Korea 19th century

Korea 19th
The Hermit
Korea ruled by the Choson
Dynasty since 1392-1910
• Probably the longest ruling dynasty in E. Asia
• A dynasty that was famed for its many achievements:
scientific, military. Linguistic artistic
• Korea because of its unique position was always deeply
influenced by China
• Choson dynasty decided to adopt the neo-confucian ideas
of China and make a break with the Buddhist traditions of
the previous Koryo dynasty
• Many ideas in Korea were borrowed from Ming China ( the
Great tradition): script, government, laws etc.
• In the late 16th upto the mid-seventeenth century, China
was weakened by the Japanese and Manchu invasions.
Choson Dynasty Achievements
Korean Society
• Like China had 4 classes:
• Yangban or scholars ( Yangban could be hereditary or could join
this class through succeeding in exams!).
• Farmers
• Artisans, Merchants
• Low born or slaves
– A huge gulf existed between the Yangban and the other
– Unusually high incidence of slavery in Korea
– Like China, Korea too was a male dominated society. Men
had concubines but children from these unions were
discriminated against and formed a sub class among the
The Yangban in Korea
• They were similar to the scholar gentry of the Qing. Performed civil and
military functions
• In Korea, the Yangban examination system more exclusionary than it was in
China. Therefore the Yangban in a way became a hereditary system
• By the 17th century there were divisions among the Yangban. The ones who
were not favoured by the Kings were resentful of the favoured ones.
• Kings often turned to the ‘merit’ yangban to maintain their power and
• They were also hereditary landowners( Kim, Park, Nam and Lee were some
key families). By the 19th century one family rose to prominence: the
Andong Kim.
• Like their Chinese counterparts the Yangban were an educated elite.
• In Korea, the Yangban paid no taxes and were hereditary land owners
The Situation in Korea at the start of
the 19th century
• By the turn of the 19th century, Korea was weaker than it had been two
hundred years earlier
• It had not fully recovered from the Japanese and Manchu Invasions
• Several changes made to strengthen the military and the for the first time
the Yangban were taxed.
• There were huge social tensions amid the Yangban. Divisions arose amidst
the Yangban who vied for position and authority in the Korean Court
• Disgruntled Yangban scholars opened their own schools called Sowon ,
which were often centres of resistance to the Korean rulers
• Succession problems among the rulers in the 18th century created its own
• However, two rulers of the last years of the 18th century had done much
to bring stability to the country.
• This period of peace and relative stability had seen an intellectual and
artistic flowering among the Yangban
• The emergence of the Andong Kim family at the close of the 18th century
Power in the Korean court
Divisions within the Yangban class
• The intellectual flowering during this period led to a division among
the yangban based on ideas and beliefs
• Silhak or Sirhak ( western learning) scholars are the ones who
criticized Yangban privilege and hence were regarded as subversive.
• The Silhak scholars were impressed by what they saw in China and
felt that the Chinese ways were better. This group was open
minded, willing to accept new ideas and were open to ideas
preached by the missionaries.
• Silhak were convinced to form a small secret branch of the Catholic
• Why is this significant? Contact with missionaries was a double
edged sword: openness to new ideas from the West: Math,
Astronomy metallurgy etc but it preached that Christ was the son of
God!!. In China, Japan and Korea the Emperor is the son of
19th Century Korea
The period of weakness of East Asia kingdoms corresponded with the arrival of
the Europeans
On the whole, Christianity was not in favour with the Kings of Korea and converts
were persecuted
In the 19th century the French missionaries played an important part in Korea
Turmoil in Korean society had begun in the 18th century, when many slaves were
able to buy back their freedom and commoners abandoned the lands because
they were unable to pay the high taxes,
Among the Yangban tensions arose. The lower class Yangban were trapped. In the
18th century many marginal Yangban had formed what was called a ‘middle class’
Many of this class had converted to Christianity as they were attracted by the ideas
of equality
Southern Yangban had become very powerful and were resented by the Northern
faction and the Old Doctrine group tended to dominate the Korean kings
Court at Seoul thus rent with factionalism. There was pressure for change and
19th century Korea External influences
• Europeans and the US were looking for trade
opportunities, colonies and the right to proselytize.
• In Korea, Christianity was introduced by the Portuguese
missionaries who successfully converted some of the
Korean emissaries who were visiting in China.
• French missionaries were allowed to carry out
proselytising missions
• The arrival of the Europeans was the catalyst for
change in China and Japan, but how would Korea deal
with it?
Influences at
work in 19th
Christianity in Korea
• One of the issues that caused much tension within the
royal court was the introduction of Christianity or Sohak (
new learning)
• Christianity welcomed by the ‘middle class’ and the lower
classes, It tended to attract the lower classes and the
uneducated. It was mostly a religion for the urban dwellers
• The Andong Kim family were supportive of Christianity, so
during the early years of the 19th century, western priests
were allowed to enter Korea, and the number of converts
rose to 20,000
• Suspicions of the missionaries and also the actions of the
Silhaks led to a series of bloody massacres, the last of
which was in 1866 under Taewongun
• About 300 such schools
• Each of these was led by a Yangban scholar
official, who often used these to develop and
preach new ideas and philosophies
• These were often centres of resistance to the
• At the same time , many Yangban used Hangul
rather than the traditional Chinese script for their
writings, so often Hangul was seen as a
subversive language
Rise of Tonghak & Silhak
• Supported by the rural areas
• Founded by Ch’oe Che-u. It was a blend of animism, Buddhism and
• Preached the unity of man with God
• Preached of equality among classes
• Basically a religious movement but had social overtones
• The references to the turning wheel of time and that the time had
come for change was what got the Court suspicious and Ch’oe Cheu and some of his followers were executed in 1864
• Sohak on the other hand more of an urban movement. Looked to
western learning and Christianity
• Both sought reform, equality among classes and above all a
reduction in duties to the Upper classes and taxes.
Summary: Korea mid 19th century
• 1864 in Korea saw the rise of yet another minor ruler.
• This coincided with the closing years of the Tokugawa
and the beginning of the Tongzhi Restoration (
remember both countries are responding to the
western presence and Unequal treaties.
• Social pressures in Korea caused by the presence of
Christianity, the rise of middle class who were mostly
urban dwellers and influenced by Christianity
• On the other hand in the rural areas was the rise of the
Tonghak movement
• So how will Korea deal with the same pressures?
Research the life of Taewongun ( use handout and you can
research. Opinions must be cited, research must be cited
You are to prepare a confidential report for the Americans
who will decide how to negotiate with the Koreans. Will it be
a carrot and stick approach or will it be an approach similar
to how Perry approached the Shogun?
Your report should include the following:
– Who is Taewongun. What is his position in the court? Define
position what sort of power does he have
– What is known of his personal life
– An assessment of his attitude to western powers? Is he supportive
of western ideas? Is he open to change or is he a traditionalist?
– What is the situation in the Korean royal court? Is the court
supportive of Taewongun? Is there a rival who may be approached?
– A quick overall assessment: how should the US seek trade terms
with Korea and some justification of your decision
– Word Count: 700
– Tone: Your work must be written like a report, can be first person
– Some creativity is expected
– Work to be uploaded to turnitin by Tuesday 30th November

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