The Mandate of Heaven

Sun, Moon and Five Peaks, Courtesy of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

The Mandate of Heaven

Whereas Medieval Europeans legitimized their ruling authority by the divine right of kings, Confucian societies used a similar concept called the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven indicated divine approval of a king’s right to rule. However, it differed from the divine right of kings in that Heaven’s endorsement depends upon the virtuous conduct of the ruler. In other words, the Mandate of Heaven gave divine ruling authority to kings that lived a moral life, administered justice, and protected the welfare of his people.

The concept of the Mandate of Heaven originated during the rise of the Zhou dynasty in China (1046 BCE – 256 BCE). After usurping the authority from the depraved rulers of the Shang Kingdom, the Zhou rulers, King Wu and his son, sought legitimacy from the people. As evidence, King Wu’s brother, the Duke of Zhou, told the people that the Shang kings had neglected them and had not governed by correct principles. Therefore, the Zhou rulers claimed that their ascendancy to power was proof that the Mandate of Heaven, or moral right to rule, had passed from the depraved Shang to the virtuous Zhou.

The End of the Koryŏ Kingdom

Following the Confucian concept of the dynastic cycle, the Koryŏ Kingdom (918 – 1392 CE) was nearing its end. Pressures, both foreign and domestic, sought to overthrow the kingdom. In these times of peril, a new leader arose. Claiming the Mandate of Heaven, the new king, Yi Sŏngkye, eventually established the Chosŏn Kingdom. His new dynasty would last over five hundred years and usher in Korea’s modern era.

In 1231 CE, the Mongol invasions of both China and the Korean Peninsula facilitated the Koryŏ Kingdom’s demise. In China, the Mongol leader Kublai Khan completed the invasion of China and established the ruling Yüan dynasty (1271 – 1368 CE). The Mongols also invaded Korea. This invasion and new political arrangement with the Mongols severely damaged the Korean economy through taxation and created pro- and anti-Mongol political factions within the Koryŏ court.

A century later in China, groups of rebels rose up against the ruling Mongols and established the Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 CE). The Ming eventually drove the Mongols out of central China. Although this effort by the Ming helped free Korea from the Mongols, many Koreans still felt loyal to the Yüan (Mongol) dynasty. The change in Chinese dynasties crystallized divisions between Koryo’s factions.

Moreover, as Mongol influence waned, the rule of law broke down within Korea itself. Corrupt landlords levied heavy taxes from the peasants and farmers. These oppressive taxes forced hundreds of peasants to leave their homes in search for a better life. Many of these peasants became outlaws and began creating disorder in parts of the kingdom.

In an effort to correct Koryŏ’s societal ills, King Kongmin (r. 1351 – 1374 CE) tried to regain the land taken by the Mongols by sending his armies against them. In order to show Korea’s independence, he removed pro-Mongol aristocrats and military officers from their positions of power. He also instituted land reforms to help the peasants. Although his efforts were somewhat successful, they were not enough to save the dynasty. Eventually, King Kongmin’s enemies assassinated him. The pro-Mongol faction used his death to their advantage and placed a puppet king on the throne in order to maintain power.

A New King Arises

During this tumultuous time, a promising Koryŏ general, Yi Sŏngkye, began to quickly rise to prominence in the military. General Yi had achieved distinction by repelling Japanese pirates from the coasts and pushing back foreign invaders on the Korean borders. Due to his prominence in 1388 CE, the anti-Ming (pro-Mongol) faction sent General Yi to expel a contingent of Ming troops stationed on the northern part of the Korean Peninsula. General Yi, who had been following current events in China, knew that the Ming dynasty was more powerful than Mongols were. He judged that if he attacked, then the Ming would likely invade Korea. Seeing the campaign as a potential disaster, General Yi turned his troops south towards the Koryŏ capital, Kaesŏng. Upon his arrival in Kaesŏng, General Yi toppled the government through a military coup and quickly eliminated rivals for power. In 1392 CE, he placed himself on the throne —ushering in the Chosŏn Kingdom.

In establishing the new Chosŏn Kingdom, General Yi Sŏngkye justified his usurpation of the Koryŏ throne by using the Mandate of Heaven. He, along with his supporters, claimed that toward the end of the Koryŏ dynasty (918 – 1392 CE), Koryŏ rulers had neglected important Confucian virtues. Their neglect, Yi claimed, was directly related to the Mongol invasion, the political turmoil, and the peasants’ suffering. These events evidenced that the Koryŏ rulers had lost the Mandate of Heaven. In the “Founding Edict,” Yi lists the reasons for the fall of the Koryŏ Kingdom and justifies his rise as king. The following reading is an excerpt of his proclamation on founding the new dynasty: