The Choson Dynasty, otherwise known as the Yi Dynasty, was Korea's last dynasty. Founded by Yi Songgye in 1392, the Choson Dynasty lasted for over five hundred years. In 1910, the dynasty officially ended with the annexation of Korea by Japan. The Chosôn Dynasty is commonly regarded as the last traditional kingdom before the onslaught of modern culture.

The Chosôn Dynasty had a varied and complex social fabric that kept centuries of Korean tradition intact. At the very top of this social hierarchy were the yangban who could be loosely classified as those who were eligible for high ranking government service due to passing civil service exams. They formed the elite of Choson society. The term 'yangban' was used to denote the dual role that the yanban had in both the military and civil service. Yet, a dichotomy between yangban families who specialized in between the munkwa, or civil service exam, and those who took the mukwa, or military exam, became pronounced.

Under the yangban, were the class of translators, scientists, doctors, translators, administrative clerks, and so on. These, chungin formed the backbone of the bureaucracy with their technical expertise. These officials passed examinations on technical subjects known as the chapkwa.

And then there are the commoners whose rank and file comprised tenant farmers, craftsmen, and free laborers. They formed the bulk of the population. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were the ch'ônmin or "base" people. Slaves, butchers, prostitutes, and other entertainers formed this class. Slaves were emancipated in the 19th century.

Of course, these classifications are not rigid and formal. The changing times of the late Chosôn dynasty and economic activity allowed some fluidity between the classes. Many yangban families fell into poverty, while other commoners amassed great wealth and even began to buy themselves into social ranking. Chosôn social structure is fraught with difficult questions ranging from the progeny of concubines to the status of women in the Chosôn dynasty.

The ideology of 'sadae-juûi,' or 'Serving the Great,' was instrumental in shaping both Korea's political foreign policy and arguably Korea's cultural identity. 'Sadae-juûi' sought basically to pay tribute to China accordingly. Korea's position in the relationship was in theory reduced to vassal status (in relative position but not in function). During the course of approximately 500 years of the Chosôn dynasty's history, many aspects of Chinese culture, such as Confucianism, and so on, were adopted or adapted into Korean society.

Chosôn Korea ushered in a period of rapid development in Confucianism. The government of Chosôn began an anti-Buddhist policy based on to the social and cultural changes affected by Confucianism. Most notably, Buddhist monks were ousted from political power, Buddhist property was confiscated, and the construction and holding of land outside highly populated areas, such as the capital, were highly regulated.

Chinese Confucian rites, called 'ye,' reached into almost every part of Chosôn's aristocratic elite. The lifestyle and behavior of Chosôn's elite were prescribed in painfully minute detail, and included all facets of life: court procedures, ceremonies, customs, language, music, and all principles governing human interaction.

The School of I, also known as Sôngnihak (moral and natural law) became the dominant branch of Confucianism during the Chosôn dynasty. This was essentially a theory of spiritual monism and that an all pervasive force was behind the universe called the Supreme Ultimate (T'aegûk) which is further divided into two relative opposites, the yin and yang.

Neo-Confucianism was primarily concerned with the regulation and harmonization of human relations through moral and ethical principles, as opposed to orthodox Confucianism which sometimes delved into metaphysical problems, such as the origin and nature of the universe, yet left the average scholar hanging when it came to practical explanations on how to live a good life.

Civil and military officials were chosen from the yangban class via the examination system. Of course, anyone was able to take the examination tests. However, only yangban had the educational opportunities to be able to pass the tests. There were two levels for exams: the lower level (or licentiate) and the higher level (or erudite). The lower level was divided into two classes: the Classics Licentiate Examination which tested the applicants on the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucian literature, and the Literary Licentiate Examination which tested the applicants in poetry, rhyme prose, documentary prose, and problem essay.

Claiming to have an ancestor of yangban ranking is a common practice in Korea today. Everyone talks of belonging to a yangban heritage. The prestige of being accorded the yangban status stems from role of the yangban during the Choson dynasty.

The term yangban centered around those who served in the, "officialdom, but included a large number of the social elite whose ties to the government bureaucracy were quite distant. The yangban comprised the educated class as well. While there may have been literate members of society outside their ranks, such as Buddhist monks, available evidence suggests that their numbers were few, and their influence weak. Thus, the yangban dominated the major portal to power: "the examination system" (Hejtmanek p.70).

What was so great about being a yangban? The yangban were exempt from taxes and military duty. Also, they could only be tried by a special tribunal. One way of guaranteeing their special status was to publish their genealogies. The Andong Kim began to publish their chokbo during the 15th century . The publishing and promulgation of these genealogies became widespread during the 16th and 17th century. This reflected the consolidation of the yangban into distinct family units that were structured patrilineally. Yet, not all yangban were centered around the officialdom. The local yangban, a sort of countryside gentry, was very popular. Weary scholars would retire to the countryside to write and reflect.

Han'gul, or "Great Letters", is what the korean alphabet is called today. At the time of its invention by King Sejong (1418-1450), it was known as ch'ng'm, or "Correct Sounds". It was invented in 1443, but was formally proclamed in 1446 under the name, Hunmin ch'ng'm (Correct Sounds to Instruct the People). Originally, the alphabet consisted of twenty-eight letters -- made up of seventeen consonants and 11 vowels. It is often considered one of the greatest achievements of the Chosôn Dynasty.

Chosôn saw many great works of literature. Sô Kô-jông compiled the Anthology of Korean Literature, selections of past Korean authors from poetry to prose. He also wrote An Author's Trivia. O Suk- kwôn penned his A Korean Storyteller's Miscellany (P'aegwan chapki). Works of this kind are considered to be an important source of Korea's rich oral traditions. It was also during the Chosôn dynasty in which p'ansori, the recitation of folk tales through song, became popular as a way to make tradition formerly restricted to educated elite more accessible to and enjoyable for the commoner class. Other authors include Kim Si-sûp, a disenfranchised yangban who begins to write satire critiquing the yangban class, and through the written word, points his finger at a number of social problems. "The Tale of Ch'un-hyang," and "The Tale of Sim- ch'ông," are both classics in the genre of Korean folk tales. By the Chosôn dynasty when p'ansori had become popular, these tales were often performed by a p'ansori singer and a drum accompaniment for the delight of the entire village.


Sources: 'Korean Culture' magazine, The Sourcebook of Korean Civilization, USC Berkley's Korean History Project, The reaserch and knowledge of Amanda Jung Ae Byun, Chung Lee, Daniel Donghan Kim, Min Kyung Ku and Phillip Shinichi Pepper.

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