The King

Beginning in 1392 CE, the Yi family ruled Korea for a total of 518 years. In fact, many people have called the Chosŏn Kingdom the Yi dynasty. With over 500 years of history, the royal family represented the top of the Korean social hierarchy. The royal family lived in lavish palaces, presided over government matters, conducted ceremonies, and had their daily actions recorded.

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Kyŏnghoeru in Kyŏngbokkung, Courtesey of Natalee Newcombe

The Royal Palaces

The royal family lived in luxurious palaces in Hanyang, modern Seoul. The three main palaces included Kyŏngbok Palace, Ch’angdŏk Palace, and Dŏksu Palace. The main palace, Kyŏngbok Palace, was located at the heart of Hanyang and is where the Chosŏn kings lived for the first two hundred years of the dynasty.

The palaces served as both the center for government and a residence for the royal family. The king used the front sections of the palace as a place to gather large processions, conduct enthronement ceremonies, and welcome foreign envoys. In the main throne room and in buildings behind the main throne room, the king would meet with his officials to discuss state affairs and have the daily Royal Lecture with Confucian scholars. Through the royal lectures, the king studied Confucian texts and discussed the current political issues with them. The king was required to attend the royal lectures religiously to become a virtuous ruler by scholar-officials, otherwise, he was very criticized for the negligence. The king’s other duties were to perform all kinds of ceremonies including ancestor veneration ceremonies, as well as ceremonies to worship the earth gods in order to ensure a good harvest for the state.

In the back areas of the palace were the living quarters. The men and women of the royal family lived in separate areas of the palace because Confucian teachings specify the distinction between men and women. The king’s section of the palace was very regal and stately. The queen’s section, on the other hand, was very elegant with small gardens and graceful architecture. Servants and palace staff had their own quarters that were separate from the royal family.

The palaces also had elaborate gardens. In Ch’angdŏk Palace, the royal family spent much of their time in a beautiful garden with a forest behind the palace. The garden is still frequented by visitors today.

Daily Life

A typical day in the palace began early in the morning. Hundreds of servants, eunuchs, and slaves scurried in order to provide for the royal family’s every need. Throughout the day, the king met with government officials and discussed affairs of the kingdom. Two to three scribes followed him recording every word and deed. These journals reminded the king that a record of his actions, for good or for ill, would remain long after his death. This record survives today and is known as the Sillok. 

 Although the queen did not usually deal directly with government officials, she spent much of her day associating with other ladies of the court and ensuring that the palace affairs ran smoothly. However, some Chosŏn queens were very powerful. They exerted their influence by ruling through their sons.

 On special occasions throughout the year, the royal family and many of the central government officials ventured outside the palace in order to perform special ceremonies. These ceremonies attracted large processions that gathered at the palace and traveled to various shrines. Some of the most important ceremonies were performed at the graves of the king’s ancestors. Chosŏn kings believed that showing respect for deceased kings helped to create order and harmony in the society.