The history of Joseon is largely divided into two parts: the early period and the late period; some divide it into three parts, including a middle period. The standard for dividing the early period and the late period is the Imjinwaeran period (Japanese invasions of Korea; 1592–1598). The standard for dividing the early period and the middle period is the Jungjong coup (1506) and the standard for dividing the middle period and the late period is the Imjinwaeran period (Japanese invasions of Korea) or the Qing (Manchu) invasion of Joseon (1636~1637).
Rise to prominence
By the late 14th century, the 400-year-old Goryeo dynasty established by Wang Geon in 918 was tottering, its foundations collapsing from years of war and de facto occupation by the disintegrating Mongol Empire. The legitimacy of Goryeo itself was also becoming an increasingly disputed issue within the court, as the ruling house not only failed to govern the kingdom effectively, but was also supposedly tarnished by generations of forced intermarriage with the Yuan dynasty and rivalries among the various family branches. (Even King U's mother was a known commoner, leading some to dispute his descent from King Gongmin.) Within the kingdom, influential aristocrats, generals, and even prime ministers struggled for royal favor and domination of the court, resulting in deep division among various factions. With the ever-increasing number of raids conducted by Wokou and the invasions of the Red Turbans, those who came to dominate the royal court were the reform-minded Sinjin aristocracy and the opposing Gwonmun aristocracy, as well as generals who could fight off the foreign threats: namely Yi Seong-gye and a former superior and rival, Choe Yeong.
In the wake of the Ming dynasty under the charismatic Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), the royal court in Goryeo split into two factions: the group led by General Yi (supporting the Ming dynasty) and the camp led by General Choe (standing by the Yuan dynasty). When a Ming messenger came to Goryeo in 1388 (the 14th year of King U) to demand the return of a significant portion of Goryeo's northern territory, General Choe seized the chance and argued for the invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula. (Goryeo was the successor state of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo; as such, restoring Manchuria as part of Korean territory was part of its foreign policy throughout its history.) A staunchly opposed Yi was chosen to lead the invasion; however, at Wuihwa Island on the Yalu River, he revolted and traveled back to Gaegyeong (modern-day Gaeseong and the capital of Goryeo). He proceeded to eliminate General Choe and his followers and began a coup d'état, overthrowing King U in favor of his son, King Chang, in 1388. He later killed King U and his son after a failed restoration and forcibly placed a royal named Yo on the throne, who became King Gongyang. After indirectly enforcing his grasp on the royal court through the puppet king, Yi proceeded to ally himself with members of the Sinjin aristocracy, such as Jeong Dojeon and Jo Jun. One of his first acts as the de facto generalissimo of Goryeo was to pass the Gwajeon Law, which effectively confiscated land from the wealthy and generally conservative Gwonmun aristocrats and redistributed it among Yi's supporters in the Sinjin camp. In 1392 (the fourth year of King Gongyang), Yi's fifth son, Yi Bang-won, after failing to persuade a noteworthy aristocrat named Jeong Mong-ju, a supporter of the old dynasty, to swear allegiance to the new reign, had Jeong Mong-ju killed by five assassins, including Jo Yeong-gyu, at Seonjuk Bridge near Gaegyeong, eliminating a key figure in the opposition to Yi Seong-gye's rule. That same year, Yi dethroned King Gongyang, exiled him to Wonju, and ascended to the throne. The Goryeo dynasty had come to an end after almost 500 years of rule.
Elimination of the vestiges of Goryeo
In the beginning of his reign, Yi Seong-gye, now King Taejo, intended to continue using the name Goryeo for the country he ruled and simply change the royal line of descent to his own, thus maintaining the facade of continuing the 500-year-old Goryeo tradition. However, numerous threats of mutiny from the drastically weakened but still influential Gwonmun nobles—who continued to swear allegiance to the remnants of the Goryeo dynasty, now the demoted Wang clan—and the overall belief in the reformed court that a new dynastic title was needed to signify the change led him to declare a new dynasty in 1393. He called it the Kingdom of Great Joseon in an effort to revive an older dynasty by the same name. However, the new dynasty came to be referred to, even by historians today, simply by the name of its ruling house.
With the declaration of the new royal house, concerns were voiced on how to handle the remaining descendants of the deposed Wang family. King Taejo and his officials felt that if the legitimacy of their rule were ever questioned by the remaining members of the Goryeo dynasty, they might have to suppress a mass rebellion or even risk losing the recently gained throne. In the end, Taejo had his prime minister, Jeong Dojeon, summon the Wang family to the coast of the Yellow Sea and instruct them to board a ship bound for Ganghwa Island, where they were told they would live quietly out of the government's sight. However, the entire ploy was a trap. A crew member on board was instructed beforehand to smash a hole in the hull as soon as the ship had entered sufficiently deep waters. The ship sank, and the members of the Goryeo dynasty akin to the recent Kings of Mongolian descent have drowned. According to an urban legend, after the fate of the Wangs gullible enough to board the doomed ship reached their relatives on the mainland, most of them changed their surnames from Wang (王) to Ok (玉) by adding an extra brush stroke, thus hiding their true descent. Meanwhile, the female lines and were spared and those who were of the Wang clan but distant enough to have no claim over the Goryeo throne were forced to change their surnames to that of their maternal side. Nonetheless, most Korean clans up to the time now have the lineage of Goryeo kings due to intermarriage....
TO BE CONTINUED.