The royal Yi family ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, under the official dynastic name Chosŏn ("morning serenity"). Embracing the Neo-Confucianism of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi as its official ideology, the Yi dynasty provided political and social stability for more than five hundred years, but lost its political independence when Japan annexed Korea in 1910.
The dynasty was founded by Yi Sŏng-gye (1335-1408), who had become a prominent general under the preceding Koryŏ dynasty (918-1392) after a series of military successes against the Chinese Red Turban bandit groups and Japanese marauders. In 1388 he staged a successful coup and in 1392, supported by reform-minded Neo-Confucian officials, he proclaimed himself king of the new Chosŏn dynasty. [See Yi Sŏng-gye.] The dynastic foundation was solidified under the third king, T'aejong (r. 1400-1418), and his son, Sejong (r. 1418-1450). Renowned for his extraordinary intellect, Sejong was responsible for bringing about Korea's golden age of creativity, during which important achievements were made in many fields, including the invention of the Korean alphabet, known as han'gul.
The structure and functioning of the government were defined in the Kyŏngguk taejon, the national code promulgated in 1471. Although theoretically the king was the sovereign and the source of all legitimacy, in reality he was often restrained by a system of checks and balances within the bureaucratic structure. The State Council was the highest organ of policy deliberation under the king, and its three high state councillors usually sought a consensus. The six ministries--Personnel, Taxation, Rites, Military Affairs, Punishments, and Public Works--performed the duties of executing state policies. One unique feature of the Yi government was the enormous power enjoyed by three censorial organs, namely, the Office of the Inspector-General, the Office of the Censor-General, and the Office of Special Advisers. Administratively, the country was divided into eight provinces, and each province was in turn divided into counties. All provincial governors and county magistrates were centrally appointed.
Most of these officials were recruited through the civil service examinations, which were conducted at two levels. The lower examination awarded the saengwŏn degree to classics licentiates and chinsa to literary licentiates. These lower degree holders were eligible to compete in the higher examination for the munkwa degree, which qualified its holders to become state officials. Legally, these examinations were open to the yangban and the commoners. [See Korean State Examination System.]
The Yi dynasty maintained a well-structured educational system to promote the Confucian teachings and to prepare qualified individuals for the civil service examinations. In every county, a state-supported county school was established and its students received stipends as well as exemption from military duty. In Seoul, the National Confucian Academy enrolled those who held the licentiate's degree to prepare for the higher civil examination. After 1542 private academies (sŏwŏn) began to be organized, and after the seventeenth century they proliferated in the countryside, overshadowing the county schools. [See Sŏwŏn.]
The yangban was a privileged social class, whose status was largely determined by family lineages and Confucian education. The large majority of the population, however, was commoners. Between the yangban and the commoners was a small group known as "the middle people" (chungin), who filled technical and functionary positions within the government. At the bottom of the society were the lowborn, whose status was determined by birth. [See Korea, Class Structure in and Yangban.]
The Yi-dynasty Confucian branded Buddhism as heresy and generally followed very strict interpretations of Zhu Xi's teachings. Probably the greatest philosopher of Yi-dynasty Korea, Yi Hwang (T'oegye, 1501-1570) set the standard of Zhu Xi orthodoxy with his voluminous commentaries and interpretations of the Confucian sages. The great debate between Yi Hwang and Ki Tae-sung (1527-1572) over the roles of principle (li) and material force (qi) in the functioning of the Four Beginnings and the Seven Emotions led to arguments for more than three hundred years involving virtually every scholar in the country. Yi I (Yulgok; 1536-1584) was another major philosopher-statesman, representing a different school in the debate over li and qi. [See Zhu Xi; Yi Hwang; Yi I; and Neo-Confucianism in Korea.]
In politics, four major conflicts known as the "literati purges" flared up, in which a number of government officials were either put to death or sent into banishment. The purges, which occurred in 1498, 1504, 1519, and 1545, have largely been explained in terms of conflict between the meritorious elites (hungu), who had long dominated the court, and the new breed of Neo-Confucian literati (sarim). Toward the end of the sixteenth century a factional split took place within the bureaucracy, which in turn led to further fragmentations, that impaired the politics of the latter half of the Yi dynasty with bitter factional rivalry. [See Literati Purges.]
The peace that Yi Korea had enjoyed for two centuries was abruptly shattered in 1592, when Japan, under Toyotomi Hideyoshi, invaded Korea. For six years, war ravaged the country, decimating the population, destroying innumerable historical and cultural treasures, and leaving long-lasting scars in the minds of the people. With the emergence of the Tokugawa government in Japan, however, peaceful relations between the two countries were restored. [See Hideyoshi's Invasion of Korea.] Toward Ming China, the Yi dynasty pursued the friendly policy of sadae (respecting the senior state) within the traditional East Asian world order. But the Manchus, invading Korea in 1627 and 1636, forced it to repudiate the Ming dynasty and shift allegiance to their Qing dynasty.
Once peace was restored the Yi government introduced several important reforms to regain control over the population and resources and alleviate the people's tax burdens. Perhaps the most important reform was enactment of the Uniform Land Tax Law (taedongpŏp) during the seventeenth century. This law commuted the sundry taxes of tribute items and required a uniform payment of rice based on land assessment. This law had a far-reaching impact upon the economy of the mid-Yi dynasty as it gave rise to a new mercantile group known as "tribute men," who in time commanded large sums of commercial capital, and also freed most artisans to become independent manufacturers.
In agriculture, a new technique of transplanting rice seedlings was developed in the early seventeenth century, which resulted in a dramatic increase in crop yields and a marked reduction in labor requirements. This new method also enabled farmers in the southern provinces to harvest two crops, rice in the fall and barley in the spring. In addition, new cash crops, such as ginseng, tobacco, and cotton, made commercial farming popular. Commercial activities also expanded during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the wider circulations of coins and credit certificates (ŏum), leading to the "commercial equalization" enactment of 1791, which abolished the licensed merchant system, thereby freeing merchants from governmental control.
Using newly gained economic power, an increasing number of people acquired higher social status. As social mobility became more fluid, many yangban families tried to distance themselves from these upstarts by publishing genealogies and initiating clan organizations. Economically no longer viable, all the public slaves attached to government offices were freed in 1801 with the dramatic burning of their slave registers.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, the Yi dynasty witnessed the rise of a new intellectual current known as sirhak ("practical learning"). Critical of government policies and practices, the sirhak scholars wrote voluminously, offering remedies to the outstanding socioeconomic problems. They believed that the foremost priority of the government was to improve the welfare of the people as a whole and their recommendations emphasized pragmatic approach. [See Sirhak.]
After the passing of two very capable rulers, Yŏngjo (r. 1724-1776) and Chŏngjo (r. 1776-1800), the royal family was unable to sire kings who reached adulthood. With several boys occupying the throne in succession, the way was opened for domination of the court by the royal in-law families. The government began to lose its hold on the governing process and three important administrations, those for the land tax, military service tax, and grain loan system, fell into disarray, causing extreme hardship for the peasants. Starting with the Hong Kyŏng-nae Rebellion of 1811, popular rebellions broke out in many parts of the country.
This situation allowed new religions to gather momentum. Roman Catholicism was introduced into Korea by Korean scholars who visited China as members of diplomatic missions. Known as "Western learning" (Sŏhak), Catholicism before long gained converts from all classes in spite of government persecution after 1801. Largely to challenge the spread of Catholicism, Ch'oe Cheu (1824-1864) started a new religion called Tonghak ("Eastern learning"). His egalitarian tenets, which included the concept of in nae ch'ŏn ("man is God"), were extremely attractive to the oppressed peasants and in time Tonghak became a formidable political and social force. [See Christianity: Christianity in Korea; Sŏhak; and Tonghak.]
The accession to the throne at the age of twelve by Kojong (r. 1864-1907) enabled his father, the Taewŏn'gun ("grand prince"), to assume the power of government for the next ten years. Dynamic and resolute, the Taewŏn'gun introduced measures to revitalize the dynasty. His rule also coincided with Korea's first clashes with Western powers. In 1866, angry over the execution of nine French missionaries, France sent a punitive expedition to the island of Kanghwa, and in 1871, the United States dispatched a naval squadron to determine the fate of the crews of the lost ship General Sherman and negotiate a treaty. These only led to military clashes that resulted in both France and the United States withdrawing. [See General Sherman Incident.]
Japan, however, successfully negotiated the Kanghwa Treaty, signed in February 1876. [See Kanghwa Treaty.] Before long, a number of Koreans visited Japan to witness the transformation taking place under the Meiji leadership. When they returned to Korea, they became the leaders of the enlightenment movement. Urged on by these men, King Kojong embarked, albeit half-heartedly, on a policy of adopting Western ideas and technologies. Concerned over ascending Japanese influence in Korea, China prevailed upon Korea to sign the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United States at Chemulp'o in 1882. Thereafter, Korea signed similar treaties with other Western countries. These developments incurred reactions from conservative Confucians, who carried out a campaign of total rejection of the West and its supposed surrogate, Japan.
A military mutiny in 1882 brought the anti-foreign Taewŏn'gun back to power, which led China to dispatch troops to Korea, an unprecedented move in the relations of the two countries, and abduct him to China. In 1884, impatient at the slow pace with which Korea was moving toward modern reform, the Enlightenment Party attempted a bloody coup in the hope of instituting Meiji-style reforms. This Kapsin coup, however, failed in three days when the Chinese troops stationed in Seoul intervened. From then until 1894, China dominated Korean affairs, directly intervening in many areas. [See 1882 Uprising; Taewŏn'gun; and 1884 Coup d'État.]
The government, now under the control of Queen Min and her family, lacked any coherent policy and widespread misgovernment and increasing economic penetration by foreign powers worsened the plight of the peasants. The anger and frustrations of the peasants erupted in the great Tonghak Uprising of 1894, engulfing Chŏlla and Ch'ungch'ŏng provinces. The uprising gave Japan a convenient opportunity to challenge China's supremacy in Korea and its victory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 to 1895 eliminated Chinese influence from Korea. Protected by the Japanese, the progressive reformers gained power and introduced a series of drastic measures--known as the Kabo Reforms of 1894--to force Korea to modernize. But Russia's challenge to Japanese influence and court intrigues manipulated by Queen Min soon put an end to these reforms. Repeatedly blocked by the queen, the Japanese minister, Miura Gorō, encouraged a plot that resulted in her assassination in 1895. King Kojong then became fearful for his own safety and sought refuge in the compound of the Russian legation in 1896, where he remained for one year. While Russia and Japan competed over Korea, they and other Western nations scrambled for economic concessions. [See Sino-Japanese War; Kabo Reforms; and Min, Queen.]
Meanwhile, modern ideas were gaining wider acceptance among Koreans largely through schools organized by the American missionaries, and an increasing number of Koreans became alarmed over the deteriorating domestic conditions and the economic inroads being gained for foreigners. Many of these Koreans joined the Independence Club, organized in 1896 by Sŏ Chae-p'il (Philip Jaisohn). Through the publication of a newspaper, public discussions, and other activities, the Independence Club desperately attempted to protect Korea's independence and promote Korea's interests. Blinded by selfish interest, however, Kojong forced the club to disband. [See Independence Party and Club and Jaisohn, Philip.]
The final showdown between Japan and Russia came with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905, from which Japan emerged victorious, forcing Russia to renounce all interest in Korea. Japan then moved diplomatically to win the major Western powers' support of her free hand in Korea. In November 1905 Japan compelled Korea to sign the so-called Treaty of Protectorate, under the terms of which Japan was to take charge of Korea's foreign affairs; shortly thereafter, Itō Hirobumi was appointed the resident-general of Korea, thus becoming its virtual ruler. [See Russo-Japanese War and Itō Hirobumi.]
This growing Japanese control provoked widespread opposition among Koreans, and many of them joined the ranks of guerrilla "righteous armies" and took arms against the Japanese presence. As a last resort, King Kojong secretly dispatched emissaries to the Second Hague Peace Conference to publicize Korea's grievances against Japan. Angered by this move, Japan forced Kojong to abdicate the throne in favor of his son, Sunjong (r. 1907-1910). Japan also disbanded the remnants of the Korean army. [See Kojong.]
Having thus removed all effective opposition, Japan proceeded to sign the treaty of annexation in August 1910 in cooperation with a Korean cabinet filled with collaborators. This brought an end to the Yi dynasty, terminated Korea's independent status, and reduced it to a colony of Japan.