Beginner's Guide to Korea's Medieval Joseon Dynasty

The Archaeology of Neo-Confucian Reform in the Middle Ages

Reconstructed Joseon Dynasty Gyeonbok Palace in Old Seoul
Reconstructed Joseon Dynasty Gyeonbok Palace in Old Seoul. hojusaram

The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), often spelled Choson or Cho-sen and pronounced Choh-sen, is the name of the last pre-modern dynastic rule in the Korean peninsula, and its politics, cultural practices and architecture reflect an explicitly Confucian flavor. The dynasty was established as a reformation of the hitherto Buddhist traditions as exemplified by the preceding Goryeo dynasty (918-1392). According to historical documentation, the Joseon dynastic rulers rejected what had become a corrupt regime, and reconstructed Korean society into the precursors of what is today considered one of most Confucian countries in the world.

Confucianism as practiced by the Joseon rulers was more than simply a philosphy, it was a major course of cultural influence and an overriding social principle. Confucianism, a political philosophy based on the teachings of the 6th century BC Chinese scholar Confucius, emphasizes the status quo and social order, as a trajectory aimed towards creating a utopian society.

Confucius and Social Reformation

Joseon kings and their Confucian scholars based much of what they perceived as the ideal state on Confucius' stories of the legendary Yao and Shun regimes.

This ideal state is perhaps best represented in a scroll painted by An Gyeon, the official court painter to Sejong the Great [ruled 1418-1459]. The scroll is titled Mongyudowondo or "Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land", and it tells of Prince Yi Yong's [1418-1453] dream of a secular paradise supported by a simple agricultural life. Son (2013) argues that the painting (and perhaps the prince's dream) was likely based in part on the Chinese utopian poem written by the Jin dynasty poet Tao Yuanming (Tao Qian) [365-427].

Dynastic Royal Buildings

The first ruler of the Joseon Dynasty was King Taejo, who declared Hanyang (later to be renamed Seoul and today called Old Seoul) as his capital city. The center of Hanyang was his main palace, Gyeongbok, constructed in 1395. Its original foundations were built according to feng shui, and it remained the main residence for the dynastic families for two hundred years.

Gyeonbok, along with most of the buildings in the heart of Seoul, was burned down after the Japanese invasion of 1592. Of all the palaces, Changdeok Palace was the least damaged and so was rebuilt shortly after the war ended and then used as the main residential palace for Joseon leaders.

In 1865, King Gojong had the entire palace complex rebuilt and established residence and royal court there in 1868. All of these buildings were damaged when the Japanese invaded in 1910, ending the Joseon Dynasty. Between 1990-2009, the Gyeongbok Palace complex was restored and is today open to the public.

Funeral Rites of Joseon Dynasty

Of the many reformations of the Joseons, one of the highest priority was that of the funeral ceremony. This particular reformation had considerable impacts on 20th century archaeological investigations of Joseon society. The process resulted in the preservation of a wide variety of clothing, textiles and papers from the 15th through 19th centuries, not to mention mummified human remains.

Funeral rites during the Joseon Dynasty, as described in the Garye books such as the Gukjo-ore-ui, strictly prescribed the construction of tombs for the members of the elite ruling class of Joseon society, beginning in the late 15th century AD.

As described by the neo-Confucian Song Dynasty scholar Chu Hsi (1120-1200), first a burial pit was excavated and a mixture of water, lime, sand and soil was spread on the bottom and the lateral walls. The lime mixture was allowed to harden to a near-concrete consistency. The body of the deceased was placed in at least one and often two wooden coffins, and the entire burial covered with another layer of the lime mixture, also allowed to harden. Finally, an earthen mound was built over the top.

This process, known to archaeologists as lime-soil-mixture-barrier (LSMB), creates a concrete-like jacket that preserved virtually intact coffins, grave goods and human remains, including over a thousand pieces of very well preserved clothing for the entire 500 year period of their use.

Joseon Astronomy

Some recent research on Joseon society has been focused on the astronomical capabilities of the royal court. Astronomy was a borrowed technology, adopted and adapted by the Joseon rulers from a series of different cultures; and the results of these investigations are of interest to the history of science and technology. Joseon astronomical records, studies of sundial construction, and the meaning and mechanics of a clepsydra made by Jang Yeong-sil in 1438 have all received investigations by archaeoastronomers in the last couple of years.


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