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He also ordered the construction of Gyeongbokgung Palace and Jongmyo Shrine, as well as roads and markets. The new capital, located in the center of the Korean Peninsula, was easily accessible via the Hangang River, which flowed directly through its heart.

King Taejong, the third King and a son of the founder of the dynasty, made a significant contribution to stabilizing the system of governance. He adopted a system by which all people were registered under the Hopae Act, and launched six ministries, namely, the Ministries of Personnel Administration, Finance, Protocol, Defense, Justice, and Public Works, to govern the country.

King Sejong, the fourth King and a son of King Taejong, ushered in an era of great political, social, and cultural prosperity. Scholars at the Jiphyeonjeon (Hall of Worthies) developed strong and effective policies. During the reigns of Sejo, Yejong, and Seongjong, the Gyeongguk daejeon (National Code) was drawn up with the aim of establishing a long-lasting ruling system.

The Creation of Hangeul

Koreans had used Chinese characters as their alphabet and writing system for many centuries. Idu and Hyangchal, systems for writing the spoken word, using Chinese characters, had been developed, but they left much to be desired. In 1443, King Sejong supervised the creation of Hangeul (the Korean alphabet) and promulgated it to the people three years later, in 1446.

The shapes of the Korean alphabet were based on the shapes made by the human vocal apparatus during pronunciation. Many scholars have stated that Hangeul is the most scientific and easy-to-learn writing system in the world. It certainly went a long way towards enhancing communication between the people and the government, and played a decisive role in laying the foundations of a culturally advanced country.

Development of Science and Technology

During the Joseon period, the country’s science and technology developed considerably. The Jagyeongnu (clepsydra), Angbuilgu (sun dial), and Honcheonui (armillary sphere) were all invented in the early period of the dynasty. A rain gauge, the first of its particular kind in the world, was used.

Devices for land survey and mapmaking were also made. During the reign of King Taejo, the Cheonsang yeolcha bunya jido (Celestial Chart) was made based on a previous version drawn up during the Goguryeo Period. During the reign of King Sejong, Chiljeongsan (Calculation of the Motions of the Seven Celestial Determinants) was made based on the Shoushili calendar of China and the Islamic calendar of Arabia. Noticeable advances were made in the sphere of medical science. Hyangyak jipseongbang (Compilation of Native Korea Prescriptions) and Uibang yuchi (Classified Collection of Medical Prescriptions) were compiled. Metal printing types, such as Gyemija and Gabinja, were made during the reigns of Taejong and Sejong, making it possible to publish many books.

Joseon’s Foreign Relations

Joseon maintained friendly relations with Ming China. The two countries exchanged royal envoys every year and engaged in busy cultural and economic exchanges. Joseon also accepted Japan’s request for bilateral trade by opening the ports of Busan, Jinhae, and Ulsan. In 1443, Joseon signed an agreement with the Tsushima Clan Leader of Japan for bilateral trade. Joseon also traded with Asian countries, such as Ryukyu, Siam, and Java.

Development of Handcraft Skills

Chinaware is perhaps the most representative handcraft of the Joseon Period. Grayish-blue-powdered celadon or white porcelain was widely used at the Royal Court or government offices. By about the 16th century, Joseon’s chinaware production skills had reached their zenith.

Its white porcelain typically exhibited clean, plain shapes based on the tradition established during the Goryeo Period. They were suited to the aristocratic taste of the Confucian scholars.

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Cheonsang Yeolcha Bunya Jido (Joseon; 17th Century)

Imjin Waeran (Japanese Invasion of 1592)

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, Joseon maintained good relations with Japan. In the 16th century, however, Japan called for a larger share of the bilateral trade, but Joseon refused to comply with the request. Japanese threw the country into turmoil by causing disturbances in 1510 and 1555. In Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi brought the confusion of the 120-year-long Warring States Period to a conclusion and unified the country.

Then, in 1592, he invaded Joseon with around 200,000 troops, with the aim of dissipating local lords’ strength and stabilizing his rule in Japan. The war lasted until 1598.

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Angbuilgu (Joseon; 17th~18th Centuries)
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Rain Gauge (Joseon; 18th Century)

Feeling threatened by the invading Japanese troops, King Seonjo of Joseon fled to Uiju, close to Ming China, and asked the Ming to come to his aid. The Japanese invaders marched into the northern provinces of Joseon.

Korean militias started fighting the invaders here and there across the country. It is particularly noteworthy that Korean naval forces led by Admiral Yi Sun-sin won one victory after another against the invaders and defended the nation’s breadbasket in Jeolla-do Province. The Japanese forces pulled out of Korea, but invaded Joseon again in 1597.

Although Admiral Yi Sun-sin was left with only thirteen warships, he won a devastating victory against the Japanese fleet of 133 ships. The sea battle waged in the Strait of Myeongnyang was one of the greatest military engagements of all time, and is surely worthy of inclusion in any record of the world history of naval battles.

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White Porcelain Jar with Plum, Bamboo, Bird Design (Joseon; 15th Century)

Following the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the Japanese invaders returned home. During the seven-year war, many cultural heritages in Joseon, including Bulguksa Temple, were destroyed. The Japanese took away books, printing types, and works of art from Joseon. With these spoils of war, the Japanese were able to enhance scholarship and the arts in their own country, while porcelain makers whom the Japanese troops abducted from Joseon helped Japan develop its own china culture.

Development of Grassroots Culture

In the late Joseon Period, commerce and industry entered a period of rapid development. Many children could receive education at private schools in their local neighborhood. With these improvements in the quality of life of the people, they began to enjoy diverse entertainments. Stories written in easily understood Hangeul, as opposed to literary works published in Chinese, were widely distributed. Pansori (a genre of musical storytelling) and mask dance developed. In the late 19th century, Sin Jae-hyo arranged pansori saseol (stories). Five leading pansori songs, namely, Chunhyangga (The Song of Chunhyang), Simcheongga (The Song of Sim Cheong), Heungboga (The Song of Heungbo), Jeokbyeokga (The Song of Red Cliff), and Sugungga (The Song of the Rabbit and the Turtle) have been handed down to the present day. Mask plays such as Tallori and Sandaenori enjoyed great popularity among ordinary people.

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Sandaenori. This is a type of traditional stage play, in which masked actors and actresses engage in gags, dances, songs, etc.

Header image:
Copyright©Photographer KTO Kim Jiho-Korea Tourism Organization