As an introduction to the book, this chapter articulates the book's main argument; surveys various understandings of the Kaesŏng Wang in Chosŏn politics, society, and culture; explains the book's methodology and rationale for researching and narrating the post-Koryŏ story of the Wangs; and previews the book's chapters.
Chapter 1 examines the early-Chosŏn period, when the new dynasty virtually exterminated the former royals, only to rehabilitate them. Rather than just recounting the oft-told story of the May 1394 massacre and the violent persecution thereafter until 1413, this chapter seeks to elucidate the Chosŏn state's understanding of the royal Wangs as a target of persecution, the number of victims, the veracity of the claim that some surviving Wangs changed their surnames, and the rationale for officially rehabilitating the Wangs. For comparative perspective, the chapter also considers China's Yuan-Ming, Japan's Kamakura-Muromachi, and western Eurasia's Byzantine-Ottoman transitions.
Chapter 2 focuses on the Chosŏn state's effort to maintain a line of ritual heirs of Koryŏ and the reemergence of the Kaesŏng Wang as an aristocratic descent group. Disproving a widespread assumption, this chapter demonstrates that a number of Wangs, especially the members of the Kwach'ŏn lineage, passed government service examinations and received offices—even attaining significant, prestigious civil posts. By the mid-sixteenth century, the advantage of being a Kaesŏng Wang was such that Wang-surnamed individuals of varying shades of social status claimed Koryŏ royal descent. Accordingly, the court had to scrutinize competing claims when, on two occasions, it had to secure a new line of ritual heirs.
Covering the mid-Chosŏn period, chapter 3 analyzes the segmentation of the Kaesŏng Wang as a descent group. While successive members of a third new line of ritual heirs, the Majŏn lineage, performed their duties at the Sungŭijŏn, the Wangs as a whole became geographically dispersed and even more socially diverse. Descent from an early Chosŏn scholar-official without any illegitimate children in the intervening generations became the unquestioned marker of one's aristocratic status. Among various Wang descent lines, the Kaesŏng lineage began eclipsing the Kwach'ŏn lineage in terms of examination success and office holding.
In late Chosŏn when most Kaesŏng Wangs were detached from officialdom, the throne repeatedly articulated its desire to better honor the legacies of Koryŏ, human and material. Chapter 4 highlights how the court took stock of the state of Koryŏ royal tombs, other physical remains of Koryŏ, and the Kaesŏng Wang themselves—all while the position of ritual heir devolved to essentially that of Sungŭijŏn superintendent. As the late-Chosŏn elite as a whole became increasingly removed from officialdom and based their aristocratic status solely on descent, the Kaesŏng Wang published their first-ever comprehensive genealogy in 1798.
During Korea's struggle for survival as a nation in the age of imperialism, the Kaesŏng Wang began making adjustments. Likely aided by material wealth in a more commercialized economy, the continuing successes of the Kaesŏng lineage in terms of passing examinations and obtaining offices climaxed with civil examination graduates, some even achieving civil posts of mid-level or higher. In contrast, the Majŏn lineage saw its role as the caretaker of the Sungŭijŏn further diminished by having a fixed term of service, and the Wangs with problematic claims of descent from later Koryŏ rulers began securing acceptance into updated editions of the Kaesŏng Wang genealogy.
The epilogue presents some revealing vignettes of the Kaesŏng Wang in the modern era. Upon Japan's colonization of Korea and the end of the Chosŏn monarchy, the Wangs were free to celebrate their past without worrying about the official, self-legitimizing rhetoric of Chosŏn. In addition, forces of modernity such as colonialism, nationalism, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration have reshaped the material and human legacies of Koryŏ. Some post-Chosŏn profiles of individual Wangs bring this book's compelling story of the progeny of fallen royals to conclusion.