The Yi Dynasty


The Choson Dynasty of the Yi clan established its dominion over Korea from 1392. The country was unified and a long period of development and cultural renaissance ensued. The reign of King Se-jong witnessed a remarkable flowering of culture. A new alphabet and writing system invented, astronomical instruments assembled, music and rituals reformed and expanded, printing invented and a whole new Confucian social system based on harmony between mankind and nature established. This flourishing society soon attracted the attention of powerful neighbours.  The Japanese invaded several times during the 1580s and 1590s, taking away many prisoners, but who ultimately transformed Japanese culture. The rise of the Manchu power in the early seventeenth century could not be resisted. Korea became a vassal state in 1637. Although the first contact with Europeans had been established by Portuguese Jesuits in 1594, the English in 1614 and the Dutch in 1653, the country remained virtually closed until the nineteenth century. By the 1860's the world powers were attempting to open up the country to trade by force of arms. The Japanese became the most influential foreign power, particularly after their defeat of China in 1894. King Ko-jong proclaimed his independence from China, turning Korea into the Empire of the Han in 1897. But this independence was short-lived as the country came under increasing Japanese domination. Frequently resorting to assassination or poisoning members of the Imperial family and influential officials who opposed them. Defeat of Russia in 1905 removed the only counterweight against them. They forced the abdication of the independent minded Emperor and proclaimed a protectorate in 1907. In 1910 even this fiction was terminated and the country fully annexed into the Empire of Japan. Thereafter, the Imperial family was incorporated within the Japanese Imperial system. As an instrument of policy several younger members if the family were removed to Japan to be educated and to contract arranged marriages with highborn Japanese ladies.

American and Russian troops freed Korea from the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. Separate republics were eventually established in the North and South of the Korean peninsular. The South, under American auspices and the North, under the influence of the Soviet and later Chinese Communist regimes. Members of the Royal family who had settled in Japan lost their princely status as a consequence of the US inspired constitution of 1947. The first republican government of South Korea remained hostile to the Yi family. Ironically, the first President, the authoritarian Syngman Rhee [Yi Sung-man] was himself a descendant of Prince Hyo-nyong, second son of the third King, T'ae-jong. The government that toppled him from power encouraged the surviving members of the Imperial family to return from Japan in 1960, placing several palaces and residences at their disposal. The Crown Prince was offered the post of Ambassador in London but turned it down due to ill health. He finally returned to Korea in 1963, but suffered a severe stroke as his aircraft touched down at Seoul. He was rushed to hospital immediately, but never fully recovered and remained bedridden for the rest of his life. At his death in 1970, his only surviving son, Prince Yi Ku, succeeded as head of the family and Governor of the Yi Family Association. Trained as an architect at MIT and once married to an American lady, he has no children, only and adopted daughter. As Head of the family, Prince Yi Ku occasionally presides at the annual ceremonies in honour of the ancestors at the Jong-myo.

Male primogeniture, the sons of the Empress (or Queen) succeed before those of junior wives. The sons of Kwi-bin succeeding next, by nomination of the Emperor (or King). Adoption of males from a junior branch of the family is permitted, should the Emperor (or King) die without male issue. The last, provided that (a) the mother of the child was a lady of a rank and status that the adoptive father could have married in ordinary circumstances and (b) the child is one generation younger than the adoptive father. Confucian principles, from which these rules stem, were followed more rigidly in Yi Korea than almost anywhere else, including China.

Edward B Adams, Palaces of Seoul: Yi Dynasty Palaces in Korea's Capital City. Seoul International Tourist Publishing Company, Seoul, Second Edition, 1982.
Edward B Adams, Through the Gates of Seoul. Volumes I and II. Sahm-Bo Publishing Co-operative, Seoul, Korea, 1971.
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Homer B. Hulbert (ed.), "News Calendar", The Korea Review. The Methodist Publishing House, Seoul, 1901, 1902, 1903, 1904, 1905, 1906.
The Japan Gazette: Peerage of Japan. Japan Gazette Co., Yokohama, 1912.
Korean History Project. Internet, Washington DC, 1997 onwards.
Tokyo 1943 (Republished by the Interdepartmental Committee for the Acquisition of Foreign Publications).
The Rev. George Heber Jones, "Historical Notes on the Reigning Dynasty", The Korean Repository, Volumes I-V. Paragon Book Reprint Corp., New York, 1964 (reprint).
Who's Who in Japan. The Who's Who in Japan Office, Tokyo, 1912, 1937, 1942 and 1943.
Yi Pangja, The World is One: Princess Yi Pangja's Autobiography. T'aewon Publishing Company, Seoul, 1973.

Amy Hai Kyung Lee.
Juan Jorge Schaffer.
Hamish Todd.
Copyright©Christopher Buyers
Copyright©Christopher Buyers
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Copyright©Christopher Buyers, August 2000 - August 2010