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1. Political Development and Society


(1) Founding of Choson and Early Growth


In the social confusion and national crisis which ensued in the final days of Koryo, the gentry and military explored means for establishing a new state. With the withdrawal of the army from Wihwa Island on the Yalu, military forces were strenghtened and its new leaders drove out the old aristocratic powers of Koryo and enforced a land reform program in order to step up their economic basis. Then Chong To-chon, Cho Chun and other powerful civilians placed Yi Song-gye on the throne to establish a new state in 1392.

The name of the new state was Choson. This name reflected a historical consciousness that it was succeeding the traditions of Kojoson. The capital was fixed in Hanyang (now known as Seoul), located at the center of the Korean peninsula, and the new reign strove to win over popular support.

Choson's basic policies were Confucianist politics, agricultural economy, and pro-Ming diplomacy. In other words, it upheld Confucianism in governing the nation, promoted agricultural production in order to increase national revenue and stabilize the lives of the people, and urged for peace and stability by promoting friendly relations with the Ming Dynasty, a newly rising power in the Asian continent.

Since the national structure was stabilized under the reigns of Kings T'aejong, Sejong and Sejo, Choson became a Confucian state and adopted a system of centralized power. With the completion of Kyongguk taejon during the reign of King Songjong, laws for government were provided.

Moreover, the national territory as it is known today was established during this period. During the reign of King Sejong, the Nuzhens on the Yalu basin and the Tumens were driven out. Four counties and six ports were set up along these basins. With this, the Choson Kingdom, bordered by the Yalu and Tumen Rivers, fixed its territories. Additionally, policies of resettling people from the southern to the northern territories was enforced for the balanced development of the land.


(2) Firm Establishment of a Ruling Structure with Centralized Power


During the initial stage, meriting vassals had grasped substantial political power. However their powers were gradually taken away or absorbed by the royal authority and governing powers were centralized to the royal authority.

T'aejong readjusted the bureaucratic structures and abolished the practice of building private armies, and governing powers were centralized to the King. He enforced economic reforms in the temples and by increasing the number of those considered citizens, he expanded the basis of national revenues. These reforms stimulated the growth of national culture and expansion of national territory. King Sejong greatly contributed to the development of the Choson dynasty through the centralized government structure.

The supreme administrative organization was known as the Uijongbu. It was comprised of the Yonguijong, Chwauijong and Uuijong. These consultative councils decided on national policies which would have to be approved by the King.

Under the Uijongbu, six ministries--Personnel, Finance, Rites, Military, Justice, and Construction--were set up as executive ministries for national administration. In addition, Inspection and Censor Boards as well as the Hongmun-gwan were set up to ensure that the government ran smoothly.

As local administrative organizations, the country was divided into eight provinces where governors were dispatched to take charge of their administrations. Within a province, smaller administrative districts known as Mok, Kun and Hyon were organized and local rulers known as Pusas, Moksas and Hyollyongs were dispatched.

The military service was enforced by a universal conscription system. All male farmers above the age of 16 were obliged to fulfill their duty of military service by bearing arms or paying for some military expenses.

Five general headquarters commanded the five central guards.

In the border areas and at important military locations, army and navy barracks were established and army and navy commanders were dispatched from Central Headquarters to command the fighting forces.


(3) Yangbans and Bureaucrats


The governing class of Choson were known as Yangbans. Originally, Yangbans were civilians and military bureaucrats who gradually became the ruling governing class. They enjoyed many privileges.

They advanced to become bureaucrats through the civil service examinations, but some of the sons of the upper level bureaucrats, who possessed many special privileges, became bureaucrats without having to pass the civil service examinations.


The pair of tigers or cranes on these insignias were attached to the front and back of the garments worn by Chosun Kingdom high officials.
Military officials (left). Civil officials (right).

Among the Yangbans, the civilians were given preferential treatment over military men. Also within the Yangban class, children of illegitimate birth were discriminated against and restricted from advancing in society.

Yangbans did not engage in productive labor. They read the Confucian classics or history books and lived their lives according to Confucian rites.


(4) The Policy of an Agriculturally-Based Livelihood and the Farmers


Continuing the tradition of developing agriculture as the foundation for the nation, the Choson dynasty enforced agriculturally-based livelihoods for farmers as the basic policy of the state.

The government made efforts to reclaim land, expand irrigation facilities, reform farming techniques and raise silkworms for weaving. For these reasons, during the early years of Choson, the amount of arable land increased greatly, farm productivity rose to augment state income, and the lives of the farmers stabilized to some extent.

The system of land distribution was based on the Kwajon system. According to this system, bureaucrats were given pieces of land commensurate with their ranks, as well as to government officials. However, under the reign of Sejo, this land distribution system was repealed and a new system known as the Chikchon law was instituted. This system only provided land to active bureacurats. In addition, there were the private lands of government officials, the crown lands, government lands, and self-owned lands of the farmers.

All these lands were cultivated by the farmers. Among farmers, there were those who owned the land they tilled, but the majority of them were tenant farmers. The tenant farmers were, by law, compelled to offer half of their harvest to the landlords as a form of payment for living on and tilling the land.

The farmers were also compelled to provide taxes, imposts, and corvee to the state. The taxes were paid in kind, and were placed on the land. Public imposts were placed on agricultural products particular to the locality. The burdens of these imposts were so heavy they caused great suffering for the farmers.


A genre painting by the 18th century Sin yun-bok depicing a village during harvest.

Corvees were systems which mobilized farmers for compulsory labor in the areas of civil engineering and national defense. These were obligatory for adults between the ages of 16 and 60 years. A large portion of the financial revenue of the state was taxes, imposts and corvees which were paid by farmers.


(5) Commerce, Handicrafts and Communications


In the early period of Choson, agricultural developments resulted from the policy of self-sustaining, family-based agriculture. In contrast, commerce and handicraft industries were late in developing. In the heart of Seoul, many markets existed including the government run Yuguijon. The merchants of these shops obtained goods ordered from government suppliers and even possessed monopoly rights to sell certain items.

Shops also existed in regional cities, but commerce was not heavy. In addition, there were markets which opened once every five days, and hawkers and packpeddlers known as "Pobusang" were the main merchants.


Chosun period coins. Sangpyong-t'ongbo.
17th~18th century.

In the handicraft industry, government-run handicraft commerce activities were the centers. Artisans were affiliated to central or local governments and were responsible for goods needed by the state. They produced weapons, printing types, stationery and ceramics. Furthermore, farm households which made handicrafts on the side were merely self-sufficient.

Harvests in regional areas were shipped through transportation organizations known as the Choun mainly to Seoul. The taxes collected in kind (grain) from the regional areas were brought to rivers and sea ports and were transported to Seoul.

As for transportation and communication facilities, there were Yoks (stations) and Wons (hotels).

On the important transportation routes, Yoks were placed at 30 li (about 10 miles) intervals and on inconvenient routes Wons were built. Boarding and lodging facilities were provided at Yoks, as well as the means for transmitting official letters, transporting tributes, and other needs of the travelling official were also provided. Travelling officials were also privy to station horses according to the number of horses carved on their "Map'ae" (horse plates).

Boarding and lodging accommodations were offered to official travelers in Wons.


Ancestral rites are still widely practiced in cities and the countryside.


(6) Confucian-centered Policy and Education


The Choson dynasty utilized a Confucian-based politics based on metaphysics. The political ideal of the era was the realization of a King-centered state. Thus, Yangbans had to research and receive education on Confucian culture, and only the civilian bureaucrats who rose to position by passing the exams on Confucianism could hope to become high ranking bureaucrats.

The ruling class, as it propagated Confucian-centered state policies, suppressed and changed traditional folk beliefs and Buddhism. But Buddhism was able to preserve its life line as the religion of commoners. In order to propagate a Confucian consciousness among the people, the observance of the Zhuzi garye of crowning top-knots, marriages, funerals and offering sacrifices was mandated. Therefore, these Confucian ceremonies were popularized during the Choson Dynasty.


Confucian ritual, held each spring and autumn at the confucian shrine in the confucian college of Songgyun'gwan, Seoul.

The family system was extremely important in Confucianism with the head of the family as the center exercising absolute powers. He presided over the ceremony of offering sacrifices to the ancestors of the family. The Yangbans kept family shrines and offered sacrifices on memorial days.

In the Choson dynasty, the Confucian virtues of loyalty and filial piety were highly valued. Loyalists, filial sons and exemplary women received commendations from the state and were highly respected. Confucianism became the center of education. Four colleges in Seoul and regional schools taught intermediate Confucianism. The highest learning institute, Songgyun'gwan College in Seoul taught advanced Confucianism.

Technical education in the fields of medicine, astronomy, law, mathematics and foreign languages was conducted by the government.


(7) The Growth of Confucian Scholars and Their Advancement to Seoul


Around the time Choson had completed the building of its institutions, during the reign of King Songjong, a new political force appeared.

They were referred to as Confucian students (Sarimp'a). They were influenced by the scholarly works of Chong Mong-chu and Kil Chae, who were loyal to the royal house of Koryo. Kil Chae trained many students in his hometown and later, Kim Chong-chik and his students became a force in Yongnam (Kyongsang province).


Tosan sowon, North Kyongsang province.
Built in 1514.

The Confucian students studied Songri philosophy which researched the study of human nature and discounted other learnings and thoughts as heresy. They also valued fidelity and duty and placed importance on the classics.

During the reign of King Songjong, Kim Chong-chik was promoted to a high position and the Confucian students known as Sarim-p'a made their entrance into the central political circles and developed the Sarim faction. This force stood in confrontation with the conservative party (Hunkup'a) who held the major power in the King's court at the time. As a result of the conflict between these two forces, social turmoil erupted on several occasions. During the reign of King Chungjong, the Sarim party headed by Cho Kwang-jo propelled rapid reform measures. However, the Sarim party's reform movement which hoped to realize the political ideals of Sarim failed as a result of opposition by the conservatives.

Members of the Sarim party who were forced to return to their hometowns as a result of this defeat set up Sowons in various locations and popularized the idea of the Hyang'yak Contract which advocated autonomy of country villages. Sowons were places where Confucian followers cherished the memory of the sages by offering sacrifices. The Sarims also conducted research, studied and educated their children in the Sowons.

With the development of Sowons and the propagation of the Hyang'yak Contracts, Sarim forces gained strength and Confucian morals were widely spread throughout country villages. In addition, through the research conducted by the Sarim forces in metaphysics, this field flourished in 16th century Choson.


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