world. Korea's identity, based on such a strong Confucian view of the world, left it with no choice but to become the standard of orthodoxy.

Pros and Cons of Confucianism

Although Confucianism had entered Korea in the Three Kingdoms period and had grown in influence and practice for more than 12 centuries, it was in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that it reached its highest level of acceptance. Joseon Korea can be called the most Confucian state of all the states at any point in the history of this planet. It became much more orthodox than China had been at any point in its history. Perhaps it was a function of scale. China was so large that there was always room for differing belief systems. Page 106  |  Top of ArticleKorea, smaller than China, was a perfect size to become thoroughly orthodox and thoroughly committed to Confucian ideals. In the nineteenth century, the sirhak philosophers began to change Confucianism and adapt it to the times. But the Neo-Confucian form continued to dominate the thoughts and minds of Koreans.

Hyeon Sangyun (1893–?), the first historian who approached the Joseon Neo-Confucianism with a modern perspective, was to look back on this “perfection” of Confucianism and critique it for both its positive and negative points.15 On the positive side, Confucianism gave the state and society great stability. The Joseon dynasty was one of the longest and most stable of all the dynasties in the history of the world. Unfortunately, some remnant of the colonial-period rationalization for Japan's ending the dynasty, that it was “stagnant,” still persists in the minds of some Koreans. The opposite of stagnant—vibrant, stable, long-lived, dynamic—is a better description of the dynasty. And much of that success is due to its Confucian underpinnings and Confucian transformations that continued to unfold throughout the 500-year history of the dynasty.

There were other critics, however. Confucianism was seen as relying too much on notoriety, to the exclusion of those who were not recognized. It is criticized for emphasizing family to the point of rampant nepotism. While loyalty is a positive attribute, critics said that group loyalty created cliques and factions that served their particular need more than the needs of wider society. And by idealizing the golden age of Confucius, critics have said that Korea failed to modernize and was left behind when the industrial revolution and modernization came knocking at the door. However, modern social scientists began to rethink the Confucian tradition in East Asia when South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore exhibited impressive economic growth in the late twentieth century. The reoriented perspective in modern social sciences reevaluates the contribution of the Confucian tradition shared by these East Asian countries. These arguments are reinforced by the recent economic success in China, the mother country of Confucius.


1. Sangbaek Yi, Yijo Geongukui Yeongu (A Study on Foundation of the Joseon Dynasty) (Seoul: Eulyumunhwasa, 1949), 165–75, 181–88, 229–40.

2. Translated by author from the original Korean text in Cheonggu yeongeon (Anthology of Korean sijo) edited by Kim Cheontaek in 1728.

3. Translated by author from the original Korean text in Cheonggu yeongeon (Anthology of Korean sijo) edited by Kim Cheontaek in 1728.

Page 107  |  Top of Article

4. John Duncan, The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 6, 204–6, 275.

5. Sangbaek Yi, Hanguksa, Joseon jeongi (Korean History, Earlier Joseon), Jindan hakhoe (Seoul: Eulyumunhwasa, 1962), 4–10, 145–57.

6. Translated by author from the Korean text of the “Sejong eoje hunmin jeongeum” (“King Sejong creates the correct phonetic system to admonish people”) in Humin jeongeum eonhae (Interpretation of original classical Chinese text of the Sejong eoje hunmin jeongeum), published in 1459.

7. Edward Wagner, The Literati Purges: Political Conflict in Early Yi Korea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974).

8. Translated by author from the original classical Chinese text in Ryu, Seongryong's Jingbirok (Historical Lessons on the Imjin War) in 1604.

9. Translated by author from the original classical Chinese text in Yi Sunsin's Nanjung ilgi (War Diary).

10. Hideo Ishii, “Hugi joseon dangjaengsa e gwanhan il gochal” (“A Study on History of Literati Conflict in the Late Joseon Dynasty”), trans. Sunmin Hong, in Joseon Jeongchisaui Jaejomyeong (Rethinking Political History of Joseon Dynasty) ed. Yi Taejin (Seoul: Beomjosa Publishing Company, 1985), 45–71.

11. Hendrik Hamel, Relation du naufrage d'un Vaisseau Hollandois, Sur la Côte de l'Ile de Quelpaerts: Avec la description du Royaume de Corée (French edition); An Account of the Shipwreck of a Dutch Vessel on the Coast of the Isle of Quelpaert, together with the Description of the Kingdom of Corea (English edition); and Hamel pyoryugi [Hamel's records of shipwreck] (Korean edition), reprinted (Seoul: Ilchokak Publishing Co., 1954), 340.

12. Namseon Choe, Baekdusan geunchamgi [A Travelogue to Mt. Baekdu], 1927.

13. Martina Deuchler, The Confucian Transformation of Korea: A Study of Society and Ideology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 3–14.

14. Mark Peterson, Korean Adoption and Inheritance: Case Studies in the Creation of a Classic Confucian Society (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 196–98.

15. Sangyun Hyeon, Joseon Yuhaksa (History of Korean Confucianism) (Seoul: Minjungseogwan Publishing Company, 1949), 4–7.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6103900013