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The Social Background to the Founding of the Chosön Dynasty: Change or Continuity? John Duncan Xt has become a truism in Korean history that the founding of the Chosön dynasty in 1392 represented the victory of a new scholarofficial (sinhúng sadaebu) class that rose in opposition to the old aristocracy during the late Koryö period. This proposition, first articulated in the post-1945 era by such historians as Yi Sangbaek,1 has become a central tenet of a ideological view of Korean history as a series of progressive changes, driven by the rise of successive new social forces and leading ultimately to commercial and industrial development.2 This progressionist interpretation has become a virtual orthodoxy in South Korean historiography. I would like to express my appreciation to Dr. James Palais, whose criticisms and encouragement were a great help in preparing this article. 1.See Yi Sangbaek, Han'guksa künse chön'gi-p'yön (History of Korea: Early modern period) (Seoul: Chindan hakhoe, 1961), pp. 25-62. 2.This view achieved its classic formularization in Yi Kibaek, Han'guksa sillon (A new history of Korea) (Seoul: Ilchogak, 1976). This approach divides the post-Silla history into several periods, each characterized by the growth of a peculiar social group: the local strongmen (hojok) of the early tenth century; the aristocrats (munböl kwijok) of the eleventh and twelfth centuries; the soldiers of the military era; the capitalbased aristocrats (kwönmun sejok) oí the Mongol and late Koryö period; the new class of scholar-officials (sinhúng sadaebu) who founded the Chosön dynasty; the Rusticated 39 40Journal ofKorean Studies Research in support ofthe hypothesis that the Chosön dynasty was founded by new social forces has tended to focus on select individuals such as Chöng Tojön.3 This approach may have some merit to the extent that the men chosen for examination were important leaders, but it offers little to assure us that its subjects are representative of the ruling stratum as a whole. Ina recent effort towards a more comprehensive study, Chöng Tuhúi examined the backgrounds of the merit subjects of the first three reigns of the Chosön dynasty. This valuable research shows these men to be from a variety of backgrounds, including military and civil officials of the old dynasty. Chöng concedes that some of these men, such as Cho Chun, could be considered, "in the broad sense," to be Koryö aristocrats, but he argues that they were at most minor aristocrats who succeeded on their own merit.4 The argument that such men as Cho Chun were distinct from the Koryö aristocracy because they rose as result of their own efforts and ability lacks persuasiveness, since it assumes that hard work and talent were a monopoly of nonaristocratic elements. There is, however, a more fundamental problem with this study: it does not deal with the officialdom in its entirety for either the late Koryö or the early Chosön, making it difficult to accept the contention that clans represented in both late Koryö and early Chosön ruling circles such as the P'yöngyang Cho, the Hwangnyö Min, and the Söngju Yi were not important members of the Koryö aristocracy, and hard to assess the relative importance of the early Chosön merit subjects. In short, without an examination of the origins of all the men known to have held offices in the dynastic government during the late Koryö and early Chosön, we cannotjudge whether there was any significant change in the social composition of the ruling stratum during the Koryö-Chosön transition . Il Although Chöng Tuhüi's study may not provide a definitive answer regarding the social origins of the early Chosön ruling stratum, Literati (Sartm) ofthe Fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; and the large farmers (kwangjak nongmin) and wholesale merchants (tomae sangin) of the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries. 3.See, for example, Han Yöngu's treatment of Chöng Tojön in Han Yöngu, Chöng Tojön sasang üi yön'gu (Studies in the thought of Chöng Tojön) (Seoul: Han'guk munhwa y...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-1665
Print ISSN
0731-1613
Pages
pp. 39-79
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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