3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
A Time of Transitions The Winds of Change


Ch 8 - Choson

Hansong-bu, Sorabol, So-ul, Seoul

Trade and diplomatic relations developed among Korea, China and Japan during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century. King Taejo selected the village of Hanyang-bu on the north side of the Han River as the site for his new capital city.

The Yi dynasty began its reign in Choson at about the same time Japan's Ashikaga Shoguns ended their bitter civil war known as the period of the Northern and Southern Courts, Nambokucho. Having established himself as the unchallenged power in Japan, Yoshimitsu, the third Ashikaga Shogun, had himself appointed chancellor in 1394 and had his son, Yoshimochi, appointed shogun. Retaining the real ruling power in his own hands, Yoshimitsu built himself a grand palace in the Kitayama district in northwestern Kyoto where he retired to a life of pursuing his interests in the arts.

Following the second Mongol invasion of Japan in 1281, the Japanese cut all contact with both China and Korea and entered a period of self-imposed isolation that lasted sixty-one years. In 1342, the abbot of the Tenryuji Buddhist temple near Kyoto, founded by Ashikaga Takauji, reported that building funds were running out. He suggested that a trade mission to China would bring profits that would benefit the temple. Accordingly, Takauji ordered merchants in Hakata on the island of Kyushu to charter a ship to reopen trade with Song China. Twenty-six years later, in 1368, the Ming Emperor Hongwu, looking to expand the number of tributary states, sent a message to Prince Korenaga, ruler of Kyushu. With memories of the last series of messages received from China that ultimately led to an invasion, the prince was reluctant to respond, but in 1371 he sent a mission to China comprised largely of Buddhist monks. These tentative contacts never really took hold however, and during a second mission in 1376, Emperor Hongwu refused to receive a Japanese envoy and relations were not resumed for another twenty-five years.

With an eye towards the great potential for profitable trade with China, Yoshimitsu dispatched a trade mission to China from his palace at Kitayama in 1401. Carrying gifts for Ming Emperor Taizu and a suitably humble letter drafted by Yoshimitsu in which he promised loyalty and tribute, the mission was well received in Nanjing. Japanese pirate raids had diminished greatly since the latter half of the fourteenth century, but neither Choson nor China could completely stop them. Despite the efforts of the Ashikaga shogunate, the great landlords still controlled the majority of Japan, particularly on the island of Kyushu. Emperor Taizu knew that only Kyushu and its many small coastal islands could effectively control Japanese pirates and made suppression of coastal piracy a precondition for both recognition of Yoshimitsu's shogunate and trade with China. Many of the pirates lived on land unsuitable for farming on the small, mountainous, rocky islands near Tsushima Island. Unable to produce enough food to provide for themselves, the raiders of Tsushima attempted to reach trade agreements with both Japan and Choson. Both nations rejected their offers, leaving them no recourse but to continue their predatory raids against their neighbors as they had done in the past.

Once Yoshimitsu agreed to the precondition and promised to suppress Japanese piracy, Emperor Taizu rewarded him with the royal patent and golden seal of a vassal king. The first mission under his agreement was sent in 1404. Japanese tribute ships arrived in the port of Ningpo, where their credentials were checked. From there, the mission continued on to Nanjing to deliver Japanese gifts. Since the Chinese considered these as missions of tribute, not trade, all local expenses were met by the Chinese. Whenever Yoshimitsu sent a tribute ship to Ningpo, he made sure that a captured pirate chief was aboard as proof of his word.

Yoshimitsu engaged the Chinese with mixed motives. While he felt attracted to Zen Buddhism and had an interest in its Chinese origins, he was also highly flattered by the honorific terms used by the Chinese to address him. Above all else, he recognized the great commercial benefits to Japan and to his own finances from pursuing trade relations with China. Zen Buddhist temples took part in the China trade and the monks handled all diplomatic correspondence. The Japanese sent horses, swords, armor, copper, gold, lacquerware, screens, fans and sulphur to China. In return, they received silver and copper coins, brocades, silk, jade, pearls, porcelain, incense, books and drugs. At first, the Ming emperor's stringent tribute laws permitted Japan to send only one tribute shipment every three years. When Emperor Zhengzu relaxed the regulations in the early fifteenth century, Japanese trade with China expanded considerably. The ruling feudal lords of Japan, working in collaboration with Japanese merchants, became quite wealthy.

Southwest of Japan, the Ryukyu Islands opened ports to commercial ships engaged in trade with other Far East countries during the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. Beginning with the first visit by a Ryukyu envoy to Koryo in 1389, Ryukyu officials received honorary posts and hospitable treatment during their stay. Visits from Ryukyu tribute ships became an annual event in Korea, bringing rare woods, aromatic spices, sugar, and water buffalo horn from Indonesia and Malaysia, all southeast Asian products and very rare in Korea. On occasion, ships from Ryukyu repatriated Koryo sailors taken captive by Japanese pirates. As relations improved between these two countries, Koryo sailors either shipwrecked in the Ryukyu Islands or left there by pirates were allowed to stay. According to a naval officer named Yang Sung, shipwrecked in the Ryukyu Islands for eight years before being returned to Koryo, over two hundred Koreans and Chinese lived on the Ryukyu Islands.

The Yi dynasty often described its foreign policy toward China as "serving the great," and made every effort to maintain a friendly relationship with the Ming imperial court. Once every three years at first, then annually thereafter, three regular diplomatic missions wound their way from Choson across the Liaodong Peninsula and down to the Ming capital, resting at the end of their journey at the Huidong Inn in Nanjing. One mission went to celebrate the Chinese New Year, one to congratulate the Ming emperor on his birthday, and one to honor the birthday of the Ming imperial crown prince. Other delegations journeyed to China on such occasions as the death of a ruler, a succession to the throne, or the formal investiture of a queen in either Choson or China.

Though chiefly political, each mission had another, more tangible benefit, the opportunity for cultural and economic exchange between Choson and Ming China. The Chinese received horses, ginseng root, furs, ramie cloth, and straw mats with floral designs from Choson. In exchange, China sent silk fabrics, medicines, books, and porcelain ware to Choson. In the early years, horses were the principal ingredient of these tribute missions. Between 1392 and 1422, Choson sent some 45,000 horses to China. The volume of traffic became such a tremendous stimulus for horse breeding in Choson that during the early Yi dynasty some fifteen state-run horse ranches operated with a total of 24,000 breeding mares. After establishing a new relationship with Ming China, all that remained for Choson to complete its transition from the old Koryo dynasty was to establish a new capital city.

King Taejo realized that moving the seat of his new government out of Kaesong would symbolically represent a complete break with the past. In the public's mind, the ancient city of Kaesong had been associated with the seat of power in Koryo for almost five hundred years. Not only was it too steeped in the traditions of the old aristocracy to fit the needs of a new and more modern government, but it held the potential for trouble. The old elite aristocracy and the Buddhist monasteries, two groups which had always opposed a strong central government, held considerable influence in and around Kaesong. Taejo needed to get away from Kaesong's old power structure and the constraints imposed by its traditions.

King Taejo's first plan was to build his capital at Kyeryong-san, west of the modern city of Taejon at the village of Sindonae. After work had begun on the site, the king had a dream that told him the site was reserved for the Chong family, not the Yi, and he quickly halted all construction. The foundation stones for many of the buildings of Yi Song-gye's first capital are still visible in Sindonae. Confronted with the problem of where to locate his new capital, King Taejo turned to an old and trusted friend of his youth;  the scholar-priest Muhak. At Taejo's request, three local governors found the hermit priest living in a mountain retreat near Wonsan. After a joyous reunion, Taejo and Muhak set out to find a suitable place to build a new capital city. Taejo wanted the capital's physical setting and scale to mirror the prestige of his new kingdom. He also wanted to find a defensible site near the center of the country that would ease the problem of defending Choson's frontiers.

The search for a suitable location for Choson's new capital centered on the Han River basin in a valley surrounded by mountains arrayed in such a manner as to present formidable obstacles to any attack from the north or west. Over the centuries, the valley was the site of numerous settlements and villages used as capitals by different kingdoms. Paekche's King Kun Ch'ogo moved his capital to the valley in 371 AD, where it remained for 105 years. Koguryo captured the Paekche capital at Sansong in 471, and renamed the city Nam Pyongyang, the "Southern Capital" of Koguryo. Silla forced the surrender of Koguryo in this valley in 670 at Hansanju and when Koryo occupied the territory in 901, the site was renamed Yangju.

Koryo's King Munjong built a summer palace on the west side of the valley at Hanyang in 1068. A generation later, King Sukchong built a new palace at Hanyang which was used by the Koryo kings on their state inspection trips. By 1104, Koryo began construction of a new southern capital in the valley at Namgyong, a small village located on the north bank of the Han River. In 1298, the village was renamed Hanyang-bu. When the king wanted to move his capital from Kaesong south to Hanyang-bu in 1360, he was advised the move would not bring good fortune. Just thirteen years later, Japanese pirates sailed up the Han River and inflicted major damage on Hanyang-bu. The city's walls were repaired in 1388, the same year General Yi Song-gye marched into Kaesong and brought down the kingdom of Koryo.

King Taejo and Muhak finally settled on Hanyang-bu as the site for the new capital. To the west, the three summits of Samgak-san (Three Peak Mountain) formed a semi-circle as rugged sentinels guarding the valley floor:  Inwang-san (Flourishing Benevolence Mountain) on the west, Paegun-dae (White Cloud Peak) in the center, and the conical peak of Pugak-san on the north. South of Hanyang-bu sat the 265 m (868 ft) summit of Nam-san. Nakt'a-san (Camelback Mountain) stretched northward along the valley's eastern flank. Muhak advised King Taejo to build his new palace at the foot of Inwang-san. Chong To-jon, one of Taejo's close advisers and the man assigned the task of actually building the palace, recommended a site near the foot of Pugak-san, north of the village. After lengthy discussions, Taejo agreed with his architect and selected a site beneath the heights of nearby Pugak-san. Construction of the new palace began in 1394, a step that held great symbolic and social significance for Taejo's new dynasty.

The Chinese believed their emperor ruled as the Son of Heaven and that he was responsible for the entire earth. The Koreans used a similar theory for their king, thinking of him as the "younger brother" of the Chinese sovereign. In the ideal, Chinese palaces were built near the center of the capital and always faced south, the direction of the strongest, or positive power. Following Chinese tradition, Taejo located his palace near the center of the capital facing south. Taejo's palace, laid out in a rough square, was not built primarily as a residence, but as the auspicious center from which he could transmit the will of heaven to his subjects. During the early construction phase of the capital, King Taejo moved into the Sugang-gung, an old detached Koryo palace nearby.

Completed in October 1395, Taejo's palace resembled in many respects a small scale model of the great Imperial Palace in Peking. Chong To-jon selected two characters from an eight character poem in the 17th book of the Chinese Book of Poetry, Shih-ching and gave the palace its name:  Kyongbok, meaning "Shining Happiness." The magnificent Throne Hall, Kunjong-jon, the Hall of Government by Restraint, dominated the entire palace from its position near the center of the palace grounds. Covering 6,912 square feet, the Throne Hall sat within an enormous courtyard paved with flat square stones and surrounded on four sides by a tile-roofed corridor.

The Throne Hall itself rested atop a two-tier stone platform. Twelve huge posts supported its massive double-tier roof. In the middle of the south side of the terrace, two triple flights of stone steps led up to the main floor of the Throne Hall. In the center section of each flight, a stone medallion carved with a phoenix bird symbolically represented the king's position relative to Heaven. Beautiful wood carvings brightly painted in red and blue filled the entire ceiling. In the rear half of the main room, up a flight of five steps, resting beneath an ornately carved red wooden canopy sat the throne chair itself, the Phoenix Throne, the heart of Choson.

At the south end of the palace grounds stood the Kwanghwa-mu, Gate of Transformation by Light, a massive triple-arched gateway capped by a double-roofed pavilion. The most magnificent of the city's gates, it spanned the entire width of Sejong-no, a broad avenue leading south from the palace toward the market district. A pair of large stone sculptures called Hae T'ae stood guard in front of the main gate to Kyongbok Palace. These mythical creatures symbolized justice in China and the Chinese believed they could tell right from wrong. Whenever the Hae T'ae met evil they destroyed it. They are also believed to eat fire, and this was the main reason they sat before the Kwanghwa-mun glaring south down Sejong-no.

Taejo personally selected the location of the great Sajik Altar, one of the first sites picked when he laid out his new capital. Two great twenty-foot square stone-sided altars, one to the god of the Earth and one to the god of the Harvest, stood about three feet apart on a stone-faced platform. The top of each altar was covered with earth and opened upward to the sky. In a custom borrowed from China, the king visited this very sacred site each spring and autumn in ceremonial dress to offer sacrifices to the spirits of Earth and Harvest on behalf of the entire nation.

The year after completing the Kyongbok Palace, orders went out to secure the new capital city with a high fortified wall around its perimeter. Cho Chon, governor of P'yong'an Province and an adviser to Yi Song-gye, planned and directed the construction of a defensive wall that stretched for nearly ten miles around the capital. Cho Chon designed the wall to be built in 98 sections, each about 600 paces in length. Choson's five provinces supplied a total of 198,400 laborers to build the wall. So as not to interfere with the important work of farming, Cho Chon limited all work on the project to just forty-nine days in the early spring of 1396, and another period of forty-nine days in the fall.

Workers from Hamgyong Province built the nine sections running from Pugak-san to the North Gate. The next nine sections between the North Gate and the Little East Gate were built by workers from Kangwon Province. The forty-one sections between the Little East Gate and the South Gate were built by laborers from Kyongsang Province. Workers from Cholla Province built the next fifteen sections from the South Gate to the West Gate. Finally, laborers from Pyongan Province built the remaining twenty-four sections from the West Gate to Pugak-san. King Taejo was so pleased with the results he remitted their taxes for three years. After building the base of the wall nearly twenty-feet wide, workmen faced the largely packed-earth wall core with heavy granite masonry. They built nine gates into the wall, each with its own name and each with a special significance:  the four Great Gates (East, West, North, and South), the four Little Gates (East, West, North, and South), and the Water Gate The Nine Gates of Seoul.

In the winter of 1395, King Taejo formally changed the name of his new capital from Hanyang-bu to Hansong-bu and issued an administrative decree that ordered there be no burials, no trees cut, no plants uprooted, and no earth or stones dug up within a radius of three miles from the city. When all was ready, Choson's new rulers transferred the seat of government from Kaesong to the city of Hansong-bu (modern Seoul) How 'Seoul' became Seoul, where the Yi dynasty fully established itself both internally and externally as the legitimate ruler of a sovereign state by 1397.

The creation of the Yi Dynasty capital at Hansong-bu in the Han River basin marked the beginning of the rich historic legacy born in and around Korea's great city of kings. Seoul became the ultimate goal of those who lived beyond its walls. Among the thousands of men and women who converged on Seoul in search of their destinies, there emerged the chief characters in a drama that spanned over five hundred years;  the kings and generals, the prophets and poets, the artists and zealots who wove the rich tapestry of Korean history.


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A Time of Transitions The Winds of Change