Central Themes and Key Points
Korea: The Choson (Yi) Dynasty (1392-1910)
  • In 1392 a Koryo general named Yi Song-gye deposed the Koryo king and established a new dynasty, which he called Choson, after the legendary early Korean kingdom. Choson is also sometimes called the Yi dynasty, after the name of its ruling family.
  • One of the Choson founders’ goals was to eliminate the power of the Buddhist church; consequently, Buddhism was no longer supported by the state, temple lands were confiscated, and Choson established Confucianism as the state "religion."
  • Korean state rituals, philosophy, ethics, and social norms were strongly influenced by Chinese Confucianism.
  • As in China, government-sponsored examinations were required for men to enter the state bureaucracy, and a position in the government was considered a mark of high status for an individual and his family.
  • But unlike China, the pool of eligible examination takers in Korea was officially limited to members of the upper social class, called yangban.
  • Choson dynasty Korea was characterized by strict social divisions according to status and occupation, close observance of Confucian rituals such as ancestor veneration, separation of male and female with pronounced male domination, and, after the end of the sixteenth century, self-imposed isolation from most of the outside world.

Invasion and Seclusion (16th century)

  • In 1592 and 1597, the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having recently united the feuding domains of Japan under his leadership, invaded Korea as the first step in his attempt to conquer China. China, then under the Ming dynasty, came to Korea’s aid and defeated Hideyoshi’s forces, but in the process Korea was devastated by the war. Korea was again invaded in 1627 and 1636 by the Manchus, a nomadic people from continental Asia, who forced Korea to pay tribute to the Manchu king. The Manchus went on to conquer China in 1644.
  • After this, the Choson government followed a policy of seclusion, restricting its interaction with Japan largely to ceremonial contacts through the island of Tsushima, and limiting its contact with China to a few tributary missions a year.
  • By the middle of the nineteenth century, when European powers were encroaching on East and Southeast Asia in pursuit of trade, diplomatic relations, and colonial conquest, Korea’s continued seclusion earned it the nickname "Hermit Kingdom."

Two Centuries of Peace (1600s-1850s)

  • Koreans sometimes refer their country as a "shrimp among whales," the recurrent victim of conflict among larger outside powers. In fact, traditionally, Korea neither thought of itself as a "small" country nor did it experience a great many wars or invasions, especially compared to Europe at the same time.
  • The Choson dynasty, perhaps the longest-lived actively ruling dynasty in East Asia, experienced more than 250 years of internal peace and stable borders.
  • Like China and unlike Japan, there was no entrenched military class in Choson. Rather, Koreans put great emphasis on scholarly learning, in the Confucian tradition, and looked down upon military pursuits.
  • The early Choson period was also a time of artistic and scientific advances in Korea. The Choson king Sejong promulgated a phonetic writing system for Korean in 1446. Now called Hangul, the Korean alphabet is one of the simplest and most efficient writing systems in the world. But the scholarly yangban class made limited use of Hangul and continued to write most of its literature, philosophy, and official documents in classical Chinese until the twentieth century.

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