- The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty
In view of the paucity of serious scholarship in English on Korea's traditional history, almost any publication of an English work related to traditional Korea would be a welcome addition to Korean studies in the Western world. John B. Duncan's The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty, however, goes far beyond a simple addition to the bibliography of Korean studies: It calls for a celebration by those who are interested in and concerned with serious studies of traditional Korea. A work of profound scholarship and meticulous research, this book is an extremely important study on an important subject and should be indispensable reading for anyone interested in the history of the Koryŏ and Chosŏn dynasties. It is also an excellent comparative study of aspects of East Asian history and institutions, as Duncan makes frequent references to and perspicacious reflections on the similarities and dissimilarities in the evolution of Korean and Chinese political and social institutions, drawing his ideas from S. N. Eisenstadt's study, The Political System of Empire, as well as others.
The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty challenges a thesis widely held among Korean scholars regarding the transition of power in the course of the dynastic change from Koryŏ to Chosŏn in the late fourteenth century. Ever since the publication of Yi Sangbaek's seminal works, which first [End Page 140] appeared as a series of articles in the 1930s and were later put together as a book in 1949 under the title of Yi-jo kŏn'gukŭi yŏn'gu (A study of founding the Chosŏn dynasty), Koreans scholars have widely accepted the thesis that the Koryŏ-Chosŏn dynastic change came about as a result of work by a new social group who, having developed an irreconcilable conflict of interest against the old order, overthrew the Koryŏ dynasty and established the new Chosŏn dynasty of their own in 1392. This view was further augmented in 1964 by Yi Usŏng (followed by a host of others), who asserted that the new social group that had masterminded the overthrow of Koryŏ was largely drawn from those of hyangni (local clerical officials) background who had acquired "a high degree of literary and administrative skills" (nŭngmun nŭngni). Subsequently, this new social group was called sinhŭng sadaebu (new scholar-officials), and its members were said to have been drawn largely from a small-to-medium-sized land-owning class from the southern provinces, as distinguished from the old elites, now called kwŏnmun sega (powerful descent families), who, residing in the capital region, owned large estates throughout the country and controlled state power. Armed with the new ideology of the reform-minded Cheng-Chu brand of Neo-Confucianism, this new breed of scholar-officials, according to the prevailing Korean scholarship, overthrew the old guard and instituted an entirely new political and social order in accordance with their newly found political ideology. The founding of the Chosŏn dynasty in 1392 thus resulted in a drastic shift in power from the old "powerful descent families" to the "new scholar-officials," in the view of most Korean scholars, and the reforms the new regime introduced marked a significant break in Korea's political and social order. Some even characterized it as "revolutionary." Such an interpretation has been so widely accepted that it has become a part of the foundation on which traditional historical scholarship in Korea has largely been built in the last several decades.
Duncan in this book diametrically challenges this whole thesis. Contrary to Korean scholars' assertions, Duncan sees no significant break in the power structure in the transition from Koryŏ to Chosŏn. Instead, there was a substantial continuity whereby the old elites that had wielded influence in late Koryŏ continued to dominate even after the founding of the Chosŏn dynasty. Rather than being replaced by the so-called new scholar-officials, most...