In the late fourteenth century, against a background of crumbling Mongol power and the rise of the Ming dynasty in China, the government of Korea changed hands. The state of Koryŏ, its power structure already weakened by the demise of its Yüan overlords, was pushed to the point of collapse, and a new group of leaders took charge. At their head was Yi Sŏnggye, a distinguished military commander who had made his reputation in campaigns against the Japanese pirates (wakō) and Jurchen raiders in the Korean northeast. Between 1388 and 1392 he led his group through a series of steps to his own enthronement as founder of the state of Chosŏn and became the founder of the dynasty we call the Yi.
In many respects the founding of the Yi dynasty was a corporate venture. Each step along the way involved political risks: Yi needed support, and his followers needed a popular leader. When Yi was not sufficiently ambitious, his supporters pushed him; they acted in his name to overcome obstacles. Yi became king (temple name T'aejo, r. 1392-1398) because his supporters exercised good timing and were willing to take risks. After he mounted the throne, he rewarded his supporters with enfeoffment titles as merit subjects (kongsin). This article investigates the personal and social ties that bound the merit subjects to their patron and to each other.1