Joseon: Korea’s Confucian kingdom (2)
Great Philosophers and invading neighbors from Japan and Manchuria
This is the seventh of a 10-part series on Korean history from its mythological, ancient beginning until the present day. This project is sponsored by several companies and public agencies including Merck Korea, eBay Korea, Daewoo Securities and Korea Post. ― ED.
By Kim Tae-gyu and Kevin N. Cawley
The Joseon Kingdom was firmly established around a hundred years after its foundation by Yi Seong-gye in 1392. The dynasty was shaped by Confucianism, a philosophy that also made a significant contribution to Korea’s strong cultural identity.
The 16th century saw the pinnacle of Neo-Confucian philosophy, an advanced interpretation of original Confucianism with very complicated metaphysical ideas. This was spearheaded by two great philosophers, Yi Hwang and Yi I, neither related to the founder
Yi, nor to each other.
The Confucian system required its kings to rule the country by following strict principles carefully outlined in the kingdom’s official book of “National Codes” completed by King Seongjong.
Despite their demanding schedules, the kings themselves attended special lectures on Confucian thought from top scholars throughout their lives.
When kings came up with orders or policies that did not correspond to the official codes and Confucian philosophy, they faced strong criticism, not only from senior officials, but also from retired bureaucrats and grassroots scholars across the country.
The Joseon Kingdom by no means lacked brave intellectuals who risked their lives and those of their family members by criticizing the wrongdoings or mistakes of the almighty rulers.
This system attempted to bring checks and balances between the powers of the king on the one hand, and bureaucrats on the other. Thus, it aimed to prevent autocracy, despite the monarchical father-to-son power transfer that tended to produce such a system.
In the 15th century, Korea chalked up substantial advances in science and technologies, in particular under such pragmatic leaders such as King Sejong the Great, who created the country’s own alphabet Hangeul as discussed previously in this series.
Under his stewardship farming technology and other science advanced greatly. Rain gauges, water clocks, armillary spheres and sundials were developed by Joseon scientists, rivaling those in China and the West.
In the 16th century, however, the Joseon Kingdom failed to continue the initiative since the nation’s aristocracy moved its priority from pragmatic solutions to Confucian ideals.
Thereafter, the kingdom was shaped by a political system that was dominated by such principles, and afflicted by disputes over its applications which led to rival factions at the royal court. Intellectually, this era is comparable to the “Medieval synthesis” of the West in the Dark Ages.
Unlike the Medieval synthesis, which was theistic and pivoted around Christianity, the predominant world view of the Joseon Kingdom, which can be dubbed ``the Confucian synthesis,’’ was a secular one. This secular philosophy guided politics, administration and especially family issues ― even how one dressed and wore one’s hair.
While Western societies entered into a time of scientific optimism, the Age of Reason, and The Enlightenment, from the 17th century onwards, the elite group of Joseon held firmly to Confucian rules and rites, shaping how one thought and lived, and even how one mourned the dead.
However, the 16th century also produced two of Korea’s greatest philosophers who laid the philosophical groundwork for Korea’s Confucian synthesis ― Yi Hwang, known by his penname Toegye, and Yi I, known by the penname Yulgok.
Two great philosophers
Both Toegye and his younger contemporary Yulgok were born, lived and died during the 16th century. The two, recognized as child prodigies, passed the civil service exams with top honors and worked for the government in various positions as well as producing great philosophical works.
They also share one other thing in common _ they both appear on South Korean bank notes. Toegye appears on the 1,000 won note and Yulgok on the 5,000 won note. Interestingly, the latter’s mother Shin Saimdang, a famous artist and poet herself and revered as a model for Confucian women, appears on the 50,000 won note.
Their philosophical stances, though both Neo-Confucian, differed quite substantially.
Toegye advanced the idea that a great underlying principle, known as “I” (pronounced like the letter “e”), was behind the universe and that all things in the universe reflected this one great “principle,” and that this principle came before concrete materialism, known as “ki.”
Yulgok, being maybe more pragmatic, taught that “ki” came before any principle, therefore rooting his philosophy in a more materialistic than metaphysical realm.
These different interpretations led to a great philosophical debate, known as the i-ki Debate, and was taken up by many philosophers throughout the entire Joseon Kingdom and even by some today.
Toegye’s teachings have been compared to those of Plato and Yulgok’s have been compared with those of Aristotle because Plato stressed hidden virtues in the metaphysical realm over the physical world while Aristotle placed more significance on the real world.
It is also understood that in 1583, just a year ahead of his death, Yulgok warned the central government to build up its military defenses but this request went unheeded. In less than 10 years Korea was invaded by Japan
Japanese invasion: 7-year war
At the end of the 16th century, the country twice faced invasions from Japan, first in 1592 and again in1597.
Hideyoshi Toyotomi unified Japan in the late 16th century and soon set about invading Joseon with the hope that he would also extend his power into China during its Ming Dynasty.
In the early stages, a 200,000-strong army of invaders overwhelmed the defenders on land because they were armed with muskets, or old-style rifles, while the Koreans fought with traditional weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and swords.
As the Japanese infantry swept away the Joseon forces on its way to Hanyang (nowadays Seoul), King Seonjo was forced to give up the capital to flee northward, less than one month after the start of the war.
Later in 1592, the Japanese controlled a great part of the Korean Peninsula.
However, things were totally different when it came to naval matters. Korea’s revered naval genius, Admiral Yi Sun-sin, led the Joseon Navy to defeat Japan using advanced metal clad ships, known as “turtle ships,” which also had cannons.
Cannons were not so effective on land but they were formidable at sea because they could demolish ships and their crews, leading to glorious victories on the Joseon side.
The result: Japanese forces failed to get proper numbers of reinforcements and food.
Worse, from the perspective of the raiders, the Ming Dynasty stepped up in late 1592 to help Joseon, sending large numbers of troops to suppress the Japanese across the Korean Peninsula.
Around a year after their campaign had begun, the aggressors retreated to the southern area of Joseon where negotiations for a truce continued for some three years.
In 1597, the Japanese forces attempted to attack Joseon once again, but that time around Joseon was ready, so they failed to make serious progress. By the fall of 1598, Toyotomi was dead, and soon the Japanese were recalled from Korea and the war was over.
Admiral Yi did not intend to let the invaders leave the country alive and carried out surprise attacks on hundreds of vessels.
Eventually, up to 80 percent of some 500 ships were destroyed but in the final naval battle, Yi was shot in the chest and died. Admiral Yi can be considered the “Lord Nelson of the East.” The British naval hero was responsible for many naval victories during the Napoleonic Wars.
An interesting fact is that a large number of the Japanese troops were Catholics, sent there by Toyotomi to get them off Japanese soil where they would soon be persecuted.
When they returned to Japan, many of their Korean prisoners converted to Catholicism, making them the earliest Korean converts to Catholicism.
More Invasions ― The Manchus
Even though Joseon managed to defeat and repel the Japanese, the seven-year warfare weighed greatly on the country ― many palaces and temples were burnt down, many citizens were murdered, and the financial burdens on the state were great.
It also affected the Ming Dynasty whose great expenditure for its intervention weakened the country, leading to the rise of the Qing Dynasty in Manchuria in the early 1600s.
Well aware of the dire situation of his country, King Gwanghaegun, being a realist, attempted to restore stability. While hoping to maintain friendly relations with the Ming who requested aid against the Manchu, which would become the Qing Dynasty later, he staged token efforts, preferring to focus his attention on the needs of Korea. At the same time he maintained diplomatic ties with the Manchus.
His political opponents took issue with his diplomatic stances and took steps to dethrone him and install pro-Ming King Injo in 1623, rejecting any alliances with the Manchurians.
Hong Taiji, the first emperor of the Qing Dynasty, ordered the first invasion in 1627 and while they had some success and a peace treaty was signed, Joseon did not succumb to the Manchurians.
However, Hong himself led a 120,000-plus strong army in December 1637 and King Injo took refuge at a nearby mountain fortress, which was instantly besieged by the invaders.
Suffering from lack of food and ammunition, King Injo surrendered in January 1638 and was forced to swallow his pride by bowing to Hong three times.
As the Qing Dynasty took control of China, it replaced the Ming Dynasty as the centerpiece of a Sino-centric tributary system.
Dr. Kevin N. Cawley is currently the Director of the Irish Institute of Korean Studies at University College Cork (UCC), Ireland ― the only institute in Ireland dedicated to promoting Korean studies ― funded by the Academy of Korean Studies, South Korea. He was previously a Gyujanggak Fellow at Seoul National University.
Yi Seong-gye (Taejo of Joseon, reign: 1392~1398):
The founder of the Joseon Kingdom
King Seongjong (1457-1494):
The ninth king of the Joseon Kingdom who is evaluated to have completed the groundwork of the then fledgling regime
Hideyoshi Toyotomi (1536 or 1537-1598):
A Japanese warrior and general who unified Japan and invaded Joseon
King Sejong the Great (1397-1450):
The fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty who is famous for having created the country’s own alphabet system of Hangeul
A historical name for a large region in Northeast Asia
Ming Dynasty (1368~1644):
The ruling dynasty of China that was established in the wake of the collapse of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.
Present-day Seoul, the capital of South Korea
Yi Hwang (1501-1570):
A prominent Confucian scholar of the Joseon Kingdom
Yi I (1536-1584):
An outstanding Confucian scholar of the Joseon Kingdom
Shin Saimdang (1504-1551):
A female artist and poet, who is also famous as the mother of Confucian elite Yi I
King Seonjo (1552-1608):
The 14th king of the Joseon Kingdom who suffered attacks of Japan during his reign
Yi Sun-sin (1545-1598):
A navy general who defeated Japanese invaders during the seven-year war of the Joseon Kingdom
The iron-clad battle ships developed by Admiral Yi Sun-sin, which played a big role in Joseon’s fights against Japanese invaders during the seven-year war between the two countries
Qing Dynasty (1644-1912):
The last dynasty of China, which started in Manchuria and eventually took the mainland China
King Gwanghaegun (1574-1641):
The 15th king of the Joseon Kingdom who was disposed in a coup
King Injo (1595-1649):
The 16th king of the Joseon Kingdom who ruled during both the first and second Manchu invasions