Taejo Lee Sung-gye founded Joseon (July 1392 - August 1910) (also Chosun, Choson, Chosŏn) in 1392. The dynasty continued until 1910, lasted for five centuries as one of the world's longest running monarchies. Taejo founded Joseon on the ashes of the Goryeo Kingdom with its capital city Kaesong. Joseon established its capital in Seoul, expanding the kingdom's northernmost borders to the Yalu and Tumen rivers (through the subjugation of the Jurchens). Joseon became the last dynasty of Korea, the longest lasting Confucian dynasty in history. Shortly following the declaration of the Korean Empire in 1897, the dynasty ended with the Japanese annexation in 1910.
Yi Seong-gye, or King Taejo, of the Jeonju clan of Yi, ascended the throne in a coup d'etat against King U of the Goryeo Dynasty. An accomplished military strategist and renowned commander, Taejo had distinguished himself by repelling the marauding Wokou. Taejo took control of Goryeo until July 1392, formally renaming the Goryeo the "Kingdom of Great Joseon" at taking the throne. Taejo relocated the capital to Hanseong (modern-day Seoul) from Gaegyeong (modern-day Gaeseong) in 1394, constructing the Gyeongbokgung palace as the seat of royal power. An unbroken patrilineal succession of kings, a line of descent that continues to the modern era, descended from King Taejo.
Sunjong, the Yungheui Emperor, sat as the last ruling monarch of the Joseon dynasty. Under the Japanese colonial government in Korea, Sunjong became a vassal of the Japanese empire in 1910, losing the title of Emperor and officially ending the Joseon Dynasty. The descendants of Yeongchinwang (Crown Prince Uimin) and Uichinwang (Prince Uihwa), Sunjong's younger brothers make up the surviving bloodlines of the Joseon Dynasty today. The Joseon dynasty saw a consolidation of royal power over Korea, the promotion of Confucian ideals and doctrines in Korean society, an adoption of Chinese culture, and a golden age of classical Korean culture, trade, science, literature, and technology.
Korean dynasties, similar to Chinese dynasties, pass through a birth, golden age, decline, and death cycle. The decline of the Joseon Dynasty began in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Successive devastating invasions by neighboring Japan and Qing China weakened the Joseon Dynasty. The decline continued into the 18th century when internal strife, power struggles, international pressure and rebellions at home, put the Joseon dynasty on the fast track toward death. Japan successfully cut Korea free from China's protection in 1895 with victory in the First Sino-Japanese War and the Treaty of Shimonoseki. From 1897 to 1910, Japan step by step tightened control, finally ending the Joseon Dynasty in 1910 with the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty.
The Joseon dynasty passed on a powerful legacy to Korea. Korean etiquette, cultural norms, societal attitudes towards current issues, and even the modern Korean language and its dialects stem from the traditional thought pattern that originated from the Joseon dynasty.
|History of Korea|
By the late fourteenth century, the 400-year-old Goryeo Dynasty established by Wang Geon in 918 tottered, its foundations collapsing from years of war and de facto occupation from the disintegrating Mongol Empire. The legitimacy of the Goryeo became a bone of contention within the royal court. The ruling house failed to govern the kingdom effectively. On top of that, generations of forced intermarriage with the Yuan Dynasty tarnished the royal lineage. Rivalry erupted among family branches, even King U's mother became exposed as commoner, thus leading to rumors disputing his descent from King Gongmin.
Within the kingdom, influential aristocrats, generals, and even prime ministers struggled for royal favor and domination of the court, creating deep divisions between factions. Stepped up raids by Wokou and invasions of the Red Turbans increased to pressure to reform. Reformed-minded Sinjin aristocracy and the opposing Gwonmun aristocracy, as well as successful generals such as Yi Seong-gye and his rival Choe Yeong, rose in popularity. Following pressure from the Ming Dynasty under the charismatic Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), the royal court in Goryeo split into two conflicting factions: the group led by General Yi (supporting the Ming Dynasty) and the camp led by General Choi (standing by the Yuan Dynasty).
In 1388 (the 14th year of King U), a Ming messenger demanded the return of a significant portion of Goryeo’s northern territory. General Choi seized the chance to argue for the invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula. Goryeo, claiming to succeed the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, had long sought to restore Manchuria as part of Korean territory. The royal court chose Yi, although staunchly opposed to the invasion, to lead. At Wuihwa Island on the Yalu River, he revolted and swept back to Gaegyeong (modern-day Gaeseong and the capital of Goryeo), deposing General Choi and his followers. In a coup d'état, Yi overthrew King U in favor of his son, King Chang (1388). Yi later killed King U and his son after a failed restoration, placed a royal named Yo on the throne (he became King Gongyang).
Strengthening his grasp on the royal court through the puppet king, Yi allied with the Jeong Do-jeon and Jo Jun of the Sinjin aristocracy. Yi declared the Gwajeon Law, confiscating land from the land-wealthy and generally conservative Gwonmun aristocrats and redistributed it among Yi's supporters in the Sinjin camp. In 1392 (the 4th year of King Gongyang), Yi's fifth son, Yi Bang-won, assassinated Jeong Mong-ju, a supporter of the old dynasty, eliminating a key figure in the opposition to Yi Seonggye's rule. That same year, Yi dethroned King Gongyang, exiled him to Wonju, and ascended the throne. The Goryeo Dynasty came to an end after 475 years of rule.
King Taejo intended to continue as Goryeo, only changing to royal line of descent from himself. He changed his mind to deal with the Gwonmun nobles and Wang clan who swore allegiance to Goryeo royal line. He sensed the need to clearly break from the past corrupt dynasty, believing that declaring a new dynasty represented to best way to make a clean break. In 1393, King Taejo declared a new dynasty, the Joseon dynasty, reviving the ancient Joseon founded nearly four thousand years previously. The official name, the "Kingdom of Great Joseon," became simply the Yi dynasty.
Taejo and his court still felt concern over what to do with the descendants of the deposed Wang family. The danger of a revolt to restore the Wang line and Goryeo Dynasty remained. Taejo summoned all of the Wang family members to the coast of the Yellow Sea, instructing them to board a ship bound for Ganghwa Island where they would live quietly in exile. Actually a trap, a crew member smashed a hole in the hull in deep waters. The ship sank, drowning the last of the Goryeo Dynasty. Legend has it that relatives of the Wang family on the mainland changed their surnames from Wang (王) to Ok (玉) by adding an extra brush stroke and thus hiding their true descent.
Calls came for a new capital, in accordance with the Chinese feng-shui philosophy of geomancy. Three sites came into consideration: the foot of Mount Gyeryong and the cities of Muak and Hanyang. The throne disqualified Mount Gyeryong for the rough terrain and difficulty to communicate with the rest of the country. Taejo decided on Hanyang due to easy access from sea and land, centrality of Hanyang, and the fertile Han River valley. For centuries, Korean geomancers claimed that this location occupied a sacred place flowing with geomantic energy. Hanyang conformed to Sino-Korean tradition. Situated with larger mountains in the north, smaller mountains in the south, and in between a large plain, the city fit the customary north-south axis.
In 1394, Taejo declared Hanyang, renamed "Hanseong," the new capital. That same year, the royal court chose the foot of Mount Bugak to serve as the place for the main palace. Planning and construction of the city with avenues, gates, walls, civilian residences, schools, government buildings, and five main palace complexes also began that year. The construction of Gyeongbok Palace, the official royal residence, finished in 1395 with Changdeok Palace following in 1405. By the mid-fifteenth century, Hanseong had been completed.
King Taejo had children from two wives. His first wife, Queen Sinui, had six sons before she died. Taejo's second wife, Queen Sindeok, gave birth to two sons. Taejo considered which son would succeed him. Taejo's fifth son by Queen Sineui, Yi Bang-won, seemed a likely candidate since he had contributed most to assisting his father's rise to power. But his rivalry with two key court officials, the prime minister Jeong Do-jeon and Nam Eun, complicated the choice. Jeong Do-jeon used his influence to convince the king that the son that Taejo loved most—not the son that Taejo felt best—would be the right choice for the kingdom.
In 1392, Taejo appointed his eighth son (and the second son of Queen Sindeok), Grand Prince Uian (Yi Bang-seok) the Prince Royal, successor to Taejo. After the sudden death of the queen, Jeong Do-jeon conspired to kill Yi Bang-won and his brothers in order to secure his own position in court. In 1398, upon hearing of this plan, Yi Bang-won raided the palace, killing Jeong Do-jeon, his followers, and the two sons of the late Queen Sindeok. That incident became known as the First Strife of Princes. Aghast at his sons' willingness to kill each other for the crown, King Taejo crowned his second son Yi Bang-gwa, later King Jeongjong, (1357-1419) as the new ruler. Soon after, he departed to the northern city of Hamhung.
As one of King Jeongjong's first acts as monarch, he declared a return to the capital Gaeseong. Yi Bang-won began plotting to become Royal Prince Successor Brother, in the case his brother had no issue. Taejo's fourth son Yi Bang-gan, who too yearned for power, opposed Yi Bang-won's plans. In 1400, Yi Bang-won's faction and Yi Bang-gan's camp erupted into an all-out conflict known as the Second Strife of Princes. Yi Bang-won exiled the defeated Yi Bang-gan to Tosan while his supporters suffered execution. Thoroughly intimidated, King Jeongjong immediately invested Yi Bang-won as heir presumptive and voluntarily abdicated. That same year, Yi Bang-won assumed the throne of Joseon at long last as King Taejong. In 1401, Ming Dynasty of China officially accepted the Joseon Dynasty as a tribute kingdom.
In the beginning of Taejong's reign, the Grand King Former, Taejo, refused to relinquish the royal seal that signified the legitimacy of a king's rule. His father refused to recognize him as a de jure ruler for the execution of family members. Taejong sent several messengers to recover the royal seal, Taejo assassinated every messenger. This episode became known as the Case of the Hamhung Envoys.
Handicapped without the royal seal, Taejong sought to prove his ability to rule wisely. In one of his first acts as king, he abolished the practice of allowing upper echelons of government and the aristocracy the right to maintain private armies. That move hampered their ability to muster large-scale revolts and dramatically increased the number of men in the national military.
Next, Taejong revised the taxation of land ownership. King Taejong's re-investigation of land ownership in 1405 put an end to the practice of hiding land gained during the redistribution property from Gwonmun aristocrats to members of the Sunjin faction to avoid taxation. That increased the national income two-fold. In addition, King Taejong conducted the first population survey in 1413 ordering the documentation of family names/clans, places of birth/death, and the dates of birth/death for all Korean male subjects. Taejon required all males over the age of 16, regardless of social class, to carry wooden tablets with their name, birth date, and other information engraved. Many historians regard this legislation as the predecessor of the Korean resident identification and social security system. Taejong's new law ensured all men would serve mandatory military service.
In 1399 (the 2nd year of King Jeonjong), Taejong scrapped the Dopyeong Assembly, a council that held a monopoly in court power during the waning years of the Goryeo Dynasty, in favor of the Uijeong Department, a new branch of central administration that carried out the king's edicts. King Taejong issued a new decree that all decisions passed by the Euijeong Department required the king's approval. That ended the practice of court ministers and advisors making decisions among themselves with the king as an onlooker. That raised royal power to new heights. Taejong also installed the Sinmun Office to hear cases of exploitation by government officials or aristocrats.
During the course of Taejong's rule, animosity between the Buddhists and Confucian scholars grew. The new government decided to make Confucianism the state religion. yangban, the class of nobles and scholars, established power during this period.
King Sejong created Hangeul (the Korean alphabet) in 1443, to replace the Hanja (Classical Chinese Characters) known in Korea as Hanmun writing systems for official court documents. The Yangban, who had been educated in Classical Chinese, continued to prefer Hanja and Hanmun over the new system of Hangeul, treating those who used of Hangeul with scorn. Not until the late nineteenth century, with the translation of the Bible, did hangeul enter into common usage.
Yangban (i.e, two ruling class, military and government) became the aristocratic class of the Joseon Dynasty. Confucian scholars became yangban by passing a challenging examination, although sometimes the sons of especially esteemed Yangban enjoyed priority. Confucian principles let to establishing a caste system in Joseon with the king at the top of the pyramid, the yangban forming the upper class, a small middle class of government employees known as chungin, the bulk of the population—peasants, laborers and fishermen—classified as sangmin. Sangmin men were taxed for Cho(租)·Pho(布)·Yuk(役). Sometimes heavy tax and corruption of local bureaucrats caused riots.
In theory, any man could become yangban through passing the examination, but few could afford to spend the time and money to study for the required exams. The cheonmin or low-born and slaves sat at the bottom of the social pyramid. People became slaves by birth as well as a form of legal punishment. Slaves served both private persons and the government; government slaves occasionally became citizens of higher rank. Private citizens bequeathed slaves to their heirs as personal property, although slaves could buy their freedom. During times of famine, Sangmin often sold themselves as slaves in order to survive.
The lower classes worked as butchers or shop-keepers, undesirable occupations in Joseon dynasty Korea. The Joseon Dynasty's social hierarchy mirrored that of the Goryeo dynasty. During the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, the Joseon class system stood firm and stable. That changed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the emergence of a new upper class. The caste of Joseon officially ended in 1894. In modern Korean society, the yangban lineage has little or no bearing on a person's success, although people often remember their lineage with pride.
The Joseon Dynasty, as with each of the Korean dynasties, enjoyed a golden age of development. Korean Tea Ceremony and Korean Gardens stand out as two examples of the cultural innovations of the period. The royal dynasty also built fortresses, trading harbors, and palaces. Many Korean inventions come from this period including the first sundial in Asia and the world's first water-powered clock. King Sejong sponsored court scientist Jang Yeong-sil invention of the world's first rain gauge. During the Joseon period, the metal printing press, invented during the Goryeo dynasty in 1232, supplanted the wood-block printing press in China.
During the Goryeo Dynasty, Korea had vigorous trade with the Arabians, Japanese, Chinese, and Manchurians. Pyongnam provided an example of a prosperous, international trading port. Koreans traded brocades, jewelries, ginseng, silk, and highly sought after celadon porcelain. Those bluish-green or jade-colored porcelain vases had been crafted by Goryeo artisans, reaching the height of aesthetic beauty. With the advent of Confucian Joseon dynasty, the style of porcelain changed to white, with less adornment, becoming less sought after by the Chinese and the Arabians.
Agriculture took precedence over commerce during the Joseon dynasty, lessening Korea's participation in international trade. China's constant demand for tribute also dampened trade. Korea stopped trading luxury products, like gold and silver from China, opting to import smaller shipments from Japan. China used silver as currency, making the precious metal an important factor in Korea-China trade.
Korea suffered frequent pirate attacks by sea and land. The Korean navy secured the maritime trade against the pirates, achieving advantage over them with the use of cannons and fire arrows using gunpowder, in form of Singijeon deployed by Hwacha (a multiple rocket launcher) borrowed China.
Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea with his daimyō and their troops in 1592 and 1597. Factional division in the Joseon court, inability to assess Japanese military capability, and failed attempts at diplomacy led to poor preparation on Joseon's part. Japan's use of European firearms gave them an advantage, leading to the occupation of the southern peninsula within months and the capture of Pyongyang and Hangseong (present-day Seoul).
Local resistance slowed down the Japanese advance while Admiral Yi Sunsin's decisive naval victories gave Korea control over Japan's supply routes. Korea's Turtle ships gave Korea the decisive edge in naval battles. Ming China intervened in 1593, pushing the Japanese back to the southern tip of Korea and retreat to Japan.
Japanese invading armies left behind apocalyptic devastation: Farmlands ruined, irrigation dikes destroyed, villages and towns demolished, the population plundered and dispersed, tens of thousands of skilled workers (celadon ware makers, craftsmen, artisans killed or taken captive to Japan. Japan pilfered priceless Joseon historical and royal artifacts, destroyed temples and palaces. The productive capacity of farmlands reduced from 1,708,000 kyol to 541,000 kyol. In 1598 alone, the Japanese took some ears and noses of 38,000 Korean as trophies (a common samurai practice) and built the monument Mimizuka in Kyōto.
Following the war, Korea completely suspended relations. Following Toyotomi Hideyoshi's death in 1598, negotiations between the Korean court and the Tokugawa shogunate began through the Japanese lord on Tsushima. In 1604, Tokugawa Ieyasu restored commercial relations with Korea, meeting Korea's demands and releasing 3000 captive Koreans. In 1607, a Korean mission visited Edo, restoring limited diplomatic and trade relations.
Following those events the Korean Kingdom became increasingly isolationist, seeking to limit contact with foreign countries. The Ming Dynasty fell, partly from the losses in the war against Japan, leading to the establishment of the new Qing Dynasty. The Korean court decided to build tighter borders, exert more controls over inter-border traffic, and wait out the initial turbulence of the Manchu overthrow of the Ming. Despite those measures, Korea conducted extensive trade with Mongolia, Northern Asia, China, and Japan. The king periodically restricted trade with Japan to prevent piracy and maintain orderly trade.
The Manchus invaded Korea twice, in 1627) and 1637. They defeated Korea both times, forcing the kingdom to become a tribute of the Qing dynasty. Qing rulers restricted foreign representatives entrepot to and enclave hongs in Macau. The conducted all trade in silver. These entrepot handled the significant trade of Chinese silks for foreign silver. With foreign trade restricted to the southern provinces, China kept the unstable northern region under strict control. Hence, Korea conducted trade with China solely in the south. Korea benefited from trade with China, trading resources, technology, ceramics and ginseng with receiving China's advanced technology in the exchange. With Korea's economy developing, the first western person, Hendrick Hamel, a Dutchman, stepped on Korea's shores.
In the nineteenth century tensions mounted between Qing China and Japan, culminating in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Japan and China fought much of the war on the Korean peninsula. Japan, after the Meiji Restoration, acquired Western military technology, forced Joseon to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876. Japan encroached upon Korean territory in search of fish, iron ore, and natural resources. Japan exercised increasing pressure on the royal court, heralding the beginning of Japanese imperial expansion in East Asia.
Japan's victory in 1894 concluded with the Treaty of Shimonoseki guaranteed Korea's independence from China. Korea constructed the Independence Gate, discontinuing tribute payment to the Qing Dynasty court. In 1895, Japanese soldiers assassinated Queen Min, considering her an obstacle to influence and control in Korea. In 1897, King Gojong declared Korea an empire taking the title Emperor Gojong announcing to the world the birth of an independent empire. Unfortunately, Japan knew Korea's true situation, unable to defend itself, and continued intrigue to colonize Korea.
Gojong turned to Russia for military technology needed to defend Korea's independence. Japan noted Russia's growing influence in Korea, taking steps to counter Russia's influence that led to the Russo-Japanese War of 1904. The defeat of Russia left the door wide open for Japan to annex Korea officially in 1910.
After the annexation of Korea in 1910, Japan forced the Princes and Princesses of the Imperial Family to live in Japan for re-education and marriage. The Heir to the Throne, Imperial Crown Prince Uimin, married Princess Yi Bang-ja nee Nashimoto, and had two sons, Princes Yi Jin and Yi Gu. His elder brother, Imperial Prince Ui had 12 sons and nine daughters from various wives and concubines.
The Crown Prince lost his status in Japan at the end of World War II and returned to Korea in 1963 after an invitation by the Republican Government. He never recovered from a stroke suffered as his plane landed in Seoul, dying in 1970. His brother, Imperial Prince Ui had died in 1955. Presently His Highness Prince Yi Seok, a son of Prince Gang of Korea, a fifth son of Gojong of Korea and currently a professor of history lecturing at Jeonju University in the Republic of Korea, is one of two pretenders to the throne of Korea. Many descendants live throughout the United States and Brazil, having settled elsewhere, outside of Korea.
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