Late CHoson (1636–1910)
the final years of Korea’s Choson dynasty present themselves as a tragic drama with a clarity that is unusual in history. In hindsight, it seems obvious that in the 1800s Korea faced a challenge that it failed to overcome due to weaknesses in Korea’s social order, especially in the conservative and (by the 1800s) highly inept Confucianism that the Choson dynasty had adopted from China.
Korea would confront a phenomenon that had previously been faced by China and Japan—the advent on its shores of modern, Western-style imperialism complete with superior weaponry, steam-ships, an endless supply of cheap trade goods, and a demand that Korea “open” itself to diplomacy and trade.
It was a new style of imperialism that grew out of the Industrial Revolution, as Western nations, equipped with unbeatable modern weaponry and manufacturing capacity, sought new places to sell their goods and used force to demand favorable trade terms.
In each of the three East Asian nations—China, Japan, and Korea—the challenge from the West initiated an internal power struggle between modernizers and traditionalists. In each case the struggle had a religious dimension as people reexamined their most basic beliefs.
Korea, when its time came, had the examples of Japan and China before it. Korea, too, had its reformers, its power struggle between modernizers and traditionalists, and its religious revival. Ultimately, none of the factions achieved their aims; Korea lost its sovereignty and change came to it on terms imposed by foreigners. It was colonized by the Japanese, actually before the official end of the Choson dynasty in 1910, and later it was dragged into World War II by its Japanese hosts.
Upon Japan’s defeat in 1945, Korea was split into two countries and became the bloodiest battleground of the cold war. While half of Korea is today a prosperous free nation, the other half is arguably the world’s cruelest and strangest totalitarian state. These events cannot help but cast a backward shadow on the Choson dynasty, the society that failed to preserve Korea’s independence. What went wrong?
Korea Changes within Sealed Borders
In the early 17th century, reeling from a series of devastating foreign invasions by its immediate neighbors, Korea’s leaders banned foreign travel and foreign visitors. A strictly limited trade was permitted with Japan, and occasionally Korean envoys were sent to the court of the shogun at the Japanese capital of Edo.
Though Korea acknowledged its subordination to China and the legitimacy of China’s new Qing (Manchu) dynasty, it kept the border along the Yalu River closed. The description “hermit kingdom” really does seem to fit Korea in this period, though in fairness it should be noted that Japan was follow-ing exactly the same extreme isolationist policy. It was partly because of this self-imposed seclusion and partly because it offered the least tempting target that Korea was the last East Asian country opened to the West.
John K. Fairbank, a leading Western scholar on East Asia, observed that despite their great differences “in historical experiences, social structure, and worldly situation,” the ruling class in the China of the Qing dynasty and the Korea of the Choson dynasty both “felt themselves to be conservators of a great tradition, not innovators” (Fairbank 1965, 462).
Societies never truly stand still, however. Within its sealed borders Korea continued to change, sometimes fussing over the details of court ritual or the rules of inheritance to bring them into line with Confucian orthodoxy and at times giving birth to intellectual ferment that analyzed society and human relations in a fresh way. Factions, named for the place in Seoul where each leader lived—the Northerners, the Westerners, the Southerners—vied for power with intrigues over succession.
Toward the end of the 17th century, as it recovered from invasion, Korea’s agricultural productivity improved, leading to an increase in population. Agriculture then declined throughout the late Choson period, most steeply in the 19th century (Park 2007). In the late 17th and early 18th centuries a series of works written by out-of-power aristocrats proposed novel, rather democratic political theories.
Their efforts are collectively known as the Sirhak (“practical learning”) movement. Though the existence of these works demonstrates that the Korean ruling class could show remarkable creativity and insight into the problems of their times, they ultimately had little effect on the actual structure of society. Meanwhile, Korea’s economy evolved and diversified, but the majority of its people lived in grinding poverty that became worse during the last two centuries of Choson rule.
Korea was even influenced by the West because despite its govern-ment’s best efforts, Western ideas managed to trickle in in the form of Western books translated into Chinese, brought into Korea by Korean envoys to the Chinese imperial court. Many Koreans were attracted to the doctrines of Christianity in the form of Catholicism, which Koreans called “Western Learning” and saw as a more egalitarian religion than Confucianism. By the end of the 18th century, Catholicism became popular enough for the state to ban it, but it continued to grow in the face of active persecution.