3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
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Ch 8 - Choson


The Winds of Change

The designation of King Taejo's successor set off a bloody fratricidal fight for the throne. Yi Song-gye's oldest son, Yi Pang-won eventually took the crown as King Taejong, a strong-willed and active monarch who had a long and constructive reign dedicated to completing his father's administrative reforms. Taejong established Seoul as the permanent political and cultural center of Choson.

Yi Song-gye had two principal wives during his life:  a woman from the Han clan who bore him six sons before she died, and Queen Kang Sindok, who later gave him two sons. At the age of sixty-three, King Taejo turned to the urgent matter of naming his successor. Queen Kang schemed to bypass the older princes from the king's first marriage and insisted on having her second son, Pang-sok, the youngest of Taejo's eight sons, designated crown prince. He wanted to designate her older son as Crown Prince, but after encountering strong opposition from among his Merit Subjects, he eventually agreed on Prince Yi Pang-sok. With the concurrence of his Privy Council, he selected the young prince as his successor to the Phoenix Throne. The very idea that a Kang prince would be chosen over a Han prince angered Taejo's six sons from his first queen and particularly enraged Yi Pang-sok's half-brother, Prince Pang-won, an intelligent man who ably served his father during the founding of the Yi dynasty.

King Taejo's wife died in the winter of 1397, an event that left the aging king heartsick. He had her buried within the city walls, thereby breaking his own rule against burials within the capital. Rumors circulated throughout Kyongbok Palace during the spring and summer of 1398, that the Han princes would be disregarded in favor of the two Kang princes. Prince Pang-won did not take these rumors lightly. Within two months of Crown Prince Yi Pang-sok's appointment, Pang-won and another of his brothers, Pang-bon, gathered the support of several high court ministers and took matters into their own hands.

Claiming they had uncovered a plot against them, the two men triggered a period of bloody fratricidal fighting among the Han and Kang princes and their supporters in Seoul. The two brothers assembled their private armed forces and broke into the private residence of Chong To-jon, the Earl of Ponghwa, a close adviser to Taejo and a counselor to Prince Yi Pang-sok. The attackers brutally murdered Chong, the man commissioned to plan much of Seoul's construction. Nam Un, the Lord of Sonsong, along with a number of Merit Subjects and others who had accepted Taejo's decision to appoint Yi Pang-sok as Crown Prince were also killed in the attack. In the melee that followed, armed men ran down Prince Pang-sok and his brother Pang-gan and killed them on a road in Kaesong.

In failing health and disgusted by the behavior of his son, King Taejo abdicated the throne in September 1398. Before he departed however, he named the unambitious Yi Pang-gwa as the new Crown Prince. Prince Pang-won refused to put himself forward as the next Crown Prince, thereby avoiding an admission of his own guilt, and deferred to the appointment of his younger brother as heir to the throne. Taejo quietly left the capital with a small staff of retainers and spent the remaining days of his life traveling about the country, often staying for extended periods in the northeast, the land of his youth. Shortly after Crown Prince Pang-gwa ascended the throne as King Chongjong in 1398, court geomancers convinced him that some natural disaster had occurred in Seoul during the reign of his father and that it had become an unlucky place. Almost immediately, Chongjong moved the capital from Seoul back to Kaesong, motivated as much by a strong desire to escape the influence of his ambitious brother Pang-won as by the geomancer's advice.

Shortly after his arrival on the Choson throne, Chongjong created a new merit roster. He enrolled twenty-nine men as Merit Subjects and gave them land, slaves and other benefits equal to those given Taejo's Merit Subjects. Early in Chongjong's reign however, some of these new Merit Subjects concluded they had not been given enough. In 1400, a group of Chongjong's Merit Subjects, led by Yi Pang-won's brother, Prince Yi Pang-han, rose in armed insurrection. After a series of fierce and bloody street fights with Pang-han's personal retainers, Prince Pang-won's troops quickly suppressed the abortive coup. Pang-han was captured and exiled to a residence provided for him in Kaesong, where he lived out the remaining nineteen years of his life in obscurity. This time, the pretentious Prince Pang-won had no reservations about taking power and shrewdly maneuvered to have himself designated Crown Prince. Secure in his own power, he persuaded his younger brother Pang-gwa to abdicate after a reign of less than a year.

Members of the royal household, merit subjects and other members of the Choson literati still retained well-armed personal retinues, a holdover from the military's extreme disarray during the late Koryo period. King Taejo's assignment of a large number of bodyguards to each member of the royal family did much to prompt the deadly infighting for the throne. Ever since the coronation of his father, King Taejo, Yi Pang-won had been the de facto center of power in the Choson government and the final arbiter of national affairs. As heir apparent, he wisely realized that even though he had used his own bodyguards to achieve power, their continued existence would eventually lead to further confrontations that would weaken the new dynasty. After eliminating all other rivals to the throne, Yi Pang-won took ascended the Phoenix Throne as King Taejong in 1400. Almost immediately, he resolutely decreed that all private armed retainers of the royal household and powerful government ministers were illegal. He abolished the practice of building private armies and reassigned all fighting men to the Three Armies Headquarters, an unsuccessful attempt by Taejo to establish an organization to assume control over Choson's military apparatus.

Taejo's capital, destined to become a city of heroic deeds and tragedy, had passed into other hands. For the first time since the inception of the Yi dynasty, Ming China granted full recognition to the king of Choson by providing Yi Pang-won with the imperial golden seal and royal patent, the traditional symbols of legitimacy. Yi Pang-won rewarded forty-seven of his leading supporters by enrolling them as Merit Subjects. A strong-willed and active monarch, King Taejong settled down for a long and constructive reign dedicated to completing the administrative reforms begun by his father.

The former dictators of Koryo effectively used a number of government organizations to maintain their power. Even the bureaucrats frequently used these same offices to exercise what amounted to almost independent power. King Taejong transformed the government's bureaucratic organization and eliminated those organizations. He converted the former Privy Council into a supreme administrative organization known as the Uijongbu, a Chinese-style, seven-member State Council. The state councilors decided on national policies which would have to be approved by the king and each man had the authority to approach the throne directly. Beneath the Uijongbu, Taejong established six executive ministries, or boards, Yukcho, responsible for national administration:  the Board of Personnel, Ijo, Board of Taxation, Hojo, Board of Rites, Yejo, Board of War, Pyongjo, Board of Punishments, Hyongjo, and the Board of Works, Kongjo.

In addition, to keep watch over government operations, Taejong established three special offices to ensure his government ran smoothly:  the Office of Special Counselors (OSC), Hongmun-gwan, the Office of the Censor-General (OCG), Saganwon, and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), Sahonbu. King Taejong gradually stripped away or absorbed the once substantial power of Merit Subjects as he created a more centralized bureaucracy in a reorganized government. Governing powers were centralized to the king's royal authority, a transformation that made royal authority paramount in Choson.

To administer the country, Choson was divided into eight provinces:  Hamgyong, Pyongan, Hwanghae, Kyonnggi, Kangwon, Ch'ungch'ong, Kyongsang and Cholla. Each province was administered by a government-appointed governor, kwanch'alsa. Within each province were the smaller administrative districts of great county, county, special capital, special city, city/island, and town, each governed by a local magistrate.

A number of King Taejong's reforms left a lasting mark on the face of Choson government and society. In 1401, the first year of his reign, Taejong introduced the first paper currency seen in Korea, money made from the bark of the mulberry tree. The government accelerated its shipbuilding program the following year, which led to a revitalization of the maritime grain transportation system. In 1403, the government established a print type-casting foundry which began to produce a number of copper metal font types. This led to an entirely new industry in Choson;  reprinting Chinese texts for export to Japan and to meet the demands of Choson scholars and students. Surplus land for official positions had become a scarce commodity in Choson and trade with Japan had increased the interest in Buddhist texts, images, and monastery bells for export. The increased interest in publishing went hand in hand with the Yi government's desire to foster the study of Confucianism and accelerate the acceptance of Confucian morality.

Buddhism represented a powerful social force in Koryo in the kingdom's later years. The vast tracts of land held by Buddhist monasteries gave the Buddhists control over a significant percentage of the national economy. In addition, they wielded considerable political power at the royal court and had become the de facto local rulers in the provinces. King Taejo was aware of the growing potential for trouble inherent in a large Buddhist population and banned the founding of any new Buddhist monasteries. He also instituted a registration system to prevent the number of Buddhist monks from increasing.

Once Yi Song-gye and his Confucianist supporters took power, the new ruling elite considered Buddhism no longer acceptable. Among the Confucian literati moving up in the ranks of government, Chinese scholar Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucian teachings governed family relationships and many Buddhist social rituals were held in accordance with Confucianism. Choson's new aristocracy increasingly adopted the view that Buddhism was in fact destroying Choson society. The Buddhists represented a strong source of opposition not only to forming a centralized government, but to land reforms based on the public ownership of land. The Confucian literati considered a centralized government vital in order for them to maintain their position and saw Buddhism as an evil to which everyone, the king in particular, should be alert. This clash of views marked the beginnings of a major collision between Buddhism and Confucianism, a conflict that triggered important social and cultural changes in Choson.

King Taejong was a military-minded monarch thoroughly steeped in the teachings and traditions of Zhu Xi's Neo-Confucian philosophy. He banned the long-popular texts on divination and geomancy. His strong moral and philosophical conflict with the Buddhists earned him sympathetic support from the growing anti-Buddhist intellectual climate of the period. The Zhu Xi-oriented bureaucratic elite not only withdrew their patronage from Buddhism, they actually launched strong attacks against it. King Taejong moved against the Buddhists by expropriating, redistributing and taxing their monasteries and vast tracts of temple land. The royal court terminated its subsidies for Buddhism and issued a royal decree that strictly limited the number of temples and monks, as well as the number of slaves they could hold. Once the Buddhist monasteries lost their status as protectors of the state, their wealth and property became a ripe target for reform. By the end of 1406, Taejong's reforms had closed or eliminated all but 242 Buddhist temples in Choson, dealing this ancient religion a blow of such magnitude that it could never recover.

King Taejong continued a task begun in the last years of Koryo to compile and publish law books to further the rationalize the legal system and the government's institutional structures. Many criminal and civil law reforms occurred under the paramountcy of the throne. Taejong halted excessive litigation by royal decree and established new organs to administer criminal law. He provided a rather charming touch to his legal reforms by setting up a large drum just outside the gate to the Ch'angdok Palace. If anyone held a grievance that he felt could not be settled through the regular courts, that person could come directly to the palace and beat this drum. King Taejong would then personally hear the man's case.

Though headquartered in Kaesong, King Taejong continued the massive construction projects in the capital of Seoul. In October 1404, Pak Chach'un, Minister of the Board of Works, began building the capital's essential palaces and government offices on either side of Sejong-no, the broad avenue leading south from the Kyongbok Palace. An estimated 118,000 men labored amid the hills and mountains around Seoul to construct the government buildings for the Six Boards under the State Council. On the east side of the road sat the civil departments of Personnel, Finance and Census, and Diplomacy and Education. Across Sejong-no sat buildings housing the military departments of War, Law and Justice, and Construction and Engineering.

Near each of the city's principal gates, Pak Chach'un's laborers built government-sponsored inns to house visiting foreign envoys from China, Japan and Manchuria. To make access to the central government easy for its guests, the roads leading from each of these gates intersected just short of the main gate to Kyongbok Palace. Jurchen envoys stayed just inside the East Gate at the Inn of Northern Peace, a location that also provided the maximum possible separation from the Chinese embassies staying at the Inn of Great Peace, just inside the South Gate.

The layout and construction of Seoul reflected a city built primarily for the government and its officials, a city dominated by walled palaces, government buildings, shrines, and the walled mansions of the literati. With the exception of the two-story palace buildings, the multi-storied pagodas in the palace gardens, and the two-level watch towers built over the principal palace and city gates, early Seoul was a city of single-story buildings. Nearly half of the homes in the city had tiled-roofs, while the remainder were the thatched-roof residences of the masses of people who worked to support officialdom. In 1405, with a great deal of construction still underway, King Taejong moved the capital of Choson from Kaesong back to Seoul. He moved into the royal apartments of Ch'angdok Palace, the Palace of Heavenly Virtue, smaller in scale and much inferior in architectural detail to the Kyongbok Palace. This time the move was permanent, and Seoul remained the political and cultural center of Choson throughout the reign of the Yi dynasty.

After gaining firm control of the kingdom, Taejong set out to make peace with his aged father and sent messengers to him in the village of Hamgyong. Sadly, Yi Song-gye was in no mood to be forgiving and the old patriarch's retainers killed each of his son's messengers, one by one. In a last attempt to reach his father, Taejong sent the priest Muhak, who knew the old man well and had no fear of him. Muhak managed to calm Yi Song-gye and convinced him to meet with his son in the village of Uijong-bu, northeast of Seoul. When the two men met face to face, Yi Song-gye flew into a rage at the sight of his son. Drawing the seals of state from his sleeve and throwing them in his son's face, he bellowed, "Take them, you rascal, since that is what you want!" Embittered by the meeting, Yi Song-gye retired to his childhood home in Hamgyong near Hamhung, where he spent his remaining years in self-imposed exile. It was the last time the two men saw each other. When the founder of the Yi dynasty died in 1408, at the age of seventy-four, his body was returned to the valley of the Choson capital, where he was laid to rest in the Konwon-nung tomb, located about eight miles beyond Seoul's East Gate.

 

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Hansong-bu, Sorabol, So-ul, Seoul Status is Everything