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Taejo of Joseon

Category: Business and political leaders


Taejo of Joseon (27 October 1335 – 24 May 1408), born Yi Seong-gye, and generally known in Korean mystic literature as General Yi Songgye, was the founder and the first king of the Joseon or Choson Dynasty of Korea reigning from 1392 to 1398.

Taejo's father Yi Ja-chun was a minor Mongol official, but his ethnicity was Korean. Taejo's mother Queen Uihye was originally Chinese. Taejo joined the Goryeo army and rose through the ranks, seizing the throne in 1392. He abdicated in 1398 during the strife between his sons and died in 1408.

The reason we have placed him on the site is that he is praised in Songs of Flying Dragons (Yonghi och 'on ka, 1445-1447),  a monumental work among early Choson eulogies: a cycle of 125 cantos comprising 248 Poems. It was compiled by General Yi Songgye’s grandson - King Sejong – in order to praise the founding of the Choson dynasty by General Yi Songgye.  Even if the General fell short of the praises lavished on him, the verses provide a very good summary of what makes a good ruler – the fourth key pillar in the Four Pillars of Wisdom.

We have used extracts from the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry – edited by Peter Lee.

Songs of Flying Dragons


Written by the foremost philologists and literary men in the Academy of Worthies, the Songs combine poetry and historiography to present the orthodox view of recent history.

For the most part, the poems express themes of praise found in the classics and histories, highlighted with ‘stylistic devices of comparison, amplification, parallelism, and formulas’. Preparation began in 1437 with the gathering of accounts of deeds preserved in the veritable records as well as popular traditions circulating among the people.

From October 1446 to March 1447 seven members of the academy completed the Korean verse; by February-March 1447 a ten-chapter commentary on the Songs was completed. Finally, on November 23, 1447, the king distributed 550 copies of the Songs to his subjects.   General Yi Songgye’s grandson - King Sejong, also used this work to test the use of the new alphabet he had invented.

The first canto-which, together with the second, forms the prologue-sets the theme, mood, and purpose of the book -  praise of the four ancestors and the first and third kings of the dynasty – called the ‘six dragons’.  The central part of the book, cantos 3 to 124, is subdivided into two sections

  • The first, cantos 3 to 109, praises the cultural and military accomplishments of the six dragons
  • The second, cantos 110 to 124, consists of admonitions to future monarchs

The six dragons ‘flying above the land of the Eastern Sea’ are each allocated a number of cantos as follows:

  • Mokcho (d.1274), - The compilers assigned five cantos to Mokcho
  • Ikcho - The compilers assigned nine cantos to Ikcho
  • Tojo (1347-1422) - The compilers assigned four cantos to Tojo,
  • Hwanjo (1315-1361) - The compilers assigned six cantos to Hwanjo, eighty-one to Yi Songgye, and twenty-three to Yi Pangwon. A number of cantos (cantos 32, 43, 86, 88, and 89) celebrate Yi Songgye's marksmanship
  • Yi Songgye (1335-1408) - The compilers assigned eighty-one to Yi Songgye, and a number of cantos (cantos 32, 43, 86, 88, and 89) celebrate Yi Songgye's marksmanship
  • Yi Pangwon (1367-1422) - The compilers assigned twenty-three to Yi Pangwon.

Canto 125 is the conclusion.  Each canto, except for cantos 1 and 125, consists of two poems, the first relating generally the great deeds of Chinese sovereigns and the second those of Choson kings [or their four ancestors].

Throughout the cantos, there is the implication that many of the General’s powers were superhuman, that he was spiritually gifted and that he was to all intense and purposes a shaman of some power.  For example

From the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry – edited by Peter Lee

Yi wielded a huge bow, signifying his great military power, and his arrows made a whirring noise as they flew through the air. Like so many other heroes, Yi's companion in times of peace and war was a horse. He had eight stalwart steeds, all of which performed miracles of one sort or another. During peacetime, hunting trips, contests, or games provided him with occasions to perfect his horsemanship (cantos 44 and 63).

Horses have a symbolic meaning [though he may well have had a horse in a literal sense] and the bow and arrow also has symbolic meaning.  Whether he had eight lovers and wives to help him send the arrows of spiritual energy soaring in him, we will probably never know.

From the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry – edited by Peter Lee

With his supreme physical and spiritual qualities, Yi responded to calls to bring order and peace to a nation harassed by successive waves of foreign invaders: the Red Turbans in 1351, the Mongols in 1362 and 1370 and the Japanese pirates in 1377, 1380, and 1382 (cantos 47-52 and 58-62). Yi Songgye fulfilled the role of a Confucian soldier perfectly by withstanding the trials thrust upon him, responding bravely to the demand of a fate willed by heaven, and identifying his personal destiny with that of the nation.
The ultimate justification of his military prowess, however, is his maintenance and preservation of order, as manifested in good government.
The cantos that celebrate the statesmanship of Yi Songgye, therefore, explore the nature and function of kingship, the relations of power and justice, the role of mercy and remonstrance, and the importance of learning and orthodoxy, culminating in the admonitory cantos that conclude the cycle (cantos 110-125).
The sovereign qualities of the Confucian king enumerated in the Songs recall the cardinal virtues …. Yi Songgye possessed the virtues of benevolence, justice tempered with mercy, learning, wisdom, temperance, compassion, modesty, and brotherly love. As the defender of moral order in the universe and a representative of his culture, the ruler's conduct brings about public order or public disorder.

In effect the compilers of this set of poems were also attempting to show what makes a good ruler, what special qualifications are required of a ruler and the particular functions he is expected to discharge for the good of the human community.

Historical context

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 Korea itself was also becoming an increasingly disputed issue within the court, as the ruling house failed not only to govern the kingdom effectively, but was also tarnished by generations of forced intermarriage with members of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty imperial family and by rivalry amongst the various Goryeo Dynasty royal family.


Within the kingdom, influential aristocrats, generals, and even prime ministers struggled for royal favour and vied for domination of the court, resulting in deep divisions among various factions. With the ever-increasing number of raids against Goryeo conducted by Japanese pirates (wakō) and the Red Turbans invasions of Korea, those who came to dominate the royal court were the reformed-minded Sinjin aristocracy and the opposing Gweonmun aristocracy, as well as generals who could actually fight off the foreign threats—namely a talented general named Yi Seong-gye.

General Yi Seong-gye had gained power and respect during the late 1370s and early 1380s by pushing Mongol remnants off the peninsula and also by repelling well-organized Japanese pirates in a series of successful engagements. He was also credited with routing the Red Turbans when they made their move into the Korean Peninsula as part of their rebellion against the Yuan Dynasty. Following in the wake of the rise of the Ming Dynasty under Zhu Yuanzhang, the royal court in Goryeo split into two competing factions: the group led by General Yi (supporting the Ming Dynasty) and the camp led by his rival General Choe (supporting 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 opportunity and played upon the prevailing anti-Ming atmosphere to argue for the invasion of the Liaodong Peninsula (Goryeo claimed to be the successor of the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo; as such, restoring Manchuria as part of Korean territory was a tenet of its foreign policy throughout its history).


A staunchly opposed Yi was chosen to lead the invasion; however, at Wihwa Island on the Amrok River, he made a momentous decision, commonly called "Turning back the army from Wihwa Island", that would alter the course of Korean history. Knowing of the support he enjoyed both from high-ranking government officials, the general populace, and the great deterrent of Ming Empire under the Hongwu Emperor, he decided to revolt and swept back to the capital, Gaesong, to secure control of the government.

General Yi swept his army from the Yalu River straight into the capital, defeated forces loyal to the king (led by General Choe, whom he proceeded to eliminate) and forcibly dethroned King U in a de facto coup d'état

Wikipedia provides a comprehensive description of what happened next, which is inevitably somewhat bloody and brutal.  It ends by 1392 (the 4th year of the puppet king King Gongyang’s reign), Yi dethroned King Gongyang, exiled him to Wonju (where he and his family were secretly murdered), and ascended the throne. The Goryeo Dynasty had come to an end after 475 years of rule.

Yi Seong-gye declared a new dynasty in 1392–1393 under the name of Joseon, thereby reviving an older state, also known as Joseon, that was, legendarily, established nearly three thousand years previously, and renamed the country the "Kingdom of Great Joseon".


From this point on the General used diplomacy rather than might to provide a stable peaceful dynasty.  An early achievement of the new monarch was improved relations with China.  Korean envoys were dispatched to Japan, seeking the re-establishment of amicable relations. The mission was successful; and Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was reported to have been favorably impressed by this initial embassy.   Envoys from the Ryūkyū Kingdom were received in 1392, 1394 and 1397. Siam sent an envoy in 1393.  In 1394, the capital was established at Hanseong (Seoul).

But the question of succession proved to be a murderous affair.  Aghast at the fact that his sons were willing to kill each other for the crown, and psychologically exhausted from the death of his second wife, King Taejo crowned his second son Yi Bang-gwa, later King Jeongjong, as the new ruler. Thereafter, King Taejo retired to the Hamhung Royal Villa.  In 1400, King Jeongjong invested his brother Yi Bang-won as heir presumptive and voluntarily abdicated. That same year, Yi Bang-won assumed the throne of Joseon at long last as King Taejong.

Ten years after his abdication, King Taejo died on May 24, 1408 in Changdeok Palace. He was buried at the tomb of Geonwonneung (건원릉, 健元陵) in the city of Guri.

In conclusion

The themes followed in the Songs of Flying Dragons, are extremely similar to those followed in the Bhagavad Gita and relate to the age-old problem of whether force, murder and brutality are justified in the name of necessary change.  The concepts of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are meaningless in this context.  Ultimately the only way one can know whether an act of apparent brutality and murder is the right one, is if it is part of the Great Work – and no one actually knows that.  Destruction is needed in order that reconstruction can start in a more creative and non hurtful manner.  As such one may have to ‘hurt’ in order to provide a culture where threats are reduced and creativity can flourish anew.

To a large extent therefore, as a ruler one must establish whether the threats have become so detrimental to spiritual progressthe spirituality of a peoples – that intervention is justified and possibly temporary brutal action.

From the Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry – edited by Peter Lee

The themes in this final section include the prevention and treatment of evils that arise from ease and luxury the role of peace in breeding courage and resolve, the value of modesty and the harm of pride, the evils of flattery and slander, and the transforming power of virtue as the guardian of order.
The final canto ends not only with a prophecy of national greatness but also with an allusive rhetorical question.
Once again the compilers assert that the security of the throne depends entirely upon the ruler's worship of heaven and his dedication to the people.
They then evoke the figure of Tai K'ang of Hsia who, on his way back from a hunting trip, is said to have been ambushed by I, who subsequently seized the throne. T'ai K'ang's loss of the crown, caused by his indulgence in pleasures, shows how his personal conduct was the immediate source of public disorder. The primary element in constructing the total symbolic structure, however, lies in the meaning of the word hunt, a political metaphor for tyranny.
The traditional associations of the hunt with war and games are familiar enough, but here emphasis is on the rapacity of the hunt and on the sportive tyrant whose prey included men. The hunt functions here as a metaphor for the unbounded energy of the tyrant, in disregard of the ideal political and moral order.
Its admonitory appearance in the final canto warns against royal participation in such self-indulgent sport and outlines the cause-and-effect relationship between the moral energy of the ruler and the welfare of his state.
 Such was the figure of the ideal Confucian prince, whose lasting virtues were vital to the future of the dynasty.



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