Post-classical history

Chapter Eighty


Compromises and Settlements

Between 1368 and 1392, the Goryeo dynasty gives way to the Joseon, and the southern court of Japan gives way to the northern

EAST OF TIMUR, insulated by the sheer expanse of earth and water from Timur and from plague, Goryeo was struggling with the presence of the Ming instead.

The fall of the Yuan dynasty gave the rulers of Goryeo a chance to recover their old status. Kublai Khan had forced them to replace their traditional title of emperor with the lower rank of vassal king, and had further tied the royal family to his own through marriage; one of his (many) daughters had been sent to Goryeo as a royal bride, and since then, Goryeo kings had continued to marry Mongol wives.

When Yuan might began to deflate during the Red Turban rebellions, King Gongmin of Goryeo had begun, tentatively, to reclaim his power. The Hongwu Emperor’s coronation, in 1368, was a green light; King Gongmin immediately sent messages of friendship and respect to the new Ming emperor, and at the same time appointed the Buddhist monk Shin Ton to help carry out a purge of the Mongols in his own government.1

The cleansing of Goryeo from Mongol influence was not a simple thing. For nearly a century, Goryeo’s kings had not only married Mongol wives but had gone to Yuan China for their education; Gongmin himself had spent years studying politics and Confucian thought at the Mongol capital Dadu. But a contemporary chronicle gives us an unexpected glimpse into the resentment that must have simmered around him, after his return. When the young man and his brother went in to see their father the king, he flew into a temper and shouted at them, “Both your parents are Korean. Why do you come to see me in Mongolian clothing? . . . How do you have the face to see people? Change your clothes immediately!”2

The Mongol thread woven through Goryeo’s everyday life seems to have been a constant humiliation to Gongmin. The removal of Mongol officials soon expanded into a general reprisal against prominent Goryeo citizens who had been Mongol-friendly. With the king’s approval, Shin Ton even created a new agency, the “Directorate for Reclassification of Farmland and Farming Population,” whose sole task was to investigate pro-Yuan landholders with the intent of taking their land and slaves away, redistributing the land and freeing the slaves.3

But Gongmin’s determination to clean out the Mongol vein from the bedrock of Goryeo culture was not shared by everyone at his court. For many of his people, the ways of the Yuan had simply become their ways; the foreigners to be feared were the Ming, the aggressive new empire that no one yet knew or understood.

Adding an additional layer of disturbance, Japanese pirates, called wokou, were taking advantage of the divided court and ongoing civil war at home to range lawlessly through the sea. Raids on Goryeo’s coast grew so severe that Gongmin ordered warehouses on the coast, used for storing official taxes paid in rice, moved inland. Peasants who had always farmed the fertile lands along the water gave up and fled from the sea. Gongmin gave the defense against pirates over to his general Yi Seong-gye. Famous for his skills as an archer, Yi Seong-gye was personally responsible for picking off the most notorious of the pirates, the much-feared Akibatsu, with his own arrow.4

The wokou sometimes staged raids with as many as three thousand pirates and scores of ships; they were a constant plague not only to Goryeo but to the Ming coast as well. Yet the Ashikaga shogunate had been, so far, powerless to restrain them, as it was powerless to restrain most bandit activity that took place far away from Kyoto. The Japanese monarchy itself was divided, with an emperor from the senior imperial line ruling in Kyoto, a rival emperor from the junior line holding court in the southern mountains. The Ashikaga shogun had tied his fortunes to the emperor in Kyoto; and that emperor’s reach was short and weak.

And in 1368, the newly appointed shogun was a ten-year-old boy: Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, grandson of the first Ashikaga shogun. He had been left in the hands of the highly capable and conscientious regent Hosokawa Yoriyuki, but Yoriyuki was soon forced to leave Kyoto by his political rivals. Japan remained divided into battling military zones, with local warlords doing as they pleased; no ruler, imperial or military, had the power to bring peace to the countryside, let alone the distant pirate-haunted coasts.

IN 1371, the reformist monk-official Shin Ton was assassinated; his energetic land claiming and slave freeing had made him many enemies in Goryeo. Doggedly, King Gongmin continued his anti-Yuan, pro-Ming policies, hardening the fears of those who saw Ming power looming too close. Three years later, he too was assassinated.

The architect of the assassination was his chief general Yi In-im, who held the reverse of the dead king’s positions: he was pro-Yuan, and anti-Ming, and believed that Goryeo would find independence only in resisting all Ming demands. Yi In-im presided over the coronation of Gongmin’s son, eleven-year-old Wu, and himself took control of the government. He found this easy to do; Wu was both young and in an ambivalent position. Later accounts (all of which have a stake in proving that Wu was never a legitimate king) explain that he was widely rumored to be not Gongmin’s son at all, but the illegimate son of the dead monk Shin Don, smuggled into the palace because Gongmin’s wife was barren.5

For nearly fourteen years, pro-Ming and Ming-phobic factions struggled in the Goryeo government. Yi In-im himself fell in the conflict. The general Yi Seong-gye, hero of the fight against Japanese piracy, gained a following as a pro-Ming leader. Like the dead Gongmin, he believed it was more politic to pacify the Ming than to annoy them.

In the summer of 1388, the conflict came to a point when the Ming Hongwu Emperor made a demand for the return of the northern lands once held by the Yuan. Under the influence of his anti-Ming advisors, King Wu ordered General Yi Seong-gye to lead an attack on the nearest Ming territory. Yi Seong-gye protested. This, he said, was a very bad idea, and he sent the young king a letter explaining exactly why.

First, it is not profitable for a small kingdom to attack a bigger kingdom.

Second, it is not appropriate to mobilize large troops in summer.

Third, there is the possibility of Japanese pirates invading the southern parts if large troops are concentrated in the northern parts.

Fourth, bows cannot be used due to the melting of the bowstrings in summer when it is rainy and sweltering much, and soldiers suffer from many diseases.6

King Wu refused to listen. Exasperated, Yi Seong-gye marched his army straight into the capital city and arrested both the young king and his anti-Ming advisors. The coup was a relatively peaceful one; Wu was treated kindly, but he was firmly deposed.7

At first, Yi Seong-gye and his allies chose a new king to serve as their puppet; but in April of 1392, Yi Seong-gye crowned himself ruler of Goryeo. He renamed himself Taejo and declared the following year, 1393, to be the first year of a new era. He also renamed the country: from now on it would be Joseon, the name he also gave to his new dynasty.

It was a relatively peaceful transition. In an effort to keep bloodshed to a minimum, the new emperor Taejo ordered that all government officials be removed from their posts, deprived of their titles, and put under house arrest; then he appointed a new administration. He announced the construction of a new capital city: the city of Hanyang, which was renamed Hanseong, and known widely simply as the seoul, a common noun meaning “capital.” A massive building project, recruiting almost twenty thousand laborers, began, and a massive new royal wall was built around the city during the cold season, when the laborers were not needed on their own farms. The city had four gates: Great East, Great South, Great West, and Sukjeongmun the north gate, barred so that it could not be used except for ritual purposes.

And Taejo continued to pacify the Ming. Joseon, he believed, was “a small nation serving a greater nation,” and there was both honor and virtue in acting with proper submission. Despite his years of army service, King Taejo was a diplomat through and through. When the Ming emperor sent a demand for tribute to be paid every three years, Taejo sent a counterproposal: he would send it three times per year instead. Somewhat startled, the Hongwu Emperor agreed.8

He was not excessively concerned with his own dignity, merely with the survival of his country and the stability of his own throne. And in this, he triumphed. “He achieved a prosperous era,” the poet and courtier Jeong Do-jeon wrote, in praise of his reign, “. . . as the King enjoys longevity / all the people are rejoiced.”

In 1395, Taejo commissioned the carving of a star map: a representation of the sky with 1,467 stars, the Milky Way, and almost three hundred constellations.* Based on a rubbing of a first-century star map, long lost, the new star map included a new element: representations of the relative brightness of each star, with dim stars carved smaller, brighter ones larger. The map itself reflects a first-century sky, but the carving of the stars was based entirely on observation of the sky: it was a complicated and detailed undertaking, the kind of thing that is sponsored by a monarch who has chosen not to fight, in favor of looking outward instead.9

MEANWHILE, the young Ashikaga shogun Yoshimitsu had been slowly earning greater and greater respect at the Kyoto court; this respect was demonstrated by the raft of ceremonial titles he was awarded, one by one. By the age of twenty-one, he held every title that his father and grandfather had claimed; by 1380, aged twenty-three, he had become the Minister of the Left, the second-highest position at court.10

Increasingly, he took to himself the rituals and symbols of sovereignty. He even called himself “King of Japan” in his dealings with the Ming emperor; the Ming disliked dealing with subordinates, and without the royal title Yoshimitsu would have been unable to exchange embassies and treaties with the Hongwu Emperor and his successors.


80.1 Joseon and Japan

Meanwhile, the southern court at Yoshino was fading. The southern emperor, Go-Daigo’s grandson Go-Kameyama, was in possession of the sacred regalia of the Japanese emperors, but he could boast little else. In 1392, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu managed to negotiate a compromise: if Go-Kameyama would travel to Kyoto with the sacred regalia and hand it over to the northern emperor (an act that would ritually legitimize the Kyoto emperor’s rule), the shogun would see that Go-Kameyama was awarded the title of Cloistered Emperor. He also promised that the next ruling emperor would come from the junior line, and that rule would alternate between the senior and the junior branches of the family.11

This was exactly the same compromise that had failed sixty years before. But Go-Kameyama chose to be an optimist. He journeyed to Kyoto and surrendered the regalia.

In recognition, Yoshimitsu sponsored a three-day sacred festival in Kyoto. Nightly dances dedicated to the gods (kagura) celebrated the spiritual triumph of reunification, the joy of the end of the Nambokucho era, the conclusion of the age of the “Southern and Northern Court.”12

But the compromise, which theoretically brought the struggle between north and south to an end, had done nothing to bring the fractured military zones back under central rule. It had done nothing to corral the independent-minded warlords out in the provinces. The victory dances were empty: ritual with no reality behind them.


*The Korean name of the map is “Cheonsang yeolcha bunya jido.”

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