IV. The Early Modern Period, 1500–1800 > E. East Asia, c. 1500–c. 1800 > 3. Korea, 1392–1800
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See Political, Social, and Cultural Patterns)
3. Korea, 1392–1800
The YI DYNASTY (or CHOSN) lasted longer than any other in Korean history. YI SNGGYE (KING T'AEJO, r. 1392–98) built the dynasty through a combination of military might and the backing of the literati. The rising sociopolitical importance of this literati class marked the entire period. Yi Snggye began with a policy of deference toward the Ming dynasty in China, both to keep the peace with China and to prop up his legitimacy at home. Embassies were sent to Beijing at regular intervals each year. “Japanese pirates” continued to harass the Korean coast from the island of Tsushima.  1
The hereditary literati class was known as the yangban, or “two orders,” because its members combined the civil and military functions of state control. During the Yi period, far more families acquired yangban status than under the Kory aristocracy. The increased number of potential officials meant that the examination system loomed ever more important as a means of selecting the best. Likewise, yangban monopolized the civil service exams and hence access to office. There was a National Confucian Academy in the capital at Seoul. Examinations were held every three years, but they also could be taken at many irregular times. In the latter half of the 15th century, Neo-Confucian literati began to gain attention in the central government. These were yangban scholars of a moralistic bent, unlike the primarily scholar-official group of yangban who had been influential until then. The conflict between the two groups led to a series of four “literati purges” from 1498 to 1545.  2
The highest Yi governmental body was originally the State Council. Under it were the Six Ministries, which, as government became increasingly bureaucratized, grew in importance. In addition, the Royal Secretariat was responsible for handling documents of state that passed to and from the throne.  3
Land allocations in the Yi period followed guidelines established by T'aejo. Current and former officials received lands commensurate with their rank. King Sejo (b. 1417, r. 1455–68) revised this law (1466) to eliminate former officials from allocations. This system was later changed (1556) to a straight salary system. Improvements in agricultural techniques led to greater productivity for the peasantry. As early as 1430, a farmer's manual for Korea was published, Straight Talk on Agricultural Matters. Peasants were legally forbidden from abandoning the land they worked. Most were self-sufficient tenant farmers. They were responsible for a land tax, a tribute tax, and military and corvee duties, much like the system in Tang China. There was also a slave population. Over time, the landed estates of yangban families grew larger, especially after the state ceased allocating lands to them. This reduced the tax revenues coming into the central government and brought further misery to the peasantry. Changes were effected in the various taxes and duties, and Ever Normal Granaries were established throughout the country. By the middle of the 16th century, these dislocations had caused many peasants to leave their land and led to the rise of rebel forces. The Japanese invasions not only decimated the land, they also destroyed many land registers. Taxable lands in the early 17th century were reduced to a third of the figure prior to the invasions.  4
A monetary economy developed rather late in Korea. Paper (1401) and coin (1423, 1464) currency were issued but did not circulate widely at the time. Cloth was still the mainstay of transactions. During the 17th and 18th centuries, rural markets cropped up in ever larger numbers, with more than 1,000 by the end of this period. Commercial growth spurred the development of merchant organizations.  5
During the reign of King T'aejong (1367–1422), efforts to reconstitute an aristocracy were severely crushed as a Chinese bureaucratic structure was regularized. He had already abolished all private armies, a holdover from the late Kory era, in an effort to centralize military control of the state.  6
The reign of King Sejong continued this trend with the establishment of the Hall of Worthies, at which the finest scholars studied ancient Chinese texts and institutions.  7
A gauge for measuring rainfall was invented, roughly two centuries before a similar invention emerged in the West.  8
On orders of the king, a group of scholars devised an ingenious alphabet for the Korean language, han'gl. This invention was not received happily by many yangban, because it made learning to read much easier and broke their control over learning solely in the more difficult literary Chinese language. Sejong persevered, founding an Office for Publication in Han'gl. King Sejo later set up a similar office to translate Buddhist sutras into Korean.  9
The state-sponsored Kory sa (History of Kory) was finished.  10
The military structure was completely reorganized.  11
During the reign of King Sngjong, rural-based Neo-Confucian scholars began to rise to center stage, rather than remaining influential as a group locally. They were principally influenced by the works of Zhu Xi (1130–1200) from Song-period China.  12
After a number of earlier efforts, a national code of laws was promulgated. It effectively standardized the new yangban governing structure.  13
Tongguk t'onggam (Comprehensive Mirror of the Eastern Kingdom (Korea)) was issued, the first full history of Korea, covering from Tan'gun through the fall of Kory.  14
The first literati purge, during the reign of King Ynsan'gun (r. 1494–1506, b. 1476), in which the older yangban elite sought to get rid of many of the Neo-Confucians. A second purge occurred in 1504.  15
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.