Joseon Dynasty

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Royal throne of the Joseon Dynasty, c. 1800-1900, in front of Sun, Moon, and Five Peaks Screen, also c. 1800-1900, at Asian Art Museum, San Francisco
  • Dates: 1392-1897
  • Capital: 漢城 (Hanseong, Hansŏng)
  • Korean/Japanese: 朝鮮 (Joseon, Chosŏn / Chousen)

The Joseon Dynasty ruled a united Korea from 1392 until 1897, from its capital at Hanseong, the city today known as Seoul.[1]

It was the last dynasty to rule Korea before Japanese colonization at the beginning of the 20th century, and was characterized by a centralization of government, and a significant shift from Buddhism to Neo-Confucianism as the chief state ideology.



The dynasty was founded by Yi Sŏnggye, who then took the name King Taejo, ruling from 1392 until 1398.[2] The fall of the preceding Koryŏ Dynasty came in part due to Koryŏ campaigns against Ming Dynasty China over control of the Ssangsŏng region, and Yi Sŏnggye's preference for negotiation over combat as a means to resolve the matter. Taejo named the new kingdom after Gija Joseon, the legendary first state ever established in the Korean peninsula.[3]

Immediately after establishing the new dynasty, Yi made efforts to reaffirm Korea's tributary loyalties to the Ming, and sought to receive investiture in return. Doing so would serve both to bolster the sense of legitimacy of the new regime, and to protect it from being overthrown (almost before it even began) by "the most powerful state in its political universe."[4] The Ming court finally granted that investiture in 1403 (during the reign of Taejo's successor, King Jeongjong), formally recognizing the Yi clan (i.e. the Joseon dynasty) as legitimate rulers of all the territory Koryŏ had previously held.[5] From that generation forward, until the fall of the Ming Dynasty in 1644, every king of Joseon received investiture from the Ming.[6]

At the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty, the population of Korea was likely around 3.5 million, up from 3 million a century earlier.[7]

The early Joseon Dynasty (c. 1400-1450) saw the introduction of porcelain technology into Korea.[8]

King Taejo was raised in a Yuan Dynasty commandery, the son of a Yuan official of Korean extraction; as such, he grew up with close Jurchen, Mongol, and Han Chinese associates, as well as those of Korean ethnicity. Following the fall of the Yuan, that commandery became a portion of Korean territory once again, and after taking the throne, Taejo began receiving tribute from the Jurchens immediately. Around a century later, Joseon had incorporated a number of Jurchen areas (and thus, many Jurchen people) into its territory, and had begun re-settling Koreans into the northern border regions. Six garrisons on the Tumen River (today the eastern part of North Korea's border with China and Russia) guarded these settlements.[9]

Court Ritual & Confucianism

Following Red Turban (Ming) attacks on the Koryo capital in 1361, and the chaos surrounding Koryo's fall, Choson worked to rebuild, and began in the 1390s into the 1400s to establish a government more strongly based upon ancient Confucian classics, and Zhu Xi’s commentaries, rather than on Buddhism. However, different advisors advocated different threads of Confucianism, and considerable factionalism emerged, with doctrinal conflicts often following regional or kinship lines. State rituals began to be standardized and codified more strongly under King Sejong (1418-1450). Sejong commissioned court scholars to consult ancient Chinese texts, and to compile a singular authoritative and comprehensive ritual code for the kingdom. The result was expansions of the Orye uiju (五礼儀注), a text compiled in 1415, which outlined the chief “auspicious rites.” Other state rituals were added to the text in 1444-1451, and the volume was revised into the Kukcho orye ui (国朝五礼儀) in 1474. The main focus of all of these ritual writings was the construction of a cosmic order through the enactment of rituals, and specifically those rituals which the Chinese order permitted the head of a vassal state (i.e. a king, not an Emperor) to perform. In contrast to the preceding Koryo Dynasty, which was heavily dominated by Buddhist political culture, the people surrounding the Chosŏn founder decided to replace an eclectic mix of various state rituals with a more systematized and organized order of Confucian state ritual, based on Chinese models. As early as the very first year of Chosŏn rule, there were officials who petitioned that certain state rituals should be abolished, as the Chinese order dictated they were only to be performed by the Emperor of China, and not by tributary Kings. Overall, however, this stance was not immediately adopted by the Court. Amidst droughts and other problems, many at Court were quite willing to retain whatever seemed to work, whether it be Buddhist or Confucian in origin. These included Imperial Chinese rituals, as well as native Korean rain rituals, performed on a Round Altar (圓壇) like that which Chinese Confucian ideology dictated should be restricted to the Emperor’s use.[10] Sejong's reforms also included changing the royal costume (gollyongpo) from the blue which was standard under Goryeo to the red which would remain standard for the remainder of the Joseon period, as well as various changes to ceremonial court music.[11]

Overall, Confucianism was seen as universal, as something not necessarily representing submission to China as a political entity, or to Chinese ways as a particular (foreign) culture, but rather as a set of attitudes and practices constituting the observance of proper civilization, the observance of the best way of doing things. But, still, considerable disagreements and debates continued for centuries as to how precisely to implement Confucian political culture in Korea, a country with its own distinctive history and traditions. For the first several centuries of the Joseon period, the Court shifted nearly constantly on issues of proper ritual practice, as factions rose and fell, and as various attitudes and approaches accordingly gained and lost support. Korean stances towards state rituals remained somewhat contradictory, or complicated; many steps towards fuller Confucianization were resisted on the grounds of adhering to precedents, i.e. on the grounds of continuing to do things the proper Korean way.[12]

Even at the earliest stage, however, in the first decade after the dynasty's founding, the Court began taking some actions to better embody a distinctive Korean identity, and an appropriately kingly (tributary) one, distancing Joseon from emulation of at least some Chinese Imperial practices. One such change was for former kings, going back to the 6th or 7th century, to be retroactively renamed, in Joseon official histories, "-wang", meaning "king," in place of the "-jo" (C: -zu) and "-jong" (C: -zong) suffixes many of them had employed in their temple names, in emulation of Chinese emperors.[13]

After the Manchu invasions of Korea in the 1620s-30s, and especially after the fall of China's Ming Dynasty to the Manchus in 1644, however, the Court shifted considerably towards a strong dedication to proper Confucian state ritual and embodiment of loyalty to the Ming.

Once hopes for a Ming restoration faded in the 1670s, Joseon began constructing altars to Ming emperors. Song Siyol (1607-1689) was among the leading Confucian officials who proposed the construction of altars to the Wanli and Chongzhen Emperors to be built, to “symbolize repaying the kindness of the Ming and for implanting… the spirit of ch’unch’u taeui [春秋大義, C: Chūnqiū dàyì],” a principle of loyalty to the state even while that state is collapsing. A generation later, King Sukchong continued to support such attitudes, and proposed ritual sacrifices to the Chongzhen Emperor beginning in 1704. However, some factions at court questioned or critiqued such moves, noting that such sacrifices would seem to place the Ming emperors above the King’s own royal ancestors, and further that such sacrifices had no precedent in the established Chinese ritual code. Many officials also protested that only direct descendants of the Ming Imperial family should be making such sacrifices to the Ming imperial ancestors. Still, with the support of students from Korea’s own National Confucian Academy, the altar was created. Originally dedicated to the memory of the Wanli Emperor and called the Taebodan, it was later expanded – under Sukchong’s successor King Yongjo - to be dedicated to the Hongwu and Chongzhen Emperors as well. Yongjo began the tradition of performing ritual sacrifices dedicated to these three emperors (Hongwu, Wanli, and Chongzhen) in 1749. Through these rituals, Yongjo affirmed Joseon as the heir to Ming civilization, with one key saying from the time declaring that “the Central Plains exude the stenches of barbarians and our Green Hills are alone” (i.e. China has fallen to the barbarians, and it is in Korea alone that true civilization survives).[14] Yet, while this notion of Korea as the "small central civilization" (K: sojunghwa), that is, the only remaining bastion of high Confucian civilization surrounded by uncivilized, or barbarian, regimes, certainly gained strength following the Manchu conquest, it had its roots in the preceding century. As early as 1574, Korean officials visiting Beijing reported back that the Ming National Academy (Guozijian) and other centers of Confucian learning were in states of severe disrepair, and that few teachers or students were present.[15]

An office called the Joseon guó lǐjo (朝鮮国礼曹, "Joseon Office of National Rites") oversaw court rituals, ritual music, and foreign relations.[16]

Foreign Relations

Wakô pirate raids on the Korean and Chinese coasts were perhaps the most major concern in Japan's relations with both Joseon Korea and Ming Dynasty China in the 15th-16th centuries. Due to these pirate threats, the Korean court gave up on attempts to send formal missions to Southeast Asian courts after the 1390s. Trade in Southeast Asian goods continued, however, through Korea's contacts with China, Japan, and Ryûkyû.[17] The wakô (lit. "Japanese pirates") were in fact people from all over the region, mainly Chinese, under the direct control of no central or prominent Japanese authority. Despite demands from Joseon and Ming to the Ashikaga shogunate to put an end to the piracy, it was not within the shogun's power to command the pirates. In the 15th century, Joseon made several attempts to curb or cut off this pirate activity, eventually entering into an arrangement in 1443 with the Sô samurai clan of Tsushima, who were granted a variety of privileges in exchange for taking a leading role in ensuring that all Japanese trading ships traveling to Korea were properly licensed and authorized, and in taking care of those which were not (i.e. the pirates).[18] In the Edo period, the Sô came to be the only Japanese traveling or communicating between Korea and Japan, wielding considerable power as the only intermediaries between the Joseon court and the Tokugawa shogunate, overseeing and managing all trade and diplomatic interactions between the two lands.

As the Manchus gained strength in Northeast Asia in the early decades of the 17th century, factions emerged within the Joseon Court for and against submission to the Qing. Prince Gwanghae, who reigned as king from 1608, sought to accommodate the Manchus, and was supported by the Puk'in faction; however, the rival Sŏin faction saw this as submission to barbarians, as a violation of the recognition of Ming China as the source of great civilization, and as a betrayal to the Ming, who had so aided Korea in defeating Hideyoshi's forces. In 1623, the Sŏin faction staged a coup, and placed King Injo on the throne, marking the beginning of an even deeper adherence to Confucian orthodoxy, and Ming loyalty. This came to be known as the Injo Revolt. Manchu attacks on Korea in 1636 only strengthened anti-Manchu attitudes within the Korean court, and though the court did eventually capitulate to paying tribute to the Qing, they maintained their loyalty to the Ming as one of the central ideals of their state.[19] The Qing record Taizong shilu, as well as certain official Chosŏn records, give 1637/1/30 as the date Chosŏn officially declared its submission to the Qing.[20]

The Manchus demanded Chosŏn express its loyalty to the Qing in a number of ways: adopting the Qing calendar and Qing reign names; switching the Ming-granted royal seal for a Qing-granted one; and by addressing the Qing in formal communications in the way Chosŏn had previously addressed the Ming (e.g. with terms such as "Heavenly Realm" 天朝, rather than simply "the Qing" 清朝 or 清国, let alone terms referring to the Manchus as "barbarians"). Chosŏn court officials were united in opposing the Manchu invasion, but after their kingdom was defeated, they ultimately agreed to participate in the tribute/investiture relationship, and to many of the associated practices mentioned above. At the same time, however, the fall of the Ming necessitated the development of a Korean identity separated from China. The kingdom could no longer draw legitimacy from (contemporary) China, which had fallen to chaos and to barbarian invaders, but had to find new ways to continue to base its legitimacy in the idea of the Ming. In internal (domestic) documents, Chosŏn continued to employ the Ming calendar, and to refer to the Qing as simply the Qing, or as barbarians; the Court also put into place numerous anti-Qing or Ming loyalist state rituals, which ritually, symbolically, represented loyalty to the Ming, and a view of the Qing as an illegitimate regime.[20]

While Joseon maintained a policy of maritime restrictions more or less just as strict as that of the Tokugawa shogunate, it was less strict in banning Christianity, and a number of Christian missionaries managed to sneak into Korea from China over the course of the period.[21] A Chinese-language translation of the Christian Bible first circulated in Korea beginning in 1784.[22]

In the 1860s, seeking to protect and continue its traditional tributary relationship with Qing Dynasty China, Korea resisted entering into diplomatic relations in the Western mode with either Western powers, or with the Qing's own Western-style foreign affairs office, the Zongli Yamen.[23] When informed in 1869 of the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the establishment of a new Imperial Japanese government, the Korean Court chastised the Sô family for its breach of the traditional vassal/tributary relationship, and Japanese-Korean relations soured for several years; after Tsushima and the Sô clan were removed from their traditionally special permission, and the Meiji government more fully took over control of foreign relations, factions within the government debated in 1873-1874 whether to invade Korea as punishment for its hostile position; in the end, there was no invasion, and several prominent figures in support of the invasion resigned from government. In 1875, a Japanese ship requesting aid, food, and water at a Korean port was fired upon in response, and so Inoue Kaoru and Kuroda Kiyotaka traveled to Korea on an official mission to address the issue. Mori Arinori was simultaneously dispatched to China, to seek China's assistance in securing friendly relations with Korea.[24]

Japanese-Korean relations in the Western/modern mode were finally established in 1876. The Treaty of Ganghwa signed that year has been regarded as one of the Unequal Treaties, granting Japan many of the same privileges in Korea that Western powers now enjoyed in Japan.[25]

On October 12, 1897, King Gojong declared the end of the Kingdom of Korea, and the beginning of the Korean Empire, naming himself Emperor.[26]

Kings of Joseon

(Rulers are listed with their queen or consort)[27]

  1. King Taejo 太祖 (1335-1408, r. 1392-1398)
  2. King Jeongjong 定宗 (1357-1419, r. 1398-1400)
  3. King Taejong 太宗 (1367-1422, r. 1400-1418)
  4. King Sejong 世宗 (1397-1450, r. 1418-1450)
  5. King Munjong 文宗 (1414-1452, r. 1450-1452)
  6. King Danjong 端宗 (1441-1457, r. 1452-1455)
  7. King Sejo 世祖 (1417-1468, r. 1455-1468)
  8. King Yejong 睿宗 (1450-1469, r. 1468-1469)
  9. King Seongjong 成宗 (1457-1494, r. 1469-1494)
  10. Prince Yeonsan 燕山君 (1476-1506, r. 1494-1506)
  11. King Jungjong 中宗 (1488-1544, r. 1506-1544)
  12. King Injong 仁宗 (1515-1545, r. 1544-1545)
  13. King Myeongjong 明宗 (1534-1567, r. 1545-1567)
  14. King Seonjo 宣祖 (1552-1608, r. 1567-1608)
  15. Prince Gwanghae 光海君 (1575-1641, r. 1608-1623)
  16. King Injo 仁祖 (1595-1649, r. 1623-1649)
  17. King Hyojong 孝宗 (1619-1659, r. 1649-1659)
  18. King Hyeonjong 顕宗 (1641-1674, r. 1659-1674)
  19. King Sukjong 肅宗 (1661-1720, r. 1674-1720)
  20. King Gyeongjong 景宗 (1688-1724, r. 1720-1724)
  21. King Yeongjo 英祖 (1694-1776, r. 1724-1776)
  22. King Jeongjo 正祖 (1752-1800, r. 1776-1800)
  23. King Sunjo 純祖 (1790-1834, r. 1800-1834)
  24. King Heonjong 憲宗 (1827-1849, r. 1834-1849)
  25. King Cheoljong 哲宗 (1831-1863, r. 1849-1863)
  26. King Gojong 高宗 (Emperor Gojong, 1852-1919, r. 1863-1907)


  • In Grand Style, San Francisco: Asian Art Museum (2013), xxii-xxiii.
  1. Nam-Lin Hur, "A Korean Envoy Encounters Tokugawa Japan: Shin Yuhan and the Korean Embassy of 1719," Bunmei 21 no. 4 (Aichi University, 2000), 61-73.
  2. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 30.
  3. Jeong-mi Lee, “Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization,” International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 国際基督教大学学報 3-A,アジア文化研究 36 (2010) 316n19.
  4. Ji-Young Lee, “Diplomatic Ritual as a Power Resource: The Politics of Asymmetry in Early Modern Chinese-Korean Relations,” Journal of East Asian Studies 13 (2013), 321.
  5. Tomiyama Kazuyuki, Ryûkyû ôkoku no gaikô to ôken, Yoshikawa kôbunkan (2004), 34.
  6. Ji-Young Lee, 317.
  7. Robert Tignor, Benjamin Elman, et al, Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, vol B, Fourth Edition, W.W. Norton & Co (2014), 410.
  8. Gallery labels, Arts of Korea, LACMA.
  9. Adam Bohnet, “Ruling Ideology and Marginal Subjects: Ming Loyalism and Foreign Lineages in Late Chosŏn Korea.” Journal of Early Modern History 15:6 (January 2011): 484-485.
  10. Evelyn Rawski, Early Modern China and Northeast Asia: Cross-Border Perspectives, Cambridge University Press (2015), 126-127, 131.
  11. "Portrait of King Taejo," gallery labels, National Museum of Korea.[1]
  12. Rawski, 138.
  13. Rawski, 137.
  14. Rawski, 141-142.
  15. Jeong-Mi Lee, "Chosŏn Korea as Sojunghwa, the Small Central Civilization," International Christian University Publications 3-A, Asian Cultural Studies 36 (2010), 313.
  16. Chôsen tsûshinshi to Okayama, Okayama Prefectural Museum (2007), 59.
  17. Geoffrey Gunn, History Without Borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800, Hong Kong University Press (2011), 217.
  18. Hellyer, 31.
  19. Seo-Hyun Park, "Small States and the Search for Sovereignty in Sinocentric Asia: Japan and Korea in the Late Nineteenth Century," in Anthony Reid & Zheng Yangwen (eds.), Negotiating Asymmetry: China's Place in Asia (NUS Press, 2009), 36-37.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Rawski, 139.
  21. Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, International House of Japan (2006), 2.
  22. Gallery labels, National Museum of Korea.[2]
  23. Hellyer, 236.
  24. Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World, Harvard University Press (1992), 115.
  25. Hellyer, 240-245.
  26. Gallery labels, Gyeongbokgung Palace.
  27. Rawski, 167.
Preceded by:
Goryeo (Koryŏ)
Joseon Dynasty
Succeeded by:
Korean Empire