In 1392, the general Yi Seong-gye overthrew the Goryeo dynasty after he staged a coup and defeated General Choe Yeong. Yi Seong-gye named his new dynasty Joseon and moved the capital from Kaesong to Hanseong (formerly Hanyang; modern-day Seoul) and built the Gyeongbokgung palace. In 1394, he adopted Confucianism as the country’s official ideology, resulting in much loss of power and wealth by the Buddhists. The prevailing philosophy of the Joseon dynasty was Neo-Confucianism, which was epitomized by the seonbi class, scholars who passed up positions of wealth and power to lead lives of study and integrity.
Joseon was a nominal tributary state of China but exercised full sovereignty, and maintained the highest position among China’s tributary states, which also included countries such as the Ryukyu Kingdom, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Burma, Laos, among others. In addition, Joseon received tribute from Jurchens and Japanese until the 17th century, and had a small enclave in the Ryukyu Kingdom that engaged in trade with Siam and Java.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, Joseon enjoyed many benevolent rulers who promoted education and science. Most notable among them was Sejong the Great (r. 1418–50), who promulgated Hangul, the Korean alphabet. This golden age saw great cultural and scientific advancements, including in printing, meteorological observation, astronomy, calendar science, ceramics, military technology, geography, cartography, medicine, and agricultural technology, some of which were unrivaled elsewhere. Joseon implemented a class system that consisted of yangban the noble class, jungin the middle class, yangin the common class, and cheonin the lowest class, which included occupations such as butchers, tanners, shamans, entertainers, and nobi, the equivalent of slaves, bondservants, or serfs.
In 1592 and again in 1597, the Japanese invaded Korea; the Korean military at the time was unprepared and untrained, due to two centuries of peace on the Korean Peninsula. Toyotomi Hideyoshi intended to conquer China and India through the Korean Peninsula, but was defeated by strong resistance from the Righteous Army, the naval superiority of Admiral Yi Sun-sin and his turtle ships, and assistance from Wanli Emperor of Ming China. However, Joseon experienced great destruction, including a tremendous loss of cultural sites such as temples and palaces to Japanese pillaging, and the Japanese brought back to Japan an estimated 100,000–200,000 noses cut from Korean victims. Less than 30 years after the Japanese invasions, the Manchus took advantage of Joseon’s war-weakened state and invaded in 1627 and 1637, and then went on to conquer the destabilized Ming dynasty.
After normalizing relations with the new Qing dynasty, Joseon experienced a nearly 200-year period of peace. Kings Yeongjo and Jeongjo led a new renaissance of the Joseon dynasty during the 18th century.
In the 19th century, the royal in-law families gained control of the government, leading to mass corruption and weakening of the state, and severe poverty and peasant rebellions throughout the country. Furthermore, the Joseon government adopted a strict isolationist policy, earning the nickname “the hermit kingdom”, but ultimately failed to protect itself against imperialism and was forced to open its borders, beginning an era leading into Japanese imperial rule.