In this post I will take a look at the kings of the Early Joseon period. First we meet warriors who helped found the new Joseon dynasty but fight amongst themselves over the throne. Then we move onto 32 successful and peaceful years under King Sejong. And finally there is instability in the monarchy again with sickness and young weak rulers opening the way for a coup d’état.. It’s a rocky start to the Joseon period with nine kings in just over 100 years!
King Taejo (r.1392 – 1398) King Jeongjong (r. 1398-1400) King Taejong (r.1400 – 1418); King Sejong (r.1418-1450); King Munjong (r.1450-1452); King Danjong (r.1452-1455); King Sejo (r.1455-1468); King Yejong (r.1468-69); King Seongjong (r.1469-1494)
SAGEUK DRAMAS: The Great Seer (SBS 2012); The Princess’ Man (KBS 2011); Deep Rooted Tree (SBS 2011); Queen Insu (jTBC 2011); The Great Sejong (KBS 2008); The King and I (SBS 2007);Tears of the Dragon (KBS1 1996-8);
I got all the information here from the following books and websites:
The Land of Scholars Two Thousand Years of Korean Confucianism by Kang Jae-eun
A Review of Korean History vol. 2 Joseon Era by Han Young Woo
Click into the Hermit Kingdom: Virtual Adventure into the Joseon Dynasty by Yang Sun-jin Great Korean Portraits by Cho Sun Mi (I wrote about this book here )
A Korean History for International Readers, the association of Korean history teachers
(and of course various online Wiki articles 😉 )
A NOTE ON THE KING’S TITLE
BTW I’m using the posthumous titles for the kings here most of the time. The family name of the ruling dynasty was Yi and the name of the first king of Joseon was Yi Seung-gye. He was given the title of King Taejo after he died (so that’s why we won’t catch him being called King Taejo to his face in any dramas!) But I’ll mostly just refer to him and the other kings by their posthumous titles just to make things easier.
Ji Jin hee as Yi Seung-gye – the future King Taejo. (The Great Seer, SBS 2012)
WARRIORS FORM THE NEW DYNASTY
King Taejo (r.1392 – 1398) King Jeongjong (r. 1398-1400) King Taejong (r. 1400 – 1418)
The early kings of Joseon were hardy military men who preferred hunting and sleeping outdoors to studying. (They had to be like that to overthrow the previous Goryeo dynasty!) But after King Taejo founded Joseon, the monarchy soon became unstable when his ambitious sons began to squabble over who should become his successor. (King Taejo had 8 sons altogether – 6 by his first queen and 2 by his second queen). Clearly the oldest son becomes king rule was not in place at this point, so a gruesome power struggle developed between the princes (known as the Strife of Princes).
In the end King Taejo couldn’t take it anymore. He must already have been pretty tired after taking over Goryeo and now he had to deal with his sons trying to kill each other too So he abdicated and became a Buddhist recluse while his sons continued to fight for power ..
YI SEONG GYE and JEONG DO JEON
Yi Seong Gye (King Taejo) the founder and first king of Joseon had been a general in the Goryeo army and he was known as a heroic military leader. He joined forces with a scholar who had been exiled during the Goryeo Dynasty – Jeong Do Jeon. They became a power couple bringing military and literati together.
King Taejo moved the capital to Hanyang (Seoul) and with Jeong Do Jeon made many reforms to strengthen the new dynasty including reforms to the bureaucratic, military, land, and rituals systems. Buddhism was suppressed in favour of Confucianism. (The founders of Joseon blamed Buddhism for the weakening of the previous Goryeo dynasty. They felt that the military in Goryeo had been neglected over the years due to the decadent lifestyle of monks and yangban. Confucianism was much more austere in comparison.)
left: original portrait of King Taejo (r.1392-1398)
As I mentioned in my post on Joseon portraits, there are only original portraits of 4 Joseon kings remaining today. There were more portraits made of King Taejo than any other king and a copy of the original portrait from 1372 is now in Gyeonggijeon Hall in Jeonju. ( I went there in 2011)
We can see King Taejo here wearing blue robes which were worn during the Goryeo period. The later Joseon kings wear red in their portraits.)
POWER STRUGGLES BETWEEN GOVERNMENT and MONARCHY
The princes were not only arguing amongst themselves, but (one of them at least) was also in disagreement with the new government and how political power should be divided. Jeong Do-jeon (the first prime minister of Joseon) believed that the government ministers should ultimately make the political decisions – not the king. But King Taejo’s fifth son Yi Bang-won did not agree with this! He was a strong military leader who had helped his father overthrow Goryeo. He was ambitious and wanted an absolute Monarchy, so of course the government didn’t like the idea of him becoming the next king and so team Jeong Do-jeon managed to persuade King Taejo to make his 8th son the crown prince instead. Yi Bang-won snapped…
Military man, Yi Bang-won ( a.k.a. King Taejong played by Baek Yoon-sik) now abdicated still intimidates his scholarly son Yi Do (a.k.a. King Sejong, played by Song Joong-ki) (Deep Rooted Tree, BS 2011)
Yi Bangwon was determined to be king and started to kill anyone in his way starting with the prime minister, Jeong Do-jeon, and the crown prince! (Yi Bang-won’s half-brother).
His father, King Taejo was shocked at this violent crime and quickly made his second son king – King Jeongjeong. But although he was an able leader and brave warrior who had also played a role in the founding of the Joseon dynasty, King Jeongjeong didn’t last long as king. And even when he was the king it was still Yi Bangwon who held the real power. So in the end he abdicated after two years and his brother Yi Bang-won became King Taejong.
We meet King Taejong (the third Joseon king) in Deep Rooted Tree (SBS 2011) after he has abdicated to hand the throne to his son. But he is still portrayed as a strong and ruthless leader and still holding the real power even though he is supposed to have retired!
King Taejong strengthened the monarchy by introducing a central government system State Council of Joseon (의정부). So from now on all final decisions had to be approved by the king rather than discussed and decided just by the ministers themselves.
18th century replica of portrait of Yi Cheon-u by Han Jong-yu (from Great Korean Portraits by Cho Sun-mie)
There are no original portraits of King Taejong remaining but I did find a portrait of Yi Cheon-u who was a cousin of his who helped him beat his brothers to the throne. Yi Cheon-u was rewarded for his efforts and became a meritorious subject and held high positions in government. He is wearing the style of dress for officials from the early Joseon period – his outfit worn with a gold belt looks quite plain as the chest and back patches that show rank in the Joseon government haven’t been introduced at this point. (tiger patches for military and cranes for scholars. The king wore a dragon on his robes which we can see in the portrait of King Taejo in blue above)
KING TAEJONG AND HIS LOVE OF HUNTING
Taejong and Yi Cheon-u remained close all their lives. King Taejong was always a keen hunter which did not go down well with the officials – it was considered unbecoming in a king. Yi Cheon-u tried to persuade him to cut down on his hunting and pay more attention to things like leading the country! The king agreed and gave Yi Cheon-u two paintings of falcons. (The king kept pet falcons)
18th century reproductions of falcon paintings given to Yi Cheon-u by King Taejong
King Taejong must have been keen to keep his image as a skilled warrior, because when he fell off his horse while hunting a deer, he ordered the sagwon (official record keepers) who were with him on the trip, NOT to write the incident in the Annals of Joseon. But EVERYTHING that happened had to be written objectively in the record books. So this incident was included – including King Taejong’s order NOT to include it! 😕 Aigoo.
King Taejong is still controversial. On the one hand he was a strong and competent leader which must have been needed in the early years when the new dynasty was still trying to find its feet. But on the other hand he ruthlessly murdered ANYONE he considered a threat which included the first prime minister of Joseon and even his son’s in-laws! Eventually he abdicated and let his 6th son, King Sejong become king. But although he abdicated he never really gave up his power.
THE FIRST THREE KINGS ABDICATE
So the first three kings of Joseon abdicated – King Taejo upset by the death of the queen and tired of his squabbling sons, King Jeongjeong intimidated by his brother who became King Taejong, and then King Taejong who abdicated to let his son King Sejong become king but still continued to rule behind the scenes. (why did he abdicate then!!)
STABILITY AND LEARNING with KING SEJONG THE GREAT (1418-1450)
After the violent power struggles of the first years of the Joseon Dynasty we come to a more peaceful and stable time with the reign of King Sejong the Great, the most famous king of Joseon.
Statue of King Sejong on Sejongno, Seoul
King Sejong – Reigned for 32 years bringing stability to the country. Although he was the third of King Taejong’s sons, he must have shown some early promise because even his older brothers agreed that he should be king! He turned out to be the most scholarly of all the Joseon kings (along with King Jongjo 1776-1800) and as he believed in being a generalist, he became an expert in many areas.
styles of hangeul on display at the Hangeul Museum, Seoul
Here are the HIGHLIGHTS of KING SEJONG’S ACHIEVEMENTS during his reign:
- Formed a truly Confucian oriented political process
- Helped the poor and made social reforms so improving social status of servants
- Created a written language for the common people: Hangeul
- Developed metal type cast printing
- Encouraged Education: created a state research institute – Hall of Worthies (chiphyunjeon); research scholars here could not join politics
- Encouraged scientific technical advancement
- Developed gunpowder weaponry
- Promoted foreign language learning – lack of foreign language ability was always a problem throughout the Joseon period. King Sejong sent officials to Ming (China) to study, hired native teachers to teach in Joseon, published books on Chinese pronunciation.
There have been several dramas about the most famous king of Joseon. In Deep Rooted Tree (SBS 2011) the young Sejong is portrayed as an intelligent bookish king who is often over-powered and intimidated by his warrior father, King Taejong.
The older King Sejong is portrayed as a workaholic desperate to realise his dream to create an alphabet for the common people whilst still scarred by the difficult relationship he had with his father. He also faces opposition from many noblemen who DO NOT want commoners to be able to read! And he struggles to overcome self-doubt and self-criticism as officials around him begin to be murdered …
OK that last bit about the murders is artistic licence used to make a mystery drama, 😉 but we can still see an iconic figure in Korean history portrayed as a man who also suffers from doubts and fears like everybody else.
King Sejong is also the only king to appear on money right now. We can find him on the 10,000 won note. On the back is the cheonsang yeolcha bunyajido (A map of constellations and stars carved into black stone) and the honcheonsigye (An astronomical clock)
BTW Here’s a Deep Rooted Tree version! I don’t think this is legal tender though … see more at Drama Haven
King Sejong died at the age of 53. He had various illnesses including diabetes which made him blind. Last March I visited King Sejong’s tomb which is in Yeoju about an hour from Seoul. There is also a museum there with info about the king’s successful reign. Although the tomb is quite out of the way, it’s a popular place for school trips so it may not always be the most peaceful experience. I’m just saying …
FIGHTING FOR POWER AFTER KING SEJONG
King Munjong (r.1450-1452); King Danjong (r.1452-1455); King Sejo (r.1455-1468); King Yejong (r.1468-69); King Seongjong (r.1469-1494)
After the stable 32 years of King Sejong’s reign, things turn a bit pear-shaped with sickness and usurpers causing havoc again.
King Sejong’s son King Munjong became his successor. (r.1450-52) But although he had achieved a lot when he was crown prince, he died of illness after only a couple of years as King. His son King Danjong (r.1452-1455) was only 12 years old when he became king so his uncle, Grand Prince Suyang, saw an opportunity and usurped the throne from him in a coup. He became King Sejo (r. 1455-1468)
He was a strong ruler but not everybody agreed with the way he had become king and some scholars refused to recognise him as king. He executed the scholars who tried to put King Danjong back on the throne. (see the tombs of the six martyred scholars)
But even though he snatched the throne from his nephew, in general King Sejo was considered a successful king. He made many reforms – the most important was compiling the gyeongguk daejeon Grand Code for State Administration – the first written form of constitutional law.
Portrait (anonymous) of Kim Si-seup (1435-1493) one of the six martyred ministers
THE START OF MILITARY DECLINE
But it seems that King Sejo was always looking over his shoulder afraid of losing his position. Because, after his coup in 1455, he began to limit military and weapon production (to stop a coup against himself!) The problem was that the military began to lose discipline and innovation stagnated.
King Sejong had been keen to develop gunpowder which had first been introduced at the end of the Goryeo period. And defence of the country was taken seriously back then in the earlier years of Joseon. But during King Sejo’s reign, it began to be neglected.
King Sejo reigned for 13 years, but his son King Yejong (r. 1468-1469) died of illness after only a year on the throne.
SBS poster for The King and I (2007)
King Seongjong (r. 1469-1494), was the 9th king of Joseon and the last in this section on the early Joseon period. He was only 13 when he came to the throne so his grandmother, Queen Jeonghee, and his mother Queen Insu ruled until he was 20 years old and old enough to take over.
He was a successful ruler and there was prosperity and economic growth during this time. The Grand Code for State Administration first ordered by his grandfather King Sejo was finally completed and put into effect during his reign.
DEPOSED QUEEN YUN
But he had a spot of bother though which created BIG PROBLEMS later:
By all accounts his second queen (originally his concubine) had a difficult personality and in a fit of jealous rage attacked the king! She was sent from the palace in disgrace and then was forced to drink poison. But in The King and I (a love story of the eunuch who loved the queen and tried to help her) it seems that the queen is portrayed as good and the king is the one who is obsessed and jealous of the queen’s love for another man … (OK maybe that’s artistic licence again…FYI Queen Yun also appears in the first episode of Dae Jang Geum)
But here’s where the trouble starts. The queen, now known as Deposed Queen Yun, was the mother of Yongsangun who became a tyrant king. Was this because his mother was exiled from court and killed? He certainly wanted revenge for his mother’s death. But let’s save that for the mid-Joseon period next time 😉
BTW King Seongjong’s tombs are located in central Seoul in Gangnam, at Seoulleung and Jeongneung tomb. It’s quite unusual to have tombs in the centre of the city as they need so much space. So a walk around here makes a peaceful escape from hectic modern Seoul life.