Taejo of Joseon

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Taejo of Joseon
조선 태조
Portrait of King Taejo
Grand King Emeritus of Joseon
Tenure14 October 1398 – 27 June 1408
King of Joseon
Reign5 August 1392 – 14 October 1398
EnthronementSuchang Palace, Gaegyeong
PredecessorDynasty established
(Gongyang as King of Goryeo)
Born4 November 1335
Ssangseong Prefecture, Great Yuan (present-day Kŭmya County, South Hamgyŏng Province, North Korea)
Died27 June 1408(1408-06-27) (aged 72)
Byeoljeon Hall, Gwangyeonru Pavilion, Changdeok Palace, Hanseong, Joseon
(m. 1351; died 1391)
(m. 1370; died 1396)
among others...
Yi Song-gye (이성계; 李成桂) → Yi Tan (이단; 李旦)
Era name and dates
Adopted the era name of the Ming dynasty:
  • Hongmu (Hongwu) (홍무; 洪武): 1392–1398
Posthumous name
  • Joseon: King Gangheon Seongmun Sinmu Jeongui Gwangdeok the Great[1] (강헌성문신무정의광덕대왕; 康獻聖文神武正義光德大王)
  • Korean Empire: Emperor Seongmun Sinmu Jeongui Gwangdeok Go[a] (성문신무정의광덕고황제; 聖文神武正義光德高皇帝)
  • Ming dynasty: Gangheon (강헌; 康獻)[3]
Temple name
Taejo (태조; 太祖)
ClanJeonju Yi
FatherYi Cha-chun
MotherLady Choe
ReligionKorean Buddhism
Military career
Allegiance Goryeo
Years of service1356–1392
RankCommander-in-Chief of the Three Armies
Korean name
Revised RomanizationTaejo
Birth name
이성계, later 이단
Revised RomanizationI Seonggye, later I Dan
McCune–ReischauerYi Sŏnggye, later Yi Tan
Courtesy name
중결 & 군진
Revised RomanizationJunggyeol & Gunjin
McCune–ReischauerChunggyŏl & Kunjin
Art name
송헌 & 송헌거사
Revised RomanizationSongheon & Songheongeosa
McCune–ReischauerSonghŏn & Songhŏn'gŏsa

Taejo (Korean태조; Hanja太祖; 4 November 1335 – 27 June 1408),[b] personal name Yi Song-gye (이성계; 李成桂), later Yi Tan (이단; 李旦), was the founder and first monarch of the Joseon dynasty of Korea. After overthrowing the Goryeo dynasty, he ascended to the throne in 1392 and abdicated six years later during a strife between his sons. He was honored as Emperor Go (고황제; 高皇帝) following the establishment of the Korean Empire.

Taejo emphasized continuity over change. No new institutions were created, and no massive purges occurred during his reign. His new dynasty was largely dominated by the same ruling families and officials that had served the previous regime.[4] He re-established amicable ties with Japan and improved relations with Ming China.[5][6][7]


Early life[edit]

Taejo's father was Yi Cha-chun, an official of Korean ethnicity serving the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty.[8] His mother, Lady Choe, came from a family originally from Deungju (present-day Anbyŏn County, North Korea).[9]

Historical context[edit]

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 the royal family 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 affected by rivalry among its various branches and by generations of forced intermarriage with members of the Yuan imperial family, while King U's biological mother being a known slave led to rumors contesting his descent from King Gongmin.

Influential aristocrats, generals, and ministers struggled for royal favor and vied for domination of the court, resulting in deep divisions between various factions. With the ever-increasing number of raids against Goryeo conducted by Japanese pirates and the Red Turbans, those who came to dominate the royal court were the reformed-minded Sinjin faction of the scholar-officials and the opposing Gwonmun faction of the old aristocratic families, as well as generals who could actually fight off the foreign threats—namely Yi Song-gye and his rival Choe Yong. As the Ming dynasty started to emerge, the Yuan forces became more vulnerable, and Goryeo regained its full independence by the mid-1350s, although Yuan remnants effectively occupied northeastern territories with large garrisons of troops.

Military career[edit]

Yi Song-gye started his career as a military officer in 1360, and would eventually rise up the ranks.[4] In October 1361, he killed Park Ui, who rebelled against the government. In the same year, when the Red Turbans had invaded and seized Gaegyeong (present-day Kaesŏng), he helped recapture the capital city with 3,000 men. In 1362, General Naghachu invaded Goryeo and Yi Song-gye defeated him after being appointed as commander.[10]

General Yi had gained prestige during the late 1370s and early 1380s by pushing Mongol remains off the peninsula and also by repelling the well-organized Japanese pirates in a series of successful engagements.[4] In the wake of the rise of the Ming dynasty under Zhu Yuanzhang (the Hongwu Emperor), the royal court in Goryeo split into two competing factions: the camp led by General Yi (supporting the Ming) and the one led by General Choe (supporting the Yuan).

When a Ming messenger came to Goryeo in 1388 to demand the return of a significant portion of Goryeo's northern territory, Choe Yong 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 Korean kingdom of Goguryeo; as such, restoring Manchuria as part of Korean territory was a tenet of its foreign policy throughout its history).[citation needed]

A staunchly opposed Yi Song-gye was chosen to lead the invasion; however, at Wihwa Island on the Amnok River, he made a momentous decision known as the Wihwado Retreat, which would alter the course of Korean history. Aware of the support he enjoyed from both high-ranking officials and the general populace, he decided to revolt and return back to Gaegyeong to secure control of the government.


General Yi swept his army from the Amnok River straight into the capital, defeated forces loyal to the royal family (led by General Ch'oe, whom he proceeded to eliminate), and forcibly dethroned King U in a de facto coup d'état, but did not ascend to the throne himself. Instead, he placed on the throne King U's eight-year-old son, Wang Chang, and following a failed attempt to restore the former king to the throne, had both U and his son put to death. Yi Song-gye, now the undisputed power behind the throne, soon forcibly had a distant royal relative named Wang Yo (posthumously King Gongyang) crowned as the new ruler. After indirectly enforcing his grasp on the royal court through the puppet king, he proceeded to ally himself with Sinjin scholar-officials such as Jeong Do-jeon and Jo Jun.

One of the most widely known events that occurred during this period was in 1392, when one of Yi Song-gye's sons, Yi Pang-won, organized a banquet for the renowned scholar and statesman Jeong Mong-ju, who refused to be won over by General Yi despite their assorted correspondence in the form of archaic poems, and continued to be a faithful advocate for the old regime. Jeong Mong-ju was revered throughout Goryeo, even by Yi Pang-won himself, but in the eyes of the supporters of the new dynasty he was seen as an obstacle which had to be removed. After the banquet, he was killed by five men on the Seonjuk Bridge.


In 1392, Yi Song-gye forced King Gongyang to abdicate, exiled him to Wonju (where he and his family were secretly executed), and enthroned himself as the new king, thus ending Goryeo's 475 years of rule.[11] In 1393, he changed his dynasty's name to Joseon.[12]

Among his early achievements was the improvement of relations with the Ming; this had its origin in Taejo's refusal to attack their neighbor in response to raids from Chinese bandits.[6][7] Shortly after his accession, he sent envoys to inform the court at Nanjing that a dynastic change had taken place.[13] Envoys were also dispatched to Japan, seeking the re-establishment of amicable connections. The mission was successful, and Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was reported to have been favorably impressed by this embassy.[5] Envoys from the Ryūkyū Kingdom were received in 1392, 1394 and 1397, as well as from Siam in 1393.[13]

In 1394, the new capital was established at Hanseong (present-day Seoul).[14][15]

When the new dynasty was officially promulgated, the issue of which son would be the heir to the throne was brought up. Although Yi Pang-won, Taejo's fifth son by his first wife Queen Sinui, had contributed the most to his father's rise to power, he harbored a profound hatred against two of Taejo's key allies, Jeong Do-jeon and Nam Eun.

Both sides were fully aware of the mutual animosity and felt constantly threatened. When it became clear that Yi Pang-won was the most worthy successor, Jeong Do-jeon used his influence to convince the king that the wisest choice would be the son that he loved most, not the son that he felt was best for the kingdom.

In 1392, the eighth son of King Taejo (his second son by Queen Sindeok), Yi Pang-sok, was appointed as crown prince. After the sudden death of the queen in 1396 and while Taejo was still in mourning for his wife, Jeong Do-jeon began conspiring to pre-emptively kill Yi Pang-won and his brothers to secure his position in the royal court.[citation needed]

In 1398, upon hearing of this plan, Yi Pang-won immediately revolted and raided the palace, killing Jeong Do-jeon, his followers, and the two sons of the late Queen Sindeok. This incident became known as the 'First Strife of Princes' (제1차 왕자의 난). Aghast at the fact that his sons were willing to kill each other for the throne and psychologically exhausted by the death of his second wife, Taejo immediately named his second son, Yi Pang-gwa (posthumously King Jeongjong), as the new successor and abdicated.[16]

Thereafter, Taejo retired to the Hamhung Royal Villa and maintained distance with his fifth son for the rest of his life. Allegedly, Yi Pang-won sent emissaries numerous times, and each time the former king executed them to express his firm decision not to meet his son again. This historical anecdote gave birth to the term Hamhung Chasa (함흥차사; 咸興差使), which means a person who never comes back despite several nudges.[17] However, recent studies have found that Taejo did not actually execute any of the emissaries; these people died during revolts which coincidentally occurred in the region.[18]

In 1400, King Jeongjong pronounced his younger brother Yi Pang-won as heir presumptive and voluntarily abdicated. That same year, Yi Pang-won assumed the throne of Joseon at last; he is posthumously known as King Taejong.[19]


King Taejo died ten years after his abdication, on June 27, 1408, in Changdeok Palace. He was buried at Geonwonneung (건원릉), Dongguneung Cluster, in present-day Guri, Gyeonggi Province, South Korea.[20] The tomb of his umbilical cord is located in Geumsan County, South Chungcheong Province, also in South Korea.


Although Taejo overthrew Goryeo and expelled officials who remained loyal to the previous dynasty, many regard him as a revolutionary and a decisive ruler who eliminated an inept, obsolete and crippled governing system to save the nation from foreign forces and conflicts.

The resulting safeguarding of domestic security led the Koreans to rebuild and further discover their culture. In the midst of the rival Yuan and Ming dynasties, Joseon encouraged the development of national identity which was once threatened by the Mongols. However, some scholars, particularly in North Korea,[21] view Taejo as a mere traitor to the old regime and bourgeois apostate, while paralleling him to General Choe Yong, a military elite who conservatively served Goryeo to death.

His diplomatic successes in securing Korea in the early modern period are notable.[22][23][24]


  • Father: Yi Cha-chun, King Hwanjo of Joseon (조선의 환조 이자춘; 1315 – 3 May 1360)
    • Grandfather: Yi Chun, King Dojo of Joseon (조선의 도조 이춘; ? – 25 August 1342)
    • Grandmother: Queen Gyeongsun of the Munju Park clan (경순왕후 박씨)
  • Mother: Queen Uihye of the Yeongheung Choe clan (의혜왕후 최씨)
    • Grandfather: Choe Han-gi, Internal Prince Yeongheung (영흥부원군 최한기)
    • Grandmother: Lady Yi, Grand Princess Consort of Joseon State (조선국대부인 이씨)

Consort(s) and their respective issue

  • Queen Sinui of the Cheongju Han clan (신의왕후 한씨; 6 October 1337 – 25 November 1391)
    • Yi Pang-u, Grand Prince Jinan (진안대군 이방우; 1354 – 15 January 1394), first son
    • Yi Pang-gwa, Prince Yeongan (영안군 이방과; 26 July 1357 – 15 October 1419), second son
    • Yi Pang-ui, Grand Prince Ikan (익안대군 이방의; 1360 – 29 October 1404), third son
    • Yi Pang-gan, Grand Prince Hoean (회안대군 이방간; 1364 – 10 April 1421), fourth son
    • Yi Pang-won, Prince Jeongan (정안군 이방원; 13 June 1367 – 30 May 1422), fifth son
    • Yi Pang-yon, Grand Prince Deokan (덕안대군 이방연), sixth son
    • Princess Gyeongsin (경신공주; ? – 29 April 1426), second daughter
    • Princess Gyeongseon (경선공주), third daughter
  • Queen Sindeok of the Goksan Kang clan (신덕왕후 강씨; 12 July 1356 – 15 September 1396)
    • Princess Gyeongsun (경순공주; ? – 8 September 1407), first daughter
    • Yi Pang-bon, Grand Prince Muan (무안대군 이방번; 1381 – 6 October 1398), seventh son
    • Yi Pang-sok, Grand Prince Uian (의안대군 이방석; 1382 – 6 October 1398), eighth son
  • Consort Seong of the Wonju Won clan (성비 원씨; ? – 12 January 1450)
  • Royal Princess Jeonggyeong of the Goheung Yu clan (정경궁주 유씨)
  • Princess Hwaui of the Kim clan (화의옹주 김씨; ? – 18 January 1429)
    • Princess Sukshin (숙신옹주; ? – 17 March 1453), fifth daughter
  • Lady Chandeok of the Ju clan (찬덕 주씨)
    • Princess Uiryeong (의령옹주; ? – 15 February 1466), fourth daughter
  • Palace Lady Kim (궁인 김씨)


One of the many issues demonstrating the early strained relationship between Joseon and Ming was the debate of Taejo's genealogy, which began as early as 1394[25] and became a sort of diplomatic friction that lasted over 200 years. The Collected Regulations of the Great Ming erroneously recorded 'Yi Tan' (Taejo's personal name) as the son of Yi In-im, and that Yi Tan killed the last four kings of Goryeo, thereby establishing Ming's opinion of Taejo as an usurper first and foremost, from the time of the Hongwu Emperor when he repeatedly refused to acknowledge him as the new sovereign of the Korean Peninsula. The first mention of this error was in 1518 (about 9 years after the publication),[26] and those who saw the publication made petitions towards Ming demanding for redress, among others left chanseong Yi Kye-maeng and minister of rites Nam Gon, who wrote Jonggye Byeonmu (종계변무; 宗系辨誣).[27] It took until 1584 (after many Ming envoys had seen the petitions), through chief scholar Hwang Chŏng-uk, that the issue was finally addressed. The Wanli Emperor commissioned a second edition in 1576 (covering the years between 1479 and 1584). About a year after its completion, Yu Hong saw the revision, and returned to Joseon with the good news.[28][29]


In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gojong notably omitted the posthumous name bestowed by China as a sign of the country's "independence" from the Qing dynasty.[2]
  2. ^ In the Korean calendar (lunar), he was born on the 11th day of the 10th lunar month of 1335 and died on the 24th day of the 5th lunar month of 1408.


  1. ^ Taejong Sillok vol. 16, 7 August 1408, entry 3
  2. ^ Gojong Sillok vol. 39, 23 December 1899, entry 1
  3. ^ Taejong Sillok vol. 16, 13 October 1408, entry 1
  4. ^ a b c Seth, Michael J. (2019). A Brief History of Korea: Isolation, War, Despotism and Revival: The Fascinating Story of a Resilient But Divided People. Tuttle Publishing. ISBN 9781462921119.
  5. ^ a b "Korea–Japan Relations → Early Modern Age → Foreign Relations in Early Joseon". Archived from the original on 28 October 2009. Retrieved 8 November 2022.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  6. ^ a b Hussain, Tariq (2006). Diamond Dilemma: Shaping Korea for the 21st Century. Seoul Selection USA. p. 45. ISBN 9781430306412.
  7. ^ a b Hodge, Carl Cavanagh (2008). Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. Vol. 2. Greenwood Press. p. 401. ISBN 9780313334047.
  8. ^ Taejo Sillok vol. 5, 28 April 1394, entry 3
  9. ^ "한국민족문화대백과사전 – 의혜왕후 (懿惠王后)" [Encyclopedia of Korean Culture – Queen Uihye]. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture (in Korean). Retrieved 30 December 2021.
  10. ^ "한국민족문화대백과사전 – 태조 (太祖)" [Encyclopedia of Korean Culture – Taejo]. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture (in Korean). Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  11. ^ "조선왕조실록 – 태조가 백관의 추대를 받아 수창궁에서 왕위에 오르다" [Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty – Taejo ascends to the throne at Suchang Palace]. Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty (in Korean). Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  12. ^ "조선왕조실록 – 국호를 조선으로 정하는 예부의 자문" [Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty – Advice to change the name of the country to Joseon]. Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty (in Korean). Retrieved 28 May 2022.
  13. ^ a b Fang, Zhaoying; Goodrich, Luther Carrington (1976). Dictionary of Ming Biography, 1368–1644. Vol. 2. Columbia University Press. p. 1601. ISBN 9780231038331.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  14. ^ "Seoul municipality website". Archived from the original on 15 May 2011. Retrieved 12 August 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  15. ^ "About Seoul → History → General Information → Center of Korean Culture". Archived from the original on 3 December 2012. Retrieved 12 August 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  16. ^ Yim, Seung-hye (16 January 2022). "KBS can't resist another telling of King Taejong's tale". Korea JoongAng Daily. Retrieved 19 January 2024.
  17. ^ "한국민족문화대백과사전 – 함흥차사 (咸興差使)" [Encyclopedia of Korean Culture – Hamheung Chasa]. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture (in Korean). Retrieved 6 June 2019.
  18. ^ Kim, Cheol-hyun (24 February 2016). "이성계는 '함흥차사'를 죽이지 않았다" [Yi Sŏng-gye did not kill 'Hamheung Chasa']. asiae.co.kr (in Korean). Retrieved 6 June 2019.
  19. ^ Yim, Seung-Hye (16 January 2022). "KBS can't resist another telling of King Taejong's tale". Korea Joongang Daily. Retrieved 19 January 2024.
  20. ^ "Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty". 29 July 2009. Retrieved 11 January 2023.
  21. ^ "[Feature] Chosun: North Korea's Love-Hate Relationship with History". New Focus International. 31 May 2013. Archived from the original on 19 October 2016. Retrieved 10 September 2016.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  22. ^ Kang, Jae-eun (2005). The Land of Scholars: Two Thousands Years of Korean Confucianism. Homa & Sekey Books. p. 172. ISBN 978-1931907378.
  23. ^ "Northeast Asian History Foundation". Archived from the original on 3 March 2009. Retrieved 11 January 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  24. ^ "Korea–China relations → Early Modern Period → Korea–China relations during Joseon". Archived from the original on 28 October 2009. Retrieved 11 January 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  25. ^ Taejo Sillok vol. 6, 14 July 1394, entry 1
  26. ^ Jungjong Sillok vol. 32, 3 June 1518, entry 1
  27. ^ Jungjong Sillok vol. 33, 3 July 1518, entry 1
  28. ^ Seonjo Sillok vol. 22, 23 April 1588, entry 1
  29. ^ Seonjo Sillok vol. 22, 19 May 1588, entry 1


Taejo of Joseon
Born: 4 November 1335 Died: 27 June 1408
Regnal titles
New title
King of Joseon
5 August 1392 – 14 October 1398
Succeeded by