Taejo of Joseon

From New World Encyclopedia
Taejo of Joseon
Hangul: 태조
Hanja: 太祖
Revised Romanization: Taejo
McCune-Reischauer: T'aejo
Birth name
Hangul: 이성계
Hanja: 李成桂
Revised Romanization: I Seonggae
McCune-Reischauer: I Sŏnggae

Taejo of Joseon (1335-1408; r. 1392-1398), born Yi Seonggye, was the main figure in overthrowing the Goryeo Dynasty and the founder and the first king of the Joseon Dynasty, the final dynasty in Korea before it became a modern republic. The name 'Taejo' is comprise of two Chinese characters, 'Tae', a derivative of 'Dae' (big), which means 'very big' or 'great', and 'Jo', which means grandfather. Together, they mean 'Great Progenitor'. Taejo was a name given to the first King in a new dynasty. Taejo of Joseon was posthumously raised from the rank of King to Emperor in 1899 by Gojong, the Gwangmu Emperor, who had proclaimed the Empire of Korea in 1897.

Taejo's father Yi Ja-chun was a former Mongol official, but his ethnicity was Korean. Yi Seonggye joined the Goryeo army and rose through the ranks, seizing the throne in 1392. He abdicated in 1398 during the strife between his sons and died in 1408.

Taejo received credit for retrieving a dying Goryeo dynasty from collapse, then creating a new dynasty that lasted over 500 years, the Joseon Dynasty. Taejo's role as military leader who overthrew the Goryeo throne, his move of the capital to Seoul, and his reforms in the Joseon government spawned an era of tremendous creativity in Joseon Korea. Begun at about the same time as the emerging Renaissance in Europe, Taejo may be credited for laying the foundation for the Korean Renaissance that reached a high point with his grandson, Sejong (d. 1450).

Historical Context for Rise of Joseon

Night view of Dongdaemoon, The Great East Gate in the defensive wall built to circle the new capital city under King Taejo in 1396.

By the late fourteenth century, the 400 year-old Goryeo Dynasty established by Wang Geon in 918 was tottering, its foundations collapsing from years of war and de facto occupation by the disintegrating Mongol Empire. The legitimacy of Goryeo itself was also becoming an increasingly disputed issue within the court, as the ruling house failed not only to govern the kingdom effectively, but was also tarnished by generations of forced intermarriage with members of China's Yuan Dynasty Mongol imperial family and by rivalry amongst the various Joseon royal family branches (even King U's mother was a known 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 vied for domination of the court, resulting in deep divisions among various factions. With the ever-increasing number of raids against Joseon conducted by Japanese pirates (wakou) and the invasions of the Chinese Red Turbans, those who came to dominate the royal court were the reformed-minded Sinjin aristocracy and the opposing Gweonmun aristocracy, as well as generals who could actually fight off the foreign threats—namely a talented general named Yi Seonggye and his rival Choi Yeong. With the rise of the Ming Dynasty under a former monk, Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), Mongol forces became more vulnerable. By the 1350s, Goryeo regained its independence, although Mongol remnants effectively occupied northeastern territories with large garrisons of troops.

Military Career

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General Yi Seonggye had gained power and respect during the late 1370s and early 1380s by pushing Mongol remnants off the peninsula and also by repelling well-organized Japanese pirates in a series of successful engagements. He was also credited with routing the Red Turbans when they made their move into the Korean Peninsula as part of their rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty. Following in the wake of the rise of the Ming Dynasty under the Zhu Yuanzhang, the royal court in Goryeo split into two competing factions: the group led by General Yi (supporting the Ming Dynasty) and the camp led by his rival General Choi (supporting the Yuan Dynasty). When a Ming messenger came to Goryeo in 1388 (the fourteenth year of King U) to demand the return of a significant portion of Goryeo’s northern territory, General Choi seized the opportunity and played upon the prevailing anti-Ming atmosphere to argue for the invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula (Goryeo claimed to be the successor of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo; as such, restoring Manchuria as part of Korean territory was a tenet of its foreign policy throughout its history). A staunchly opposed Yi was chosen to lead the invasion; however, at Wuihwa Island on the Amrok River, he made a momentous decision that would alter the course of Korean history. Knowing of the support he enjoyed both from high-ranking government officials, the general populace, and the great deterrent of Ming Empire under the Hongwu Emperor, he decided to revolt and swept back to the capital, Gaesong, to secure control of the government.


General Yi swept his army from the Talu River straight into the capital, defeated forces loyal to the king (led by General Choi, whom he proceeded to eliminate) and forcibly dethroned King U in a de facto coup d'état but did not ascend to the throne right away. Instead, he placed on the throne King U's son, King Chang, and following a failed restoration of the former monarch, had both of them put to death. General Yi, now the undisputed power behind the throne, soon forcibly had a Goryeo royal named Yo, now known as King Gongyang (공양왕; 恭讓王), crowned as king. After indirectly enforcing his grasp on the royal court through the puppet king, Yi then proceeded to ally himself with Sinjin aristocrats such as Jeong Dojeon and Jo Jun. In 1392 (the fourth year of King Gongyang), Yi dethroned King Gongyang, exiled him to Weonju (where he and his family was secretly murdered), and ascended the throne. The Goryeo Dynasty had come to an end after 475 years of rule.

Beginning of the Joseon Dynasty

Upon taking the throne, Taejo felt that it was strategically necessary to move the seat of government out of Kaesong city, a place that represented five centuries of Goryeo power. Taejo's first choice for the new capital city was Gyeryeongsan, in the village of Sindonae, near the modern city of Daejeon, but after being warned in a dream that he had made the wrong choice, construction was halted, and he sought the advice of a the Buddhist monk Muhak, a trusted advisor from his younger days. With Muhak's guidance, Taejo finally chose a location on the Han River for the new capital city with protective mountains surrounding the site, a place that had been home to several settlements during Korea's history, most recently the Goryeo village of Hanyang-bu.

Construction on Joseon's first palace, Gyeongbok (Shining Happiness) Palace, was begun in Hanyang-bu in 1394. Following Chinese tradition, the palace was built facing south, and the architectural style resembled the imperial palace in Beijing. After Gyeongbok Palace was completed in 1395, Taejo ordered the construction of a fortified wall to surround the city. The wall, nearly 10 miles long, was built in 98 sections of about 600 meters each. Four Large gates, in the east, west, south and north were built in the wall, as well as five small gates: east, west, north, south and a water gate. Taejo assigned the task of building the wall to different province through out the country, giving each province a separate section to complete. Construction dates were chosen not to interfere with workers' planting and harvest responsibilities at home.

Once the wall was completed, King Taejo and the seat of Joseon's government moved permanently to Hanseong, as the new city had been renamed; thus beginning in 1397, and continuing until the present time, Hanseong, now known as Seoul, has been the seat of Korea's government.

Struggle for Succession

Taejo had six sons by his first wife, Sineui from the Han clan, who died before he took the throne, and was posthumously awarded the title 'Queen', and two from his second, Queen Sindeok, from the Kang clan. Influenced by his young wife, and Jeong Dojeon, one of his closest advisors, Taejo leaned toward choosing the youngest of his eight sons, Grand Prince Euian, as Crown Prince. This angered his older sons, and following the untimely death of Queen Sindeok in 1397, with Taejo's fifth son Bangwon as ringleader, they schemed to kill Jeong Dojeon and others among Taejo's advisors who supported the choice of Grand Prince Euian as heir to the throne. In the aftermath, the two youngest princes, aged 16 and 17, were also killed, ensuring they would never take the throne. The strife between his sons saddened Taejo so much that he abdicated the throne in 1398, after only six years in power, this time naming his second son, Grand Prince Youngan as his successor.

Yeongan became Joseon's second ruler, King Jeongjong, after his father's abdication. After hearing of prophesies of danger to the throne in the new capital of Hanseong and deciding the city was not a safe place for a monarch to live, Jeongjang relocated the seat of government back to Kaesong City. After ruling for only about one year, he abandoned the throne under pressure from his younger brother Bongwon, who had held much or the power behind the throne during Taejo's reign, and even during Taejo's rise to the throne during the end of the Goryeo period. Bangwon, who ruled for 18 years as King Taejong, then became Joseon's third monarch.

Final years

Taejo was deeply saddened by the death of Queen Sindeok, and ordered a royal tomb, built for the Queen within the city walls, in what is now Chong-dong, thus violating his own decree that no burials would be made inside the city. The bloody fighting and intrigue that ensued between his sons devastated him, and he abdicated the throne the following year, designating his second son, Banggwa as heir to the throne. Taejo abandoned the city and returned to the area of his birth, settling down in the village of Hamgyeong. From time to time Taejong sent messengers to his father to try to make peace, but Taejo remained angry at his son for the violence Taejong had employed in his rise to the throne, and ordered the messengers killed by his retainers. Even when the two men met face to face in the village of Uijeongbu, in a meeting arranged by the Monk Muhak, Taejo's anger was not assuaged.


Although he only occupied the Joseon throne for six years, Taejo must be credited for his military ability and leadership during the 30 years leading up to the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty. Having recognized that it was time to replace Goryeo with a new, stronger country, he used his abilities and influence, choosing his timing wisely, and taking control of the tottering Goryeo throne. Following that, his move to relocate the capital sent a strong message to surrounding countries that the young Joseon nation must be taken seriously. During Taejo's reign he establish a tradition of reverence to China, sending tribute gifts to the Chinese emperor three times a year, at the Chinese New Year, and the birthdays of the Ming Chinese Emperor and his Crown Prince.

He also assigned a group of Dynastic Foundation Merit Subjects (개국공신), scholars who advised the king as a Privy Council, and codified the ideals of Confucianist government, producing the Administrative Code of Joseon (조선경국전) and the Six Codes of Governance (경제 육전).

King Taejo's tomb, called Geonwonneung, was built for him King Taejong, and is the oldest of the tombs located in the Donggureung (Nine Eastern Tombs) tomb complex located in Inchang-dong in the city of Guri, just northeast of Seoul, in Gyeonggi Province. Additionally, in keeping with eastern tradition, his umbilical cord has been preserved in Man-In-san, Geumsan-gun, South Chungcheong Province.


  • Father: Yi Jachun (이 자춘)
  • Mother: Lady Choi (최씨 부인)
  • Consorts:
  1. Queen Han Sinui (신의왕후) (died before Taejo become king, awarded title posthumously)
  2. Queen Kang Sindeok (신덕왕후) (married to Taejo before he became King, elevated to Queen at his ascension)
  • Children:
  1. Grand Prince Jin-an (진안대군), born as Yi Bangwoo (이방우), first Son of Queen Sinui.
  2. Grand Prince Yeong-an(영안대군), born as Yi Banggwa (이방과), second Son of Queen Sinui, later King Jeongjong.
  3. Grand Prince Ik-an (익안대군), born as Yi Bangeui (이방의), third Son of Queen Sineui.
  4. Grand Prince Hwa-an (화안대군), born as Yi Banggan (이방간) fourth Son of Queen Sineui.
  5. Grand Prince Jeong-an (정안대군), born as Yi Bangwon (이방원), fifth Son of Queen Sinui, later King Taejong.
  6. Grand Prince Deokan (덕안대군), born as Yi Bangyeon (이방연), sixth Son of Queen Sin-ui.
  7. Grand Prince Muan (무안대군), born as Yi Bangbeon (이방번), first Son of Queen Sindeok.
  8. Grand Prince Uian (의안대군), born as Yi Bangseok (이방석), second Son of Queen Sindeok.
  9. Princess Gyeongsin (경신공주), first daughter of Queen Sinui.
  10. Princess Gyeongseon (경선공주), second daughter of Queen Sinui.
  11. Princess Gyeongsun (경순공주), only daughter of Queen Sindeok.

See also

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  • Hoam Misulgwan Sojangpʻum Tʻemajŏn. 2002. Chosŏn mok kagu taejŏn: namukkŏl e sŭmin chihye. Kyŏnggi-do Yongin-si: Hoam Misulgwan. OCLC: 54383464
  • Kungnip Chŏnju Pangmulgwan. 2005. Wang ŭi chʻosang: Kyŏnggijŏn kwa Tʻaejo Yi Sŏng-gye (Joseon royal portraiture: King Taejo's image and the Gyeonggi Royal Portrait Hall). Chŏnbuk Chŏnju-si: Kungnip Chŏnju Pangmulgwan. OCLC: 82156574
  • O, Yŏng-gyo. 2004. Chosŏn kŏnʼguk kwa Kyŏngguk Taejŏn chʻeje ŭi hyŏngsŏng. Sŏul-si: Hyean. ISBN 8984942200 9788984942202

Preceded by:
(Goryeo Dynasty) Gongyang
Korean monarchs
(Joseon Dynasty)
Succeeded by:
Monarchs of Joseon and The Korean Empire
Joseon: Emperor Taejo | King Jeongjong | King Taejong | King Sejong the Great | King Munjong | King Danjong
King Sejo | King Yejong | King Seongjong | Yeonsangun | King Jungjong | King Injong | King Myeongjong
King Seonjo | Gwanghaegun | King Injo | King Hyojong | King Hyeonjong | King Sukjong
King Gyeongjong | King Yeongjo | King Jeongjo | King Sunjo | King Heonjong | King Cheoljong

Korean Empire: Emperor Gojong | Emperor Sunjong


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