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Korea's Joseon Dynasty, to 1700

map of Korea

Korea's Joseon dynasty of monarchs had begun in 1392 and was to last to 1864. By 1392, the Koreans learned how to make gunpowder – which had been a guarded secret in China. The Koreans had cannons. They were wearing cotton clothing – ahead of the Japanese perhaps because they were closer to China. The Koreans had compasses and an observation balloon. Printing with clay type is believed to have begun in China in the eleventh century, and, in the year 1403, Korea advanced printing to the use of metal type – while copying by hand was still being used in Europe. Under the Korean king, Sejong (1418-1450), book publishing accelerated. Poetry, fantasy novels, books on philosophy and a medical encyclopedia were published. Sejong created a new academy to promote scholarship. And, against the wishes of Korean Confucianist scholars, who wished to maintain traditional Chinese script, Sejong had a new a phonetic alphabet created, with one letter for each sound – an advantage over the 50,000 characters that had been used by the Chinese.

In the 1400s, the Koreans were continuing their work in astronomy and meteorology. They developed wind velocity measurement – two hundred years before this was in use in Europe. In an attempt to improve farm production, the Koreans were measuring rainfall. And in 1492, to improve agricultural production, a book was distributed titled Straight Talk on Farming.

An improved agriculture created for the Koreans a new prosperity – while Japan was spending its energies and wealth in incessant warfare. Korea in the 1400s had the highest standard of living in East Asia. But Korea was burdened by the same authoritarianism and feudalism that existed elsewhere. Great landowners and a scholar-gentry, similar to that in China, dominated agriculture. The Confucianist scholar-gentry (yangban) were officially recognized as the leading class and accorded privileges. Beneath them were the craftspeople, held with some esteem because of their skills. Below the craftspeople in the official order were the common people (about 80 percent of the population) – those who worked the land. Few of them owned their own land. Most worked for landowners and were not free to leave their landlord without permission from the king. But they were described as "the foundation of the nation."

Recognized as being below farm laborers were the merchants, fitting with the Confucianism view of commerce as greed and dishonesty. Also below the farm laborers were those called the low-born (ch'onmin): butchers, gravediggers, those who worked with leather, basket makers, those who peeled bark, sorcerers, those in public entertainment, and that fifth or so of the population who were slaves.

Neo-Confucianism, Buddhism

Not until the third Joseon monarch, T'aejong (1400-1418) did China's Ming rulers give recognition to Joseon rule, and China's Ming emperors continued to see Korea as subservient to China, the Ming assuming suzerainty over Korea. This the Joseon monarchs accepted, pledging subservience, in other words, vassalage to China. Korea's Confucianists agreed with this arrangement, seeing China as the homeland of Confucianism and the font of civilization and wisdom.

At the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, what had been a golden age of Buddhism in Korea came to an end. Confucianism and Buddhism were in conflict in Korea, as they had been in China. The Confucianists disliked competition from the Buddhists. The first Joseon monarch, T'aejo, removed the power and influence of Buddhist monks from government. He expelled them from the capital, and he confiscated Buddhist estates. The construction of temples in the capital was forbidden. The amount of land that Buddhist monasteries could own and the number of monks and nuns living in monasteries was regulated.

Despite government regulation and disapproval, Buddhism retained much of its popularity among common people – especially among women – while neo-Confucianism reigned supreme among Korea's elite. Korea's Neo-Confucianists held that moral and natural law arose from the "Supreme Ultimate" behind the universe, a spirit that controlled the yin and yang of the five elements of existence: fire, water, wood, metal and soil. Where Confucianism reigned, women had declined in status, with an obligation to subservience to their husbands, and after they died to their eldest son. The ability of women to inherit property was falling, and, by the middle 1600s, inheritance became exclusively for an eldest son. And with Confucianist support for status differences, marriage between people of different social classes became prohibited.

The elevation of Confucianism over Buddhism did not change the nature of monarchy, and the question of who would succeed the first Joseon emperor, T'aejo, resulted in the usual bloodshed. Conflicts existed, too, between monarchs and the nobility, the third Joseon monarch, T'aejong, reorganizing his bureaucracy in order to strengthen the monarchy. The arbitrary nature of authoritarian monarchs was expressed in the fourth Joseon monarch, Sejong (1418-50), in reversing the policies of his predecessor monarchs by patronizing Buddhism. And bloodshed returned in 1453 when the boy-monarch, Tanjong, was forced to abdicate in favor of his uncle. This uncle was Sejo, who ruled from 1455-1468. He also patronized Buddhism, but after Sejo's reign the restrictions on Buddhism returned.

Through all of this, a belief in education prevailed among Korea's elite. Korea had five universities – mainly for males from noble families. And the rich were getting richer in the form of expansion by agricultural estates at the expense of small farmers. Tenant farmers were over taxed as landowners forced their workers to pay taxes that they, the landowners, were reluctant to pay. Poor farmers had to borrow at excessively high interest rates. Increasingly, common people abandoned farming, leaving their taxes to be paid by their kinsmen and their neighbors – the kind of collective responsibility that existed in Japan. And brigandage was on the rise.

Invasion by the Japanese – the Imjin War

In 1592, Japan's Hideyoshi began his attempt to conquer China, landing at the Korean port town of Pusan before dawn on April 13. Pusan's garrison commander was away hunting game, and resistance to Hideyoshi's army was minuscule. Hideyoshi had no plan to win advantage by liberating Korea's downtrodden. Instead, he tried the same method of control that Timur and others had used: terror. After blasting Pusan with cannon fire and conquering the city, his army massacred unarmed civilians, the beheaded, according to Korean sources, numbering around 30,000 – the dead also serving as sacrifices to Japan's war god.

The Japanese army pushed northward into Korea, massacring more civilians along the way. In twenty days a spearhead unit of around 20,000 Japanese was at the capital, Hanyang, (Seoul), which was defended by less than a thousand men. Korea's king, Sonjo, escaped to Pyongyang and then to a border town: Uiju. The Japanese reached Pyongyang. China, believing that Korea was theirs to protect, sent a few thousand soldiers against the Japanese at Pyongyang, without success. And the Japanese began their effort to occupy Korea's rice producing areas in the southwest, Chungchong and Cholla.

King Sonjo sent his messengers through the country to raise a volunteer militia. Koreans joined guerrilla forces against what they described as the Japanese devils. Korea's navy rallied. The Koreans had iron clad warships, and, at the battle of Hansando, their navy sank 63 Japanese ships – a battle to be studied by Britain's Admiral Horatio Nelson and Japan's Admiral Togo. The remainder of Japan's fleet – 470 in number – fled to Pusan harbor.  On September 1 the Korean navy inflicted more damage to the Japanese fleet, and Korea's admiral, Joseon Sumsin, acquired control of the seas around Korea.

Admiral Li allowed Japanese ships to leave but not to enter Korean waters. The Japanese were unable to reinforce or supply their ground forces. The Japanese army tried living from plunder, and the war in Korea dragged on for years while the Japanese tried negotiating a settlement. As a part of the bargaining, Hideyoshi demanded Japanese rule over four of Korea's southern-most provinces, and he demanded that trade between Japan and China be opened and that some high-ranking Koreans be sent to Japan as hostages. All demands were refused, and China held that no trade whatsoever would be allowed between China and Japan. Then in August 1598, Hideyoshi suddenly died. His last request was to have his forces in Korea withdrawn, and his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ended the war, withdrawing what he could from Korea.

The 1600s and Contact with the West

Japan's invasion left much of Korea in ruin. But the number of slaves had diminished, slaves having been scattered by the invasion, and records as to who were slaves had been destroyed. The slaves around 1600 were counted at around 200,000, down from the 350,000 counted in the 1400s. Also, Japan's invasion left Korea with more land available to the war's survivors, and a new law in 1600 benefited surviving farmers. Lands were reclaimed and restored, and from early in the 1600s the technique of transplanting rice seedlings improved – by growing plants from seeds and then transplanting them to the rice paddies.

Contact with the West came in 1628 in the form of a Dutch ship that wrecked near Chesu Island. The Koreans rescued three of the Dutch crewmen and forced them to work as slaves, making weapons and helping in military training. Knowledge about Europeans also increased in Korea by way of China. An envoy to China returned in 1631 with a map of Europe. And by way of China, the Koreans acquired a musket, a telescope, an alarm clock and books on astronomy and Western culture.

Responding to their experiences in the war against the Japanese and concerned with national defense, Korea tried to improve themselves militarily, but it helped little against the Manchus, who, in 1636, crossed the Yalu River with 30,000 troops. Rather than try to destroy the Manchu invaders, the Koreans negotiated. The Manchus claimed that they were brothers of the Koreans and won from the Koreans recognition of their suzerainty over Korea, in place of China's suzerainty. The Manchus won from the Koreans a non-aggression pact and an agreement to trade. And in 1637 the Manchus withdrew and pursued their aggressions against the Chinese, whom they soon conquered.

After 1650, interest in Western science increased. A book by Jean Terrenz, Descriptions of Ingenious Devices, had made its way to China and then to Korea.  Meanwhile, a new outlook was rising among the Koreans, not necessarily from Western influence. A few Koreans defied their own and Chinese traditions and began what has been called the Shirhak school of scholarship. Its adherents wanted change. They proposed a new land system and equality of opportunity, the replacement of the old civil service examinations with a new system of recruitment, and they advocated more study of Korea's history, science, economics and foreign languages and less study of the Confucianism.

Confucianism was not overwhelmed. Tenant farming continued to dominate Korea's agriculture, with slaves laboring on public and military lands for some landowners. Commerce continued under government control, except for individual peddlers and rural crafts. Mobility continued to be hampered by laws that kept people bound to their places of work. Confucian values continued to inhibit economic growth, the Confucianists still believing that exchange should be more of gift giving rather inspired by gain.

But some growth in Korea's economy could not be stopped. The government continued to sponsor advances in agriculture, and land reclamation projects increased food production – the growing of rice, barley, buckwheat, beans, ginseng, cotton and potatoes. Accompanying an agriculturally based prosperity, Korea was developing a money economy, although slowly, while high taxes continued to discourage enterprise. Government taxes on mining made mining less than worthwhile. Mines closed except for that mining that could be done without government knowledge.


History of Korea, by Han Woo-keun, translated by Lee Kyung-shik, edited by Grafton K Mintz, 1971

A New History of Korea, by Ki-baik Lee, 1984

Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.