|Heungnyemun ( 흥녜문 ) at Gyeongbokgung ( 경복궁 )|
We left off with the coup d'état initiated by Yi Seong-gye at the end of the Goryeo Dynasty. This coup occurred in 1388 and while Yi assumed power following this event, he did not officially proclaim himself to be king until 1392. Even after he officially took the throne he still intended to maintain the capital in its current location and continue the legacy of the Goryeo Dynasty. Unfortunately for Yi, the supporters of the Goryeo Dynasty proved to be too powerful for him to effectively rule, so in 1393 he decided to move the capital to Hanyang (modern-day Seoul) and declare a new dynasty called Kingdom of Great Joseon ( 대조선국 ). This name of course originated from the first dynasty to rule on the Korean peninsula (which we now call Gojoseon, or Old Joseon, to differentiate between the two dynasties).
The movement of the capital allowed Yi Seong-gye to rule more effectively without the interference of supporters of the old dynasty. But who exactly supported Yi Seong-gye? After all, Yi Seong-gye did not have a powerful family background upon which he could fall back on. He had succeeded in gaining power through military prowess, not wealth or lineage. The up and coming literati class would prove to be Yi's biggest supporters and one of the main reasons that he was able to maintain his grip on power. The literati (who were briefly discussed in a Goryeo post) made up what was known as the yangban ( 양반 ) class, or the ruling class, and were appointed to the civil and military positions in the government.
While Yi was willing to submit to the literati's authority and carry out their wishes, conflict arose over the subject of appointing a successor to the throne. Yi Bang-won, who was one of Yi Seong-gye's sons, had contributed the most effort in helping his father rise to power. However, Yi Bang-won wished to assert more royal authority and was therefore rejected as a successor by the literati in favor another of Yi Seong-gye's sons. Yi Bang-won reacted by storming the palace in 1398 and killing the crown prince and the supporters who had rejected his bid for the kingship. In response to this event, Yi Seong-gye immediately abdicated the throne in favor of another of his sons, King Jeongjong ( 정종 ), but Yi Bang-won had succeeded in obtaining true authority over of the kingdom. After another conflict between Yi Seong-gye's sons, King Jeongjong voluntarily abdicated the throne to Yi Bang-won, who would come to be known as King Taejong ( 태종 ).
King Taejong was the first truly powerful monarch of the Joseon Dynasty. One of the most important actions taken by Taejong in his quest to assert royal authority was his decree that all decisions passed by the State Council could only be enacted with the approval of the king. He also executed and exiled many powerful government officials, some of whom had supported him and were even family members, in his effort to further establish royal authority.
|Entrance to Gyeongbokgung|
As stated previously, the yangban consisted of the literati and while this initially presented the opportunity for more "commoners" to rise to the aristocratic ranks, it wouldn't be long before the yangban became a hereditary class like the aristocrats in previous kingdoms. The yangban began to marry only amongst themselves and therefore effectively prevented any newcomers from joining their once open society. One definite improvement in the aristocracy was the emphasis placed upon testing as a means of evaluating talent. The literati's strong Confucian principles contributed to the belief that testing, rather than lineage, should be the primary requirement for advancement through the political system. The yangban essentially controlled the government, economy, and culture of Korea at the beginning of the dynasty and despite attempts to diminish their power, they continued to hold a strong grip on the country.
|Namsangol Folk Village - Many government officials lived in this area|
King Sejong came to the throne under somewhat unusual circumstances, but in doing so he proved to be one of the most influential people in Korean history. King Sejong was third son of King Taejong and as such was not originally intended to rise to the kingship. However, King Sejong's older brothers recognized their younger sibling's extraordinary skill and voluntarily gave up the throne in favor of King Sejong. The eldest brother deliberately had himself banished from the capital and the second brother became a monk.
King Sejong took the throne in 1418 and proved himself to be an effective military commander almost immediately in what was known as the Gihae Eastern Expedition ( 기해등정 ). This campaign was focused on Tsushima Island, which is located between Japan and Korea and was a base for Japanese pirates. The battle was a victory for Sejong and a treaty was signed after only three months. King Sejong was also successful in a later battle with the Jurchens in Manchuria, but military conquest would prove to be the least of his accomplishments.
He is much more well known for his advancements in Korean society. Sejong particularly advocated for advancements in science and technology. Technological advancements during his reign were primarily attributed to Jang Yeong-sil, who was born into the lower class, but was able to ascend the social ladder as a result of his creativity. Jang invented the water clock and was also responsible for advancements in astronomical clocks and sundials. A farming guide specifically designed for Korean agriculture was also published during Sejong's reign. Sejong even reformed the Korean calendar and medicine during his reign, both of which displayed significant breaks with Chinese culture.
However, the most influential development during Sejong's reign, and the reason that every Korean knows his name, was the creation of hangul ( 한굴 ), which translates to "great script", in 1446. Up until this time Koreans had adapted Chinese characters to fit the sounds of their language in a system known as hanja ( 한자 ). However, this system was extremely complex because it relied on Chinese characters and as a result the general population in Korea was illiterate. Hangul on the other hand consists of only 28 letters and is extremely easy to learn. Although the ruling class for the most part rejected hangul and continued to rely on hanja, the introduction of hangul to the masses sent Korean literacy rates through the roof. It should also be noted that this development exhibits yet another break with Chinese tradition in Korea.
King Sejong died in 1450 and passed power to his eldest son, Munjong. He is one of only two kings in Korean history (the other being Gwanggaeto of Goguryeo) to be posthumously honored with the title of "daewang" or "greatest of all kings".
|King Sejong ( 세종대왕 ) and Gwanghwamun ( 광화문 )|
The Sarim ( 사림 ), meaning "forest of scholars", and known as the Neo-Confucian Literati in English, was a group of yangban scholars who came from the countryside. These men were much more idealistic and rigid in their belief in the Confucian principles than their yangban counterparts in the capital and as a result they were the focus of numerous purges at the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th century. The first two purges, which took place in 1498 and 1504, both occurred during the reign of Yeonsangun ( 연산군 ), who is generally considered to be the worst tyrant in Joseon's history. Both purges were particularly gruesome with some people literally having their limbs torn off of their bodies. Despite the grisly displays, any officials who did not attend the executions or who looked away during the executions were also subject to punishment. The first purge was relatively small, as only six people were executed and about eighteen were exiled. The second purge was much larger and affected over 200 officials as well as their families. However, the second purge finally led to a plot to dethrone the despotic ruler, which was successfully carried out on September 2, 1506.
Two more significant literati purges occurred in 1519 and 1545, but these setbacks could not prevent the eventual rise of the Neo-Confucian Literati. The reign of the pro-Confucian monarch Seonjo ( 선조 ), who ruled from 1567 until 1608, finally saw the Neo-Confucian Literati rise to the highest official positions and assume control over the government.
Relationships with foreign countries were for the most part successful endeavors during the first 200 years of the Joseon Dynasty. Joseon's most important relationship was with the Ming Dynasty in China and Joseon worked very hard to ensure the continued success of the its pro-Ming foreign policy. The Jurchens in Manchuria were a different story. King Taejo expanded Joseon's borders to the land area of modern-day Korea, but this was obviously not without conflict from Joseon's northern neighbors. The Jurchens repelled the Korean expansion efforts for a time, but King Sejong ultimately succeeded in solidifying Joseon's borders at the modern-day boundary of North Korea and China. There were also minor disturbances with the Japanese during these first 200 years, but nothing that would reach the scale of what was to come.
The Japanese invaded Korea in 1592 and began what is known in Korea as the Imjin War. I will be going into this event in more detail in my next post, but it basically resulted in seven years of fighting and the most damage done to Korea in its entire history. Yes, it was even worse than the Korean War.
The Manchu invasions occurred during the 17th century and were a result of Joseon's pro-Ming policy. The Manchus were at war with Ming and as a result felt threatened by Joseon's blatant support of their enemy. The first invasion took place in 1627, but this event was short-lived and resulted in peaceful negotiations between the two sides. However, when Joseon refused to recognize the Qing Dynasty's (the Manchus changed their name) suzerainty over Korea they responded by invading again in 1636. This was also a short invasion, but it resulted in Joseon capitulating to Qing and becoming its tributary state.
Learning and Enlightenment
The problems started to mount up for Joseon and this resulted in the what is known as Silhak ( 실학 ), or practical learning. The objective of this movement was to illuminate history, politics, economics, and social studies in an effort to create an ideal society. Members of this movement put forth liberal ideas concerning government and social status, advocated for the advancement of technology, and even suggested that every peasant household should be guaranteed enough land to sustain itself. The study of history and science were also of primary importance during this time period. Korean thinkers followed the same criteria as their European counterparts in that no conclusion could be reached unless it was substantiated by facts.
Seohak ( 서학 ), which translates as "Western learning", was the Korean name for the spread of western technology, philosophy, and Catholicism around the Korean peninsula. Catholicism arrived in Korea during the 18th century and enjoyed moderate success, but ultimately underwent a persecution in 1801. Western technology was much more willingly utilized and even welcomed by Joseon.
Donghak ( 동학 ), which translates as "Eastern learning", arose in response to Seohak. I discussed this movement in my post on New Religions. The movement began with a man named Choe Jeu ( 최제우 ) in 1860, whose goal was to combine the best ideas of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism in an effort to oppose Seohak. In reality, the movement also incorporated beliefs of Catholicism and shamanism as well, but it still caught on nonetheless. The government did a pretty good job of initially suppressing the movement by arresting and executing Choe Jeu in in 1863. This of course sent many followers into hiding, but it wasn't long before the movement rose again and even become accepted by the royalty.
It is obvious from the these three movements that people were extremely fed up with the system in Joseon and were desperately searching for alternatives. The Enlightenment in Korea arose as a result of contact with other countries. It became obvious that western countries, as well as Japan, were far more advanced than Korea and that they therefore had two choices. They could continue to try and fight the inevitable influx of change or learn from more advanced countries. Korea found itself at a turning point in its history and had it decided to modernize more rapidly it may have been able to avoid its eventual fate as a Japanese colony.
The Daewongun ( 대윈군 ) and Isolationism
Gojong ( 고종 ), the last king of the Joseon Dynasty and the first emperor of the Korean Empire, assumed the throne in 1864 when he was only twelve years old and as a result his father, Heungseon Daewongun, held power until 1873. The Daewongun, which translates to "prince of the great court", was an effective leader, but unfortunately was also a staunch isolationist. It wasn't so much that he wanted to refuse foreign trade, but rather that he feared the dissemination of western ideas throughout Korean society. And while he was initially tolerant of Catholicism, he launched a persecution in 1866 that directly led the French campaign against Korea of 1866, or Byeongin yangyo ( 병인양요 ). The French were forced to withdraw, but this was only the first of many confrontations with western nations. Korea became involved in the Shinmiyangyo ( 신미양요 ), which translates to the "Western disturbance of 1871", when Joseon attacked U.S. ships. The U.S. responded with force and was successful militarily, but Joseon still refused to negotiate with the U.S., which was the ultimate goal of the mission. If anything, Korea became even more isolationist following this incident.
|Gojong moved to Deoksugung ( 덕수궁 ) from Gyeongbokgung after the assassination of his wife|
King Gojong finally took control of the country in 1873 and this inevitably led to the end of Joseon's policy of Isolationism. The Un'yo Incident occurred in 1876 in which the Japanese bated Korean defenders into firing upon a ship and then used the aggression as a pretext for a conflict with Korea. The Japanese were successful in the conflict and it resulted in the Treaty of Ganghwa later that year, which stipulated that Korea must open three ports for trade with Japan. This event opened the door for the western powers to also begin trade with Korea.
Korea essentially went on to became a land grab for foreign powers who were all vying for suzerainty over the country. The countries involved included Japan, China, Russia, the United States, France and England. However, it would ultimately be Japan that would arise victoriously from the struggle. This was a turbulent time period both in and around Korea as Koreans fought to maintain their independence and foreign powers fought to take control. Gojong obviously felt the ever-increasing presence of these powers, in particular the Japanese, and desperately sought a way to maintain his country's independence. His answer was the establishment of the Great Han Empire in 1897. And while the new title sounded impressive it unfortunately ended up simply being a matter of semantics instead of in any way actually changing Korea's status on the world stage.