Late Choson Period
The postwar period of the 17th century in Choson witnessed a great deal of
social and economic upheavals. The rise of wealthy merchants contributed
to the decline of the yangban society, while financial difficulty drove
the government repeatedly to undertake tax reforms and sales of titles.
Upward social mobility, almost unknown in the prewar period, began to take
place. Rich peasants and merchants acquired yangban status, and nobi
bondsmen were able to purchase freedom.
Neo-Confucian orthodoxy was called into questions by a rising critical spirit
which engendered distrust of the yangban. The impact of Western
culture, entering through China, gave further impetus for the development of
pragmatic studies which called for socioeconomic reforms and
readjustments. Factional strife also intensified. Attention was
drawn to agricultural problems as more yangban - dropouts from the
struggle for official power - became involved land cultivation issues. As
a result, agromanagerial techniques and production methods were steadily
improved Privately operated handicraft factories replaced
government-operated ones, stimulating the production of goods for sale.
The increase in mercantile activities expedited the rise of commercial
farming, which in turn began to transform rural life. The circulation of
coin currency spread, provided a bridge between rural life and city
economy. The rise of popular verse and fiction drew the attention of the
people to the government abuses and encouraged their participation in social
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The urgent tasks of the postwar period included the reorganization of defense
forces and the increase of state revenues. The Border Defense Council (Pibyonsa)
was elevated to the status of a de facto decision-making body, consisting
of state councilors, ministers of the six boards and military staff generals,
which made important decisions ranging from war to the selection of the Crown
The arts of war which had proved to be effective in defense against Japanese
pirates on the south China coast were given first priority in the postwar
defense activity. This system of army training, however, required an
additional budget which had to be collected as taxes from the peasants.
Privately owned bondsmen, who had previously been exempted from military
service, were recruited for training, and had a new reason to consider
themselves equal to commoners.
The reconstruction of palace buildings and the printing of lost books, such
as duplicate sets of the Choson Wangjo Shillok (Annals of the Choson
Dynasty), land ledgers, and census records, all required extra funds.
Wooden printing type was carved because of the metal shortage brought about by
arms production. Books were sold to pay for expenses, contrary to the
prewar practice. Efforts were made to revive the peasant economy, the main
source of revenue.
Medical care for the disease-stricken populace was an urgent need and gave
impetus to the compilation of medical treatises such as Tong-ui pogam
(Exemplar of Korean Medicine), which was completed in 1610.
The system of recruitment for the bureaucracy by merit had long deteriorated,
as both civil and military service examinations virtually became levers in the
hands of powerful officials and the faction in power. The irregular
special examination graduates created a pressing demand for land, at the same
time the practice of holding unregistered land was draining state revenue.
As some yangban sought control of tax-free school land, the number of
private schools quadrupled during the 17thcentury alone, multiplying the school
estates which sheltered an increasing number of literati and students.
The royal relatives and officials in power accumulated land deserted in
wartime and converted it into tax-exempt holdings. Competition for
government office became intense, since a term in office could easily lead to
economic advantage. The factional split in 1585 was between a younger and
an elder group of scholars, called the Tong-in (Eastern) faction and the Soin
(Western) faction, respectively, and this rivalry was intensified under the
postwar financial difficulties. Splits often occurred over issues such as
the questions of selection of the crown prince and rituals of royal mourning.
TheTong-in faction divided again into the Namin (Southern)
faction and the Pugin (Northern) faction, and the latter gained power
during the reign of King Kwanghaegun (r. 1608-1623), who made efforts to restore
the Confucian state. When the Manchus rose up against Ming China, who
asked Choson for assistance, King Kwanghaegun, mindful of the assistance
rendered by the Chinese in Choson's struggle against the Japanese, promptly sent
an army of 10,000. However, when it became obvious the Manchus would be
victorious, the Chosons quickly surrendered thus avoiding any retaliation.
In the aftermath of this switch, King Kwanghaegun was deposed by the newly
ascendant Soin faction which was pro-Ming. The insurrection which
ensued demonstrated the necessity of strengthening the defense of the capital
area. Accordingly, new camps were built around the capital city, and
Namhansansong fortress was constructed for its protection.
The Manchus thus felt the need to eliminate any threat from
peace treaty concluded after the first Manchu invasion stipulated that Choson
would come to the aid of the Manchus, not the Ming. Upon King Injo's (r.
1623-1649) refusal to acknowledge a suzerain-vassal relationship in 1636, the
Manchu ruler, now enthroned as the Qing Emperor of China, invaded Choson.
King Injo fled to Namhansansong fortress, then capitulated to the invaders on a
bank of the Han-gang river. He agreed to break relations with the defeated
Ming and to send princes as hostages.
This personal surrender of King Injo was a double blow to the monarchy and yangban,
as the nation had to acknowledge subservience to the "pagan"
tribes of the Manchu. Distrust of the orthodox Neo-Confucian yangban
began to grow in the minds of the people, who had been denied an opportunity to
resist the Qing army.
A deep sense of humiliation and disgrace was felt, and sympathy toward Ming
was strong. The peasants and bondsmen openly ridiculed the yangban;
offspring of interclass mating, mostly between yangban men and non-yangban
women, also posed a serious social problem. These illegitimate sons of
prominent officials were considered outcasts and banned from governmental
Resentment of the rigid social stratification as described at the Hong Kil-tong
chon spurred the rise of revolutionary ideas. The basic theme in the
novel - that all men were created equal - gave encouragement to the people and
further undermined the prestige of the yangban society.
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During this period, there was a gradual rise of subordinate agents of the
tribute-tax collector who collected extraordinary additional amounts. This
practice, started during the prewar period, became so rampant that peasants
often turned over their land to powerful yangban, who would then help
them to withdraw the land from registration so that the yangban could
collect the tax themselves.
Attempts to convert the tribute-tax to an additional tax on land were partly
successful. An additional tax on land, Taedongpop (Uniform Land Tax
Law), was vigorously advocated by Kim Yuk, the chief minister of King Hyonjong
(r. 1649-1659). Its implementation proved highly advantageous both to
state revenues and to the lot of the peasants. Such an outcome was
especially valuable to King Hyojong, whose aim was to strengthen the army and
increase national revenue so as to oppose the Qing. As a further revenue
measure, he decreed a universal tax in exchange for exemption from military
service to be paid by all males, even monks.
Hyojong's anti-Qing ideas came to naught, for in 1654 and 1658, he was forced
to send trained military men at the request of Qing China to help them fight in
Manchuria against Russian invaders. His economic policies were more
effective and the population more than doubled in the ten years after his death.
The increase in the national population from 2,290,000 in 1657 to 5,018,000
in 1669 was remarkable. The Hanyang population grew from 80,572 to 194,030
in the same period. The national increase was largely due to the
enforcement of tax reforms and the improvement in agromanagerial and
agricultural techniques. The increase in the Hantang population along can
be attributed to the influx of merchants dealing in goods no longer paid to the
government as tribute-tax.
After the Taedongpop was implemented in most parts of the country the
governmental demand for local products in kind was met by merchants who became
purchase agents for that purpose. Acquiring the privilege of monopoly,
they set the pattern for the guilds which spread nationwide. The decline
of government-operated workshops and manufacturer stimulated artisans and
technicians to create private workshops and to go into business as dealers in
their own products, often forming into guilds.
In the provincial towns, markets were held every five days, serving as
channels between producers and Hanyang merchants. The licensed suppliers
of local products in Hanyang gradually accumulated capital with their lucrative
and guaranteed transactions.
Thus a new notion of wealth came into being: that of mercantile wealth,
consisting no longer of land and bondmen but of commodities for quantitative
trade in money. Commercial capital was given a foundation on which to
grow, as trade flourished and currency circulated. However, these efforts,
whose purpose was to preserve the Confucian yangban society, led to the
erosion of that same society.
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Rise of a Reformist School
With the death of King Hyojong, the yangban no longer paid the
universal military service tax, and were once again virtually exempted from
military service. A critical attitude developed among the out-of-power yangban.
Yun Hyu and Pak Se-dang were among the prominent scholars who attacked the
idolized system of Chu Hsi. Conservative yangban branded them as
heretics, but the time was ripe for the rise of a new school of thought critical
of the traditional order.
To the new generation of scholars, the living conditions of the people
meant more than the problems of legitimacy and ritual so head to the literati of
Neo-Confucian bureaucracy. "No nation can survive without the
well-being of the peasant, whereas the people can flourish even without a
monarch." Such was the modern thinking that underlay the reformist schools'
Yu Hyong-won in his Pan-gye surok (Essays on Social Reform) suggested
the following measures: the establishment of a land system under which benefits
could be shared equitably by all; the institution of the recommendation system
which would replace civil service examinations; the establishment of equal
opportunities for all men; the reform of government organization; and the
adoption of new learning. His proposals found no official acceptance, but
his reformist school of thought became the mainstream of pragmatic
studies. Emphasis was given to agriculture, since the success of the
suggested reforms depended upon the solution of agricultural problems. The
need for pragmatic studies was keenly felt by scholars who were removed from the
bureaucracy. The latter, on the other hand were preoccupied with internal
power struggles, and factions clashed over differing interpretations of
During the latter half of the 17th century, the struggle for power among the
factions became fierce and more factions split off, among which the Noron
faction, or the elder group, and the Soron, the younger group, were
prominent. Such factional strife had nothing to do with the life of the
peasant or national interests. The majority of the younger group began to
show concern over the well-being of the peasants, who condition was closer to
their own, since many of the yangban engaged in farming and could not
even afford to hold bondsmen.
It was in this process of socioeconomic change that the reformist school went
with the demands of society. Mercantile activities continued to grow with
the development of government-licensed supplier guilds on a nationwide scale and
their transactions accounted for 60 percent of the total government
revenue. Government revenues were constantly growing during this period,
and some wealthy farmers converted their status to that of the yangban.
The population growth kept pace as well, increasing by almost two million in the
48 years from 1669-1717.
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King Yongjo's Reforms
Realizing detrimental effects, on state administration, of factional strife
during the latter half of the 17th century in Choson Dynasty, King Yongjo (r.
1724-1776) attempted to end factional strife as soon as he ascended the
throne. To reinstate the short-lived universal military service tax, he
even came out of the palace gate and solicited the opinions of officials,
literati, soldiers and peasants. He reduced the military service tax by
half, and ordered the deficiency supplemented by taxes on fisheries, salt,
vessels and an additional land tax. King Yongjo also regularized the
financial system of state revenues and expenses by adopting an accounting
system. His realistic policies allowed the payment of taxes in grain in the
remote Kyongsang-do province to nearby ports, and payment in cotton or cash for
grain in mountainous areas. The circulation of currency was encourage by
increased coin casting.
His concern for the improvement of peasant life was manifest in his eagerness
to education the people by distributing important books in Korean script,
including books on agriculture.
The pluviometer was again manufactured in quantity and distributed to local
offices, and extensive public works were undertaken. King Yongjo upgraded
the status of the offspring of commoners, opening another possibility for upward
social mobility. His policies were intended to reassert the Confucian
monarchy and humanistic rule, but they could not stem the tide of social change.
Mercantile activities increased in volume at a rapid rate in the 18th
century. There was accumulation of capital through monopoly and
wholesaling that expanded through guild organization. Many merchants were
concentrated in Hanyang. The traditional divisions of government-chartered
shops, the licensed tribute-goods supplier, and the small shopkeepers in the
alleys and streets, were integrated into the fabric of a monopoly and wholesale
system. The temporary shops were originally set up to meet the demands of
the people on special occasions, such as civil service examinations, royal
processions and other national events, but the continued after the events to
supply the general populace with groceries and sundry items. Operated by
poor shopkeepers in temporary huts, they were for the most part dependent on the
wholesale merchants. As a result, the wholesale merchant's price policies
had direct impact on the life of the populace of Hanyang.
The artisans often became self-employed producers. Some even developed
into factory owners and obtained charters of monopoly for the sale of their
products. In some cases, it proved more lucrative simply to be a wholesale
dealer in certain commodities than to engage in the production of goods.
It was becoming fashionable among merchants and artisans to obtain charters by
creating a new commodity through minor refinement of goods already
chartered. The charter ensured monopoly and the protection of the
The so-called estuary merchants monopolized commodities from the provinces of
Kyonggi-do and Ch'tungch'dong-do, and other wholesale merchants had nationwide
networks for the sale of ginseng. The merchants of Kaeson or Songdo
competed vigorously with their Hanyang counterparts in wholesale activities,
conducting tripartite international trade between Japan and China; they traded
ginseng and other Korean products for Japanese silver and Chinese books and
silk. They even accompanied the envoy missions to China in their quest for
gain. They went into the business of buying up paper for trade to China
from the original producers in Buddhist temples, horse hair for hats from the
remote southern Chjudo island and otter fur from hunters on the east coast.
The constant movement of trading ships between and among these remote ports
is described in Yi Chung-hwan's T'aengniji (Ecological Guide to Korea)
and depicted in Yi In-mun's painting, the Inexhaustible Rivers and Mountains.
The monopoly and wholesale activities created a larger demand for silver and
copper, which in turn gave impetus to the mining industry. Under strict
control of the government in prewar times, mines were turned over to private
operators. In the 17th century, 68 silver mines were in operation but
copper mining was not well developed, as copper was supplied by Japan. In
the 18th century, however, copper mines were also developed when the Japanese
stopped exporting copper and Qing demanded great supplies of it.
The constant rise in price of commodities would have threatened the
livelihood of the populace of Hanyang had they not been involved one way or
another in mercantile activities. Regardless of status, many yangban
and commoners engaged in some kind of merchant activity.
Thus Hanyang made great strides as a commercial and industrial city in the
18th century. The popular demand for handicraft goods such as knives,
horsehair hats, dining tables and brassware was ever increasing.
Restrictions on the wearing of the horsehair hat, originally a symbol of yangban
status, virtually disappeared.
The increase in the number of yangban had been the root cause of their
impoverishment, as their land-holdings had to be divided equally among the sons
at the least, and often among daughters as well, whether married or not.
The yangban of declining fortunes had the choice of either engaging in
agriculture as an owner-cultivator, or in lucrative enterprises
indirectly. Money-lending was another field they entered as trade and
currency circulation expanded.
The traditional Confucian notion that commerce and industry were marginal
occupations, unworthy of pursuit by the yangban, also changed, and the
necessity for hands-on learning was encouraged by Qing China. Pak Chi-won,
Pak Che-ga and others who had traveled to Qing with the Choson's envoy missions
witnessed the rapid development of commerce and manufacturing industry
there. Upon returning to Choson, they proposed positive policies for the
development of commerce, metallurgy, fishing, stock farming, horticulture and
Even pirating of books became commercialized, as competition developed among
well-to-do yangban in the publication of collected literary works of
renowned ancestors. This led to the printing of popular fiction and
poetry. The people especially appreciated satire and social
criticism. The Ch'unhyangjon (Tale of Ch'unhyang), about the
fidelity of an entertainer's (kisaeng) daughter, was widely read as a
satire aimed to expose the greed and snobbery of government officials.
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Development of Agriculture
The development of trade and manufacturing stimulated agricultural
diversity. Commercial farming of ginseng, hemp, tobacco and medicinal
herbs was practiced in various parts of the country. Improved agricultural
techniques increased yields. For example, transplantation of rice, which
ad been common only in the fields of Cholla-do, Kyongsang-do and Kangwon-do
provinces, now spread northward to the provinces of Ch'ungch'long-do, Kyonggi-do
and Hwanghae-do. This technique not only yielded more rice but allowed for
the harvesting of two crops a year, barley and rice.
The improved ration between productivity and labor gave peasants the
incentive to revolutionize agromanagerial procedures, since it ws possible for
them to rise to wealth through managerial expansion. The wealthy yangban
and peasants gradually enlarged their farm lands by renting other land.
This drove the poor peasants elsewhere for employment in cities, mining and
manufacturing. Some became mountain recluses living by slash-and-burn
The land-tax burden was shifted to the tenant farmers. As in other
decaying medieval societies, this sort of socioeconomic change drove the poor
peasant further into poverty. The well-to-do peasants, on the other hand,
were able to purchase yangban titles which increased their prestige and
power in the local community.
Rules were set for sale of titles, and there was a gradual rise in such sales
as the government was often faced with a shortage of revenue. Bondsmen
were emancipated and often became owners of land and other bondsmen. The
increase of yangban from the 1690s to the 1850s was extraordinary.
In these years, the number in some sectors increased from 9.2 to 70.2 percent of
the population, whereas the commoners, mostly peasants, decreased from 53.7 to
28.2 percent, and the bondsmen from 37.1 to 1.5 percent. This upward
mobility was a result of the exploitation of newly created wealth by a
chronically deficit-ridden government. The forging and purchase of
genealogies conferring social recognition on members of the non-yangban
class was prevalent in the 18th century.
There was, however, another side to the picture. Some yangban
actually descended to the status of commoner, and began to intermarry with
peasants and other lower classes. Government offices, unable to afford the
support of bondsmen, gradually freed them in return for tribute or a lump-sum
tax payment. The number of office-owned bondsmen decreased from 190,000 in
the 17th century to 27,000 in the mid-18th century. Bondsmen privately
owned by yangban numbered 400,000 in 1623, but decreased sharply in the
course of social change, and many of the yangban could not afford to hold
even a single bondsman. Under such conditions some private bondsmen became
part-tenant and part-free cultivators. Finally in 1801, all bondsmen
registers of government offices and palaces were destroyed by the government to
assure their emancipation.
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The pragmatists' urge to learn about Qing China in the late Choson period was
propelled by the recognition that Korea's well-being as a nation was in need of
dramatic improvement. Many scholars thus attempted to seek the solution to
social problems by administrative reforms in land distribution and thus
attempted to seek the solution to social problems by administrative reforms in
land distribution and agricultural improvement, emphasizing limitation of
landholding and application of egalitarian principles in land tenure. Yi
Ik proposed the creation of an open society by abolishing class distinctions and
emancipating all bondsmen. Pak Chi-won wrote stories ridiculing the idle,
unproductive and pretentious way of life of the yangban. For the
social advancement of Choson, he advocated the improvement of agricultural
equipment, irrigation systems and new cultivation techniques. There were
scholars like Pak Che-ga, Yi Tok-mu and Hong Tae-yong who recommended that
Choson import Western techniques and participate in international trade along
with Qing China. They were the vanguard of a movement that was destined to
destroy the traditional yangban attitude toward technology and commerce.
Even while absorbing Western culture and techniques by way of China, concern
for Korea's identity began to revive as Koreans began to study their own
history, geography, language and epigraphy. Painter departed from
traditional China-oriented painting styles and began to paint the scenery and
life of Choson. An Chong-bok asserted an independent Korean line in
Korea's historiography by emphasizing Tan-gun and Kija and the first legitimate
rules. This reinterpretation can be seen as parallel to Chu Hsi's
legitimation by Shu Han of China's San Guo (Three Kingdoms) period. An's
contribution to the historiography of Korea was his emphasis on the role of the
people who expelled foreign invaders. He reprimanded the ruling classes
for having mainly concerned themselves with how best to exploit the people.
His book Tongsa kangmok (Annotated Account of Korean History) made a
lasting impression on such modern historians as Pak Un-shik and Shin Ch'ae-ho.
Han Ch'i-yun paid great attention to the kingdoms of Koguryo and Parhae, viewing
the latter as an integral part of Korean history. In the same vein, Yu
Tuk-kong, another historian, wrote a monograph on Parhae (Parhaego).
Historical geography kept pace with other branches of historical study, and
wood block cartography developed. Chong Sang-gi's ingenious scaling device
stimulated Korean cartography. Kim Chong-ho created a scale map of modern
cartographic precision on the basis of his indefatigable travels throughout the
Compilation of books increased in the 18th century. Tongguk
munhon-pigo (Reference Compilation of Documents on Korea) was supplemented; Taejon
t'ongp'yon (Comprehensive National Code) and the Compendium of Korean Music
were compiled, as were diplomatic archives. King Chongjo (r. 1776-1800),
himself a scholar, employed young scholars of mixed origin in his newly
established Inner Royal Library for such projects.
For the economic publication of fine editions, moveable metal type was
repeatedly cast, and the carving of wooden type continued. The printing of
fiction developed into a business enterprise in the late 18th and 19th
Korean typographical enterprise gave stimulus to developments in Qing
China. The famous Chinese encyclopedia Kuchin Tushu Chich'eng was
printed for the first time with moveable copper type in 1772. Ssuk'i
Ch'uanshu, the great Chinese bibliography, was also printed with wooden type
when a Korean Manchu, Chin Chien, suggested this economical method to the Ch'ien-lung
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Emergence of Modern Culture
The most significant change in this period was the rise of a critical spirit
and a new philosophical thinking, which made deep inroads into the traditional
Confucian outlook. The rise of popular novels and mass participation in
cultural activities presaged the decline of traditional society.
In his popular novel, The Hong Kil-tong chon, Ho Jyun (1569-1618)
advocated popular revolt against misrule. His hero, Hong Kil-tong, like
the virtuous outlaw Im Kkok-chong, was enraged by governmental corruption and
rose up against it. Ho Kyun realized that, if provoked, the lower classes,
together with the peasant class, could become a powerful tool in the struggle
for social justice.
Like the Renaissance philosophers, he made a bold departure from traditional
norms and values, basing his morality on the true nature of man. It was Ho
Kyun's conviction, eloquently expressed in his pioneering egalitarian novel,
that every man was endowed with particular talents to survive, and ought not to
be exploited by others. He found the class-divided, traditional society
In the Ch'unhyangjon, an unknown author exposed the corrupt magistracy
and the decaying yangban ethos. Giving a happy ending to an
interclass mating, he held out the promise of a brighter society characterized
by equality and justice. This popular novel was also dramatized in
Yi Su-gwang (1563-1628), probably the earliest Korean thinker to have contact
with Catholic and European culture, stressed the idea that knowledge is of no
value unless itresults in action, just as enforcement is an essential part of
the law. His Chibong yusol (Topical Discourses of Chibong)
published in 1614, is an encyclopedic effort similar in inspiration to the work
of French encyclopedists. It greatly expanded the knowledge available to
Koreans about Europe and Southeast Asia, and explained the nature of Catholicism
for the first time.
Pak Chi-won (1737-1805), a thinker comparable to Ho
Kyun, declared that
Heaven bestows unique talents on all men. His Tale of the Yangban
describes a yangban who had done nothing but read while subsisting on
government provender. To reimburse the government, the yangban sold
his status to a merchant, but the latter discarded it when he realized that the
essence of yangban life was idleness, corruption and hypocrisy. The
discrediting of the traditional yangban values left a void that was
keenly felt, and it was in response to this need that pragmatic philosophy
Hong Tae-yong (1731-1783), in his scientific quest, declared that
"nothing is substantial without a sincere mind." He saw in
natural science the essence of all spiritual activities, and refuted the
traditional Confucian concept that science and technology were marginal branches
of knowledge. The earth's rotation, the cause of eclipses and the
nature of the rainbow were included among his scientifically valid findings, and
his work in mathematics was no less noteworthy. He rated Western science
and technology superior to anything Tang or Song civilization could offer, and
advocated the pursuit of such learning for the advancement of society.
Remarkable scientific achievements were also made by Chong
1762-1836), who was also know for his deep concern for the peasants and
people. His construction plan for the Hwasong Fortress as Korea's
emergency capital included the use of his own applications: cranes, windlasses,
pulleys and specially design vehicles. Yi Kyu-gyong, another revolutionary
thinker, also compiled works on various branches of natural science. His
collected work on astronomical and meteorological development in Korea was
published in 1818.
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The ideal of a Confucian welfare state during the Choson Dynasty was
conceived and implemented by King Sejong in the 15th century, but it was Yi Su-Gwang
who elaborated on the philosophy of welfare in the period following the
Hideyoshi invasions. He expounded the idea that the Way of Heaven was to
be found among the people, and its noblest realization was to feed and clothe
the people properly.
Pak Se-dang said he would go to the country and engage in manual labor, since
Confucius endured labors more onerous than farming. Since such men
espoused egalitarian principles, their concerns were more and more centered upon
public welfare programs.
Yi Ik stated that learning or knowledge should not be sought unless it as of
benefit to the daily life of the people in general. His sharp analysis of
the causes of factionalism stemmed from a deep-seated concern for the welfare of
Kim Yuk, who is known for his implementation of the Taedongpop,
recommended the increased use of vehicles. Hong Tae-yong and Pak Chi-won
also saw increased vehicular traffic as promising great advantage for the
national economy. Pak made a far-sighted statement: "The ruler will
be blamed by future generations for not having learned from pragmatic
Chong Yak-yong was outstanding among the scholars who analyzed the evils of
society and made positive proposals for reform. He advocated a system of
land distributions based on egalitarian principles, and the placement of people
in professions in accordance with their ability.
Exploitation continued, however, and distressed people sought
salvation. Catholicism met the needs of many, since its tenets accorded
with the new egalitarian principles in addition to stressing salvation.
Some scholars converted to Catholicism, and others benefited from the
scientific learning that accompanied the religion. The number of Catholics
in Korea gradually increased.
Since Catholicism was opposed both to Confucian ancestral rituals and to
rigid social stratification, Catholics were termed criminals by the state.
Many of them, including prominent scholars such as Chong Yak-yong and his
brothers, were punished or even executed.
Catholicism prospered secretly nonetheless, especially among artisans such as
pottery makers. The negation of traditional values in a quest for salvation was
an enigma to the Confucian-oriented yangban officials, and they resorted
to various means of suppressing the alien faith. It was evident that the
men in power were far behind the people in their social and intellectual
For the welfare of the people, medical jurisprudence was emphasized in order
to ensure fair practice of medicine. Other significant studies related to
the welfare of the people included work on therapeutic practices based on the
physical features of mankind. Yi Che-ma (1838-1900) classified men into
four different physical types and developed different physical types and
developed different therapeutic treatments for each.
Equality, human dignity, opportunity, public welfare, and the advancement of
the national economy were conspicuous principles in the philosophy that emerged
in this period. This development of the 17th-18th centuries is in some
respects reminiscent of the Renaissance period of Western Europe.
In the literary scene, love stories were popular and sold well. Since
books printed from metal type were far too costly for commoners, popular demand
was met by the use of the cheaper clay-carved plates, in addition to wood-type
printing. Anthologies of shijo poems by two intermediary class men
were noteworthy. Kim Ch'long-t'aek assembled 580 poems, from the Koryo
period on, in his Ch'eonggu yong-on (Enduring Poetry of Korea), and Kim
Su-jang (b. 1690) compiled a similar anthology entitled Haedong kayo
(Songs of Korea). Chong Ch'ool (Songgang, 1534-1593) and Yung Son-do
(Kosan, 1587-1671) were talented yangban poets whose individual
anthologies were also published.
Korea-centered painting also came into vogue. Chong Son
1676-1759), unlike his predecessors, depicted the landscape of Korea, while Kim
Hong-do and Shin Yun-bok concentrated on themes of the daily life of the
masses. White porcelain with underglaze blue-line drawings was produced in
quantity to meet public demand. Modern intellectuality dawned in all
sector of 18th century Korea.
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In the early 19th century, the Korean economy and social conditions
improved. The people in general thought that foreign ideas and European
commercial enterprise in particular should be taken seriously. Some
officials advocated a thorough reform of national finance. The central
government examined the proposal, but its implementation was thwarted by a
struggle for power. There were numerous agrarian revolts which gradually
led to political upheaval.
The powerful yangban officials, through their marriage ties with the
royal family, were able to ensure for themselves a firm grasp on political
power; every important national policy formulated in the early 19thcentury was
implemented for their interests alone. They were divided into numerous
contending cliques, and did not pay any attention to the general welfare of the
people. Such was Korea's internal situation when, at the end of the
18thcentury, the British, in their quest for Asian markets, made their first
probings into Korean waters. In the 1840s, Russian and French vessels
added their appearance, causing great excitement among the people.
The government carried out persecutions of Catholics in 1801 and 1839.
This tended to disperse the coverts to outlying districts, where Catholicism
spread among impoverished farmers and yangban who came to depend more on
In 1863, Prince Yi Ha-ung, better known as the
Taewon-gun or Prince Regent,
put into effect a series of sweeping reforms encompassing national finance and
government administration in order to strengthen the royal authority. He
strongly opposed the increasing infiltration of foreign commercial interests
into the country. In the spring of 1866, the government ordered the
rigorous persecution of Catholics. Aroused by this measure, the French
fleet sailed up the Han-gang river and hostilities broke out on Kanghwado
Economic and social developments drove the majority of yangban to
bankruptcy, while the peasants and merchants were eager to throw off the
traditional social constraints. As these trends developed, the government
devised measures to suppress them. Another impetus to social dynamism was
the increase in offspring of the yangban and mothers of lower origin.
Although the emancipation of bondsmen resulted in an increase in the number
of taxable people, the exploitation of farmers by the ruling class caused the
state's tax revenues to decline.
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Peasant Wars of 1812 and 1862
During this period, drought and floods alternately struck the country,
causing a succession of bad harvests, which in turn generated a grim cycle of
famine. Excessive tax collection and forced labor ensued. These
adverse natural and social conditions ignited a series of agrarian
revolts. In 1812, Hong Kyong-nae rose up in revolt with the peasants at
Kasan, in the northern part of Korea, and held power in that district for some
months. Frightened government officials dispatched the army, and only
after waging a hard campaign were they able to suppress the revolt. In the
south, all the way to Chejudo island, as well as in the north, peasants
persevered in their struggle against oppression at the hands of the government,
the local nobility and the wealthy landlords.
Half a century after Hong Kyong-nae's well-organized fight, the situation had
not improved. A group of farmers in Chinju, Kyongsang-do province,
rebelled against their oppressive overlords, the provincial officials and the
wealthy landowners. THis uprising of 1862 is directly attributable to the
exploitation of destitute farmers by Paek Nak-shin, a newly appointed military
commander who had jurisdiction over the western half of Kyongsang-do province.
Yu Kye-ch'un, an intellectual native to the district who was outraged by Paek
Nak-shin's rapacious conduct, led the farmers to riot, denouncing corrupt minor
officials and wealthy landlords. The rebels killed local government
functionaries, set fire to government buildings and wrought considerable
destruction. The startled Hanyang government hurriedly sent an
investigator to the scene. On the basis of its findings of fraudulent
practices by the local officials concerned, the government hastily revised the
land, military and grain lending systems in an effort to eliminate such
abuses. From the outset, however, it was unrealistic to expect the ruling
class in the central government, which was itself deeply involved in such
frauds, to make radical changes. But at least a superficial attempt at
reform was made.
The agrarian revolt in Chinju served as a signal for similar uprisings
elsewhere. In Kyongsang-do, Cholla-do and Ch'ungch'nong-do provinces, on
faraway Chejudo island and in Hamgyong-do and P'yong-an-do provinces in the
north, groups of farmers rose up, attacking offices in principal towns and
Under such social conditions, Ch'oe
Che-u (1824-1864) formulated the ideology
of Tonghak (Eastern Learning) in order to rescue the farmers from
prevalent poverty and unrest, and to restore political and social
stability. His ideas rapidly gained acceptance and he set his doctrines to
music so that farmers would understand and accept them more readily. His
teachings were systematized and compiled as a message of salvation to farmers in
distress. The songs he sang were a mixture of traditional elements from
Confucianism, Buddhism and Son-gyo (teachings of Shilla's Hwarang), and
to these he added modern humanistic ideas. Exclusionism was another
characteristic of his religion, which incorporated an early form of nationalism
and rejected alien thought.
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