3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
New Directions A Time of Transitions


Ch 8 - Choson

A Confucianist Government

Yi Song-gye and his supporters established a new centralized government under an absolute monarchy based on Neo-Confucian principles. Ming Emperor T'ai-tsu honored the new dynasty by giving it the name Chao-hsien, a name that means "morning freshness" or "morning calm." To this day, Korea is known as the "Land of the Morning Calm."

A number of events occurred during the waning days of the Koryo kingdom that exemplified Yi Song-gye's determination to consolidate power and create a more centralized form of government. First, the innovative Rank Land Law placed land ownership in the hands of the state, redefined the tax base, and established a sounder economic foundation for the new dynasty. Next, his reorganization of the military eliminated the private armies of wealthy land owners and members of the royal household. Finally, and more significantly, political power in the new government shifted to the reform-minded Neo-Confucian literati who supported Yi Song-gye's rise to the throne.

From their base in the Privy Council and other mid-level government posts, the Neo-Confucian literati set about codifying the cardinal principles and practices that would define how Yi dynasty politics would operate. Two of Yi Song-gye's closest Neo-Confucianist supporters, Chong To-jon and Cho Chun, had already compiled the heart of this new code. Following Yi Song-gye's triumphant march to Kaesong from Wihwa Island in 1388, Chong To-jon produced the comprehensive codification of Confucianist principles entitled, Administrative Code of Choson. Working in cooperation with Cho Chun, he helped to produce a compilation of administrative law known as the Six Codes of Governance. Their efforts led directly to the creation of a core of administrative law infused with the ideals of a Confucianist government and set in place the second half of a great contradiction that haunted the peninsula for generations to come.

Despite his unremarkable family background, Yi Song-gye proved to be a distinguished military leader and a highly capable statesman. He held the loyalty of the bureaucracy and the Neo-Confucian literati, but he needed a more authoritative sanction for his new regime than just the collective approval of the Privy Council. When Yi Song-gye and his supporters began to establish a centralized government under an absolute monarchy, they adopted the Confucian concept of government as the most convenient political ideology on which to base their effort.

To appreciate the dramatic influence that Confucianism had on Korean society during the Yi dynasty, it is important to understand that Asians have never considered Confucianism to be a religion, but a philosophy, a way of life. Western minds, particularly the collective American mind, views government from a perspective that believes all men are created equal and should, in the ideal at least, be entitled to equal justice under the law. Confucianism does not adhere to the Western belief of equality among men. According to Confucian theory, government is an institution based not on law, but on morals. It would be a mistake to apply the Western perspective to the Yi Dynasty's Confucianist government.

Confucius, Gong Fuzi, (551 - 479 BC), China's most renowned and revered philosopher and educator, was a generalist with a universal vision. The philosophical method he developed offered the world a means to transform individuals, families, communities, and nations into a harmonious international society. He based his method on the assumption that lawlessness and social problems result from the combination of unenlightened individuals and a social structure without standards. His primary goal was to educate people to become self-motivated, self-controlled and able to assume responsibilities. By cultivating the individual, he believed it was possible to achieve an ideal, harmonious society.

Confucius believed that with equality men's desires would have no limit and a state of barbarism and chaos would result. Only so long as each person in society had a fixed station in life and a master to serve would happiness and order prevail. Thus, Confucius said,

"As soon as there was heaven and earth, there was the distinction of above and below (superior and inferior);  when the first wise king arose, the country he occupied had the division of classes. The ancient kings established the rules of proper conduct and divided the people into nobles and commoners, so that everybody would be under someone's control."

The natural order of things in Confucian Yi society demanded inequality and the distinction between superior and inferior. Confucian doctrine divided the population into two classes:  the rulers and the ruled. Responsibility and authority belonged in the hands of virtuous men. Thus, the ruler, chosen for his superior virtue, was the son of Heaven, the benevolent protector who looked after the welfare of his subjects. In return, the rules of proper conduct - benevolent love, obedience, loyalty and filial devotion - dictated the duty of the ruled and were applicable to the relations of both sovereign and subject alike.

With everyone and everything under someone's control, responsibility and benevolence would descend from above - heaven and the king - and obedience, loyalty and respect would ascend from below - the common people. In the utopia of a Confucian state, when everyone observed these principles, a harmonious and peaceful social order would prevail. There was no room for the voice of the people under this concept of such a paternalistic government. Western concepts of individual rights, freedom and equality were simply alien ideas to the Confucian mind. Good government under Confucianism was simply government of the ruler, by the ruler, and for the ruler.

The ethical principles of Confucianism are based on the virtues of benevolent love, righteousness, proper conduct, wisdom, and faithfulness. Conduct, or ceremony, is the cardinal tenet of Confucianism. Confucianism also extols five fundamental relationships:  father to son, sovereign to subject, husband to wife, old to young, and friend to friend. Confucius laid down five articles of morality to properly maintain these relationships:  intimacy, righteousness, distinction, obedience, and faithfulness.

As a political philosophy, Confucianism could be summed up in the eight steps to becoming a "true man or gentleman":  investigate nature, extend the boundary of knowledge, make your purpose sincere, regulate the mind, cultivate personal virtue, rule the family, govern the state, and pacify the world. Unfortunately, even governments created under such idealistic tenets are governments of men and, in practice at least, Yi kings were often authoritarian and despotic rulers.

The Yi dynasty was born heavily indebted to a large and diverse body of men, each holding a claim to political favor. The new dynasty's ultimate survival depended on how well and in what manner this debt was paid. Yi Song-gye and the founders of the Yi dynasty relied on two contradictory strategies to insure continuity of the new royal house. Motivated by considerations of political security, King Taejo created the Dynasty Establishment, a select group of men given extraordinary rewards for services of unusual or meritorious value to the state, namely helping to place Yi Song-gye on the throne. This method of rewarding loyal supporters became known as the Merit Subject, kongsin, system.

The first Merit Subject roster included the names of forty-four men in three merit classes with at least eleven more names added to the list later. In addition to other honors and rewards, Class One Merit Subjects received land grants of 375 to 500 acres and 15 to 30 slaves to work the land. Class Two Merit Subjects received 250 acres of land and 10 slaves. Those in Class Three received 150 acres of land and 7 slaves. Taejo also recognized over one-thousand Minor Merit Subjects, some of whom also received land and slaves. These generous land grants yielded incomes greater than the stipends paid to the highest rank in the bureaucracy. Merit Subject land was acknowledged from the outset to be hereditary in nature and it became an important exception to the cardinal principle of state ownership of land under the Rank Land Law.

To insure the continued devotion of Merit Subjects and their descendants to their royal benefactor and his successors, each subject received a promotion in rank and the title of either Lord or Great Lord. Merit Subjects enjoyed a marked leniency for criminal acts. Their descendants, especially direct heirs, were relieved of the need to qualify for a government position by examination. Instead, through favored treatment they received occasional promotions in rank and advancement in government service via the "protection" route. The unique status accorded this select group of Merit Subjects not only enhanced their role in government, but created a distinct and powerful force in Yi politics. Merit Subjects represented a highly conservative political group whose concerns ran decidedly toward preserving their enjoyed privilege. As a special prop of the king who created them, Merit Subjects exemplified a double-edged sword. These men honored by royal favor moved quickly to defend the throne and themselves against encroachments on their privileges from any quarter. Any king who owed his throne to his Merit Subjects had always to remember that king-makers are also potential king-breakers.

The Confucian idea of inferior and superior relationships had a dramatic impact on the nature of Yi foreign policy. While contemporary international relationships among Western nations depended on the rules of international law, Confucianism dictated that relationships among nations rested primarily on the rule of proper conduct. Confucianism had no regard for or concern with international law. Inequality among nations, as it was among people, was the natural order of the world.

China's Ming Dynasty saw itself as the land of sages and virtue, and China saw itself as the superior nation. Ming rulers viewed all non-Chinese as uncivilized people who needed China's virtuous guidance. In theory at least, the relationship would be that of older and younger brothers. In practice, the relationship was more like that between a feudal lord and his vassal. Based on this world view, the Ming Dynasty treated neighboring states as tributary kingdoms. Through the exportation of Confucianism and Chinese culture, the Ming Dynasty began to dominate East Asia by philosophy and example rather than by armed force as the Mongols had done.

Yi Song-gye knew he could never rule undisturbed without the paramount power in the region. He needed Ming China's support or at least Emperor Taizu's tolerance in order to succeed in his newly formed dynasty. Like earlier kings before him, he chose to make political use of China by aligning himself with the Ming imperial government. As soon as Yi Song-gye felt secure on the throne, he sent a mission to Nanjing to acknowledge China's superiority and to ask for Emperor Taizu's recognition of his right to rule. He also included a polite request to honor his country by giving it a new name.

King Taejo offered the Ming emperor a choice between Hwaryong, Yi Song-gye's birthplace, and Choson, the name of the earliest of the Korean states. After giving the matter some thought, Emperor Taizu selected the name Zhaoxian, the Chinese pronunciation of Choson, stating that he felt it was not only a beautiful name, but one revered by history. Roughly translated, the expression Zhaoxian means "morning freshness" or "morning calm." Thus, China's Emperor Taizu gave Korea the name by which it is known to this day, the "Land of the Morning Calm." The new dynasty founded by Yi Song-gye's rise to power would last a total of 518 years, almost twice the longevity of any of China's imperial dynasties.

Despite its seemingly cordial beginning, the initial relationship between Choson and Ming China did not start on solid ground. Ever since Yi In-min's faction assassinated King Kongmin and placed King U on the throne, the Ming court held deep suspicions about the manner in which Korean kings were being enthroned. Emperor Taizu had no inclination to allow the Choson court to use him to legitimize another royal usurper or to justify the crime of regicide. Furthermore, the Ming emperor protested that the Korean request for recognition had not been written with sufficient respect . He demanded that the man who drafted the document be sent to him in chains for punishment. Then there was the still unresolved friction, now ten years old, over Choson's vassal status and the quality and quantity of government tribute payments being sent to the Ming court in Nanjing.

During the fighting between the Chinese and the Mongols, large numbers of Manchurian, Chinese, and Korean people fled the Liaodong Peninsula and escaped into Choson. The Chinese now needed all the manpower they could muster just to hold the newly conquered territories and expand their control into the rest of Manchuria. Ming China viewed these refugees as a potential threat to their rule and even seemed to feel that Choson might offer them assistance in resisting any further Chinese advances. Emperor Taizu offered no opposition to Yi Song-gye's regime, but he refused to endow him with the royal patent and the imperial golden seal, the symbols of legitimacy for a tributary king. In the eyes of the Chinese, without these symbols, King Taejo could not use his own title of king when dealing with the Ming court. Throughout his reign, the Ming court simply referred to King Taejo as the "man in charge of Choson." While investiture from the Chinese emperor was regarded as the final step in legitimizing the rule of a Choson monarch, it neither created nor materially enhanced the king's authority as a ruler. Even without it, he ruled in name as well as in fact.


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New Directions A Time of Transitions