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Yi Dynasty

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서영준 aka Eddie Sanchez

The Yi Dynasty

The Yi Dynasty, also called the Chosun Dynasty, is the last and longest-lived imperial dynasty of Korea. General 이성계 founded the Yi Dynasty when he overthrew the Koryo dynasty. It lasted until 1910 when Korea ceased to be an independent sovereign state after being annexed by Japan. During the Chosun Dynasty, Korea's class system was very defined and social mobility was defined. Primarily, one could theoretically go up through Chosun's education system, which was Confucian based. Commerce was controlled by the government, but as time went on, government loosened its grip over trading and commerce.

In 1392, General 이성계, or King 태조 as he was later known, became ruler of Korea. Confucian replaced Buddhism as the main ideological influence, and a rigidly structured, hierarchical social system evolved, dominating the kingdom for five centuries (Washam). These measures effectively undercut the societal influence of both Koryo's Buddhist hierarchy and the old aristocracy. This cleared the way for the new elite class that would dominate Korea for the next 500 years

Great landowners and a Confucianist scholar-gentry, known 양반, dominated agriculture, politics, and foreign policy. The 양반 was comprised of the literati, or educated, class. They monopolized civil and military posts in the new national bureaucracy. The primary way into the bureaucracy was to be successful in the civil service examinations. Since 양반 families were exempt from taxes and labor, they were able to fully devote their time to studying while those who were not born into 양반 families generally did not move up in the social structure due to the fact that they needed to work to survive and pay taxes. Thus, social mobility was difficult and extremely uncommon. However, theoretically and ideally, one could escape the lower classes through mastering the civil service examination.

Beneath them were the crafts people and artists who were highly esteemed because of their skills and talents. Astronomers and physicians were also included in this group. During the Yi Dynasty, Korean landscape painting becomes popular. Also, the Korean ceramics industry is renewed. Craftsmen begin producing white porcelain as well as 분청자기. Craftsmen manufactured many 분청 ceramic pieces for the government as well as for artistic purposes. Porcelain, on the other hand, was basically centralized. Porcelain was managed by the royal court. Perhaps, that is why the craftsmen were highly regarded (Lee).

Below the craftspeople in the official order were the common people who made up 75 percent of the population. The class distinctions between the nobleman and the common person was very evident during the Chosun. Whenever a nobleman passed by in the street, all commoners had to go down on their knees and bow even if they were carrying a heavy load. If commoners had to bow every time noblemen crosses their path, it would take them a long time to get to where they were going. Therefore, narrow alleyways, still present today, were created so that no horse could traverse them (Jongno-gu). The common people worked the land, but few of them owned their own land. Most peasants worked for landowners and were not free to leave their landlord without permission from the king. Despite all this, the society regarded them as being "the foundation of the nation" (Smitha).

Recognized as being below farm laborers were the merchants, fitting the Confucianism view of commerce as greed and dishonesty. Merchants were known as individuals who took money from hardworking people and in return gave them goods that they themselves did not make. Farmers lived a harder life than merchants, but certainly had more prestige.

However, below greed and dishonesty existed the low-born, 천민. This fifth class consisted of butchers, gravediggers, those who worked with leather, basket makers, those who peeled bark, sorcerers, and shamans. Those in public entertainment, such as female entertainers, along with Buddhist monks and nuns also comprised this last class. Slaves were also part of this last group. Slaves could not own property or even other slaves. In fact, slaves themselves were considered property. Although numerous at the beginning of the Chosun Dynasty, their numbers had dwindled by the time slavery was officially abolished at the end of the nineteenth century (US Library).

Since performance on the civil service examinations determined position and position determined how much land one controlled, those who had long standing government influence usually amassed a large amount of land. Along with land came wealth which allowed the rich to get richer in the form of expansion by agricultural estates at the expense of small farmers. The changing times of the late Chosun dynasty and economic activity allowed some fluidity between the classes. Many 양반 families fell into poverty, while other commoners amassed great wealth and even began to buy themselves into social ranking (Seoul Searching).

Traditionally, even until today, education is and has remained the single most important factor affecting social mobility. Confucianism was a core ideology in order to produce bureaucrats who could lead the people and to edify those who were able to follow Confucian ethics and values. People of power and significance require top educational backgrounds not only because education gives them the cultural sophistication and technical expertise needed to manage large, complex organizations, but also because subordinates will not work diligently for an uneducated person (Chung).

Throughout the Chosun dynasty, a belief in education prevailed among Korea's elite. Korea had five universities which were mainly for males from noble families. King 세종, however, motivated largely by the intent to further the education of the entire Korean populace, introduced 훈민정음 in 1446. This simple phonetic alphabet, known today as 한글, was perfectly designed for the writing of spoken Korean and was an ideal way for many who, unlike 양반 males, have neither the opportunity nor reason to become proficient in the more difficult Chinese writing system (Metropolitan).

The best of the elite universities was 성균관, otherwise known as the National Confucian Academy. 성균관



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