A Genealogy of Dissent
The Progeny of Fallen Royals in Chosŏn Korea
Eugene Y. Park



This is a story of a Korean family’s survival. After the downfall of the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392), its descendants, the Kaesŏng Wang, weathered persecution and an ever-changing sociopolitical terrain. An extermination campaign (1394–1413) by the succeeding Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) against the former royals was thorough: most of today’s Kaesŏng Wang are descendants of a single individual who was able to claim descent from the Koryŏ dynastic founder only as the sole monarch among his patrilineal ancestors. After ending the persecution, by 1452 the Chosŏn court secured a descent line of surviving Wangs to offer the ritual sacrifices at Sungŭijŏn, the shrine officially approved for honoring select Koryŏ monarchs. The rehabilitated Wangs retained membership in the aristocracy (yangban), participated in government service examinations, attained court ranks and offices, and even commanded troops. All the same, an emerging body of accounts, written and oral, expressed sympathy toward Koryŏ and its progeny as victims, although the Wangs themselves stayed clear of such discourse until the end of the Chosŏn monarchy. Only then did the Wang genealogy begin including, and thus acknowledging as legitimate kings, the two late Koryŏ rulers who were deposed and executed as false Wangs by the Chosŏn founder.

The post-Koryŏ plight of the Kaesŏng Wang raises historically meaningful questions. Above all, why did the Chosŏn state massacre members of the former royal house only to reinstate them? As the Wangs recovered from a population bottleneck, how did descent lines of varying shades of social status emerge? How did the fate of a long-departed dynasty come to serve as a medium for dissent centuries after the 1392 dynastic change? And what impact did such forces of modernity as colonialism, nationalism, industrialization, and urbanization have on the Kaesŏng Wang as an increasingly heterogeneous collective?

What to do with the members of the previous royal house and their descendants was an issue of fundamental concern for the Chosŏn state. Historical precedents of Korea and China demanded that Chosŏn, as the legitimate successor of Koryŏ, honor the latter by treating the progeny appropriately. At the same time, since much of the Chosŏn leadership hailed from the Koryŏ establishment, fear that surviving advocates of Koryŏ might conspire to revive the old dynasty was strong, and the Chosŏn state virtually exterminated the Wangs twenty-one months after the dynastic change. Once the dust settled, the government’s policy toward the Wangs, the Koryŏ loyalists, and the legacies or relics of Koryŏ changed depending on the context of the particular period.

This study finds that the Koryŏ-Chosŏn dynastic change entailed the “founding of a [new] state” (kaeguk) as Chosŏn struggled with the legacies of the “vanquished state” (sŭngguk) before coming to terms with them. As of 1392, the aristocracy comprised descent groups that had been staffing officialdom for centuries, and what to do with the Wangs was a security issue for the new regime. After killing the Wangs for two decades, the Chosŏn state searched for a Wang so that he could offer the ritual ancestral sacrifices at the Sungŭijŏn. Also, the court sanctioned regular performance of the Buddhist Ritual of Water and Land (suryukchae, suryukhoe) to pray for the spirits of perished Wangs, until mounting opposition from Neo-Confucian ideologues led to the end of official sponsorship in the sixteenth century. Addressing Buddhist, Confucian, and shamanistic concerns, such rituals were necessary not only for appeasing anguished spirits that could wreak havoc in the realm of the living but also for legitimizing Chosŏn as the successor of Koryŏ. Self-identification of Chosŏn as such allowed room for the surviving Kaesŏng Wang to prosper as long as they subscribed to the cardinal Confucian moral virtues, especially loyalty to the ruler. Those with means enjoyed membership in the aristocracy, as officeholders and nonofficeholders alike. At the same time, the Chosŏn state increasingly fostered a plurality of views on its past and present, including understandings that were critical of the establishment, if not outright subversive. The official treatment of various relics and legacies of Koryŏ, such as written genealogies, the Sungŭijŏn, Koryŏ royal tombs, other remains at the old Koryŏ capitals Kaesŏng and Kanghwa, and of course the Wangs themselves evolved from suppression to neglect to toleration to promotion.

My long-standing fascination with the plight of descendants of vanquished polities and their families, including the Kaesŏng Wang, led me to write this book. In the 1990s when I first read an account purporting to describe the final moments of Koryŏ King U, whom the future founder of the Chosŏn dynasty deposed and executed as a false Wang, the dignity displayed by someone who was arguably the first royal Wang victim of the dynastic change moved me.1 In December 2013 while researching the post-Koryŏ Kaesŏng Wang connections to the Koryŏ dynasty proper as documented in primary sources, I began to notice interesting patterns and gain new insights into the fate of the Wangs. This is the subject of the book, a narrative of the plight of the progeny of the fallen royals to the present, particularly during the Chosŏn period.

The Kaesŏng Wang of today is a descent group that has recovered from a population bottleneck. The Wangs ostensibly belong to one of five descent lines. Reflecting the scope of bloody persecution by the early Chosŏn state, some 80 percent of South Korea’s Kaesŏng Wang, numbering 19,808 as of 2000, descend from Wang Mi (1365–n.d.), who was a descendant of the Koryŏ dynastic founder, Emperor T’aejo, through his fifteenth son, Hyoŭn T’aeja (also known as the Tongyang Kun, given name unknown, n.d.–961?).2 The rest of the Wangs claim descent from later monarchs, and connecting links are problematic, as discussed below.

Once the persecution ended, a growing population of Kaesŏng Wang competed in the government service examinations. Their success was modest in the civil examination (munkwa), which was the most prestigious competition and vital for attaining the highest, politically important civil offices. Likewise, in the licentiate examinations (samasi, saengwŏn-chinsasi) for admission into the Confucian Academy (Sŏnggyun’gwan), the participant pool of which significantly overlapped that of the civil examination, the success of the Wangs was limited. They fared better in the military examination (mukwa), a competition that in principle recruited future military officials but increasingly awarded degrees to a socially diverse pool of candidates.

It is important to put the Kaesŏng Wang experience in perspective, and it contrasts with that of a descent group of comparable population, the Hamjong Ŏ, who numbered 13,321 as of 2000 in South Korea. Among descent groups of population size between 10,000 and 19,999 at the time, including the Kaesŏng Wang, the Hamjong Ŏ were the most successful in the civil examination during the Chosŏn period. A complete record of Chosŏn civil examination graduates shows that whereas the less populous Hamjong Ŏ produced twenty-four graduates, only nine Kaesŏng Wang were successful.3 And according to extant, incomplete, records for other examinations, the Hamjong Ŏ produced sixteen military examination graduates, fifty-eight licentiates, and one technical examination (chapkwa) graduate, whereas the more numerous Wangs produced twenty-one military examination passers, twenty-seven licentiates, and a technical examination passer.4 Each descent group’s lone technical examination graduate was a mid-Chosŏn figure who did not found a specialist chungin lineage—hundreds of which, during the last three centuries of Chosŏn, constituted a status group of state-employed experts residing in the capital, Seoul.5

The stark contrast between the two descent groups in terms of patterns of examination success reflects significant differences in the nature of their political roles and residence patterns. Almost all of Hamjong Ŏ examination graduates resided in the “yangban crescent” comprising Seoul, the surrounding Kyŏnggi Province, northern Ch’ungch’ŏng Province, western Kangwŏn Province, and southeastern Hwanghae Province.6 In fact, most of the late Chosŏn Hamjong Ŏ hailed from an aristocratic lineage belonging to the Patriarch (Noron) party, which had triumphed by the mid-eighteenth century as political hegemon. Not only did a number of Ŏs achieve state councilor (1a)- and minister (2a)-level “actual posts” (silchik) as distinct from sinecures (sanjik), but a female member also married King Kyŏngjong, thus further enhancing the lineage’s prestige. Compared with the Ŏs, the presence of the Wangs in officialdom was far more modest. The most important offices achieved by the Wangs include a third minister (Ch’amŭi, 3a), the first counselor (Pu chehak, 3a) of the Office of Special Counselors (Hongmun’gwan), and the third inspector (Changnyŏng, 4a) of the Office of the Inspector-General (Sahŏnbu).

Other than accounts of the early Chosŏn state’s persecution of the Kaesŏng Wang, their post-Koryŏ story has received scant attention among historians. To begin with, most studies discussing the Wangs focus on the court politics preceding the May 1394 massacre and its aftermath, various state-sanctioned rituals in honor of some Koryŏ monarchs, a local elite Kaesŏng Wang lineage, or the first comprehensive Kaesŏng Wang genealogy.7 Otherwise, the post-1392 story of the Wangs tends to be told and retold outside the realm of historical scholarship. Perhaps the most widely known claim is that during the persecution, many Wangs changed their surname by adding one or more strokes to the ideograph for Wang (“king”), and such newly adopted surnames supposedly are Ok (“jade”), Chŏn (“field”), Chŏn (“all”), Kim (“metal”), Kŭm (“lute”), or Ma (“horse) (figure P.1).<1214" href="18_Notes.html#id_1215">8 According to other lore, even after ending the persecution, the Chosŏn state kept a watchful eye on the Wangs, making it difficult for them to enter officialdom, so the Wangs did not bother.9 Yet another story relates that as the Wang population increased in the county of Ich’ŏn, Kyŏnggi Province, the court reportedly prohibited the Wangs from traveling beyond five ri (approximately two kilometers) from the center of their village, hence named Ch’ŏgo (“measured five”).10 And according to a most compelling account, in the late nineteenth century the authorities arrested and executed a Pak-surnamed man when he petitioned the court to reclaim his ancestor’s original surname, allegedly Wang.11

Figure P.1. Ideographs for the Wang and associated surnames.

To shed more light on the post-Koryŏ history of the Kaesŏng Wang, I have examined a range of sources. Much of my evidence derives from court histories, supplemented by law codes, town gazetteers, local elite registers (hyangan), household registers (hojŏk), examination rosters (pangmok), written genealogies, epigraphs, and literary anthologies. Not surprisingly, the information that these sources provide tends to corroborate the official line, which justifies the Chosŏn state’s initial persecution of the Wangs and stresses the benevolence of the kings that rehabilitated the Wangs. Thus, constructing a more nuanced narrative demands considering various works of “unofficial history” (yasa) and oral history. The latter category includes interviews of present-day Wangs. In addition, visits to various sites associated with the post-Koryŏ history of the Wangs helped me tell a more vivid story.

Accordingly, each of the book’s five chapters weaves together macro and micro histories. Introduced with a broad-sweep overview of the political, social, and cultural history of the period under consideration, each chapter presents the main narrative on the Kaesŏng Wang in a more or less chronological manner, reign by reign. Discussion of each reign begins with a brief overview, except in chapter 5, which builds its narrative around the events invariably involving foreign powers. Since a court-centered history alone cannot provide an adequate context for the post-Koryŏ story of the Wangs, each chapter also incorporates local history, customs, and legends. Assuming that they too changed over time, I make an effort to date such material—first discussing the earliest known when feasible. A brief summary at the end of the chapter reviews its main points.

Chapter 1 examines the early Chosŏn period, from 1392 to 1450, 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 persecution thereafter until 1413, this chapter seeks to elucidate the Chosŏn state’s definition 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, covering the following period, from 1450 to 1589, focuses on the state’s effort to maintain a line of ritual heirs of Koryŏ and the reemergence of the Kaesŏng Wang as a 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 made claims to be one, hence forcing the state to examine competing claims when it had to secure a new line of ritual heirs.

Chapter 3, considering the mid-Chosŏn period from 1589 to 1724, 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 (sŏŏl) 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 Wang were detached from officialdom, the throne repeatedly articulated its desire to better honor the legacies of Koryŏ, human and material. Chapter 4, which examines the period from 1724 to 1864, 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 the Sungŭijŏn superintendent. As the late Chosŏn elites as a whole were increasingly removed from officialdom and based their aristocratic status solely on descent, the Kaesŏng Wang published their first-ever comprehensive genealogy (taedongbo) in 1798.

As portrayed in chapter 5, 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 not only saw its role as the caretaker of the Sungŭijŏn further diminished by having a fixed term of service, but also the Wangs with problematic claims of descent from later Koryŏ rulers began gaining the position and securing acceptance into updated editions of the comprehensive Kaesŏng Wang genealogy.

The epilogue presents some vignettes about the Kaesŏng Wang in the modern era. Once the Chosŏn monarchy ended, 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, and urbanization have reshaped the material and human legacies of Koryŏ. Post-Chosŏn profiles of some individual Wangs conclude what is a compelling story of the progeny of fallen royals.


1. Unless noted otherwise, biographical information for an individual discussed comes from HYICCS and HMMTS. Korean-language sources typically provide lunar calendar dates for events before January 1, 1896, and whenever possible I have converted them to Gregorian calendar dates.

2. On South Korea’s population as of 2000 by surname and ancestral seat, this study cites data provided by T’onggyech’ŏng, KOSIS Kukka t’onggye p’ot’ŏl, accessed April 19, 2017, The 1974 edition of the comprehensive genealogy (taedongbo) of the Kaesŏng Wang devotes some eight hundred out of roughly nine hundred pages to covering the members of this descent line. KWT Sang.15–Ha.828. In the most recent edition (published in 2004), 2,599 out of 3,144 pages (82 percent) cover the descendants of Wang Mi. KWS 1.1–1129, 2.1–1014, 3.1–456.

3. On the number of Chosŏn civil, technical, and licentiate examination passers by surname and ancestral seat, this study cites data from HYICCS.

4. Park, Chosŏn Military Examination Database, unpublished database of 35,405 degree holders, accounting for roughly one-fifth of Chosŏn military examination graduates.

5. Records of Surname Origins (Sŏngwŏnnok), compiled in the late nineteenth century, records 365 specialist chungin descent group segments, representing some sixty surnames and 194 ancestral seats. Kim Tuhŏn, “Sŏngwŏnnok ŭl t’onghaesŏ pon Sŏul chungin kagye yŏn’gu”; HMMTS, s.v. “Sŏngwŏnnok.”

6. Quinones, “Military Officials of Yi Korea, 1864–1910,” 697–700.

7. For example, see Ch’oe Sŭnghŭi, “Chosŏn T’aejo ŭi wangkwŏn kwa chŏngch’i unyŏng,” 135–164; Han Chŏngsu, “Chosŏn ch’ogi Wang-ssi ch’ŏbun-non ŭi taedu wa chŏn’gae,” 6–30; Han Sanggil, “Chosŏn chŏn’gi suryukchae sŏrhaeng ŭi sahoejŏk ŭimi,” 673–702; Kang Hosŏn, “Chosŏn T’aejo 4 nyŏn kukhaeng suryukchae sŏrhaeng kwa kŭ ŭimi,” 199–232; Kim Inho, “Chosŏn chŏn’gi Sungŭijŏn ŭi sŏlch’i wa yŏksa insik,” 114–143; Kim Kidŏk, “Koryŏ sidae wangsil sŏnwŏnnok ŭi pogwŏn sido,” 141–185; Kim Ŭnyŏng, “Chosŏn hugi Kurye Kaesŏng Wang-ssi ka ŭi ko munsŏ kŏmt’o,” 167–186; Kuwano Eiji, “Richō shoki ni okeru Kōrai Ō-shi saishi,” 1–21; Sim Hyosŏp, “Chosŏn chŏn’gi suryukchae ŭi sorhaeng kwa ŭirye,” 223–243; Yi Uk, “Chosŏn chŏn’gi wŏnhon ŭl wihan chesa ŭi pyŏnhwa wa kŭ ŭimi,” 170–185.

8. Some versions exclude Kim. For example, see Pak Chiwŏn, “Ch’ambong Wang Kun myogalmyŏng,” in Yŏnamjip, 2.54a. Unless noted otherwise, all literary anthology citations of this study refer to the original text as reprinted in Han’guk munjip ch’onggan.

9. Wang Yŏngnok, personal interview, Yŏnch’ŏn, South Korea, August 5, 2014.

10. Chungang ilbosa, Sŏngssi ŭi kohyang, 1223.

11. Pak Yŏngjin, interview by Kim Kidŏk, in Kim Kidŏk, “Koryŏ sidae wangsil sŏnwŏnnok ŭi pogwŏn sido,” 148, n. 18.