Chosŏn is the longest-lasting royal dynasty in Korean history. It was founded in 1392 after the collapse of the Mongol empire and the previous Koryŏ dynasty. As the last royal dynasty in premodern Korea, it shaped modern Korean notions of social status, ritual practices, and other aspects of lifestyle. These issues can be seen in the transformation from the Mongol-dominated and Buddhism-influenced Koryŏ dynasty to a Confucian society in Chosŏn.
In the 13th century, during the expansion of the Mongol empire, Korea was invaded by the Mongols and the ruling regime, the Koryŏ dynasty became a vassal state of the Mongol-Yuan dynasty. During this period of Mongol domination, Koryŏ was closely connected with Mongol Empire. Although the invasions devastated Korea, integration with the Mongol empire also facilitated knowledge transmission, spreading new concepts of mathematics, medicine, and astrology to Korea (Robinson,4). Along with these concepts, a philosophical system called Neo-Confucianism, which was promoted in Yuan court, also spread to Korea. Before continuing, it is worth discussing how Neo-Confucianism is different from Confucianism in general. Neo-Confucianism is a modern term for a particular school of Confucian thought that emerged during the Song dynasty (960-1279) in China. In fact, Confucianism had been the official philosophy for the political system since the Han period (220 BCE-220) in China, being the preferred political philosophy used by many later Chinese and Korean regimes. However, scholars in different periods provided different interpretations of Confucian classics, adapting them to contemporary needs. One of the most influential adaptations was from Cheng Yi (1033-1107) and Cheng Hao (1032-1085) in the Song dynasty. The Cheng brothers believed that scholars after Mencius (372-289 BCE) were completely wrong in how they interpreted Confucius’ teachings. They called their own "correct" interpretation the “Learning of the Way” (Dao xue), a tradition of interpreting Confucianism that scholars today nowadays often call Neo-Confucianism (Robinson, 4).
Confucianism, as an ethical philosophy, teaches that each individual should follow their social roles. It envisions that a harmonious society following Confucian theory would enforce a patriarchal family structure and distinctions in social roles and status for different people according to their relationships to one another. Confucianism also values the importance of family and advocates the family as the primary unit of society. All of these ideas drew the Mongol-Yuan emperors’ attention. They sponsored this school of thought because they expected this could assist them in the administration of the hybrid Chinese and Mongol society (Seth, 129). After the Mongols gradually stabilized their regime, the Chinese civil service exam was used again to fill the government position after 1313. But one thing that is different from the previous Chinese civil exam was Mongols revived the civil exam and made the Neo-Confucian interpretation of Chinese classics the official, authoritative standard for the exam. Through the close relationship between Yuan Mongol and Koryŏ Korea, many Koreans came to the capital city of Yuan to take the civil service exam. More importantly, many Koreans brought Neo-Confucianism learning back to Korea (Robinson, 7).
The circulation and spread of Neo-Confucianism in Korea made Korean scholars reevaluate their current political system, society, and personal behavior. But it was the collapse of the Mongol Empire that catalyzed the eventual establishment of Neo-Confucianism as the dominant political philosophy in Korea. Since the close relationship between the Yuan Mongols and Koryŏ Korea was linked with royal marriage, the collapse of the Mongol empire also plunged Korea into political turmoil. In 1392, military commander Yi Sŏng-gye overthrew and established a new regime on the Korean peninsula, Chosŏn. Change in government led to other kinds of transformation. Among the officials who brought Yi to power, many of them were reform-minded Confucian scholars who thought Korean society should follow Neo-Confucian teachings as their guiding principles. One such scholar, Chŏng To-jŏn, played a decisive role in designing the Chosŏn political system (Robinson, 21).
The reason why many Chosŏn scholars tried to reform the political and social system, which included a crackdown on Buddhist institutions that had been important to the previous dynasty, was due to corruption in the later Koryŏ dynasty. Buddhist temples and monasteries were prosperous in the Koryŏ dynasty, but many people used them as a way to escape taxation and corvée labor duties. Moreover, Confucian scholars also attacked Buddhism from an ideological standpoint; they thought Buddhist values were too otherworldly and selfish because Buddhism advocated achieving self-enlightenment instead of being devoted to family and society. Thus, these Confucian scholars also advocated transforming Korea into a Confucian society, which required reducing the influence of Buddhism (Robinson, 21).
As implemented in Chosŏn, Neo-Confucianism emphasizes the hierarchy and position of people in society with their own roles and responsibilities. During the Chosŏn dynasty, people were grouped into four major status groups. The yangban elite was at the top of the social ladder; membership in this status was determined primarily by ancestry. However, even if descendants might be born as yangban, they still need to take civil service exams to maintain their prestige. Overall, yangban held the bulk of the wealth, power, and high status (Seth, 175). After yangban is the secondary elite group called chungin. Chungin is a complicated social status group that includes diverse secondary status groups. Some of the secondary status groups were formerly elite groups that separated from the elite clan because they worked in local offices instead of the central government (Cho, 824). Other secondary status groups included offspring of yangban father and commoner or lowborn mother. The commoners or sangin are the third-ranked groups. At the bottom of the social ladder were slaves or lowborn (Ch’ŏnin) who were treated as property by those above them. There was very little upward social mobility as any positions of significance and even entrance exams to those positions were strictly limited to those of a particular status decided by one’s birth. Entrance to the state school system was also limited to those of a certain social rank, such as yangban (Stiller, 6).
When Yi Sŏng-gye founded Chosŏn, he and his supporters learned their lessons from the Koryŏ dynasty. They understood that corruption in the bureaucracy could exist under the protection of religion. In response, Yi and his followers then tried to build a country with strict social order and hierarchy, with Confucianism providing the inspiration. Even though Confucianism was used as the official political philosophy to help Yi regulate his country, nothing is perfect in this world, and everything has its pros and cons. Neo-Confucianism also brought social inequality, hierarchy, and other restrictions to Chosŏn society and Chosŏn people. The influence of social order and inequality could also be observed in modern Korean society.