The Medieval and Early Modern History section displays historical and cultural items from the Goryeo Dynasty(918-1392), Joseon Dynasty(1392-1897), and Korean Empire (1897-1910), tracing the events, conflicts, and achievements that marked the three most significant periods of Korea's national development.
This hall is designed to explore three themes: the culture of the Goryeo Dynasty, in the capital, Gaegyeong, and the outlying regions, and the life of Goryeo’s people. The section on the culture of Gaegyeong displays a variety of relics related to Manwoldae, which was the location of Goryeo’s royal palace, as well as the royal families, government officials, state rituals, and elaborate and refined artworks that demonstrate the advanced aesthetic sense of Goryeo-era aristocrats. The section on regional culture shows the unique features of provincial bureaucratic systems and regional arts and culture through artifacts such as iron Buddha statues and pottery workshops in specially-organized provincial community units. The section on the lives of Goryeo’s people sheds light on their culinary culture, the lives of women, and the daily lives of the people.
This hall is arranged into sections under the themes: politics of the late Goryeo period, Buddhist art, introduction of Neo-Confucianism, and the emergence of Neo-Confucian elites. The section on late-Goryeo politics displays relics that tell historical stories of military rule, Mongolian invasion, relocation of the capital, subsequent resistance by the special military unit Sambyeolcho against the Mongol invaders, Yuan-dynasty China’s interference, and King Gongmin’s reformist politics. In the section on Buddhist culture, the exhibit displays Buddhist statues, ritualistic tools, musical instruments used to convey Buddhist teachings, containers for holy relics and offerings, and guardian Buddha statues, as a reflection on Buddhist faith and the advanced Buddhist art of the Goryeo era. The last section examines the introduction of Neo-Confucianism and the growth of a new generation of Neo-Confucian elites, and General Yi Seonggye’s aspiration to found a new dynasty. This section showcases portraits, a collection of writings, and the container for holy relics commissioned by General Yi Seonggye, offering a glimpse into the subject matter.
The government and public systems of the Joseon Dynasty were organized according to principles of Neo-Confucianism, the official state ideology. Unlike the Goryeo Dynasty, in which agricultural lands were privately controlled by aristocrats and local clans, the Joseon Dynasty installed a centralized government that was responsible for overseeing the legal administration, the military, and the performance of national rituals. The king regularly consulted with government officials with expertise in various fields. As the foundation of governance, these experts published the official law books, as well as books on state rites and ceremonies, geography, and history.
The “Sarim” (士林) were a group of literati scholars who strictly interpreted and emphasized Neo-Confucianism. In the early years of the Joseon Dynasty, the ruling powers had prevented this group from entering politics. By the late fifteenth century, however, members of the Sarim began to enter the central government, leading to the group’s re-emergence in the sixteenth century, when they implemented many social changes. As their political activities increased, the Sarim split into different factions depending on their scholarly and political views, leading to wider and more detailed discourse.
The devastation of war had severely weakened the social order and national discipline. To overcome this crisis, the ruling class intensified its emphasis on Neo-Confucian ethics and studies of propriety. Some officials launched the “Northern Campaigns,” advocating loyalty to the Ming Dynasty. The most significant change was tax reform, which led to the development of a new monetary economy based on commodities. Through these efforts at war recovery, the Joseon Dynasty was transformed into a new society.
After the Imjin War (1592-1598), agricultural productivity increased, commerce was stimulated, and the population became more mobile. The implementation of the “Uniform Land Tax Law” led to the development of a monetary economy based on commodities, in which people used grain or cotton cloth as currency to acquire goods. When acting as an intermediary for large international trades, Joseon used silver coins for substantial financial transactions.
Whereas King Sukjong (r. 1674-1720) strengthened the power of the throne by ousting various opposing factions, King Yeongjo (r. 1724-1776) and King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800) sought to stabilize the government by maintaining a balance among different political groups. King Yeongjo implemented tax reform, furthering the development of the commodity and monetary economy, while King Jeongjo exerted great efforts to cultivate young scholars. Thus, the eighteenth century was a period of artistic and cultural revival, as well as political and economic stability.
Following the death of King Jeongjo in 1800, a few powerful families came to dominate the Joseon governance, leading to political corruption. On the other hand, the culture and thought of the Qing Dynasty was widely disseminated, contributing to the development of cities and the rise of new social classes, including middle-class professionals and merchants. For the most part, however, Joseon failed to stay abreast of the rapidly changing international environment. Anti-Western policies were pursued, leading to multiple military skirmishes. By the time an open-door policy was adopted, it was too late to ward off foreign interference.
In October 1897, in an effort to defend the nation’s sovereignty against foreign powers, King Gojong changed the name of the state from the “Joseon Dynasty” to the “Korean Empire,” and thus became “Emperor Gojong.” At the same time, he attempted to implement sweeping reforms to the ruling system, all in the name of modernization. However, after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the status of the Korean Empire was reduced, as Japan seized control of the country’s international affairs. Then in 1910, Japan forcibly abolished the nation’s sovereignty, asserting control over all national affairs and initiating the Japanese Colonial Period (1910-1945).
Today, the period of the Korean Empire is usually remembered only as the time in which the country was lost to Japanese colonization. But the Korean Empire should be evaluated with due consideration of the specific circumstances of its time, as the nation struggled to balance between tradition and modernity. We must study the Korean Empire’s efforts to modernize through anti-feudalism and resistance to foreign powers.