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By the 14th century, the foundations of Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty (918 -1392 CE) started to collapse from years of war and de facto occupation from the Mongol Empire. The royal court in Goryeo was at its most divided as it splits into two conflicting factions led by General Yi Seonggye and General Choe Yeong. In 1392 CE, Yi Seonggye emerged victorious – thus ending the Goryeo Dynasty.
The story did not stop there for Yi Seonggye. The general then changed his name to Taejo as he intended to rule Goryeo by simply changing the royal line of descent to his own. However, after numerous threats of mutiny from the high ranking families who continued to swear allegiance to the remnants of Goryeo, an important mark needed to be made to signify the change. Therefore, one of the first steps taken by Taejo to legitimize his rule was to declare that the new dynasty is to be known as “Joseon” – leading him to be known as Taejo of Joseon. This name was a deliberate choice as it brings to mind an ancient dynasty of the same name. However, the new king did not only choose any ancient dynasty, he chose the first and the longest lasting dynasty of Korea, Joseon (c. 2333 BCE – 108 BCE) – he would have known very well that the people would naturally associate and compare the two kingdoms. Later, to distinguish the two kingdoms, the older Joseon came to be called Gojoseon – the addition of Go (“ancient”) distinguishes it from its later incarnation. By an odd coincidence, Gojoseon and Joseon are historically known as the first and the last kingdoms of Korea respectively.
the Ancient Land of the Morning Calm
The name Joseon derives from the Chinese Chaoxian, which is a combination of the two words chao (“dawn”) and xian (“calm”) – hence the occasional reference of Korea as “Land of the Morning Calm”. According to the thirteenth century CE Samguk Yusa (“Memories of the Three Kingdoms”), legend has it that Gojoseon was founded in 2333 BCE by Dangun Wanggeom – son of the god Hwanung (“Supreme Divine Regent”) and a female bear that transformed into a woman. Dangun Wanggeom’s date of birth, the third day of the tenth month, is celebrated as National Foundation Day in South Korea.
As the foundation of Gojoseon is often said to be mythological and the date is debated to this day, finding records of the people’s day-to-day life of the time is quite difficult. An early reference to Gojoseon is found in the first century BCE text Shǐjì (“The Scribe’s Record”) written by the Chinese historian Sima Qian who mentions the existence of Gojoseon in 190 BCE and the only uncontested date for the existence of a state by the name of Gojoseon is 109 BCE. However, a new pottery culture of painted design is found on the peninsula from around 2000 BCE which not only indicated the existence of people, but people who practiced agriculture in a settled communal life. Rice, millet, and barley are a large part of the society of Gojoseon and their agricultural efforts seemed to have achieved a certain degree of success as rice cultivation spread to China and Manchuria from Korea in 1200 – 900 BCE.
Rectangular huts and dolmen burial sites are found throughout the peninsula. Evidence also indicates that, by the 7th century BCE, a Bronze Age material culture influenced by Manchuria, eastern Mongolia, Siberia and Scythian styles flourished. People’s dependence on agriculture became common and propelled them to success. Additionally, the Bronze Age in Gojoseon brought upon a unique bronze culture as Korean bronzes apparently contain a higher percentage of zinc than those of the neighboring bronze cultures. As only few people were able to obtain bronze because of its high cost and difficult manufacturing process, the invention of bronze led to an early example of social classes in society. This notion of social classes would be further complicated in the new Joseon Dynasty.
Fire Arrows and A New Writing System
King Taejong of Joseon had been an effective military strategist and leader – and he put his experience as a general in the military to good use as a king. He continued to guide Joseon military planning for the first four years of his great-grandson Sejong’s reign. In his turn, King Sejong introduced a number of organizational and technological improvements to the kingdom’s military forces by way of supporting the development of new types of cannons and mortars, as well as rocket-like “fire arrows” which functioned in a similar way to modern rocket-propelled grenades.
It was this same great-grandson of Taejo who proceeded to take Joseon to new cultural and intellectual heights. Known as King Sejong the Great, he ruled Joseon from 1418 – 1450 CE. Apart from sponsoring the invention of the rain gauge and sundial, Sejong also took an interest in music, devising a more elegant notation system to represent Korean and Chinese music, as well as encouraging instrument-makers to improve the designs of various musical instruments.
It was quickly evident that Sejong delighted in science and education. He supported a number of inventions or refinements of previous technologies. He encouraged the improvement of movable metal for printing and the development of sturdier mulberry-fiber paper. These measures made better-quality books much more widely available among educated Koreans.
Among the books he sponsored were a history of the Goryeo Kingdom, a Confucian compilation of filial deeds, and farming guides to help farmers improve production. In 1420 CE, King Sejong established an academy of twenty top Confucian scholars to advise him, called Jiphyeonjeon (“the Hall of Worthies”). These scholars studied the ancient laws and rites of China and previous Korean dynasties, compiled historical texts, and lectured the king and crown prince on Confucian classics. Sejong also ordered one top scholar to scour the country for intellectually gifted young men to be sent to a mountain temple where they were encouraged to read books on a vast array of subjects which include astronomy, medicine, geography, history, religion and warfare.
King Sejong’s crowning achievement is hangul, the Korean alphabet. In 1443 CE, the king and eight of his advisers started the process of developing an alphabetic system to represent the Korean language sounds and sentence structure accurately. The result was a simple system of 14 consonants and 10 vowels, which can be arranged in clusters to create all of the sounds in spoken Korean. He announced the creation of this alphabet three years later and encouraged all of his subjects to learn and use it. The new writing system quickly spread among segments of the population who previously had not had access to enough education to learn the more complicated Chinese writing system such as women and those of the lower social classes. This episode is also worth noting as the king initially faced a backlash from the scholar elite – the very people whose status he had raised, who felt that the new system was vulgar as it would make books and scriptures more accessible to women and peasants. The fact that the scholars would presume to express their disagreement with the king is an indication of how “important” their status were at the time.
Is There Such a Thing as “Too Clever”?
Perhaps due to the influence of the ancient Korean society’s reliance on Confucianism as a moral code and way of life, the social orders of the dynasties were heavily divided between the rich and poor, as well as male and female. This division in the social order only became more rigid in Joseon. The members of the ruling class, the yangban (scholarly officials), promoted the interpretation of the Confucian ideal that home is where the woman was supposed to be while the man was to out participating in society. Later, as the number of scholars increased, the rules imposed became stricter and this somewhat informal social distinctions of the Early Joseon would be reinforced by legal discrimination such as the regulation of clothing of different social groups and laws restricting inheritance and property ownership by women.
Another notable change in society had been the fall of the status of the merchant class. In Joseon, the “privilege” of one’s position followed a strict rule, which had been dubbed as Sa Nong Gong Sang. Sa stands for the aristocrats – which included the yangbans, nong for the farmers, gong for the engineers, and sang for the merchants. As the order that these words were written represents the actual order of the classes, the merchants who had thrived during the trade-booming Goryeo era were regarded as the bottom class of commoners. As the Joseon society viewed most materialistic pursuits as being vulgar, thus merchants were often made fun of in various folktales. During the later Joseon period, the Confucian ideals of propriety and filial piety evolved into a much more complex social hierarchy with many fine lines to be strictly observed.
As the literacy rates in the Joseon period increased, written works of poems and literature are more readily available to give us glimpses into the day-to-day life in Joseon. Perhaps the luckiest group of people in this era were the kisaengs (Korea’s equivalent of a Japanese geisha and ancient China’s yiji) as they generally had more freedom than the average women of the time, due to the nature of their job. Kisaengs, while often taken as concubines or secondary wives by the yangbans, were typically born into the lowest class, making them ineligible to hold any recognized power or to marry well and become a first wife. However, they had more education and opportunities to move more freely to different places and in between the social classes.
Hwang Jini (c. 1506 – c. 1560), also known by her adopted kisaeng name of Myeongwol (“bright moon”), was a famous Joseon Dynasty kisaeng. Although details of her birth are inconclusive at best, she was likely to have been born around 1506 in the city of Kaesong, now in modern-day North Korea. She was born the illegitimate daughter of a yangban. She was born in a time of turbulence in the Joseon Dynasty as, around the time of her birth in 1506 CE, king Yeonsangun (r. 1494–1506) was dethroned and replaced by his half-brother, Jungjong (r. 1506–1544) leading to a crossroad as the the Joseon kingdom tried to adapt to a new lifestyle suddenly brought about by the new king. As the new king struggled with the lack of support in his new goverrment, the yangbans became more ruthless as they served as officials responsible for guiding the government, economy, and culture of the Joseon period while the king tried to find his footing. The cities were all struggling to survive under the oppressive presence of the yangban class.
Hwang Jini left home at a young age to make use of her abilities – a step that already differentiates a kisaeng from a traditional Joseon woman. After leaving home, Jini would have gone to a gyobang, a training institution for kisaeng where she would have refined her musical and poetic abilities by learning to play classical instruments like the geomungo (a long narrow zither-like instrument with six silk strings) and writing sijo, a Korean poetic form which emerged in the Goryeo period and flourished during the Joseon Dynasty. Hwang Jini proved her talent in this field and became one of the most well-known female poets of Korea – something that would have been unheard of without the invention of hangul over 50 years before her birth.
Hwang Jini’s sijos reflect her flexibility in life as they are especially influenced by her life as a professional entertainer as well as by the natural world around her. Growing up in Kaesong, she would have been familiar with the ruins of a Goryeo Dynasty palace which stood on a hill north of the Kaesong city center named Manwoldae (“full-moon hill”). Due to her position as a kisaeng, Hwang Jini would also have been well versed with Joseon court culture and the royal palaces. Ironically, her “lowly” position would have provided her with more knowledge and inspiration from many different sides of her country than the clever scholars who ruled the kingdom.