Founding of the Joseon Dynasty

Founding of the Choson Dynasty

Yi Songgye had waited for four years after his return from the northern border to Kaesong before he declared the new dynasty. Having replaced the king with a puppet king he could control and use to deflect any possible countercoup attempts, Yi made his preparations behind the scenes, deciding who would be loyal to him and who would not. Then he announced his new dynasty in 1392.

Four years after the establishment of the new dynasty, the court was moved to a new capital, Hanyang, today’s Seoul, capital of South Korea. The new rulers gained several advantages by moving. The first was geomantic auspiciousness: One of the king’s advisers, a specialist in geomancy, claimed that the setting of Seoul was ideal.

The second reason was to get away from anyone in the old capital who might still be loyal to the old court and who might cause problems for the new dynasty. The move to Seoul made it all the more difficult to restore the Koryo court should anyone want to try. In the process Yi Songgye made it clear that he was going to set his own course.

The founding of the new dynasty was only partially based on military might. Though Yi Songgye was a military man, his supporters included a large group of officials, most of whom had passed the Confucian civil service examination (Clark 1982, 17). Not only were they Confucian scholars, they had been influenced by the revival of Confucianism led by the famous late-Song scholar and commentator on the classics Zhu Xi (1130–1200).

These Neo-Confucian scholars supported the new rulers and provided much of the rationale and intellectual justification for setting up the new dynasty. Taking a dim view of Buddhism, they argued for its disenfranchisement. Laws were enacted that restricted Buddhist temples to remote mountainous areas, and monks were not allowed to enter Seoul, the new capital. The vast lands held by Buddhist temples were confiscated and distributed to those who had helped Yi Songgye.

With Neo-Confucianism came not only laws restricting the activities of the Buddhists but an unswerving acceptance of Chinese culture, including the point of view that Chinese culture was superior and should be emulated. That emulation began with a centralized government structure, then extended to rituals, both public and pri-vate, and eventually came to dictate family matters and interpersonal behavior.

The process had already begun in the late Koryo period: Besides Chinese-style government organization and the exam system for recruitment of officers, Koryo had adopted the National Confucian Academy and other trappings of Chinese or Confucian institutions (Duncan 1998). The completion of the “Confucianization” process was to take another 200 to 300 years, but once the Neo-Confucians set it in motion at the founding of the dynasty, there was no turning back.

Neo-Confucianism of Joseon dynasty

Neo-Confucianism relied on the original teachings of Confucius but added a metaphysical element that attempted to explain the mysteries of life. The key concepts in Neo-Confucianism are li and qi. Translated often as “principle” and “life force,” respectively, the two concepts became the basis for understanding life both in a biological sense and in a spiritual sense.

For example, a pine tree is a pine tree because it has the li of a pine tree, which is different from that of a maple tree or an apple tree. Qi is that which gives the pine tree life and enables it to grow and flourish. In the spiritual realm, human personality develops from the interaction of li and qi of the person and is expressed in the seven emotions common to humans desire, hate, love, fear, grief, anger, and joy.

These attributes need to be controlled and refined with the goal of becoming a noble person or sage, the ideal in original Confucianism. The two fundamental principles of Confucian statecraft are virtue and merit. In order to govern one must first be able to successfully govern oneself. Thus, authority is most effective when it is waged by good example. Whole treatises were written on these subjects, often in the form of commentaries on earlier writers. Zhu Xi, the preeminent figure in the founding of Neo-Confucianism, wrote commentaries on the works of Confucius.

Korean Neo-Confucian scholars wrote commentaries on the commentaries of Zhu Xi, and later scholars wrote commentaries on their predecessors’ works. Confucian thought stresses learning as an integral component of not only better govern-ing oneself but also improving one’s chances for success within society. The Confucian classics and the commentaries became the subject of the all-important examination system that determined who would be recruited to serve in the government. Thus, the government was run by Confucian scholars, the so-called scholar-officials.