Great Joseon
Flag of Joseon Top: Flag (1883–1897)
Bottom: Royal flag
Royal emblem Emblem (c. 1884–1897) of Joseon Royal emblemEmblem
(c. 1884–1897)
Territory of Joseon after King Sejong's conquest of Jurchens in 1433 (with current borders)Territory of Joseon after King Sejong's conquest of Jurchens in 1433 (with current borders)
StatusTributary relations with the Ming and Qing

Japanese intervention
(now Seoul) (1394–1399/1405–1897)
Official languagesMiddle Korean,
Early Modern Korean,
Classical Chinese: 243, 329 : 74  (literary Chinese or Hanmun in Korean)
Religion Confucianism
(state ideology),
(recognized in 1886)
GovernmentAbsolute monarchy
• 1392–1398 Taejo (first)
• 1864–1897 Gojong (last)
Chief State Councillor 
• 1392 Bae Geuk-ryeom (first)
• 1894–1898 Kim Byeong-si (last)
LegislatureNone (rule by decree) (until 1894)
Jungchuwon (from 1894)
• Coronation of Taejo 5 August 1392
• change the name of a country from Goryeo to Joseon 28 March 1393
• Promulgation of the Korean alphabet 9 October 1446
• Japanese invasions 1592–1598
• First and second Manchu invasions 1627, 1636–1637
• Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876 26 February 1876
• Treaty of Shimonoseki 17 April 1895
• Proclamation of the Korean Empire 13 October 1897
• 1519 3,300,000
• 1648 2,576,000
• 1717 10,056,000
• 1777 9,074,000
• 1807 9,377,000
(1423–1425, 1625–1892)
Preceded by Succeeded by
Korean Empire
Today part ofNorth Korea
South Korea
Russia (Nokdundo)
  1. The diplomatic system of East Asia was hierarchical, lacking in equality. The Ming and Qing viewed all its diplomatic relationships as emperor-vassal relationships. Despite being a vassal of the Son of Heaven, Joseon Korea enjoyed a high level of independence and sovereignty in domestic and foreign affairs. However, the Qing dynasty was directly involved in the affairs of Joseon from the Imo Incident of 1882 until the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895.
Korean name
Revised RomanizationJoseon
North Korean name
Revised RomanizationJoseon Bonggeon Wangjo
McCune–ReischauerChosŏn Ponggŏn Wangjo
Official name
Revised RomanizationDaejoseon(-)guk
IPAKorean pronunciation:

Joseon (Korean: 조선; Hanja: 朝鮮; MR: Chosŏn; ), officially Great Joseon State (대조선국; 大朝鮮國; ), was a dynastic kingdom of Korea that lasted just over 500 years. It was founded by Taejo of Joseon in July 1392 and replaced by the Korean Empire in October 1897. The kingdom was founded following the aftermath of the overthrow of Goryeo in what is today the city of Kaesong. Early on, Korea was retitled and the capital was relocated to modern-day Seoul. The kingdom's northernmost borders were expanded to the natural boundaries at the rivers of Amnok and Tuman through the subjugation of the Jurchens.

During its 500-year duration, Joseon encouraged the entrenchment of Confucian ideals and doctrines in Korean society. Neo-Confucianism was installed as the new state's ideology. Buddhism was accordingly discouraged, and occasionally Buddhists faced persecutions. Joseon consolidated its effective rule over the Korean peninsula and saw the height of classical Korean culture, trade, literature, and science and technology. In the 1590s, the kingdom was severely weakened due to the two failed Japanese invasions of 1592 and 1598. Several decades later, Joseon was invaded by the Later Jin dynasty and the Qing dynasty in 1627 and 1636–1637 respectively, leading to an increasingly harsh isolationist policy, for which the country became known as the "hermit kingdom" in Western literature. After the end of these invasions from Manchuria, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace and prosperity, along with cultural and technological development. What power the kingdom recovered during its isolation waned as the 18th century came to a close. Faced with internal strife, power struggles, international pressure, and rebellions at home, the kingdom declined rapidly in the late 19th century.

The Joseon period has left a substantial legacy to modern Korea; much of modern Korean culture, etiquette, norms, and societal attitudes toward current issues, along with the modern Korean language and its dialects, derive from the culture and traditions of Joseon. Modern Korean bureaucracy and administrative divisions were also established during the Joseon period.


Early period (late 14th-mid 16th century)

King Taejo's portrait Founding

By the late 14th century, the nearly 500-year-old Goryeo established in 918 was tottering, its foundations collapsing from years of war spilled over from the disintegrating Yuan dynasty. Following the emergence of the Ming dynasty, the royal court in Goryeo split into two conflicting factions, one favouring neutrality and the other wanting to retake the Liaodong peninsula, which many at the Goryeo believed was theirs. Goryeo remained a neutral third-party observer in the conflict between the Yuan and the Ming and had friendly diplomatic relations to either. In 1388, a Ming messenger came to Goryeo to demand that territories of the former Ssangseong Prefectures be handed over to Ming China. The tract of land was taken by Mongol forces during the invasion of Korea, but had been reclaimed by Goryeo in 1356 as the Yuan dynasty weakened. The act caused an uproar among the Goryeo court, and General Ch'oe Yŏng seized the chance to argue for an invasion of the Ming-controlled Liaodong Peninsula.

General Yi Seong-gye was chosen to lead the attack; he revolted, swept back to the capital Gaegyeong (present-day Kaesong) and initiated a coup d'état, overthrowing King U of Goryeo in favor of his son, Chang of Goryeo (1388). Neo-Confucian scholars, who were a small and medium-sized power at the time, were able to use this incident as an opportunity to lay a political foundation, and in particular, Jeong Do-jeon, a friend of Yi Seong-gye, wanted to use this incident as an opportunity to reform the corrupt nobles and the Buddhist community. He later killed King U and his son after a failed restoration and forcibly placed a royal named Wang Yo on the throne (he became King Gongyang of Goryeo). In 1392, Yi eliminated Jeong Mong-ju, a highly respected leader of a group loyal to Goryeo dynasty, and dethroned King Gongyang, exiling him to Wonju, and he ascended the throne himself. The Goryeo kingdom had come to an end after 474 years of rule.

In the beginning of his reign, Yi Seong-gye, now ruler of Korea, intended to continue to use of the name Goryeo for the country he ruled and simply change the royal line of descent to his own, thus maintaining the façade of continuing the 500-year-old Goryeo tradition. After numerous threats of mutiny from the drastically weakened but still influential Gwonmun nobles, who continued to swear allegiance to the remnants of the Goryeo and to the now-demoted Wang clan, the consensus in the reformed court was that a new dynastic title was needed to signify the change. In naming the new kingdom, Taejo contemplated two possibilities – "Hwaryeong" (his place of birth) and "Joseon". After much internal deliberation, as well as endorsement by the neighboring Ming dynasty's emperor, Taejo declared the name of the kingdom to be Joseon, a tribute to the ancient Korean state of Gojoseon. He also moved the capital to Hanseong (modern Seoul) from Gaegyeong (modern Kaesong).

Strifes of princes The throne room at Gyeongbok Palace

When the new dynasty was brought into existence, Taejo brought up the issue of which son would be his successor. Although Yi Bang-won, Taejo's fifth son by Queen Sinui, had contributed the most to assisting his father's rise to power, Chief State Councillor Jeong Do-jeon and Nam Eun used their influence on the king to name Yi Bang-seok, his eighth son (second son of Queen Sindeok), as crown prince in 1392. This conflict arose largely because Jeong Do-jeon, who shaped and laid down ideological, institutional, and legal foundations of the new kingdom more than anyone else, saw Joseon as a kingdom led by ministers appointed by the king while Yi Bang-won wanted to establish an absolute monarchy ruled directly by the king. With Taejo's support, Jeong Do-jeon kept limiting the royal family's power by prohibiting political involvement of princes and attempting to abolish their private armies. Both sides were well aware of each other's great animosity and were getting ready to strike first.

After the sudden death of Queen Sindeok, while King Taejo was still in mourning for his second wife, Yi Bang-won struck first by raiding the palace and killed Jeong Do-jeon and his supporters as well as Queen Sindeok's two sons (his half-brothers) including the crown prince in 1398. This incident became known as the "First Strife of Princes".

Aghast at the fact that his sons were willing to kill each other for the crown, and psychologically exhausted from the death of his second wife, King Taejo abdicated and immediately crowned his second son Yi Bang-gwa as King Jeongjong. One of King Jeongjong's first acts as monarch was to revert the capital to Gaegyeong, where he is believed to have been considerably more comfortable, away from the toxic power strife. Yet Yi Bang-won retained real power and was soon in conflict with his disgruntled older brother, Yi Bang-gan, who also yearned for power. In 1400, the tensions between Yi Bang-won's faction and Yi Bang-gan's camp escalated into an all-out conflict that came to be known as the "Second Strife of Princes". In the aftermath of the struggle, the defeated Yi Bang-gan was exiled to Dosan while his supporters were executed. Thoroughly intimidated, King Jeongjong immediately invested Yi Bang-won as heir presumptive and voluntarily abdicated. That same year, Yi Bang-won assumed the throne of Joseon as King Taejong, third king of the dynasty.

Consolidation of royal power

In the beginning of Taejong's reign, the former King Taejo refused to relinquish the royal seal that signified the legitimacy of any king's rule. Regardless, Taejong initiated policies he believed would prove his qualification to rule. One of his first acts as king was to abolish the privilege enjoyed by the upper echelons of government and the aristocracy to maintain private armies. His revocation of such rights to field independent forces effectively severed their ability to muster large-scale revolts, and drastically increased the number of men employed in the national military. Taejong's next act as king was to revise the existing legislation concerning the taxation of land ownership and the recording of state of subjects. With the discovery of previously hidden land, national income increased twofold.

In 1399, Taejong had played an influential role in scrapping the Dopyeong Assembly, a council of the old government administration that held a monopoly in court power during the waning years of Goryeo, in favor of the State Council of Joseon, a new branch of central administration that revolved around the king and his edicts. After passing the subject documentation and taxation legislation, he issued a new decree in which all decisions passed by the State Council could only come into effect with the approval of the king. This ended the custom of court ministers and advisors making decisions through debate and negotiations amongst themselves, and thus brought the royal power to new heights.

Shortly thereafter, Taejong installed an office, known as the Sinmun Office, to hear cases in which aggrieved subjects felt that they had been exploited or treated unjustly by government officials or aristocrats. He kept Jeong Do-jeon's reforms intact for most part. In addition, Taejong executed or exiled many of his supporters who helped him ascend on the throne in order to strengthen his own royal authority. To limit the influence of in-laws, he killed all four of his wife's brothers and Shim On, the father-in-law of his son Sejong.

Taejong remains a controversial figure who killed many of his rivals and relatives to gain power and yet ruled effectively to improve the populace's lives, strengthen national defense, and lay down a solid foundation for his successor Sejong's rule.

Sejong the Great Portrait of Ha Yeon, who served as Chief State Councillor during King Sejong's reign A page from the Hunmin Jeongeum Eonhae, a partial translation of Hunminjeongeum, the original promulgation of the Korean alphabet

In August 1418, following Taejong's abdication two months earlier, Sejong the Great ascended the throne. In May 1419, King Sejong, under the advice and guidance of his father Taejong, embarked upon the Gihae Eastern Expedition to remove the nuisance of waegu (coastal pirates) who had been operating out of Tsushima Island.

In September 1419, the daimyō of Tsushima, Sadamori, capitulated to the Joseon court. In 1443, The Treaty of Gyehae was signed in which the daimyō of Tsushima was granted rights to conduct trade with Korea in fifty ships per year in exchange for sending tribute to Korea and aiding to stop any Waegu coastal pirate raids on Korean ports.

On the northern border, Sejong established four forts and six posts to safeguard his people from the Jurchens, who later became the Manchus, living in Manchuria. In 1433, Sejong sent Kim Jong-seo, a government official, north to fend off the Jurchens. Kim's military campaign captured several castles, pushed north, and restored Korean territory, roughly the present-day border between North Korea and China.

During the rule of Sejong, Korea saw advances in natural science, agriculture, literature, traditional Chinese medicine, and engineering. Because of such success, Sejong was given the title "Sejong the Great". The most remembered contribution of King Sejong is the creation of Hangul, the Korean alphabet, in 1443; rejected in its time by the scholarly elite, everyday use of Hanja in writing eventually was surpassed by Hangul in the later half of the 20th century.

Six martyred ministers

After King Sejong's death, his son Munjong continued his father's legacy but soon died of illness in 1452, just two years after his coronation. He was succeeded by his twelve-year-old son, Danjong. In addition to two regents, Princess Gyeonghye also served as Danjong's guardian and, along with the general Kim Jong-seo, attempted to strengthen royal authority. Danjong's uncle, Grand Prince Suyang, gained control of the government and eventually deposed his nephew to become the seventh king of Joseon himself in 1455, taking the name Sejo. After six ministers loyal to Danjong attempted to assassinate Sejo to return Danjong to the throne, Sejo executed the six ministers and also killed Danjong in his place of exile.

King Sejo enabled the government to determine exact population numbers and to mobilize troops effectively. He also revised the land ordinance to improve the national economy and encouraged the publication of books. Most importantly, he compiled the Grand Code for State Administration, which became the cornerstone of dynastic administration and provided the first form of constitutional law in a written form in Korea.

Sejo undermined much of the foundation of many existing systems, including the Jiphyeonjeon which his predecessors, Sejong and Munjong, had carefully laid down. He cut down on everything he deemed unworthy and caused countless complications in the long run. Many of these adjustments were done for his own power, not regarding the consequences and problems that would occur. The favoritism he showed toward the ministers who aided him in taking the throne led to increased corruption in the higher echelon of the political field.

Institutional arrangements and Prosper culture

Sejo's weak son Yejong succeeded him as the eighth king, but died two years later in 1469. Yejong's nephew Seongjong ascended the throne. His reign was marked by the prosperity and growth of the national economy and the rise of neo-Confucian scholars called sarim who were encouraged by Seongjong to enter court politics. He established Hongmungwan (Hanja: 弘文館), the royal library and advisory council composed of Confucian scholars, with whom he discussed philosophy and government policies. He ushered in a cultural golden age that rivaled Sejong's reign by publishing numerous books on geography, ethics, and various other fields.

He also sent several military campaigns against the Jurchens on the northern border in 1491, like many of his predecessors. The campaign, led by General Heo Jong, was successful, and the defeated Jurchens, led by the Udige clan (Hanja: 兀狄哈), retreated to the north of the Yalu River. King Seongjong was succeeded by his son, Yeonsangun, in 1494.

Literati purges Portrait of the neo-Confucian scholar, Jo Gwang-jo (1482–1519)

Yeonsangun is often considered the worst tyrant in Joseon's history, whose reign was marked by literati purges between 1498 and 1506. His behavior became erratic after he learned that his biological mother was not Queen Junghyeon but the deposed Queen Yun, who was forced to drink poison after poisoning one of Seongjong's concubines out of jealousy and leaving a scratch mark on Seongjong's face. When he was shown a piece of clothing that was allegedly stained with his mother's blood vomited after drinking poison, he beat to death two of Seongjong's concubines who had accused Queen Yun and he pushed his grandmother, Grand Queen Dowager Insu, who died afterward. He executed government officials who supported Queen Yun's death along with their families. He also executed sarim scholars for writing phrases critical of Sejo's usurpation of the throne.

Yeonsangun also seized a thousand women from the provinces to serve as palace entertainers and appropriated the Sungkyunkwan as a personal pleasure ground. He abolished the Office of Censors, whose function was to criticize inappropriate actions and policies of the king, and Hongmungwan. He banned the use of hangul when the common people used it on posters to criticize the king. After twelve years of misrule, he was finally deposed in a coup which placed his half-brother Jungjong on the throne in 1506.

Jungjong was a fundamentally weak king because of the circumstances that placed him on the throne, but his reign also saw a period of significant reforms led by his minister Jo Gwang-jo, the charismatic leader of sarim. He established a local self-government system called hyangyak to strengthen local autonomy and communal spirit among the people, sought to reduce the gap between the rich and poor with a land reform that would distribute land to farmers more equally and limit the amount of land and number of slaves that one could own, promulgated widely among the populace Confucian writings with vernacular translations, and sought to trim the size of government by reducing the number of bureaucrats. According to the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, it was said that no official dared to receive a bribe or exploit the populace during this time because as Inspector General, he applied the law strictly.

These radical reforms were very popular with the populace but were fiercely opposed by the conservative officials who had helped to put Jungjong on the throne. They plotted to cause Jungjong to doubt Jo's loyalty. Jo Gwang-jo was executed, and most of his reform measures died with him in the resulting third literati purge. For nearly 50 years afterward, the court politics were marred by bloody and chaotic struggles between factions backing rival consorts and princes. In-laws of the royal family wielded great power and contributed to much corruption in that era.

Middle period (mid 16th-mid 17th century)

Jeong Cheol (1536–1593), head of the Western faction

The middle Joseon period was marked by intense and bloody power struggles between political factions that weakened the country, and by large-scale invasions by Japan and Manchu which nearly toppled the kingdom.

Factional struggle

The Sarim faction had suffered a series of political defeats during the reigns of Yeonsangun, Jungjong, and Myeongjong, but it gained control of the government during the reign of King Seonjo. It soon split into opposing factions known as the Easterners and the Westerners by their political or philosophical masters.Easterners mainly followed the teachings and philosophy of Yi Hwang and Jo Sik while the Westerners followed the philosophy of Yi I and Song Hon. Within decades the Easterners themselves divided into the Southerners and the Northerners; in the seventeenth century the Westerners also permanently split into the Noron and the Soron. Factions in the Joseon dynasty were formed based on their different interpretations of Confucian philosophy, which mainly differed according to who their master was and what they believed in. The alternations in power among these factions were often accompanied by charges of treason and bloody purges, initiating a cycle of revenge with each change of regime.

One example is the 1589 rebellion of Jeong Yeo-rip, one of the bloodiest political purges of Joseon. Jeong Yeo-rip, an Easterner, had formed a society with a group of supporters that also received military training to fight against Waegu. There is still a dispute about the nature and purpose of his group, which reflected the desire for a classless society and spread throughout Honam. He was subsequently accused of conspiracy to start a rebellion. Jeong Cheol, head of the Western faction, was in charge of investigating the case and used this event to affect the widespread purge of Easterners who had the slightest connection to Jeong Yeo-rip. Eventually 1000 Easterners were killed or exiled in the aftermath.

Japanese invasions The Turtle ship (replica)

Throughout Korean history, there was frequent piracy on sea and brigandage on land. The only purpose for the Joseon navy was to secure the maritime trade against the Waegu. The navy repelled pirates using an advanced form of gunpowder technologies including cannons and fire arrows in form of singijeon deployed by hwacha.

During the Japanese invasions in the 1590s, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, plotting the conquest of Ming China with Portuguese guns, invaded Korea with his daimyōs and their troops, intending to use Korea as a stepping stone. Factional division in the Joseon court, inability to assess Japanese military capability, and failed attempts at diplomacy led to poor preparation on Joseon's part. The use of superior firearms by the Japanese left most of the southern part of the Korean Peninsula occupied within months, with both Hanseong (present-day Seoul) and Pyongyang captured.

The Turtle Ship interior

The invasion was slowed when Admiral Yi Sun-shin destroyed the Japanese invasion fleet. The guerrilla resistance that eventually formed also helped. Local resistance slowed down the Japanese advance and decisive naval victories by Admiral Yi left control over sea routes in Korean hands, severely hampering Japanese supply lines. Furthermore, Ming China intervened on the side of the Koreans, sending a large force in 1593 which pushed back the Japanese together with the Koreans.

During the war, Koreans developed powerful firearms and the turtle ships. The Joseon and Ming forces defeated the Japanese at a deep price. Following the war, relations between Korea and Japan were completely suspended until 1609.

Manchu invasions A Korean painting depicting two Jurchen warriors and their horses

After the Japanese invasions, the Korean Peninsula was devastated. Meanwhile, Nurhaci (r. 1583–1626), the chieftain of the Jianzhou Jurchens, was unifying the Jurchen tribes of Manchuria into a strong coalition that his son Hong Taiji (r. 1626–1643) would eventually rename the "Manchus". After he declared Seven Grievances against Ming China in 1618, Nurhaci and the Ming engaged in several military conflicts. On such occasions, Nurhaci required help from Gwanghaegun of Joseon (r. 1608–1623), putting the Korean state in a difficult position because the Ming court was also requesting assistance. Gwanghaegun tried to maintain neutrality, but most of his officials opposed him for not supporting Ming China, which had saved Joseon during Hideyoshi's invasions.

In 1623, Gwanghaegun was deposed and replaced by Injo of Joseon (r. 1623–1649), who banished Gwanghaegun's supporters. Reverting his predecessor's foreign policy, the new king decided to openly support the Ming, but a rebellion led by military commander Yi Gwal erupted in 1624 and wrecked Joseon's military defenses in the north. Even after the rebellion had been suppressed, King Injo had to devote military forces to ensure the stability of the capital, leaving fewer soldiers to defend the northern borders.

In 1627, a Jurchen army of 30,000 led by Nurhaci's nephew Amin overran Joseon's defenses. After a quick campaign that was assisted by northern yangban who had supported Gwanghaegun, the Jurchens imposed a treaty that forced Joseon to accept "brotherly relations" with the Jurchen kingdom. Because Injo persisted in his anti-Manchu policies, Qing emperor Hong Taiji sent a punitive expedition of 120,000 men to Joseon in 1636. Defeated, King Injo was forced to end his relations with the Ming and recognize the Qing as suzerain instead. Injo's successor Hyojong of Joseon (r. 1649–1659) tried to form an army to keep his enemies away and conquer the Qing for revenge, but could never act on his designs.

Despite reestablishing economic relations by officially entering the imperial Chinese tributary system, Joseon leaders and intellectuals remained resentful of the Manchus, whom they regarded as barbarians, and regarded the Ming Dynasty as the center of the civilized world. Joseon intellectuals, who had political and cultural allegiances to the Ming Dynasty, were forced to reexamine their state identity when the Qing overthrew the Ming, leading to an influx of Ming refugees into Joseon. As a result, Joseon created the Little China ideology, known as sojunghwa. According to Youngmin Kim, " it held that the Joseon embodied Chineseness authentically while other neighboring countries failed to do so in the face of the barbarian domination of the center of the civilized world." A set of standardized rites and unifying symbols were developed in Late Joseon Korea in order to maintain that sense of cultural identity. Long after submitting to the Qing, the Joseon court and many Korean intellectuals kept using Ming reign periods, as when a scholar marked 1861 as "the 234th year of Chongzhen".

Late period (mid 17th-late 19th century)

Emergence of Silhak and renaissance of the Joseon Portrait of Kim Yuk 김육 (1570–1658), an early Silhak philosopher of the Joseon period Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon. Also one of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

After invasions from Japan and Manchuria, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace. Joseon witnessed the emergence of Silhak (Practical Learning). The early group of Silhak scholars advocated comprehensive reform of civil service examination, taxation, natural sciences and the improvement in agromanagerial and agricultural techniques. It aimed to rebuild Joseon society after it had been devastated by the two invasions. Under the leadership of Kim Yuk, the chief minister of King Hyeonjong, the implementation of reforms proved highly advantageous both to state revenues and to the lot of the peasants.

The co-existence system between Southerners and Westerners which were established after the Injo coup started to fall. After the Yesong debate, factional conflict grew particularly intense under the reigns of the kings Sukjong and Gyeongjong, with major rapid reversals of the ruling faction, known as hwanguk (換局; literally change in the state of affairs), being commonplace. During the early reign of Sukjong, the southerners managed to become a ruling faction and made westerners lose power. But the southerners' rise to power was temporary. Sukjong, who believed that political faction would weaken the king's power started rapid reversals of the ruling faction, which resulted in bloody killings between factions. After the three bloody hwanguk, the Southerners lost their influence in the central government, and the ruling Westerners were divided into hard-line Noron who rejected the Southerners and moderate Soron who were friendly to the Southerners. This shift resulted in political radicalism which viewed other factions as the ones that should be eliminated. In response, the next kings, Yeongjo (r. 1724–1776) and Jeongjo (r. 1776–1800), generally pursued the Tangpyeongchaek – a policy of maintaining balance and equality between the factions.

The two kings led a second renaissance of the Joseon kingdom. Yeongjo's grandson, the enlightened King Jeongjo enacted various reforms throughout his reign, notably establishing Kyujanggak, a royal library in order to improve the cultural and political position of Joseon and to recruit gifted officers to run the nation. King Jeongjo also spearheaded bold social initiatives, opening government positions to those who would previously have been barred because of their social status. King Jeongjo had the support of the many Silhak scholars. King Jeongjo's reign also saw the further growth and development of Joseon's popular culture. At that time, the group of Silhak scholars encouraged the individual to reflect on state traditions and lifestyle, initiating the studies of Korea that addressed its history, geography, epigraphy and language.

Sinjeong, Queen Regent of Joseon. She served as nominal regent of Joseon, who selected Gojong to place upon the throne. Architecture

During the late Joseon period of the 18th and 19th century, Joseon started to change its perceptions of the Qing Dynasty. The shift in perceptions commenced through the introduction of Qing Dynasty culture to Joseon society by Yeonhaengsa, Korean Envoys to the Qing Dynasty. Progressive-thinking Joseon intellectuals advocated the Bukhak theory, which argued that Joseon should adopt Qing and Western culture through the Qing Dynasty. Joseon scholars became intrigued by the sophisticated architectural technology of China, encompassing construction techniques, wagon utilization, and the ondol heating system. Particularly fascinated by brick, the proponents of Bukhak endeavored to popularize its usage across Joseon, and eventually succeeded. Bak Jiwon was among the first to construct brick Chinese-style buildings in Anui, Gyeongsang Province, and Gyedong, Seoul, towards the end of the 18th century. Following the establishment of the Suwon Hwaseong Fortress, which was influenced by Qing construction technology and techniques, Qing-style architectural style and techniques started to become more widespread in Joseon society.

Government by in-law families

After the death of King Jeongjo, the Joseon faced difficult external and internal problems. Internally, the foundation of national law and order weakened as a result of "Sedo Politics" (in-law government) by royal in-laws.

The young Sunjo succeeded his father, King Jeongjo, in 1800. With Jeongjo's death the Noron seized power with the regency of Queen Dowager Jeongsun, whose family had strong ties to the faction, and initiated a persecution of Catholics. However, after the retirement and death of the Queen Dowager, the Norons were gradually ousted, while the Andong Kim clan of Kim Jo-sun, the father of the Queen Sunwon, gained power. Gradually the Andong Kims came to dominate the court.

With the domination of the Andong Kims, the era of Sedo Politics began. The formidable in-law lineage monopolized the vital positions in government, holding sway over the political scene, and intervening in the succession of the throne. These kings had no monarchic authority and could not rule over the government. The other aristocratic families, overwhelmed by the power exercised by the royal in-laws, could not speak out. As the power was concentrated in the hands of the royal in-law lineage, there was disorder in the governing process, and corruption became rampant. Large sums were offered in bribes to the powerful lineages to obtain positions with nominally high rank. Even the low-ranking posts were bought and sold. This period, which spanned 60 years, saw the manifestation of both severe poverty among the Korean population and ceaseless rebellions in various parts of the country.

Externally, Joseon became increasingly isolationist. Its rulers sought to limit contact with foreign countries.

End of the dynasty Heungseon Daewongun

In 1863, King Gojong took the throne. His father, Heungseon Daewongun, ruled for him until Gojong reached adulthood. During the mid-1860s the Regent was the main proponent of isolationism and the instrument of the persecution of native and foreign Catholics, a policy that led directly to the French Campaign against Korea in 1866. The early years of his rule also witnessed a large effort to restore the dilapidated Gyeongbok Palace, the seat of royal authority. From 1862 to 1864, an insurgency movement driven by Donghak followers and religious leader Choe Je-u gathered a peasant army to take over southern parts of Korea until Choe was executed in 1864.

During his reign, the power and authority of the in-law families such as the Andong Kims sharply declined. In order to get rid of the Andong Kim and Pungyang Jo clans, he promoted persons without making references to political party or family affiliations, and in order to reduce the burdens of the people and solidify the basis of the nation's economy, he reformed the tax system. In 1871, U.S. and Korean forces clashed in a U.S. attempt at "gunboat diplomacy" following on the General Sherman incident of 1866.

Seoul(1884)-George Clayton Foulk

In 1873, King Gojong announced his assumption of royal rule. With the subsequent retirement of Heungseon Daewongun, Queen Min (later called Empress Myeongseong) became a power in the court, placing her family in high court positions.

Japan, after the Meiji Restoration, acquired Western military technology, and forced Joseon to sign the Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876, opening three ports to trade and granting the Japanese extraterritoriality. Port Hamilton was briefly occupied by the Royal Navy in 1885.

Emperor Gojong

Many Koreans despised Japanese and foreign influences over their land and the corrupt oppressive rule of the Joseon Dynasty. In 1881, the Byeolgigun, a modern elite military unit, was formed with Japanese trainers. The salaries of the other soldiers were held back, and in 1882 rioting soldiers attacked the Japanese officers and even forced the queen to take refuge in the countryside. In 1894, the Donghak Peasant Revolution saw farmers rise up in a mass rebellion, with peasant leader Jeon Bong-jun defeating the forces of local ruler Jo Byong-gap at the battle of Gobu on 11 January 1894; after the battle, Jo's properties were handed out to the peasants. By May, the peasant army had reached Jeonju, and the Joseon government asked the Qing dynasty government for assistance in ending the revolt. The Qing sent 3,000 troops, and the rebels negotiated a truce, but the Japanese considered the Qing presence a threat and sent in 8,000 troops of their own, seizing the Royal Palace in Seoul and installing a pro-Japanese government on 8 June 1894. This soon escalated into a war (1894–1895) between Japan and the Qing Empire, fought largely in Korea. (The king made a deal with Japan, partially out of a distrust of the queen's support for open trade policies toward the Western civilizations and China. He ended up preempting a specific disadvantageous, exclusive negotiation with Japan previous to the Queen's decision, which was later used as a political premise for Japan to wage military action. Scholars, particularly during the Joseon era, were touted for expressing allegiance to the king.)

Empress Myeongseong (referred to as Queen Min) had attempted to counter Japanese interference in Korea and was considering turning to the Russian Empire and to China for support. In 1895, Empress Myeongseong was assassinated by Japanese agents. The Japanese minister to Korea, Lieutenant-General Viscount Miura, almost certainly orchestrated the plot against her. A group of Japanese agents entered the Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, which was under Japanese control, and Queen Min was killed and her body desecrated in the north wing of the palace.

The Qing acknowledged defeat in the Treaty of Shimonoseki (17 April 1895), which officially guaranteed Korea's independence from China. It was a step toward Japan gaining regional hegemony in Korea.

Establishment of the Empire and Colonization

The Joseon court, pressured by encroachment from larger powers, felt the need to reinforce national integrity and declared the Korean Empire, along with the Gwangmu Reform in 1897. King Gojong assumed the title of Emperor in order to assert Korea's independence. In addition, other foreign powers were sought for military technology, especially Russia, to fend off the Japanese. Technically, 1897 marks the end of the Joseon period, as the official name of the empire was changed; the Joseon Dynasty still reigned, albeit perturbed by Japan and Russia.

In a complicated series of maneuvers and counter-maneuvers, Japan pushed back the Russian fleet at the Battle of Port Arthur in 1904. With the conclusion of the 1904–1905 Russo-Japanese War with the Treaty of Portsmouth, the way was open for Japan to take control of Korea. After the signing of the Protectorate Treaty in 1905, Korea became a protectorate of Japan. Prince Itō was the first Resident-General of Korea, although he was assassinated by Korean independence activist An Jung-geun in 1909 at the train station at Harbin. In 1910 the Japanese Empire finally annexed Korea.


Joseon was a highly centralized monarchy, and neo-Confucian bureaucracy as codified by Gyeongguk daejeon, a sort of Joseon constitution.


The Phoenix Throne of the king of Joseon in Gyeongbok Palace The picture in the background is Irworobongdo. Jeongjeon of Jongmyo Shrine - As the dynasty continued, it was expanded horizontally.

The king had absolute authority, but his actual power varied with political circumstances. He was bound by tradition, precedents set by earlier kings, Gyeongguk daejeon, and Confucian teachings. The king commanded absolute loyalty from his officials and subjects, but the officials were also expected to persuade the king to the right path if the latter was thought to be mistaken. Natural disasters were thought to be due to the king's failings, and therefore, Joseon kings were very sensitive to their occurrences. When there was severe drought or a series of disasters, the king often formally sought criticism from officials and citizenry. On those occasions, critics were immune from prosecution, regardless of what they said or wrote (although there were a few exceptions).

Direct communication between the king and the common people was possible through the sangeon (상언; 上言) written petition system and the gyeokjaeng (격쟁; 擊錚) oral petition system. Through the gyeokjaeng oral petition system, commoners could strike a gong or drum in front of the palace or during the king's public processions in order to appeal their grievances or petition to the king directly. This allowed even the illiterate members of Joseon society to make a petition to the king. More than 1,300 gyeokjaeng-related accounts are recorded in the Ilseongnok.

Royal seals


Government officials were ranked in 18 levels, ranging from first senior rank (정1품, 正一品) down to ninth junior rank (종9품, 從九品). Seniority and promotion was achieved through royal decree, based on examination or recommendation. The officials from 1st senior rank to 3rd senior rank wore red robes. Those from 3rd junior rank to 6th junior rank wore blue. Those below wore green robes.

Here, "government official" means one who occupied an office which gave its holder yangban status – hereditary nobility for three generations. In order to become such an official, one had to pass a series of gwageo examinations. There were three kinds of gwageo exams – literary, military, and miscellaneous. The literary route was the most prestigious. Many key posts, including all Censorate posts, were open only to officials who advanced through literary exam. The literary route involved a series of four tests. To qualify, one had to pass them all. 33 candidates who were chosen in this manner would take the final exam, before the king. The candidate with the highest score was appointed to a position of 6th junior rank (a jump of six ranks). The two candidates with the next highest scores were appointed to a position of 7th junior rank. The seven candidates with next highest scores were assigned to 8th junior rank. The remaining 23 candidates were given 9th junior rank, the lowest of 18 ranks.

The officials of 1st senior rank, 1st junior rank, and 2nd senior rank were addressed with honorific "daegam" (대감, 大監) while those of 2nd junior rank and 3rd senior rank were addressed with honorific "yeonggam" (영감, 令監). These red-robed officials, collectively called "dangsanggwan" (당상관, 堂上官), took part in deciding government policies by attending cabinet meetings. The rest of the ranked officials were called "danghagwan" (당하관, 堂下官).

Central government

Portrait of Chief State Councillor Chae Je-gong (1720–1799) State Council

State Council (Uijeongbu, 의정부, 議政府) was the highest deliberative body, whose power declined over the course of the period. The Chief State Councillor (Yeonguijeong, 영의정, 領議政), Left State Councillor (Jwauijeong, 좌의정, 左議政), and Right State Councillor (Uuijeong, 우의정, 右議政) were the highest-ranking officials in the government (all three were of 1st senior rank). They were assisted by Left Minister (Jwachanseong, 좌찬성, 左贊成) and Right Minister (Uichangseong, 우찬성, 右贊成), both of 1st junior rank, and seven lower ranking officials. The power of State Council was inversely proportional to the king's power. There were periods when it directly controlled the Six Ministries, the chief executive body of Joseon government, but it primarily served in advisory role under stronger kings. State councillors served in several other positions concurrently.

Six Ministries Yi Hang-bok - He was appointed and served as Byeongjo Panseo, Minister of National Defense during the Japanese invasions of Korea

Six Ministries (Yukjo, 육조, 六曹) make up the chief executive body. Each minister (Panseo, 판서, 判書) was of 2nd senior rank and was assisted by deputy minister (Champan, 참판, 參判), who was of 2nd junior rank. Ministry of Personnel was the most senior office of six ministries. As the influence of State Council waned over time, Minister of Personnel was often de facto head of ministers. Six ministries are in the order of seniority.

Government offices of each organization were located where the current Gwanghwamun Plaza is located. So it was also called '''Yukjo street''' after the six ministries.

Three Offices Portrait of the Inspector General Yun Bonggu (1681–1767)

Three Offices, or Samsa (삼사), is a collective name for three offices that functioned as major organ of press and provided checks and balance on the king and the officials. While modeled after the Chinese system, they played much more prominent roles in the Joseon government than their Chinese counterparts. In their role as organ of press, they did not have actual authority to decide or implement policies, but had influential voice in the ensuing debate.

The officials who served in these offices tended to be younger and of lower rank compared to other offices but had strong academic reputation and enjoyed special privileges and great prestige (for instance, censors were permitted to drink during working hours because of their function of criticizing the king). To be appointed, they went through more thorough review of character and family background. Three Offices provided the fastest route of promotion to high posts and was almost a requirement to becoming a State Councillor.

While the primary focus for Office of Inspector General is the government officials and Office of Censors is focused on the king, two offices often performed each other's functions, and there was much overlap. Together they were called "Yangsa", (양사) which literally means "Both Offices", and often worked jointly especially when they sought to reverse the king's decision.

Other offices

The major offices include the following:

Local government

The officials of high rank were sent from the central government. Sometimes a secret royal inspector (Amhaengeosa, 암행어사) was appointed by the king to travel incognito and monitor the provincial officials. These undercover inspectors were generally young officials of lower rank but were invested with the royal authority to dismiss corrupt officials.

Administrative divisions

During most of the Joseon period, Korea was divided into eight provinces (do, 도, 道). The eight provinces' boundaries remained unchanged for almost five centuries from 1413 to 1895, and formed a geographic paradigm that is still reflected today in the Korean Peninsula's administrative divisions, dialects, and regional distinctions. The names of all eight provinces are still preserved today, in one form or another.

Portrait of Kim Hu (1751–1805), a military officer of the Joseon Dynasty



The army consists of the central army and the provincial armies. Each is made of peasant soldiers, cavalry, pengbaesu and gabsa elite soldiers, archers, musketeers, and artillery. The king appointed their generals.


The Joseon Navy consists of two types of main warships, the panokseon and the turtle ship. They also utilized small vessels and fishing boats for reconnaissance and landings. The king also appoints their admirals.

Royal Guard

The Naegeumwi were royal guards defending the king, queen, and ministers. These were soldiers hand-selected by the king. The King's Royal Palace Gatekeepers, the Wanggung Sumunjang (왕궁수문장) were a royal guard unit tasked with defending the gates of the five palaces and Hanseong's city gates.

Foreign relations

Joseon was a tributary state of the China that was ritually subservient to the Ming dynasty and Qing dynasty as a vassal state but exercised varying levels of autonomy. The ruling Yi family proclaimed their indigenous legitimacy but institutionalized structures that limited Joseon monarch power, which modern scholars view as producing contradictory statuses from a modern view of sovereignty. Joseon maintained the highest position among China's tributary states, which also included countries such as Japan, Vietnam, Ryukyu, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Brunei, and the Philippines, among others. In addition, Joseon received tribute from Jurchens and Japanese until the 17th century, and had a small enclave in the Ryukyu Kingdom that engaged in trade with Siam and Java.


In 1392, General Yi Seong-gye led a successful coup to take political power in Korea from the King. General Yi's followers forced him to take the crown as Taejo of Joseon, thus establishing a new dynasty. In search of a justification for its rule given the lack of a royal bloodline, the new regime wanted recognition from other countries such as China. Furthermore, the only way to establish diplomatic relations and trade with China was to accept the tributary system of China. Thus, Joseon joined the Imperial Chinese tributary system in 1401 within the context of the Mandate of Heaven, in return for recognition. Within this tributary system, China assumed the role of a "big brother", with Korea maintaining the highest position among the tributary states, which also included countries such as the Ashikaga shogunate, Ryukyu Kingdom, Lan Xang, Đại Việt, and the Ayutthaya Kingdom, in return for accepting the subservient tributary role of a "younger brother". A series diplomatic ventures illustrate the persistence of Joseon's sadae (serving the great or serving Ming China) diplomacy in dealings with Ming dynasty. Sadae construes China as the center of a Confucian moral universe. and describes a foreign policy characterized by the various ways a weaker nation-state such as Korea acknowledges the strength of a greater power such as China. Sadae is made manifest in the actions of the weaker nation-state as it conveys goodwill and respect through its envoys. Sadaejuui conflates an attitude of subservience with the political realism which accompanies the prudent recognition of greater power. As a foundation of diplomacy, the Joseon kingdom presumed that the Korean state was positioned within a Sinocentristic milieu.

During the 1400s, the connection between Ming and Joseon was mainly pragmatic and somewhat contractual. The concept of Sadae implied a commitment to serve Ming China, and depending on the international context, the dominant state could be substituted. However, by the early 1500s, the relationship between Ming and Joseon was reinforced through a father-son dynamic, as Joseon elites began to regard the Ming emperor not just as a suzerain but also as a ritual father figure. This transformation held significant weight because, unlike the changeable loyalty to a ruler, the Confucian principle of filial piety was considered immutable and irrevocable. The lasting effect of the Ming-Joseon relationship on the Joseon elites endured well beyond the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in the mid-1600s, molding the prevailing political and intellectual developments within Joseon Korea. This influence is evident in the construction of the Taebodan, the Altar of Great Gratitude, and the Mandongmyo, an Eastern Shrine dedicated to Ming emperors, within Korea. These structures, erected in 1704 within a palace courtyard and a local private academy respectively, served as tributes to the memory of selected Ming emperors, to honor the memory of specific Ming emperors.

Joseon's perceptions of the Qing Dynasty were significantly influenced by Sungmyeongbancheong, which means worship of Ming and disdain for Qing, prior to the middle of the 18th century. The Joseon Dynasty was characterized by strong anti-Qing sentiments and allegiance to the Ming Dynasty. According to the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, Joseon regarded the Ming Empire as its ancestral homeland and considered the Qing Dynasty barbaric, maintaining loyalty to the Ming even after its collapse. Due to their adherence to the China-centric perspective called Hwai-gwan, intellectuals in Joseon held profound disdain for the Qing Dynasty.

China is the mother and father of our country; thus, those barbarians are the enemy of our parents. As a civil servant, how can you abandon your parents and become the brother of your parents’ enemy? The work of the Imjinwaeran (Japanese invasion of Joseon, 1592) was thanks to the power of the emperor. It is difficult to forget the grace of the emperor as long as our country lives and breathes. … we shall not abandon our loyalty even if our country disappears (Injo of Joseon Citation 1636).

Joseon wanted to dispatch envoys as often as possible for economic and cultural interests as well as diplomatic purposes. China demanded that Joseon pay tribute only once in a three-year cycle. However, Joseon strongly opposed this measure and demanded that Joseon pay tribute to China three times a year. In response, China put pressure on them by banning envoy delegates from entering the country or demanding unreasonable tributes, but in the end Joseon, which had a theoretical advantage, got the privilege of paying tribute at least one or two times a year. Joseon enjoyed the most opportunities for tribute trade with China, and the tribute trade with China was considered as a privilege not easily granted in Asia. China had to give a higher value than the tribute it received in order to maintain face, and Joseon abused it. Joseon experienced numerous economic and cultural benefits through gifts from the imperial China. The purpose of the tribute varied depending on the circumstances, but it was usually for economic or diplomatic gain.

At the time of the 1882 Imo Incident, the Qing dynasty had a laissez-faire policy toward Joseon; despite being a tributary state of China, Joseon was independent in its internal and external affairs, and China did not manipulate or interfere in them. After the Imo Incident, China abandoned its laissez-faire policy, signed the China–Korea Treaty of 1882, and became directly involved in the affairs of Joseon.

Sino-Korean relationship after the Imo Incident

After the Imo Incident in 1882, early reform efforts in Korea suffered a major setback. In the aftermath of the incident, the Chinese reasserted their influence over the peninsula, where they began to interfere in Korean internal affairs directly. After stationing troops at strategic points in the capital Seoul, the Chinese undertook several initiatives to gain significant influence over the Korean government. The Qing dispatched two special advisers on foreign affairs representing Chinese interests to Korea: the German Paul Georg von Möllendorff, a close confidant of Li Hongzhang, and the Chinese diplomat Ma Jianzhong. The Chinese supervised the creation of a Korean Maritime Customs Service headed by von Möllendorff. A staff of Chinese officers also took over the training of the army, providing the Koreans with 1,000 rifles, two cannons, and 10,000 rounds of ammunition. Furthermore, the Chingunyeong (Capital Guards Command), a new Korean military formation, was created and trained along Chinese lines by Yuan Shikai.

In October 1882, the two countries signed the China–Korea Treaty of 1882, and Korea was reduced to a semi-colonial tributary state of China with King Gojong unable to appoint diplomats without Chinese approval, and with troops stationed in the country to protect Chinese interests. China's new policy toward Joseon was set by Li Hongzhang and implemented by Yuan Shikai. According to Ming-te Lin: "Li's control of Korea from 1885 to 1894 through Yuan Shikai as resident official represented an anachronistic policy of intervention toward Korea."


This long-term, strategic policy contrasts with the gyorin (kyorin) (neighborly relations) diplomacy in dealings with Jurchens, Japan, Ryukyu Kingdom, Siam and Java. Gyorin was applied to a multi-national foreign policy. The unique nature of these bilateral diplomatic exchanges evolved from a conceptual framework developed by the Chinese. Gradually, the theoretical models would be modified, mirroring the evolution of a unique relationship.


As an initial step, a diplomatic mission was dispatched to Japan in 1402. The Joseon envoy sought to bring about the re-establishment of amicable relations between the two countries and he was charged to commemorate the good relations which existed in ancient times. This mission was successful, and shōgun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was reported to have been favorably impressed by this initial embassy. Not less than 70 diplomatic missions were dispatched from the Joseon capital to Japan before the beginning of Japan's Edo period.

Reciprocal missions were construed as a means of communication between Korean kings and Japanese shōguns of almost equal ranking. The emperors of Japan at the time were figureheads with no actual political or military power, and the actual political and military rulers of Japan that Joseon communicated with were the shoguns who were represented as "tycoon of Japan" in many foreign communications in order to avoid the conflict with the Sinocentric system in which the emperor of China was the highest authority, and all rulers of tributary states were known as "kings".


Woman's mourning clothes in Joseon A portrait of a civil bureaucrat in the Joseon period

The exact population figures of Joseon-era Korea are disputed as government records of households are considered unreliable in this period. Between 1810 and 1850, the population declined approximately 10% and remained stable. Before the introduction of modern medicine by the Korean Empire government in the early 20th century, the average life expectancy for peasant and commoner Korean males was 24 years and for females 26 years, accounting for infant mortality.

Joseon Korea installed a centralised administrative system controlled by civil bureaucrats and military officers who were collectively called yangban. By the end of the 18th century, the yangban had acquired most of the traits of a hereditary nobility except that the status was based on a unique mixture of family position, gwageo examinations for Confucian learning, and a civil service system. The family of a yangban who did not succeed in becoming a government official for the third generation lost their yangban status and became commoners. For most part, the only way to become a government official was to pass a series of gwageo exams (one had to pass the "lesser gwageo" exam (소과) in both of two stages in order to qualify for the greater gwageo exam, which again one had to pass in both of two stages to become a government official). The yangban and the king, in an uneasy balance, controlled the central government and military institutions. The proportion of yangban may have reached as high as 30% by 1800, due to the later practices of transaction of yangban status to peasants, although there was considerable local variation. As the government was small, a great many yangban were local gentry of high social status, but not always of high income.

Another portion of the population were slaves or serfs (nobi), "low borns" (cheonmin) or untouchable outcastes (baekjeong). Slavery in Korea was hereditary, as well as a form of legal punishment. The nobi were socially indistinct from freemen other than the ruling yangban class, and some possessed property rights, legal entities and civil rights. Hence, some scholars argue that it is inappropriate to call them "slaves", while some scholars describe them as serfs. There were both government- and privately owned nobi, and the government occasionally gave them to yangban. Privately owned nobi could be inherited as personal property. During poor harvests, many sangmin people would voluntarily become nobi in order to survive. The nobi population could fluctuate up to about one-third of the population, but on average the nobi made up about 10% of the total population. Joseon slaves could, and often did, own property. Private slaves could buy their freedom.

A Joseon painting which represents the Chungin (literally "middle people"), equivalent to the petite bourgeoisie

Many of the remaining 40–50% of the population were surely farmers, but recent work has raised important issues about the size of other groups: merchants and traders, local government or quasi-governmental clerks (Jungin), craftsmen and laborers, textile workers, etc. Given the size of the population, it may be that a typical person had more than one role. Most farming was, at any rate, commercial, not subsistence. In addition to generating additional income, a certain amount of occupational dexterity may have been required to avoid the worst effects of an often heavy and corrupt tax system.

Gender roles tightened during the Joseon period compared to the Goryeo era. The influence of Neo-Confucianism contributed to the increasingly male-dominated society of the time. Women were expected to be silent and not socialize with men who were not their relatives. They were required to be chaste to their husbands, and widows were not allowed to remarry. Any doubt of a woman's chastity would bring dishonor to the family. To protect the family's honor, young girls would carry a small knife (paedo), and with this they were expected to take their own lives if they were raped or even rumored to be caught in an affair. Laws were also enacted to prohibit women from riding horses or playing sports.

During the Late Joseon, the Confucian ideals of propriety and "filial piety" gradually came to be equated with a strict observance to a complex social hierarchy, with many fine gradations. By the early 18th century, the social critic Yi Chung-hwan (1690–1756) sarcastically complained that "ith so many different ranks and grades separating people from one another, people tend not to have a very large circle of friends." But, even as Yi wrote, the informal social distinctions of the Early Joseon were being reinforced by legal discrimination, such as Sumptuary law regulation of the dress of different social groups, and laws restricting inheritance and property ownership by women. Precisely because of the tenets of the Confucian Classic of Filial Piety, the adult male practice of Joseon Korea prescribed to keep both hair and beard, in contrast to the Japanese Tokugawa period.

Yet, these laws may have been announced precisely because social mobility was increasing, particularly during the prosperous century beginning about 1710. The original social hierarchy of the Joseon era was developed based on the social hierarchy of the Goryeo era. In the 14th–16th centuries, this hierarchy was strict and stable. Since economic opportunities to change status were limited, no law was needed.

In the late 17th to 19th centuries, new commercial groups emerged, and the old class system was extremely weakened. The situation was most marked in the Daegu region's Yangban class, where they were expected to reach nearly 70% in 1858.

In 1801, government-owned slaves were all emancipated, and the institution gradually died out over the next century. By 1858 the nobi population stood at about 1.5 percent of the total population of Korea. The institution was completely abolished as part of a social plan in the Gabo Reform of 1894.


A seonbi is referred to as an individual who has knowledge but is not a government official, or a noble character who has knowledge, good behavior and manners, keeps loyalty and principles, and does not covet government office and property. Seonbis are often described as aristocrats during the Joseon dynasty. After the Joseon dynasty was born, Joseon tried to widely encourage studying Confucianism in the country. Officials interpreted the seonbi as "students who study Confucianism". Therefore, it can be said that the seonbi is a personally excellent person and a person who studies Confucianism. Most of the people who studied Confucianism at that time were aristocrats, so it gradually meant the aristocracy. Therefore, Confucian scholars were somewhat uncommon during the Goryeo Dynasty, but from the Joseon Dynasty on, when many Ming systems were introduced, their class and traditions became common on the Korean Peninsula and formed images and symbols of Joseon scholars.


Seonbis were the main structure that formed the political factions in the Joseon dynasty. The seonbis consistently used debate as a major decision-making method. Debate was one of the representative methods of truth exploration that seonbis used to confirm facts and to make logic and reason. Debates were not only used to write. Debate was also a problem-solving method to find the best solution when deciding on issues of national significance. Seonbis expressed their views on problems to be solved in front of the king and discussed the wrongdoings of the other faction's argument, which sometimes led to death. However, the seonbi should not be afraid to speak of what is wrong and should choose to die rather than to take their words back.


Since archery was a liberal arts subject for seonbis in the Joseon Dynasty, there were many scholars who learned archery. Therefore, a seonbi, that is, a scholar, was a person with a specialized education to become a bureaucrat. In addition, almost all of the numerous righteous armies that actually fought in Joseon were led by seonbis. Even in ordinary villages, seonbis, who were closely associated with yangban, were in the same position as local leaders; therefore, seonbis were able to properly unite ordinary people, which means most of seonbis were trained in combat and command. Representatively, there are seonbis such as Gwak jae-u, Ko Kyung-myung, and Jo Heon, who led armies in battle.


The Joseon Dynasty presided over two periods of great cultural growth, during which Joseon culture created the first Korean tea ceremony, Korean gardens, and extensive historic works. The royal dynasty also built several fortresses and palaces.

Noble Korean women during this time were suppressed, along with shamans, in the 15th century because of Neo-Confucianist social norms when they previously led some of the least restricted lives out of anyone in Asia.


Men's (right) and women's (left) clothes (Hanbok) of Joseon period. A portrait painted by Shin Yun-bok (1758–?). Male dress of a Seonbi. A portrait painted by Yi Jae-gwan (1783–1837).

During the Joseon period, jeogori of women's hanbok became gradually tightened and shortened. In the 16th century, jeogori was baggy and reached below the waist, but by the 19th century, jeogori was shortened to the point that it did not cover the breasts, so another piece of cloth (heoritti) was used to cover them. At the end of the 19th century, Heungseon Daewongun introduced Magoja, a Manchu-style jacket, to Korea, which is often worn with hanbok to this day.

Chima was full-skirted and jeogori was short and tight in the late Joseon period. Fullness in the skirt was emphasized round the hips. Many undergarments were worn underneath chima such as darisokgot, soksokgot, dansokgot, and gojengi to achieve a desired silhouette. Because jeogori was so short it became natural to expose heoritti or heorimari which functioned like a corset. The white linen cloth exposed under jeogori in the picture is heoritti.

Royal ceremony with Joseon era clothing

The upper classes wore hanbok of closely woven ramie cloth or other high-grade lightweight materials in warm weather and of plain and patterned silks the rest of the year. Commoners were restricted by law as well as resources to cotton at best. The upper classes wore a variety of colors, though bright colors were generally worn by children and girls and subdued colors by middle-aged men and women. Commoners were restricted by law to everyday clothes of white, but for special occasions they wore dull shades of pale pink, light green, gray, and charcoal. Formally, when Korean men went outdoors, they were required to wear overcoats known as durumagi which reach the knees.


15th century. Joseon period, Korea. Blue and white porcelain jar with plum and bamboo design. Landscape of Mt. Geumgang by Kim Hong-do (1745–1806) in 1788 Chaekgeori a type of Minhwa Mogyeon by Yi Am

The Mid-Joseon period painting styles moved toward increased realism. A national painting style of landscapes called "true view" began – moving from the traditional Chinese style of idealized general landscapes to particular locations exactly rendered. While not photographic, the style was academic enough to become established and supported as a standardized style in Korean painting. At this time China ceased to have pre-eminent influence, Korean art took its own course, and became increasingly distinctive to the traditional Chinese painting.

Ceramics are a form of popular art during the Joseon period. Examples of ceramics include white porcelain or white porcelain decorated with cobalt, copper red underglaze, blue underglaze and iron underglaze. Ceramics from the Joseon period differ from other periods because artists felt that each piece of art deserved its own uniquely cultivated personality.

Beginning in the 10th century, white porcelain has been crafted in Korea. Historically overshadowed by the popularity of celadon, it was not until the 15th and 16th centuries that white porcelain was recognized for its own artistic value. Among the most prized of Korean ceramics are large white jars. Their shape is symbolic of the moon and their color is associated with the ideals of purity and modesty of Confucianism. During this period, the bureau that oversaw the meals and court banquets of the royal family strictly controlled the production of white porcelain.

Blue and white porcelain artifacts decorating white porcelain with paintings and designs in underglaze by using natural cobalt pigment are another example of popular wares of the Joseon period. Many of these items were created by court painters employed by the royal family. During this period, the popular style of landscape paintings is mirrored in the decoration of ceramics. Initially developed by the Chinese at the Jingdezhen kilns in the mid-14th century, Joseon began to produce this type of porcelain from the 15th century under Chinese influence. The first cobalt imported from China was used by Korean artists. In 1463 when sources of cobalt were discovered in Korea, artists and their buyers found the material was inferior in quality and preferred the more expensive imported cobalt. Korean porcelain with imported cobalt decoration contradict the emphasis of an orderly, frugal and moderate life in Neo-Confucianism.

Strikingly different from cobalt, porcelain items with a copper-red underglaze are the most difficult to successfully craft. During production, these items require great skill and attention or will turn gray during the process of firing. While the birthplace of ceramics with copper red underglaze is widely disputed, these items originated during 12th century in Korea and became increasingly popular during the second half of the Joseon period. Some experts have pointed to the kilns of Bunwon-ri in Gwangju, a city that played a significant role in the production of ceramics during the Joseon period, as a possible birthplace.

Porcelain was also decorated with iron. These items commonly consisted of jars or other utilitarian pieces.


During the Joseon period, the yangban scholars and educated literati studied Confucian classics and Neo-Confucian literature.: 204 

The middle and upper classes of Joseon society were proficient in Classical Chinese.: 329  The Joseon official records (such as the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty and Seungjeongwon ilgi) and the written works of the Yangban literati were written in Classical Chinese.: 243, 329 : 74 

Newspapers like the Hwangsŏng Shinmun toward the end of the period were written in the Korean language using the Korean mixed script.: 329 

Annals of the Joseon Dynasty

The Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty (also known as the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty) are the annual records of the Joseon dynasty, which were kept from 1413 to 1865. The annals, or sillok, consist of 1,893 volumes and are thought to cover the longest continual period of a single dynasty in the world. With the exception of two sillok compiled during the colonial era, the Annals are the 151st national treasure of Korea and listed in UNESCO's Memory of the World registry.


Uigwe is a collection of royal protocols of the Joseon period, which records and prescribes through text and stylized illustration the important ceremonies and rites of the royal family.


Buddhism and Confucianism

The Joseon kingdom was noted for having Confucianism as its main philosophy, and also included some Buddhism.

The study of literary exchanges between Confucian scholar officials and Buddhists shows that Buddhism was not cast out. There literary exchanges show a middle ground of both philosophies. "scholar-officials – Some who in public castigated Buddhism as a heresy and deluded tradition, in private visited temples and associated closely with monks." This shows that while in public some scholars shamed Buddhists, their exchanges with Buddhists show that at the very least it was not cast outside of the kingdom.

One example of this is a famous Joseon scholar official Park Se-dang (박세당, 朴世堂, 1629–1703). He argues against Buddhism with the following, "People say that Han Yu and Ouyang Xiu have harshly criticized Buddhism and therefore have only discussed what is aberrant and have not fully investigated what is profound. People say, their understanding is lacking and they have not fully examined it . I, myself, don't think that is the case… The heresies under heaven, they are also rather foul. Among them, Buddhism is the worst. If a person is inclined to Buddhism, then he is of the kind that pursues what is foul. Is it not clear that there is nothing further to discuss? It is like Mencius who criticized Yang Zhu and Mozi. Surely, he did not argue further than to say Yang Zhu and Mozi did not respect their fathers and their emperors." He wrote a poem:

久離塵俗萬緣虛 For long, I have left the mundane world whose innumerable conditions are empty;
只愛游方不戀居 I have but travelled here and there, finding no enjoyment in settled life.
明日又浮滄海去 Tomorrow once again I leave for Changhae;
沃州寥落舊精廬 The old, pure and simple hut of Okju province looks lonely.

Buddhism was a part of the Joseon kingdom. While not supported publicly, privately it was very prevalent in Confucian-scholar officials. Many monarchs and members of the royal court also practiced or tolerated Buddhism among their family and court advisors and commissioned or were patrons of Buddhist art.


The Joseon period developed several musical forms. The form with the most extant pieces is sijo (시조, 時調). Sijo is a poetic form consisting of three lines, each with four feet, traditionally sung very slowly. In Korean verse, a foot is generally a short syntactic unit, such as a noun with an adjective or a verb with an adverb. For example:






tall and full pine tree

다 먹는고

all eatQ

부리 긴

beak longATTR



어느 곳에

which placeLOC

가 있는고

go existQ


deserted mountainLOC

落木聲 들릴제

sound of a tree falling audible FUT.ATTR

내 안 들데

cause NEG actively AUX experienced


not existEMP


Can tiny insects devour a whole great spreading pine?

Where is the long-billed woodpecker? Why is he not here?

When I hear the sound of falling trees, I cannot contain myself for sorrow.

Here, like other Korean musical forms, each foot can stand on its own. As sijo were sung in Korean, the pioneering of Hangul created the possibility for sijo to be written down without the use of substitutions such as Idu script. The first copy of sijo is of the 'Twelve Songs of Dosan' by Yi Hwang written in 1565, which were written 100 years after the proclamation of Hangul. Additionally, the first anthology of sijo was compiled by Kim Cheontaek in 1728; before the anthology few sijo were written.

Kim Cheontaek's anthology represents a change in the authorship of sijo. At first, sijo were primarily composed by the yangban aristocracy and entertainers of the Kisaeng class. By the mid-seventeenth century, the jungin or "professional class" were composing sijo as well. This also coincided with a new form of sijo called "narrative sijo" (사설시조, 辭說時調), in which the first two lines were greatly lengthened. This expansion is likely a development from the so-called "irregular sijo" (엇시조, 旕時調), in which there was a minor lengthening of one of the first two lines. While there are very few remaining irregular sijo, and the form has not been revived, there is a sizable body of narrative sijo and the form continues to evolve.

Pansori (판소리) is another musical form that combines singing and prose to portray a story. Its development likely originates from shaman rituals and the songs within the Jeolla Province. It became a full-fledged musical form by the middle of the eighteenth century, and not long thereafter the yangban aristocracy also became interested in it. Originally there was a set of twelve stories that were sung, but only five were written down, and hence those five are the only ones sung today. Having been developed by commoners, p'ansori usually reflected their attitudes and aspirations, but by becoming popular with the yangban, p'ansori shifted somewhat toward yangban sensibilities and restrictions. P'ansori had a strong influence of the writing of the time, both because of the p'ansori novel (each based on one of the twelve stories) and by increasing the realism of the classical novel.

Science and technology

Korean celestial globe first made by the scientist Jang Yeong-sil during the reign of King Sejong Surviving portion of the Water Clock (Jagyeongnu)

15th century

The Joseon period under the reign of Sejong the Great was Korea's greatest period of scientific advancement. Under Sejong's new policy, Cheonmin (low-status) people such as Jang Yeong-sil were allowed to work for the government. At a young age, Jang displayed talent as an inventor and engineer, creating machines to facilitate agricultural work. These included supervising the building of aqueducts and canals.

Some of his inventions were an automated (self-striking) water clock (the Jagyeokru) which worked by activating motions of wooden figures to indicate time visually (invented in 1434 by Jang), a subsequent more complicated water-clock with additional astronomical devices, and an improved model of the previous metal movable printing type created in the Goryeo Dynasty. The new model was of even higher quality and was twice as fast. Other inventions were the sight glass, and the udometer.

The highpoint of Korean astronomy was during the Joseon period, where men such as Jang created devices such as celestial globes which indicated the positions of the sun, moon, and the stars. Later celestial globes (Gyupyo, 규표) were attuned to the seasonal variations.

The apex of astronomical and calendarial advances under King Sejong was the Chiljeongsan, which compiled computations of the courses of the seven heavenly objects (five visible planets, the sun, and moon), developed in 1442. This work made it possible for scientists to calculate and accurately predict all the major heavenly phenomena, such as solar eclipses and other stellar movements. Honcheonsigye is an astronomical clock created by Song I-yeong in 1669. The clock has an armillary sphere with a diameter of 40 cm. The sphere is activated by a working clock mechanism, showing the position of celestial objects at any given time.

Gangnido, a Korean-made map of the world was created in 1402 by Kim Sa-hyeong, Yi Mu, and Yi Hoe. The map was created in the second year of the reign of Taejong of Joseon. The map was made by combining Chinese, Korean and Japanese maps.

16th–19th century

Honcheonsigye, an astronomical clock of Joseon Dynasty created in 1669. Also one of the National Treasures of South Korea

The scientific and technological advance in the late Joseon period progressed slower than the early Joseon period.

Internal structure of Honcheonsigye

16th-century court physician, Heo Jun wrote a number of medical texts, his most significant achievement being Dongui Bogam, which is often noted as the defining text of Traditional Korean medicine. The work spread to China and Japan, where it is still regarded as one of the classics of Oriental medicine today.

The first soft ballistic vest, myeonjebaegab, was invented in Joseon Korea in the 1860s shortly after the French campaign against Korea. Heungseon Daewongun ordered development of bulletproof armor because of increasing threats from Western armies. Kim Gi-du and Gang Yun found that cotton could protect against bullets if thick enough, and devised bullet-proof vests made of 30 layers of cotton. The vests were used in battle during the United States expedition to Korea (1871), when the US Navy attacked Ganghwa Island in 1871. The US Army captured one of the vests and took it to the US, where it was stored at the Smithsonian Museum until 2007. The vest has since been sent back to Korea and is currently on display to the public.

House of Yi

Japanese illustration of King Gojong and Queen Min receiving Inoue Kaoru This compilation photo, taken about 1915, shows the following royal family members, from left: Yi Kang, Prince Imperial Ui, the 6th son of Gojong; Yi Cheok, Emperor Sunjong, the 2nd son and the last monarch of Korea; Yi Un, Prince Imperial Yeong, the 7th son; Gojong, the Retired Emperor; Empress Yun, wife of Sunjong; Lady Kim, Consort Princess Imperial Ui, wife of Prince Imperial Ui; and Yi Geon, the eldest son of Prince Ui. The seated child in the front row is Princess Deokhye, Gojong's 5th daughter and youngest (14th) child. (This is a compilation of individual photographs since the Japanese did not allow them to be in the same room at the same time, and some were forced to leave Korea).

The following is a simplified relation of Joseon royalty (Korean Imperial Family) during the late period of the dynasty:

See also


  1. ^ Middle Korean: 됴ᇢ〯션〮 Dyǒw syéon or 됴ᇢ〯션〯 Dyǒw syěon
  1. ^ Style: Yeonguijeong (1401–1894); Naegak chongri daesin (1894–96); Uijeong (1896–1905)
  1. ^ A Korean historian stated that "the Chinese government began to turn its former tributary state into a semi-colony and its policy toward Korea substantially changed to a new imperialistic one where the suzerain state demanded certain privileges in her vassal state".



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Further reading

External links

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37°35′N 126°59′E / 37.58°N 126.98°E / 37.58; 126.98