Chŏng To-chŏn: Architect of a Kingdom (1342 – 1398)

Jeong Do-jeon

The Portrait of Chŏng-Tochŏn, Wikipedia

Written by Cody Thiel
Researcher at The Korea Society

Neo-Confucian Beginnings

Similar to how Americans consider James Madison the father of the American Constitution and one of the chief architects of the United States of America, many consider Chŏng To-chŏn to be the literal and figurative architect of the Chosŏn Kingdom (1392 1910 ce). 

The exact date of Chŏng To-chŏn’s birth is unknown; however, he was born into an aristocratic family in approximately 1340 ce. At an early age, Chŏng’s parents educated him in Confucianism. Chŏng studied hard and, with the help of good teachers, he eventually entered the National Confucian Academy (Sŏnggyun’gwan), the best school in the Koryŏ Kingdom. At the Sŏnggyun’gwan, he furthered his studies in Neo-Confucianism and eventually became a teacher at the Sŏnggyun’gwan in 1370. 

Exile and Return

His time as a teacher did not last long. For nearly a century, the Mongols had ruled most of Asia, but, in 1368, the newly established Ming dynasty in China overthrew the Mongol-led Yüan dynasty. Around the same time, the Mongols were expelled from Korea. Despite this overthrow, many people within the Koryŏ court were still loyal to the Mongols. Chŏng, who supported the Ming instead of the Mongols, was exiled in 1375.1 During his exile, he traveled throughout Korea. His travels helped him to better understand the current state of affairs in the Koryŏ Kingdom, especially the peasants’ hardships and struggles.

This time, in particular, was difficult for Koreans. Within the Koryŏ government, there was serious political infighting that sometimes resulted in the deaths of public officials. Many peasants and commoners felt oppressed by the aristocracy because of high taxes and harsh treatment. On top of it all, a rebel group of fighters called the Red Turbans invaded Korea and caused widespread damage. This turmoil made many lose faith in the Koryŏ king and his government.

Chŏng, like many others, felt the Koryŏ Kingdom had become so corrupt that only through the start of a new dynasty could the country become prosperous and powerful. In 1383, he visited General Yi Sŏngkye, who also believed that the time was ripe to overthrow Koryŏ. The two soon became close allies and friends.

After several years, the opportunity to overthrow the Koryŏ Kingdom came. In 1388, the Koryŏ court sent General Yi north to expel Ming troops stationed within the Korean border. The court saw the Ming as trespassing on Korean territory. Instead of attacking the Ming troops, General Yi turned his troops south towards the Koyrŏ capital, Kaesŏng. General Yi overthrew the government and declared himself king in 1392 — ushering in the Chosŏn Kingdom.

The Architect of Hanyang

Although most of the historical narratives during this time focus on General Yi, Chŏng was behind the scenes establishing government offices and drawing up blue prints for the new capital city. Because of Chŏng’s assistance during General Yi’s (now King T’aejo) rise to power, King T’aejo selected Chŏng to be Prime Minister of the newly founded Chosŏn Kingdom.

King T’aejo first assigned Chŏng to establish the new capital city, Hanyang (present-day Seoul). Chŏng, along with a team of architects and surveyors, traveled to Hanyang to draw up plans for the new city. Because of his Neo-Confucian background, Chŏng believed that if the city was built according to Neo-Confucian principles, then its very design would encourage harmony and order in the kingdom.

After laying the groundwork for Hanyang, Chŏng continued to guide the construction of the city. He surveyed and laid out the plans for the city gates and wall. He used Neo-Confucian principles to assign names to the separate gates and buildings. Among the most famous gates is Kwanghwa Gate (光化門) meaning — the king’s virtuous light shines on the nation.

Founding a Dynasty

During his work in Hanyang, Chŏng also established the basic laws, government, structure, and bureaucracy of the Chosŏn Kingdom. He believed that corrupt Koryŏ nobles and power-wielding Buddhist monasteries had been the cause for the fall of the Koryŏ Kingdom. He worked to limit their power and influence by increasing their taxes and limiting their number of slaves. This set the tone for the rest of the dynasty. The number of Buddhist monasteries in the cities dwindled and Buddhists eventually found refuge in secluded mountains as Confucian academies grew in number and strength. Even today, most of the largest Buddhist temples in Korea are in the mountains.

Chŏng strongly believed that Neo-Confucianism held the answers to the problems that the new Chosŏn Kingdom faced. He began by writing several treatises to establish laws based on Neo-Confucian principles. In Statutes for the Governance of Chosŏn (Chosŏn Kyŏnggukchŏn), Chŏng outlined “the source of sovereignty, the name of the dynasty, succession to the throne, introduction of members of the royal family, and the proper form of the royal pronouncements.”2 In other writings, he set forth tax laws, an examination system for the recruitment of government officials, the role of the king, and the role of the king’s ministers. Chŏng based most of his laws on the Chinese government and legal system, especially from what he found in Rites of Zhou and from the writings of Zhu Xi.

However, as much as he admired the ideal Neo-Confucian model, he also understood that practical laws that were tailored to match Korean conditions would be the most effective way to ensure order and to provide the necessities of life for the Korean people. He even proposed a policy that took away land from private landlords and distributed it in the form of land grants to peasants.3

Death and Legacy

In an attempt to keep order and ensure that all of the Chosŏn Kingdom’s inhabitants were taken care of, he strived to limit the power of the future kings. He knew the damage that one tyrant king could cause. Because of this belief, King T’aejo’s son, Yi Bangwŏn, assassinated Chŏng in 1398. Yi Bangwŏn would later become king and feared that Chŏng and his laws would limit his power.

Despite Chŏng’s early death and opposition from Yi Bangwŏn, Chŏng left a lasting legacy in Korea. His writings would later become the foundation for the Kyŏngguktaejŏn, the Chosŏn dynasty’s constitution.4 In an effort to become the ideal society, the Chosŏn Kingdom would eventually become the most Confucian state in the world — in large part because of the efforts of Chŏng To-jŏn, the architect of the Chosŏn Kingdom.

Bibliography

Chang, Chai-sik. “Chŏng Tojŏn: ‘Architect of the Yi Dynasty Government and Ideology,’” in The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Jahyun Kim Haboush, 59-88. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

“Chŏng Tochŏn,”Hanguk Minjokmunhwa Taepaekgwasajŏn, v. 19, 738-741. Seoul: Hanguk Chŏngsinmunhwa Yŏnguwŏn, 1997.

“Gyeongbokgung: English,” Seoul: Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, 2008.

Han, Yŏngu. Chŏng Tojŏn: WangjoŭiSŏlgaeja. Seoul: Chisiksanŏpsa, 2006.