The Neo-Confucian Foundation of The Chosŏn Kingdom


The Portrait of An Hyang,
Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Written by Mark Peterson
Professor of Korean Studies
Brigham Young University

When Yi Sŏngkye set out to found a new dynasty, he did one absolutely remarkable thing. Rather than turning to other military men for support, he turned to civilians, specifically Neo-Confucian scholar-officials as the backbone of his dynasty. From the outset, he spoke of setting up a dynasty that would last five hundred years. It lasted 518.

How could he even dream of successfully setting up a five hundred-year dynasty? He could see the strength of the previous dynasty that lasted nearly five hundred years, Koryŏ (918-1392 = 476 years). He knew the history of the Koryŏ dynasty that had suffered through a military take-over that nearly toppled the dynasty. He knew, and apparently believed, that civilian rule was more stable than military rule as well as the Confucian dogma that put the military in a subordinate position to the civilian. Thus, he turned to the Neo-Confucian scholars to support his new dynasty.

Chosŏn Scholars

The founders of the Chosŏn were legendary, all famous Confucian scholars — Chŏng To-chŏn, Kwŏn Kŭn, Yi Saek, and a handful of others are known in Korean history. But there was one omission — Chŏng Mong-ju. He refused to betray the Koryŏ king, saying that if he was to be true to Confucian concepts, he must be loyal to the king above all. So they killed him and set up the new dynasty.

Chŏng Mong-ju died in 1392 but lives on in the memory of those who know his famous poem, a sijo, sometimes titled “A Song of Loyalty.” He was a Confucian scholar-official who held significant office in the court, and when asked to join the group that was going to set up the new dynasty, in spite of all the reasons to join in the new enterprise, in spite of the corruption and problems attending the old government, Chŏng chose to remain loyal to the Koryŏ court. The valor of that act, defiantly loyal at the cost of his own life, has ever enshrined him in the minds of later Koreans as an example to be praised and remembered.

Whether he actually wrote the poem for which he is remembered for, we may not know, but it is attributed to him and the poem is memorized by all Koreans as school children. It is a typical sijo in its structure, three lines, with four segments in each line.

Though I die, and die again; though I die one hundred deaths;
Long after my bones have turned to dust; whether I am reincarnated or not;
My one red heart, forever and always loyal to my lord, will never fade away.

The poem has two companion pieces — one supposedly written by Yi Bangwŏn, the son of Yi Sŏngkye who assisted with the establishment of the dynasty, who is challenging Chŏng to leave his principles behind and join in establishing the new dynasty. The other was written by Chŏng’s mother warning him of the perils of politics, especially at the time dynastic change.

Yi Bangwŏn’s sijo:

What does it matter? Whether it’s this way or that?
Consider the roots of the arrowroot tree, how they are so intertwined.
We could be like that, entwined around each other for 500 years.

Chŏng Mong-ju’s mother:

My dear baby, pure white heron! Don’t go down and play with the crows.
In their blackness they will envy the purity of your clean — whiteness.
I fear that they will harm the body that you have so carefully washed in the stream.

Eighteen Koreans have been enshrined in the Sŏnggyun’gwan, the Confucian Academy. Their spirit tablets are kept there, and in every country Confucian school together with Confucius, his four disciples and the sixteen Chinese sages. Among the eighteen Korean sages are both Chŏng Mong-ju, and one of his rivals, Chŏng To-chŏn. It’s interesting that Chŏng Mong-ju was enshrined for his loyalty — to the Koryŏ king, and his refusal to serve the upstart Chosŏn king. Yet, Chŏng To-chŏn was enshrined for supporting the new king.

Indeed, the new dynasty was worthy of Confucian ideals. Yi Sŏngkye, later known as King T’aejo, relied on Confucian scholar/officials, such as Chŏng To-chŏn to set up his long-lived dynasty. Rather than relying on military men, like himself, Yi knew that civilian authority would be more stable. The new dynasty did everything in a Confucian way, and this meant copying Chinese institutions such as government organization, state rituals, and reliance on the examinations as a vehicle for recruitment to the bureaucracy.

Carrying out ancestor ceremonies became not only the hallmark of a government official, but a requirement of such officials. In the early Chosŏn period, there were some who did not want to spend the effort or resources on ceremonies to dead ancestors, however soon, high officials did not avoid the practice; they carried out the ceremonies — not because they were required to do so, but because it reaffirmed their status as a member of the aristocracy. Only the elite could afford to carry out the ceremonies, and it became a badge of elite status to do so. And rather than being a burden, as some had once seen it, it became the goal of the lower elite, to emulate the great families.


As the dynasty progressed, it became more and more Confucian, that is to say, more concerned with orthodox Neo-Confucian ideology and practice. For example, the sixteenth century saw the great debates over Neo-Confucian dogma. Yi Toegye (Yi Hwang 1501 - 1570) and Yi Yulgok (Yi I, 1536 - 1584). One measure of the adoption of Neo-Confucianism is the law against multiple wives — a practice that was common in the Koryŏ period. Although the new law was decreed in the early Chosŏn period, by T’aejong in 1413, there were those who tried to continue the former practice as late as 1476. Let’s look at the case of Hwang Hyowŏn.

Hwang was a high government official in the court of King Sŏngjong (r. 1469 - 1494). Hwang was much older than the king, and had been an official with extraordinary power for some time. He first claimed that his second wife was of yangban status and was not a secondary wife. Furthermore, her children should not be treated as sŏja, who were restricted in taking the all-important exam and in serving in the government. He seemed to get away with the special treatment he accorded the second wife, but his luck ran out when he took a third wife, and again, tried claiming that she was a yangban woman and should therefore not be treated as a secondary wife, and her children should not be treated as sŏja. The third wife’s claim to yangban status was an interesting issue. She was certainly born to a yangban family, but she was the daughter of one of the supporters of the ill-fated King Danjong who was exiled and killed by King Sejo, who then either executed, banished, or demoted those who were seen as supporters of Danjong. Hwang’s third wife had been demoted to slave status, and was assigned to Hwang as a slave.

Hwang argued that he never treated her as a slave, and when he took her as a wife, he restored her original yangban status. The court raised the issue several times but the king took the side of his senior official repeatedly. Finally, when Hwang died, the issue was put to rest for a while.

The issue surfaced a few years later when Hwang’s grandson sought a position in the government. The Censorate objected, saying he was born of a secondary wife, and was therefore sŏja, and not eligible to serve. The king (at this point, Chungjong r. 1506 - 1544) supported Hwang’s grandson and authorized the appointment.

Subsequently, Hwang’s son-in-law, the man who married Hwang’s daughter of questionable status, became entangled in a plot allegedly to take over the throne, and was executed. And with him, his two sons, including the one who had secured an appointment only by the support of the king, were also executed.

The net result was this proved to be the last time anyone tried to claim more than one legitimate wife. Secondary wives of lower social status, either commoner or slave, were still commonplace, but no longer were women of yangban status acceptable as secondary wives, and no longer were second wives accepted. A man could have a second wife only if the first wife were deceased.

The Confucianization of the court took place in the early years of the dynasty with major steps taken in succession by King T’aejo, then King T’aejong, and King Sejong. The Confucianization of marriage took well into the sixteenth century. The next milestone was the Confucianization of the family, the lineage, and the chesa — ancestor ceremonies — which did not take place until the late seventeenth century. When Confucianism came into Korea as early as the late Three Kingdoms period, it came with accommodations – Korean-style Confucianism. For example, the Confucian texts speak of the eldest son's role in carrying out the ceremonies, but Korea had an equal-division of inheritance as a social custom. Consequently, this compromise with the orthodox Confucian tradition meant a cognitive disjunction with the classic texts – the scriptures. Not only did early Chosŏn Koreans practice equal divisions of inheritance for sons and daughters, daughters took their turns in hosting the all-important ancestor ceremonies — this in direct contradiction of the texts.

In the “Confucianization” of the late seventeenth century this was all corrected. No longer were daughters given inheritances, and non-eldest sons got very little, with the lion’s share going to the eldest son — nearly total primogeniture. And no longer could daughters host, or even participate in the ancestor ceremonies. Several documents of the late seventeenth century stated that no longer will the uncivilized practice of daughters participating in the ancestor ceremonies “in rotation” be allowed. And without the right to host the ceremonies, daughters were not qualified to receive an inheritance, at least that was the rationale written on the inheritance documents during the transition period. By the early eighteenth centuries the transformation was complete, so complete that they did not even prepare the inheritance documents that were so common theretofore.

New Marriage Pattern

This Confucianization changed the marriage patterns of the late Chosŏn period, and therefore, the settlement pattern of aristocratic villages. Prior to the transformation, a wife could move into her husband’s home, but just as easily, the husband might move into the wife’s house. The late Chosŏn pattern of marriage and residence at the husband’s house is a classic example of what anthropologists call “patrilocal marriage” in a society dominated by patrilineal lineage groups. And from time to time one sees a book that draws the conclusion that before the Confucianization process, Chosŏn Koreans practiced matrilocal marriage. Sometimes the word “matriarchy” is carelessly used. Nothing could be further from the truth. The conclusion that prior to patriarchy there was matriarchy is unsubstantiated by the facts. In fact the opposite of patrilineal social organization can be a number of alternatives in addition to matrilineality. Prior to the Confucianization and the adoption of patrilineality, the society was bilateral, with mother’s and father’s families playing equal roles in the newly wed life.  Marriage could be centered at the bride’s home or the groom’s home.

After the Confucianization, marriages were held at the husband’s home and the wife would move in – in modern Korean language this fact is found in the common expression meaning “to get married” — sijip kanda, a term used by women meaning “moving into the father-in-law’s house”. But interestingly, the language still preserves the practice that disappeared in the late seventeenth century, jangga kanda, meaning the groom moving into the bride’s house.

Once full Confucianization set in, the villages changed in structure. Prior to the late seventeenth century, villages, even aristocratic villages, were composed of households with multiple surnames. After the transformation, villages came to be comprised of only one surname; everyone in the village was related. Sometimes called single-surname villages, or consanguineous villages, such villages became the hallmark of yangban aristocratic culture. If you came from a single-surname village, you were known to be a yangban, and it became a source of pride to claim to come from such a village. If you came from a village with lots of surnames, you were known to be of commoner background. In reality, this practice is not very old — it is a reflection of the Confucianization of the late Chosŏn period.

Confucian influence grew in Korea. The earliest Confucians were found in the Three Kingdoms Period. Confucianism came to play a greater role in the Koryŏ period with the implementation of the examination system as a process for recruiting yangban aristocrats to serve in the government. The Chosŏn period saw even greater efforts to practice Confucian principles by implementing Confucian-inspired ceremonies at court and at the graveside. But it was not until the latter half of the Chosŏn period that the final stage of Confucianization took place, that of completely transforming the lineage, the family, the marriage practice, inheritance practice and finally, village settlement patterns.