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HIST 218 - Chapter Three: Choson Korea
HIST 218 - Chapter Three: Choson Korea

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McGill University
HIST 218
Gavin Walker

Chapter Three: Choson Korea (1392-1910) − longest-lasting regime in East Asia − partially colonized under Han; repelled attempts by Sui and Tang − after unification in 668 CE, Korea maintained autonomous state − however, respected Chinese civilization; pursued policy of “loyal submission” to the Chinese emperor − Choson Korea developed own language, literature, art, social structure, economy, food, and folk religion − studied Chinese models and adapted Chinese patterns for its higher culture, such as Confucian philosophy, written Chinese, lunar calendar, herbal medicine, and clothing − 'Small Tradition' = local; 'Great Tradition' = imported from China Choson Dynasty: Foundations − replaced Koryo, medieval kingdom subject to Mongol domination and suffering from internal corruption − wealth and power concentrated in aristocracy (which often had ties with mongols) and Buddhist religious establishment − aristocracy paid no taxes, and ownership of slaves also cut number of active taxpayers − call for reforms in Korea coincided with rise of Ming and fall of Mongols; deprived elite of Mongol support − in 1392, reform faction overthrew Koryo ruling house; proclaimed new state of Choson − King Taejo (1335-1408) − new Choson dynasty continued practice of submission to China, which was rewarded by Ming − “by early fifteenth century Sino-Korean relations were on firm footing” − adopted Ming criminal code in attempt to institutionalize Confucian ethics − royals subject to Chinese-style lectures − also set up censorate to review/criticize officials, like China − two branches of government, civil and military, with the former exceeding the latter in prestige − as in China, civil service = most prestigious profession − as in China, families invested much in qualifying examinations and their studies − was even more limited in reality than in China − “it appears that Korea's landed aristocracy found ways to protect itself despite the reform impetus of the early Choson period” Enlightened Reign of King Sejong (1418-1450) − Choson kings originally promoted Neo-Confucianism − they wanted to prevent the inflated influence of Buddhism on the Koryo court − one result was a moral text on which to base judgments − Confucianism thus led to emphasis on learning − it was under Sejong's reign that Korean alphabet han'gul was invented Choson Dynasty Society − elite = yangban; beloved to the civil or military branches of government − also enjoyed material privileges based on land ownership, as official salaries paid in the form of land grants, and income was often invested in additional land − this elite class was self-perpetuating, and not fluid − yangban also included merit subjects, who were rewarded for their loyalty by the king − these merit subjects were given land and high offices without needing pass examinations − this fast track to power was often resented by 'ordinary' yangban − a third group included those with exceptional talent who could win the favour and 'shade' of a yangban − in theory, Choson Korea had social structure similar to China: yangban > farmers > artisans > 'lowborn' (slaves, people doing distasteful work like butchers) − slavery much higher here than in China − embodied male privilege Problem of Legitimacy − when Sejong died, his son Munjong reigned for only two years before also passing on − his young son was next in line, but the throne was usurped by his uncle, King Sejo − this was regarded as a crime by many, and a trans-generational rivalry between the lineages of the two brothers, Munjong and Sejo, began − this is coupled with the fact that legitimacy has always been a concern sine the founding of Choson Korea − this is also evidence of the weakness of the position of monarch in Korea compared with the emperor in China − Sejo attempted to bolster support by packing court with his own merit subjects, by making it
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