As printed in A HANDBOOK OF KOREA, 9th, 1993;
Published by the Korean Overseas Information Service


Early Choson Period
(1388 - 1592)

State Structure

General Yi Song-gye seized political and mil­itary power, deposing King Ch’ang (r. 1388-89) and placing Kongyang (r.1389-92) on the throne. He and his faction then carried out a sweeping land reform. Neo-Confucian ideology became political capital in his fight against the declining Koryo monarchy and nobility.

The Kwajonpop (rank land law) was institut­ed, providing not only land for General Yi to distribute but also the power to rule the country. He and his group were well aware that the abili­ty to bring order and to end the decadent Koryo Kingdom lay in the land tenure system.

Under the terms of the status land system, land was ordinarily distributed for life only, on the basis of one’s status or rank. Recipients were given the right to collect rents, while the peasant was given the right to cultivate. The customary rent amounted to half the crop and was usually paid as rent-tax to the state.

Since the peasant, as tenant, was guaranteed land tenure in terms of cultivation rights not subject to confiscation, his livelihood was improved. In addition, the accumulation of land by the yangban, or office-holding aristocrats, was strictly controlled by the stipulation that status land would be granted only in the Kyong­gi area around the capital, where the government could easily maintain supervision and surveillance.

By resolutely carrying out land reform. Yi Song-gye and his followers grasped economic power. King Kongyang was forced to abdicate and Yi Song-gye’s followers placed Yi on the throne, bringing an end to the house of Wang. Yi Song-gye renamed the kingdom Choson and he was given the dynastic name of T’aejo. The establishment of institutions of Confucian learn­ing was given first priority in order to institute a Confucian state. A college and five municipal schools were set up in Seoul, and local schools were established in all the magistracies. From these schools, Confucian-oriented scholar-offi­cials were recruited for government office.

The yangban class acting in concert had pow­er to interfere with the monarchial administra­tion and decision-making procedures. Under Confucian precepts, the bureaucracy was to act as the agent of the monarch’s will, since the monarch had a vested interest in benevolent rule. The monarch in turn had to heed the advice of Confucian scholars. In this connection the Office of Royal Lecturers and the Office of State Councilors (Uijongbu) were of prime importance. Below this were the six boards of administration—civil appointment, taxation, rites, military, punishment and public works—the principal government organizations in the capital. In provincial areas administrative divi­sions and magistrates under provincial gover­nors carried out local administration.

The Censorate Offices submitted memorials and remonstrances to the monarch and had the authority to ratify and rectify the monarch’s appointment of officials and his renovative decrees. The court historians, who were to record daily happenings in the court and make verbatim records of the royal conversation, were empowered to criticize and keep the monarch under surveillance.

In order to enhance Confucian learning, movable metal type was cast for the printing of Confucian classics and historical literature in 1403. Typography was developed and improved by the repeated casting of new fonts as a means of promoting Confucian studies for the welfare and prosperity of the state.

Sejong's Confucian Humanism

Choson‘s fourth king, Sejong (r. 1418-50), was noted for his mastery of Confucian learn­ing. In addition to his internalization of Confucian values, he showed himself able to successfully deal with the yangban scholars. His rule in the mid-l5th century was marked by progressive ideas in administration, phonetics, national script, economics, science, music, med­ical science and humanistic studies. He estab­lished the Chiphyönjön (Hall of Worthies) in order to promote research in institutional tradi­tions and politico-economics.

Sejong showed great concern for the liveli­hood of the peasants, providing relief in time of drought and flood. He had Chong Ch’o compile the Nongsa chiksol (Straight Talk on Farming), a volume replete with information collected from experienced elder peasants throughout the country. The first of its kind in Korea, this became the classic work on Korean agriculture. He also put into effect a sliding tax scale which eased the peasants’ burden. Sejong ordered the development of the pluviometer in 1442 and distributed duplicates to the Office of Astronomy in Seoul and to local magistrates to record precipitation. This preceded Gastelli’s pluviometer of 1639 by almost 200 years.

One of his most celebrated achievements was the creation of the Korean alphabet, Han-gul. It was the awareness that his people must have a writing system designed to express the language of their everyday speech, and a desire that all his subjects be able to learn and use it that impelled King Sejong to have scholars of the Hall of Worthies devise the alphabet. The Korean alphabet, consisting of 11 vowels and 28 consonants possessing geometic beauty, simplicity, and scientific accuracy, is such that an uneducated man can learn it in a few hours.

Confucian scholars raised considerable oppo­sition and protested that the use of Korean script would retard Confucian studies. Sejong persisted in his determination to promote Han­gul for the benefit of the people, and Hunmin chong-um, or “The Correct Sounds for the Instruction of the People”, was distributed in 1446.

The official written language continued to be Chinese, as was Latin in Europe, but now the Korean people had at their disposal a means of writing their own language. A bilingual poetic eulogy on the foundings of the dynasty Yongbi­och'on ka (Songs of Flying Dragons) was com­posed in Korean as well as in Chinese, and the Sokpo sangjol (Episodes from the Life of the Buddha) was translated into Korean. These works laid the foundation for practical use of the Korean script.

Sejong showed his concern for the health of the people by ordering the compilation of medi­cal books. A 365-chapter compendium on Chinese medicine as well as the Hyang-yak-­chip-song-bang (A Compilation of Native Korean Prescriptions) in 85 chapters, was completed in 1433. This latter included 959 entries on dis­ease diagnoses, 10,706 prescriptions, and 1,477 items on acupuncture therapy. Another book on how to collect local medicinal material was published in the vernacular language.

Sejong’s interest in astronomical science was comprehensive and sun dials, water clocks, orreries of the solar system, celestial globes, astronomical maps, and atlases of the seven planets were produced at his instigation. He had a notation system for Korean as well as Chinese music devised or revised, and had one of his tal­ented subjects, Pak Yon, improve musical instruments of various kinds and compose a sort of orchestral music.

In foreign relations, Sejong took strong mea­sures against the Jurchen tribes. The territory in the northeastern frontier area was restored, and six fortresses were established after General Kim Chong-so quelled the Jurchen invaders in 1434. In 1443 Sejong installed four counties on the northern border, and opened three ports to the Japanese to help trade. Sejong’s land tax reform, health policy and invention of the Korean alphabet all contributed to the improve­ment of life and hence the awakening of the people.

Sejong was able to bring the Confucian state to realization in the true sense of the word, and to engender a modern national consciousness in the minds of the people. Although he had earlier confiscated temple lands and bondsmen and otherwise restricted Buddhism, he later became especially devoted to that faith after the death of his beloved queen. His health declined in that period, and he abdicated the throne to his son Munjong (r. 1450- 52). Unfortunately, his legacy of stability and prosperity was not sustained by his short-lived successors.

Monarchy versus Yangban

King Munjong’s death in 1452 brought an 11-year-old prince to the throne. State affairs were left in the hands of state councilors, and the monarchical power declined. In 1455, the unscrupulous Prince Suyang, uncle of the child-king Tanjong, usurped the throne by murder and regicide after quelling the opposition of officials and military officers, and ruthlessly suppressing attempts to restore Tanjong.

King Sejo (r.1455-68), as Prince Suyang is officially known, closed the Hall of Worthies, abolished some posts in the Censorate Offices, and crippled the Office of Royal Lecturers (Kyongyon), all measures designed to loosen the ideological restraints on the monarchy. "The Office of Study Promotion" was instituted, osten­sibly as a means of promoting Confucianism. In fact, it was used merely as a royal library rather than an organization designed to promote and propagate Confucian ideals. Further, he initiated the practice of giving private audiences to indi­vidual officials, flouting the regulation which made the presence of historians and censorate officials mandatory at royal audiences.

An attempt to raise the status of the monarchy was, however, justified, as formerly the Korean monarch had been vulnerable to inordinate yangban pressure. Yang Song-ji, a talented scholar under Sejong, advocated the monarch’s cause in his memorials. Yang stressed Korea’s unique position, asserting the need to preserve indigenous traditions—Tan-gun, according to him, was the “Son-of-Heaven Ruler.” He for­mulated the proposition that Korea, like China, was a nation upon which the “Mandate of Heaven” was bestowed. This argument strength­ened Sejo’s hand vis-a-vis the bureaucracy.

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None of the Yi kings had been strong enough to defy the yangban officials by praying in person at the "Temple of Heaven", where the "Son of Heaven" alone was qualified to converse with the "Heavenly God". Sejo, however, in his sacrificial ode to the Heavenly God at the Temple of Heaven, used the phrase “the founder of the dynasty, the imperial great-great grandfather, T’aejo (founder King Yi Song-gye).”

Sejo ordered the compilation of a detailed map of Korea to provide further control of out­lying areas. Census-taking of all soldiers and reserves in the various districts was enforced, and the Civil Register Act requiring all citizens to carry identification tags was reinforced. He installed large military garrisons in each province and ordered every town to produce arms.

By arranging generous land grants and medicine, Sejo showed his concern for the wel­fare of the army. He also ordered the migration of people to the sparsely populated northern border areas.

The monarch acted decisively in the matter of recruitment of new officials, increasing the number of military graduates to further strength­en the monarchial power. He also gave the title of “Meritorious Subject” to various officials on three different occasions to widen the base of loyal support. With the increase of inheritable land grants to meritorious subjects, however, land available for the newly-appointed officials decreased. To solve this problem and to limit the economic power of the officials and yangban, Sejo instituted the official land system, which allowed land grants in terms of rent for office tenure only. Thus the status land system by which the yangban enjoyed life-time tenure was discontinued, and those parties who refused to compromise lost their land holdings. This limitation of land grants to incumbent offi­cials meant that the old landed yangban class changed to either an employed bureaucracy with land or landless yangban with prestige only.

Sejo offered interim civil and military service examinations more often, in addition to the time-honored examinations given every three years. Since the number of successful candi­dates in the interim examinations exceeded those from fixed examinations by a ratio of two to one, this virtually brought the civil examina­tion system under the monarch’s sway. To divert the attention of the Neo-Confucian scholars, Sejo defied Confucian orthodoxy by supporting Taoism and Buddhism. An Office for Publication of Buddhist Scriptures was established, where the compilation of Buddhist literature and Korean translation of such litera­ture became active. Fifty copies of the bulky Koryo Tripitaka were printed for distribution. To equip the often Sinocentric scholars with a comprehensive history of their own country, the compilation of Tongguk T’onggam (Compre­hensive Mirror of the Eastern Kingdom) began in 1458 and was completed after the king’s death.

During this time, the compilation of the Grand Code for State Administration was initi­ated. The Kyongguk Taejon (National Code), became the corner-stone of the dynastic admin­istration and provided the monarchial system with a sort of constitutional law in written form.

Resurgence of Neo-Confucian Rule

The child-king Söngjong (r.1469-94) ascend­ed to the throne and ruled under the regency of the dowager queen and minister- consultants. The anti-Sejo literati used the institution of the royal lecture to try to abolish Buddhist rituals and other anomalies in the life of the court, and the unfortunate child was subjected to a rigor­ous schedule of two to four royal lectures per day. The Office of Study Promotion was expanded to serve as a censorate in addition to providing royal lecturers. Heavy Confucian indoctrination was the order of the day, and state support of Buddhism gradually dimin­ished. During Songjong’s reign, officials’ rights to collect tax and rent from official land as per­sonal income began to wane.

Young scholars were treated well and given opportunities at the newly-established Hall of Leave for Study, and Confucianism once again found its place in the royal administration. An ambitious publication program was implement­ed, producing such works as a compendium of Korean historical geography; also issued were an anthology of Korean-Chinese literature, and an illustrated text on traditional music.

Such efforts to restore Confucian rule were not sufficient to satisfy the scholarly in general, however. Those among them who had suffered discrimination during Sejo’s reign gained a foot-hold at court, but economic conditions were not greatly improved. Following the implementation of central collection and distri­bution of rent on the officials’ land, the officials and yangban sought land control in terms of the right to cultivate, thereby encroaching upon the peasant’s share of landed rights. Moreover, land area grew as a result of reclamation, and this contributed further to the growth of agri­cultural estates, a process which the dynasty attempted to prevent. Some agricultural estates gathered bondsmen and peasants, some of whom abandoned their free status in order to escape the heavy land tax, corvee, and tribute taxes.

The desire to hold landed interests became more intense, as the path to governmental appointment was open to the anti-Sejo factions but competition for such appointments became fiercer. Those who were already established as the owners of meritorious subject land, special land grants, reclaimed land, or accumulated landed rights to cultivate were becoming targets of criticism.

The literati upheld the family and clan rites and etiquette prescribed by neo-Confucian doc­trine, but were impoverished by the costly ritu­als involved—marriages, funerals, and memori­al ceremonies. To maintain themselves, the literati depended heavily on their kinship ties, relying on assistance given by an appointed official of the same kin group. These mutual assistance relationships affected both officials in the capital, and landed yangban in the outly­ing areas as well. This was also a key factor in the politico-economic life of each yangban dur­ing the Choson Dynasty and was intensified during Songjong’s reign. Kim Chong-jik (1432-92) was a leading scholar-official with many followers, who advocated the Neo­Confucian rectification theory which implied condemnation of Sejo’s usurpation. His success represented for a while the peak of the resurgent Neo-Confucian school.

Songjong’s successor in 1495 was Prince Yon-san, whose reign was noted for his unscrupulous suppression of the literati. In the initial period, he was hard pressed by that clam­orous group which opposed Buddhist rituals observed at the death of the Queen Mother. Infuriated by the hundreds of memorials and protests made by the Neo-Confucian literati, Yonsan-gun lashed out at them. His first purge was based on an accusation of state crimes because one of Kim Chong-jik’s students had implicitly criticized Sejo’s usurpation in his his­torical notes. By this purge and another which followed in 1504, Yonsan-gun eliminated the checks exercised by historians, the censorate, and state councilors. Confucian statecraft almost collapsed. His extraordinary anti-Confucian and anti-Buddhist acts contravened the Grand Code for State Administration and dismayed the yangban as a whole until he was finally deposed.

It fell to Chungjong (r.1506-44), supported by the officials who had deposed Yon-san, to restore Confucian rule. The resurgence of the Neo-Confucian school made the enhancement of the economic status of the literati an urgent necessity. Some were rewarded with meritorious subject land, but others found a solution through securing charters for private schools endowed with some land and bondsmen. Such local private schools became intellectual training centers for schools of thought as well as for kin groups.

The increase of refugee peasants contributed to the ever increasing burden of taxes upon the remaining peasants. Cho Kwang-jo, an influential school official, advocated the recommendation system for recruitment of government officials and the organization of local guilds to improve the impoverished condition of the literati. The recommendation system was implemented and his group was recruited for official posts, but this alone did not satisfy them since they were not rewarded with appropriate land. In 1519, the year they achieved their goal of implementing the recommendation examination system, these Neo-Confucian scholars faced a spurious charge of treason.

The ministers and the literati were often embroiled in royal succession problems, and competed among themselves for places in the bureaucracy, especially since their numbers had rapidly increased with the expansion of private schools. Their common interests based on local school and kinship organizations were bound to spilt them into factions, all the more bitterly divided for being within the same status. The number of private schools exceeded one hundred in the late 16th century, and eminent scholars of the Neo-Confucian philosophy sheltered themselves in such institutions.

As for the people in general, they were hard-pressed by the levies of land tax, corvee, military tax, service and especially tribute tax, which was collected by authorized agents. The growth of agricultural estates accelerated, contributing further to the decline of the peasant economy. A righteous outlaw named Im Kkök­chong rose up against the greedy officials. Recruiting a large group of peasants, he confiscated the wealth of rich yangban officials and distributed it to the poor. He seized government granaries and gave relief to hungry people in the provinces of Kyonggi-do and Hwanghae­do. Although he was caught and beheaded in 1562, his chivalry and revolutionary ideas captured the admiration of the people and inspired the popular novel, The Tale of Hong Kil-tong.

See King Sejong on Korean Paper-Money