V. The Modern Period, 1789–1914 > E. East Asia, 1793–1914 > 2. Korea, 1800–1910
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 1785)
2. Korea, 1800–1910
The long Yi dynasty came to a spiraling end, as Korea in the 19th century fell victim to foreign pressure, domestic rebellion, and Japanese colonial aspirations. The Manchus in China were in no position themselves to assist their vassal Korean state. With the decline and fall of the Chosn state, yangban society, too, came to a crushing demise.  1
King Chngjo died and was succeeded by Sunjo (b. 1790, r. 1800–34), a lad of but ten years.  2
The Hong Kyng-nae Rebellion broke out, led by a disaffected “fallen” yangban. This was one indication of the trouble brewing in the Chosn social order, with the increase of popular uprisings, and local rebellions becoming major affairs.  3
The reign of King Hnjong.  4
The reign of King Ch'lchong.  5
Ch'oe Han-gi (1803–75), a sirhak scholar, completed his Chigu chnyo (Descriptions of the Nations of the World), based on Chinese works of the time. It introduced the countries of the West to Koreans and suggested Korea might want to open its doors to interchange with them. Other sirhak scholars—such as Pak Kyu-su (1807–76) and O Kyng-sk (1831–79)—proposed similar ideas.  6
The Tonghak (Eastern Learning) movement began to attract followers under the leadership of Ch'oe Che-u (1824–64). It was a syncretic religion, combining elements from Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and, inadvertently, Catholicism to oppose all Western creeds. Its social thrust was against yangban decadence and in favor of improving conditions for the poor masses of Korean farmers; it was also decidedly antiforeign and primarily rural. As the government continued to be unable to prevent foreign humiliation at Korea's expense, it exacerbated antipathy for the government and increased the Tonghak's popularity. Ch'oe was arrested (1863) and executed (1864).  7
Ch'oe Han-gi finished writing his Injng (Personnel Administration), in which he claimed that the path back to good government was through the appointment of talented men regardless of class background, and that Korea had to abandon its seclusion policy and open up to the outside world.  8
The Chinju Uprising erupted, led by a “fallen” yangban, and killed a number of particularly rapacious local officials.  9
These reigns marked the beginning of “in-law” government, a period in which control over the throne passed between certain in-law factions. It marked a low point in official venality and corruption, which spread to local government as well. In the end, the peasantry suffered most harshly, and the fiscal security of the state was undermined. Yangban-dominated society was beginning to come apart at the seams. Many yangban lineages had become “fallen,” meaning they could no longer sustain their families' prerogatives. Members of the chungin class, a hereditary rank below yangban who had formerly held various technical positions, were on the rise. The number of slaves markedly declined, many having been freed in exchange for military service; the government freed its slaves in 1801; slavery was abolished in 1894.  10
Despite persecutions (in 1801, 1839, and at other times), Catholicism continued to attract followers. Its belief that all men and women were equal in the eyes of a supreme deity was an implicit critique of the rigid yangban-dominated social order. Executions accompanied the repressions; for example, the first Korean priest, Kim Tae-gn (1822–46), who had trained in a seminary in Macao, was caught and executed. Under Ch'lchong, the repressions were eased.  11
Like other religious and intellectual movements, the sirhak movement of the 19th century continued its social thrust from the 17th and 18th centuries (See 1785), using practical scholarship as a means of trying to improve the political, economic, and social problems of the day. Chng Yag-yong (1762–1836) synthesized earlier sirhak scholarship. In the Sunjo reign, major compilations of encyclopedic proportions were published on agriculture and other economic and political institutions. Others maintained the strict evidential principles of scholarly methodology characteristic of the contemporaneous kaozheng movement in Qing China.  12
During his reign, King Kojong (1852–1919), who ascended the throne at age 12, scarcely ruled outright. His father, Hngsn Taewn'gun, or the TAEWN'GUN (1820–98), became regent, ruled directly until 1873, and remained a dominant figure in the political world until his death. He was hostile to foreign influence in Korea, particularly toward Christianity.  13
While in power, the Taewn'gun instituted a series of reforms aimed at reviving the Yi state. Corrupt officials were ousted, and others were appointed solely on the basis of merit; he eased the fiscal burdens on the peasantry, and he closed most of the private academies that owned tax-free agricultural estates.  14
Although it originated in the early 18th century, the p'ansori, literary “one-man operas,” came into their own in this period. The librettos came from vernacular Korean novels. The most important figure in this movement was Sin Chae-hyo (1812–84). In addition to novels written in the vernacular, there was an increasing quantity of literature written in Chinese, by yangban and commoner alike. Painting witnessed a new development in expressionism, edging out an earlier move toward naturalism; the most famous painter of the late 19th century was Chang Sng-p.  15
A group of scholars updated the Chosn state's code of administrative law with the Taejn t'ongp'yn (Comprehensive National Code).  16
Responding to revived anti-Catholic activities, a French expedition under Adm. Pierre Roze occupied and sacked Kanghwa at the mouth of the Han River but was ultimately unable to continue to the capital, Seoul. After some reverses at the hands of Korean forces, it was obliged to withdraw. It became known as the “French Disturbance of 1866.”  17
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.