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Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Kings of Joseon Dynasty, Part I: King Taejo Yi Seong-gye (Yi Dan) - Founder of Joseon Dynasty

King Taejo of Joseon (Hanja: 朝鮮 太祖王; Born: October 11th 1335 in Heukseok-ri, Geumya County, Southern Hamgyeong Province, DPRK – Died: May 24th 1408 in Changdeok Palace, Seoul Jongno-gu, ROK; Reigned: August 5th 1392 – October 14th 1398), born Yi Seong-gye (李成桂), whose changed name is Yi Dan (이단/李旦), was the founder and the first king of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea, and the main figure in overthrowing the Goryeo Dynasty under the reign of King GongYang. He was originated from the Royal House of Jeonju Yi Clan where this lineage is coming from Jeonju City, Northern Jeolla Province.

He was posthumously raised to the rank of Emperor in 1899 by Emperor Gojong-Gwangmu who had proclaimed the Korean Empire in 1897 - with his new posthumous name, Emperor Taejo Ji-in Gye-un Eungcheon Jotong Gwanghun Yeongmyeong Seongmun Sinmu Jeong-ui Gwangdeok, Emperor Go of Korean Empire (태조지인계운응천조통광훈영명성문신무정의광덕고황제/太祖至仁啓運應天肇統廣勳永命聖文神武正義光德高皇帝).

Taejo's father Yi Ja-chun (이자춘/李子春; Posthumous King Hwanjo of Joseon Dynasty) was a minor Mongol official, but his ethnicity was Korean. Taejo joined the Goryeo army and rose through the ranks, seizing the throne in 1392. He abdicated in 1398 during the strife between his sons and died in 1408. His posthumous name is King Taejo Gangheon Ji-in Gye-un Seongmun Sinmu the Great (태조강헌지인계운성문신무대왕/太祖康獻至仁啓運聖文神武大王).

By the late 14th century, the 400 year-old Goryeo Dynasty established by Wang Geon in 918 was tottering, its foundations collapsing from years of war and de facto occupation by the disintegrating Mongol Empire. The legitimacy of Goryeo itself was also becoming an increasingly disputed issue within the court, as the ruling house failed not only to govern the kingdom effectively, but was also tarnished by generations of forced intermarriage with members of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty imperial family and by rivalry amongst the various Goryeo royal family branches (even King U's mother was a known commoner, thus leading to rumors disputing his descent from King Gongmin).

Within the kingdom, influential aristocrats, generals, and even prime ministers struggled for royal favor and vied for domination of the court, resulting in deep divisions among various factions. With the ever-increasing number of raids against Goryeo conducted by Japanese pirates (wakō) and the Red Turbans invasions of Korea, those who came to dominate the royal court were the reformed-minded Sinjin aristocracy and the opposing Gwonmun aristocracy, as well as generals who could actually fight off the foreign threats—namely a talented general named Yi Seong-gye and his rival Choi Young. With the rise of the Ming Dynasty under a former monk, Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), Mongol forces became more vulnerable. By the 1350s Goryeo regained its full independence from the waning Mongol Empire, although Mongol remnants effectively occupied northeastern territories with large garrisons of troops.

General Yi Seong-gye had gained power and respect during the late 1370s and early 1380s by pushing Mongol remnants off the peninsula and also by repelling well-organized Japanese pirates in a series of successful engagements. He was also credited with routing the Red Turbans when they made their move into the Korean Peninsula as part of their rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty. Following in the wake of the rise of the Ming Dynasty under the Zhu Yuanzhang, the royal court in Goryeo split into two competing factions: the group led by General Yi (supporting the Ming Dynasty) and the camp led by his rival General Choi (supporting the Yuan Dynasty).

When a Ming messenger came to Goryeo in 1388 (the 14th year of King U) to demand the return of a significant portion of Goryeo’s northern territory, General Choi seized the opportunity and played upon the prevailing anti-Ming atmosphere to argue for the invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula (Goryeo claimed to be the successor of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo; as such, restoring Manchuria as part of Korean territory was a tenet of its foreign policy throughout its history).

A staunchly opposed Yi was chosen to lead the invasion; however, at Wihwa Island on the Amrok River, he made a momentous decision, commonly called "Turning back the army from Wihwa Island a.k.a Wihwa-do Retreat", that would alter the course of Korean history. Knowing of the support he enjoyed both from high-ranking government officials, the general populace, and the great deterrent of Ming Empire under the Hongwu Emperor, he decided to revolt and swept back to the capital, Gaesong, to secure control of the government.

General Yi swept his army from the Yalu River a.k.a Amrok River straight into the capital, defeated forces loyal to the king (led by General Choi, whom he proceeded to eliminate) and forcibly dethroned King U in a de facto coup d'état but did not ascend to the throne right away. Instead, he placed on the throne King U's son, King Chang, and following a failed restoration of the former monarch, had both of them put to death. General Yi, now the undisputed power behind the throne, soon forcibly had a Goryeo royal named Wang Yo, now King GongYang (공양왕/恭讓王), crowned as king. After indirectly enforcing his grasp on the royal court through the puppet king, Yi then proceeded to ally himself with Sinjin aristocrats such as Jeong Do-jeon and Jo Jun. In 1392 (the 4th year of King GongYang), Yi dethroned King GongYang, exiled him to Wonju (where he and his family were secretly murdered), and ascended the throne. The Goryeo Dynasty had come to an end after 475 years of rule.

One of the most widely repeated episodes that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Goryeo was in 1392, when Taejo's fifth son, Yi Bang-won (later King Taejong), threw a party for the renowned scholar, poet and statesman Jeong Mong-ju, who refused to be won over by Yi despite their numerous correspondences in the form of archaic poems, and continued to be a faithful supporter the old dynasty, and a leading figure in the opposition to Yi's claim to the throne. Jeong was revered throughout Goryeo, even by Yi Bang-won himself, but he was seen to be an obstacle and as such, in the eyes of supporter of the new dynasty, had to be removed. After the party, on his way home, Jeong was murdered by five men on the Seonjuk Bridge (선죽교/善竹橋) in Gaeseong. This bridge has now become a national monument of North Korea, and a brown spot on one of the stones is said to be a bloodstain of his which turns red when it rains.

Yi Seong-gye declared a new dynasty in 1392-1393 under the name of Joseon (meaning to revive an older dynasty also known as Joseon, founded nearly four thousand years previously) and renamed the country the "Kingdom of Great Joseon". An early achievement of the new monarch was improved relations with China; and indeed, Joseon had its origin in General Yi's refusal to attack China in response to raids from Chinese bandits. Shortly after his accession, the new monarch sent envoys to inform the Ming court at Nanjing that a dynastic change had taken place.

Envoys from the Ryūkyū Kingdom were received in 1392, 1394 and 1397. Siam sent an envoy in 1393. In this process of establishing the new dynasty's foreign relations, envoys were dispatched to Japan, seeking the re-establishment of amicable relations. The mission was successful; and Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was reported to have been favorably impressed by this initial embassy.

In 1394, the capital was established at Hanseong (Seoul). When the new dynasty was promulgated and officially brought into existence, Taejo brought up the issue of which son would be his successor. Although Taejo's fifth son by Queen Sinui of Anbyeon Han Clan, Yi Bang-won, had contributed most to assisting his father's rise to power, he harbored a profound hatred against two of his father's key allies in the court, the prime minister Jeong Do-jeon and Nam Eun.

Both sides were fully aware of the mutual animosity that existed between each other and constantly felt threatened. When it became clear that Yi Bang-won was the most worthy successor to the throne, Jeong Do-jeon used his influence on the king to convince him that the wisest choice would be in the son that Taejo loved most, not the son that Taejo felt was best for the kingdom.

In 1392, the eighth son of King Taejo (the second son of Queen Sindeok of Koksan Kang Clan), Grand Prince Uian (Yi Bang-seok) was appointed Prince Royal, or successor to the throne. After the sudden death of the queen, and while King Taejo was still in mourning for his second wife, Jeong Do-jeon conspired to pre-emptively kill Yi Bang-won and his brothers to secure his position in court.

In 1398, upon hearing of this plan, Yi Bang-won immediately revolted and raided the palace, killing Jeong Do-jeon, his followers, and the two sons of the late Queen Sindeok (Crown Prince Yi Bang-seok and Prince Yi Bang-beon). This incident became known as the First Strife of Princes. Aghast at the fact that his sons were willing to kill each other for the crown, and psychologically exhausted from the death of his second wife, King Taejo immediately crowned his second son Yi Bang-gwa, later King Jeongjong, as the new ruler. Thereafter, King Taejo retired to the Hamheung Royal Villa, Southern Hamgyeong Province.

In 1400, King Jeongjong invested his brother Yi Bang-won as heir presumptive and voluntarily abdicated. That same year, Yi Bang-won assumed the throne of Joseon at long last as King Taejong. Ten years after his abdication, King Taejo died on May 24th 1408 in GwangYeon Pavilion (GwangYeollu), Changdeok Palace, Seoul Jongno-gu. He was buried at the Royal Tomb of Geonwolleung (健元陵), Part of Donggureung Royal Tomb Cluster (東九陵) in 197 Donggureung Avenue/Donggureungno, Inchang-dong san 4-2 beonji, Guri City, Gyeonggi ProvinceThe tomb is accessible by using Interstate 100 LOOP: Seoul Ring Expressway and exit to EXIT 10: Guri IC.