Early Yi Dynasty

building that remain from early Yi dynasty
building that remain from early Yi dynasty

The Choson or Yi dynasty was founded by General Yi Songgye (1335–1408; r. 1392–1408). Yi was a successful general of the declining Koryo dynasty that had ruled Korea for about 500 years. He staged a coup against his government in 1388 and four years later, with the support of the reform-minded Confucian scholars, proclaimed himself King Taejo of a new dynasty.

With the approval of the newly established Ming dynasty in China, to whom he rendered vassalage, he chose the dynastic name Choson, which means “morning serenity,” and moved his capital from Kaesong to Hanyang (present-day Seoul).

Besides the founder, the dynasty was well served by its third king, T’aejong (r. 1400–1418), and his son, Sejong (r. 1418–50), under whom it reached its zenith. The founders of the dynasty were firmly committed to Neo-Confucianism of the Zhu Xi (Chu Hsi) school that had been adopted as official in China since the Song (Sung) dynasty, 961–1289.

Korean Neo-Confucian scholars, who were the mainstay of the dynasty, aimed to create in Korea the idealized state exemplified by China’s sage rulers of the golden age, Kings Yao, Shun, Yu, and the founders of the Shang and Zhou (Chou) dynasties.

Much was achieved in the first half century of the dynasty in many fields. Learning and scholarship were esteemed and talented men were encouraged to enter government service. A National Academy was established in Seoul and state endowed schools were established in every county.

Three levels of state-supervised examinations based on Confucian texts and according to Neo-Confucian interpretations were held nationwide and most officials were chosen from the ranks of successful candidates. As in China, the study of history was highly esteemed and the state sponsored the writing of official histories.

Because of the high cost of importing block-printed books from China, Koreans invented movable type, the first in the world. Koreans had until now no written script and had used the Chinese written form exclusively, but because the structure of the Korean language was different from that of Chinese, King Sejong instigated the invention of a Korean alphabet, which was strictly phonetic, proclaimed in 1446. It was then called Hunmin Chongun and in the 21st century Hangul.

The Yi dynasty’s commitment to Neo-Confucian principles would gradually transform Korean society and end the dominance that Buddhism had exercised over Korean life during the Koryo era.

The inadequacies of Buddhism and the mismanagement of government and society under Buddhist influence were blamed for the economic and moral decline of Koryo. As a result Buddhism suffered severe decline during the Yi dynasty. Instead leaders actively inculcated Confucian moral principles.

They emphasized the proper rites and rituals of ancestor worship, filial piety, loyalty, proper social relationships, the patrilineal line of descent, and proper relationship between men and women. The union between a husband and wife was regarded as the mainspring of a stable society.

Whereas upper-class men previously could have several wives, who were not subject to a specified ranking order, under Confucian teachings, only one woman could be wife and mother of her husband’s heir, relegating other women of the household to concubines and their children to lesser importance.

Though subject to her husband, the wife had charge of the domestic sphere, and responsibility of providing the government with loyal subjects and the family with devoted sons. The public sphere was the husband’s domain.

In science and technology this era saw the invention or refinement of the sundial, the automatic water-driven clock, armillary spheres (miniature representations of the Earth, Moon, and planets in the form of skeletal globes), and the rain gauge. Medical books that included new knowledge were published and made widely available.

Since Confucians honored farmers as the backbone of society, farming was encouraged. Land reform and redistribution and the introduction of new agrarian methods from China greatly increased food production. Innovations included the introduction of new manure, crop rotation instead of letting fields lie fallow, irrigation, and autumn plowing.

Commerce played a decidedly secondary role in the early Yi era. Attempts by the government to introduce paper money and copper coins proved unpopular and people preferred the old method of using a type of cloth and grain as mediums of exchange. This remained true until the early 17th century, when increased commerce led to the acceptance of metal coins.

The policies and practices instituted by the founders of the Yi dynasty established the firm foundations that led to a period characterized by brilliant cultural and technical achievements. They also explain its longevity despite later setbacks.