[KS] KSR 2002-07: _The Origins of the ChosOn Dynasty_, by John B. Duncan

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Mon May 13 02:32:03 EDT 2002

_The Origins of the ChosOn Dynasty_, by John B. Duncan.  Seattle: University of Washington Press. 2000. 395 pages. ISBN 0-2959-7985-2.

Reviewed by J. Michael Allen
Brigham Young University - Hawaii

[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 5.1 (2002): 97-99.  _Acta
Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

	Perhaps partly because we live in an age in which dynasties do not dominate the political landscape, a change in dynasty seems like it should be a momentous event with wide-ranging effects. Indeed, so seductive is the dynastic-change paradigm that we still tend to divide up long histories into dynasty-sized chunks. Such divisions compartmentalize history into what appear to be more manageable portions. One of the effects of such compartmentalization is to emphasize discontinuities and apparent new starts, often at the expense of comparable attention to structures, ideas, and institutions that are resistant to changes in the surname of the ruling family.

	It need not only be dynasties that have the powerful effect of attracting to themselves credit for fundamental changes that either did not happen at all, or happened over a much longer period of time than a simple change of government can account for. I remember as a graduate student being intrigued by Princeton historian (now emeritus) Arno Mayer's book _The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War_ (New York: Pantheon, 1981). Mayer argued that the origins of World War I lay in the desire of Europe's old aristocrats and those aspiring to such status to maintain their position. He directly challenged the view that Europe's old aristocracy was a museum piece in the first two decades of the twentieth century, stripped of effective influence in favor of the bourgeoisie, the group assumed to have emerged by this time as the real actors in the European historical drama.

	It was Mayer's work, rather than other studies of Korean history, that first came to mind when I took up John Duncan's important new book. Duncan argues persuasively that the fourteenth-century change from KoryO to ChosOn was not the wholesale replacement of an old aristocracy by a new group with new interests. Rather, he examines the KoryO-ChosOn transition in the context of centuries-long developments in governing structures going back at least to the beginning of the KoryO kingdom in the tenth century.  It was the structures put in place in the early KoryO period that led to the development of the yangban aristocracy-a group whose interests were not only opposed to those of the hyangni local elite (from whose ranks many of the yangban originally sprang), but were increasingly at odds with royal authority as well. In this situation, the forces of reform represented by the powerful and ambitious Yi SOnggye were a magnet for the yangban not because the latter were revolutionaries, but because they hoped to protect the privileges to which their class had become accustomed.

	Duncan argues that the institutions of KoryO rule were designed to accommodate the needs of the locally based hyangni, and to recognize the government's need for their cooperation in the absence of a tradition of strong central rule. The coalescing of the yangban as a new, centralized, bureaucratic elite changed everything, however. By the late fourteenth century, according to the author, "what was needed was a radical reshaping of the dynasty's institutions to reflect the reality of the central yangban's emergence as the dominant social group" (202). In other words, Duncan does not argue that there were no important sociopolitical changes across the KoryO-ChosOn expanse. The most important ones, however, occurred not at the time of, or following, the dynastic transition itself, but much earlier, as the institutions of power took shape after the founding of KoryO. It was only in the late fourteenth century, however, that serious thought was given to reshaping the state's institutional structure to reflect sociopolitical realities that had changed long before. As Duncan puts it, "a major feature of the KoryO-ChosOn transition was the continued domination of the central bureaucracy by the great yangban descent groups of the KoryO, making it very unlikely that revamped institutions represented the concerns of a new social class" (204). In other words, as the title of Mayer's book suggested, the founding of ChosOn represents in important ways the persistence of the old regime.

	Chapter 1 of Duncan's history, "The KoryO Political System," draws on the work of S. N. Eisenstadt, among others, to describe the early KoryO political system and its limitations.  KoryO's kings are shown to have been severely compromised in terms of their ability to wield the power of a centralizing state. The primary check on royal authority was a new hereditary group of land-owning high officials who dominated politics at the center. This group is described in more detail in Chapter 2, "Central Bureaucratic Aristocracy." Though the new bureaucratic aristocracy had its roots and its wealth in land outside the capital, over the course of the KoryO period their interests and identity lay more and more in the capital, and they increasingly defined themselves in terms of a history of office-holding rather than by reference to their earlier status as members of more localized elites. By the late KoryO period, this group's sense of itself had taken on the characteristics normally used to describe the yangban of the ChosOn period. "The use of the term yangban by late KoryO elites to refer to themselves as a discrete social entity appears to be a natural consequence of the great official descent groups' awareness that the source of their prestige lay in their history as central office-holders" (88-89). In Chapter 3, "The Yangban in the Change of Dynasties," Duncan examines in detail the continuities in the elites of the KoryO and ChosOn periods. This chapter is full of statistical analysis and contains the majority of the book's twenty-six tables illustrating the connections between descent and central office holding.

Chapter 4, "Institutional Crisis in the Late KoryO," discusses developments in the second half of the KoryO period that are crucial for understanding the author's contention about the timing and nature of the sociopolitical changes preceding the fourteenth-century dynastic transition.  Just at the time when royal power was severely compromised due to military and Mongol domination, the yangban moved into a stronger position in the central bureaucracy.  The problem for these yangban was that the KoryO political system was designed to meet the needs of local elites who had become accustomed to exercising influence and controlling resources in a state that was not strongly centralized. As described in Chapter 5, "Reform and Dynastic Change," it was largely in order to resolve these contradictions that the central yangban supported early ChosOn reforms. This led to important areas of royal-yangban common interest, particularly in reforms designed to reduce the power of local elites. In Chapter 6, "The Ideology of Reform," Duncan takes up the question of the role of "a new and vigorous Confucian discourse," based on Chinese Ch'eng-Chu Learning (he shuns the term "Neo-Confucianism) in the KoryO-ChosOn transition. Having already made the case that there was no new group of scholar-officials that rose to prominence only with the advent of the new dynasty, he now challenges the view that Ch'eng-Chu Learning was the "class ideology" of any such group. This is not to say that Ch'eng-Chu Learning was unimportant in the early ChosOn period, or that it was used only cynically to buttress a new dynasty.  Interest in a revitalized Confucianism dates to the time of the Mongol Yuan dynasty and its influence on KoryO, but it always had to find accommodation with a Korean "Ancient Style" intellectual tradition. Indeed, the set of ideas that Duncan sees motivating and justifying political reform in the first half of the ChosOn period is a hybrid of Ancient Style and Ch'eng-Chu. This appears to be another case in which the obvious (a dynastic transition) obscures the less obvious but perhaps more important (a mixing of intellectual traditions providing an ideological basis for reform).

	In the concluding chapter Duncan steps back from the details to discuss how his findings relate to broader questions in Korean Studies and points to some themes of interest to those whose specialties lie outside of Korea.  Here and throughout the book, Duncan very usefully compares his conclusions about Korean sociopolitical arrangements with what is known about China. He uses an impressive array of Korean primary sources as the foundation for his argument, which he augments with wide reading in relevant secondary material in Korean, Chinese, Japanese, and English.

	The latest volume in the Korean Studies monograph series from the University of Washington's Jackson School of International Studies, under the general editorship of James B. Palais, this convincing and important contribution to our understanding of Korean history should also be of great value to scholars interested in comparative studies of social structures and political power.

Allen, J. Michael 2002
Review of _The Origins of the ChosOn Dynasty_ by John B. Duncan (2000)
Korean Studies Review_ 2002, no. 7
Electronic file: http://www.koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-07.htm

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