Architect of the Joseon Dynasty, Jeong Do-jeon

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Jeong Do-jeon (1342-1398) was a scholar-official born at the end of the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) who assisted Yi Seong-gye in the foundation of the Joseon dynasty. He was the first meritorious subject of Joseon and served as the first chief state councilor of Joseon from its foundation until his assassination in 1398. Jeong is remembered as the primary architect of the Joseon dynasty; His policies formed the ideological basis for the over 500-year-long dynasty.

Jeong, born to a noble family, was a major advocate of Neo-Confucianism and lectured on the topic at Seonggyungwan Academy after having served various other civil offices from 1363. In 1375, he was exiled from the capital due to his opposition to Yuan-friendly policies. During his nine-year-long exile, he saw the plight of the common people first hand and felt strongly the need for dynastic reform. It was in 1383, also during his exile, that Jeong first met Yi Seong-gye (1335-1408). After 1388, Jeong was again exiled after having eliminated the old Goryeo authorities, but was released in 1392 when the Yi’s fifth son, Yi Bang-won (1367-1422), killed the leader of the pro-incumbent faction.

After Joseon was founded, Yi Seong-gye – now the king – entrusted Jeong with both civil and military affairs. Jeong had the capital moved from Gaegyeong (present-day Gaeseong) to Hanyang (part of present-day Seoul) and determined the location and name of Gyeongbokgung Palace and its buildings. He changed the state religion from Buddhism to Confucianism. He argued for a political system in which high officials, rather than the king, are the true authorities and the officials should rule with reason. He believed that political authorities should act for the sake of the citizens and that when citizens lose faith in the political authorities, it is evidence of the need for dynastic reform. Having witnessed the plight of the commoners, he took interest in agriculture productivity and land distribution and, therefore, promoted policies of land redistribution and nationalization of industry, commerce, salt farming, and mining. Jeong also convinced Yi Seong-gye to install his eighth son, Yi Bang-seok (1382-1398), as crown prince, a decision which would lead to his eventual demise.

Yi Bang-won (half-brother of Bang-seok) felt he should be his father’s successor as he had contributed the most to his father’s rise to power. He also wanted to rule as an absolute monarch, which was in opposition to Jeong’s support of an official-led governance system. When the crown prince’s mother suddenly died in 1398, Jeong, concerned about Yi Bang-won, plotted to have him killed. Hearing this, Yi Bang-won murdered Jeong, the crown prince, and others in what came to be called the First Prince’s Revolt. As Yi Bang-won’s descendants became the future kings, historical records of Jeong, such as that in the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty, included false charges that he slandered the royal family and was considered a disgraced figure for most of the Joseon period.

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