Dynastic Decline

North Korea Table of Contents

A combination of literati purges in the early sixteenth century, Japanese invasions at the end of the century, and Manchu invasions in the middle of the seventeenth century severely debilitated the Chosn state, and it never regained the heights of the fifteenth century. This period also saw the Manchus sweep away the Ming Dynasty in China, ending a remarkable period when Korean society seemed to develop apace with China, while making many independent innovations.

The doctrinaire version of Confucianism that was dominant during the Chosn Dynasty made squabbles between elites particularly vicious. The literati based themselves in neo-Confucian metaphysics, which reached a level of abstraction virtually unmatched elsewhere in East Asia in the writings of Yi Hwang, also known as Yi T'oe-gye, who was regarded as Korea's Zhu Xi after the Chinese founder of the neo-Confucian school. For many other scholar-officials, however, the doctrine rewarded arid scholasticism and obstinate orthodoxy. First, one had to commit his mind to one or another side of abstruse philosophical debate, and only then could the practical affairs of state be put in order. This situation quickly led to so-called literati purges, a series of upheavals beginning in the mid-fifteenth century and lasting more than 100 years. The losers found their persons, their property, their families, and even their graves at risk from victors determined to extirpate their influence--always in the name of a higher morality. Later in the dynasty, the concern with ideological correctness exacerbated more mundane factional conflicts that debilitated central power. The emphasis on ideology also expressed the pronounced Korean concern with the power of ideas; this emphasis is still visible in Kim Il Sung's chuch'e doctrine, which assumes that rectification of one's thinking precedes correct action, even to the point of Marxist heresy in which ideas determine material reality. By the end of the sixteenth century, the ruling elite had so homogenized its ideology that there were few heterodox miscreants left: all were presumably united in one idea.

At the end of the sixteenth century, Korea suffered devastating foreign invasions. The first came shortly after Toyotomi Hideyoshi ended Japan's internal disorder and unified the territory; he launched an invasion that put huge numbers of Japanese soldiers in Pusan in 1592. His eventual goal, however, was to control China. The Chosn court responded to the invasion by fleeing to the Yalu River, an action that infuriated ordinary Koreans and led slaves to revolt and burn the registries. Japanese forces marched through the peninsula at will until they were routed by General Yi Sun-sin and his fleet of armor-clad ships, the first of their kind. These warships, the so-called turtle ships, were encased in thick plating with cannons sticking out at every point on their oval shape. The Japanese fleets were destroyed wherever they were found, Japan's supply routes were cut, and facing Ming forces and so-called righteous armies that rose up to fight a guerrilla war (even Buddhist monks participated), the Japanese were forced to retreat to a narrow redoubt near Pusan.

After desultory negotiations and delay, Hideyoshi launched a second invasion in 1597. The Korean and Ming armies were ready this time. General Yi returned with a mere dozen warships and demolished the Japanese forces in Yellow Sea battles near the port of Mokp'o. Back in Japan, Hideyoshi died of illness, and his forces withdrew to their home islands, where they nursed an isolationist policy for the next 250 years. In spite of the victory, the peninsula had been devastated. Refugees wandered its length, famine and disease were rampant, and even basic land relationships had been overturned by widespread destruction of registers.

Korea had barely recovered when the Manchus invaded from the north, fighting on all fronts to oust the Ming Dynasty. Invasions in 1627 and 1636 established tributary relations between Korea and the Manchu's Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The invasions, however, were less destructive than the Japanese invasions, except in the northwest where Manchu forces wreaked havoc. Thereafter, the dynasty had a period of revival that, had it continued, might have left Korea much better prepared for its encounter with the West.

The Confucian literati were particularly reinvigorated by an intellectual movement advocating that philosophy be geared to solving real problems of the society. Known as the Sirhak (Practical Learning) Movement, it spawned people like Yu Hyngwn (1622-73), from a small farming village, who poured over the classics seeking reform solutions to social problems. He developed a thorough, detailed critique of nearly all the institutional aspects of Chosn politics and society, and a set of concrete reforms to invigorate it. Chng Yag-yong (1762-1836) was thought to be the greatest of the Sirhak scholars, producing several books that offered his views on administration, justice, and the structure of politics. Still others like Yi Su-kwang (1563-1628) traveled to China and returned with the new Western learning then spreading in Beijing, while Yi Ik (1681-1763) wrote a treatise entitled Record of Concern for the Underprivileged.

A new vernacular fiction also developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much of it taking the form of social criticism. The best known is The Tale of Ch'unhyang, which argues for the common human qualities of lowborn, commoners, and yangban alike. Often rendered as a play, it has been a favorite in both North Korea and South Korea. An older poetic form called sijo, which consists of short stanzas, became another vehicle for free expression of distaste for the castelike inequities of Korean society. Meanwhile, Pak Chi-wn journeyed to Beijing in 1780 and authored Jehol Diary, which compared Korean social conditions unfavorably with his observations of China.

The economy diversified as the transplant of rice seedlings boosted harvests and some peasants became enterprising small landlords. Commercial crops such as tobacco, ginseng, and cotton developed, and merchants proliferated at big markets like those in Seoul at East Gate and South Gate, at the gate to China at iju, and at the gate to Japan at Tongnae, near Pusan. The use of coins for commerce and for paying wages increased, and handicraft production increased outside government control. The old Kory capital at Kaesng became a strong center of merchant commerce and conspicuous wealth. Finally, throughout the seventeenth century, Western learning filtered into Korea, often through the auspices of a spreading Roman Catholic movement, which especially attracted commoners by its creed of equality.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress