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Jeong Do-Jeon, the Founding Father of the Joseon Dynasty


People as the Foundation of the Nation
The Magna Carta, an English charter that guaranteed people’s rights and freedom, served as a primitive foundation upon which Western contemporary constitutional law and democracy was built. As early as in the 14th century, the Joseon Dynasty had its own constitution called the “Joseon Gyeonggukjeon” (조선경국전 朝鮮經國典) or the “Administrative Code of Joseon” that codified the principles and ideals of a democratic government. The result of long years of persevering effort, Joseon’s constitution laid the foundation for the dynasty’s five-hundred-year-long political history. The introduction of the administrative code marked the beginning of an era defined by political regeneration where the subjects checked and controlled the king’s power, firmly holding on to the belief that people are the foundation of the nation. Jeong Do-Jeon, a philosopher and politician of the late Goryeo and early Joseon period is widely perceived to have initiated a new wave of political reform, as he founded the ideological bases of the Joseon government through his “Administrative Code of Joseon.”

A Man Who Showed the Way
Jeong Do-Jeon was born into a noble family in 1342 in Yong-ju, North Gyeongsang Province. He was born as the first son of Jeong Un-Gyeong, who held a high post in the government. Having high expectations for him, his father named him Do-Jeon (도전 道傳) meaning “showing the way.” Jeong Do-Jeon indeed lived his name, as he played a significant role during the turbulent transitional period from the Goryeo Dynasty to the Joseon Dynasty. Having learned from Yi Saek (李穡), a renowned Koreans Neo-Confucian philosopher, Jeong demonstrated excellent academic abilities not only in the field of Confucianism, but also in military tactics, geography, and law, and passed the civil service examination in 1362. Despite his achievements, however, Jeong did not receive the recognition he deserved largely due to his mother’s low social status.

Throughout the late Goryeo period, Jeong remained strictly opposed to the idea of establishing and maintaining close ties between Goryeo and China, and was exiled to Naju, South Jeolla Province. There, Jeong actively engaged himself in teaching and farming, through which he came to truly understand the pain of the people. Realizing that the Goryeo government fell short of meeting people’s needs, Jeong became a staff officer of Yi Seonggye, the founder of the Joseon Dynasty. The incident in 1388 called the “withdrawal of army troops in Wihwa Island” led to the establishment of economic and political bases for the new Joseon era, officially ending the Goryeo reign.

A Politician Who Laid Out the Foundation for the Joseon Era
If the Goryeo governmnet was formed by the joining of divided powers in simple arithmetic terms, the Joseon government was one that was characterized by thorough and meticulous planning. The work of Jeong, Do-Jeon left a lasting impact on Joseon’s politics and social affairs. Jeong performed his duty as the chief manager of a construction project involving the transfer of the capital city from Gae-gyeong, the old capital city of the Goryeo Dynasty, to Han-yang. Jeong also named important facilities in the Gyeongbok Palace, including Geunjeongjeon (근정전 勤政殿), Sajeongjeon (사정전 思政殿), and Gangnyeongjeon (강녕전 康寧殿).

More importantly, Jeong played a decisive role in establishing the foundation for the ruling ideology of the dynasty. He dreamed of a Confucian state ideally characterized by the trinity between the monarchs, the government officials, and the people. Straying from Buddhism, which largely shaped Goryeo’s political ideology, Jeong laid out the foundation for the Joseon’s political system by actively proposing Neo-Confucianism-centered beliefs, which were considered the most liberal ideology at the time.

Seven years after the establishment of the Joseon Dynasty, Jeong was killed by the opposition forces led by Yi Bang-Won, who believed in absolute power of the monarchs rather than in democratic principles claimed and practiced by Jeong. In 1397, Jeong’s political thoughts and teachings was later compiled into the “Gyeongguk Daejeon,” (경국대전 經國大典) known as the “Grand Code of Managing the Nation” or the “Great Code of National Governance,” a code of law that dictated and influenced the politics of Joseon.

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