Taejong of Joseon

Annie Lee | Mar 10, 2023

Table of Content


Taejong (June 13, 1367 - May 30, 1422) was the third king of Joseon, over whom he ruled from 1400 to 1418, and the father of Sejong the Great.

Joseon Foundation

Born as Yi Bang-won in 1367, the fifth son of King Taejo and Queen Sin-ui, he became an official in the Goryeo dynasty in 1382. In his early years, he helped his father extend his support among citizens and influential government figures, helping him establish a new dynasty. To do so, he went so far as to assassinate even powerful officials such as Jeong Mong-ju, who remained loyal to the Goryeo dynasty. During King Taejo's reign, Yi Bang-won was called Prince Jeongan and was taught by Confucian scholars such as Won Cheon-seok.

Struggles between princes

In 1392, he helped his father overthrow Goryeo to establish a new dynasty, Joseon. Since he was the one who had contributed most to the founding of Joseon, he expected to be appointed successor, but Taejo and Prime Minister Jeong Do-jeon favored Taejo's eighth son and half-brother of Yi Bang-won (Queen Sindeok's second son), Yi Bangseok, as crown prince. Jeong Do-jeon, in fact, saw Joseon as a kingdom led by its ministers through the appointment of the king. In contrast, Yi Bang-won sought a government directed by an absolute monarchy. These differences contributed to an environment of deep political tension. After the sudden death of Queen Sindeok in 1398, Yi Bang-won led a coup while King Taejo was mourning his second wife. This event led to the death of Jeong Do-jeon and his supporters, as well as the late Queen Sindeok's two sons, including the crown prince. This incident became known as the First Princes' Struggle.

Upset that his sons were willing to kill each other for the crown and psychologically exhausted by his wife's death, King Taejo abdicated and crowned his second son, Yi Bang-gwa or King Jeongjong, as the new ruler. One of King Jeongjong's first acts as monarch was to move the capital back to Kaesong, where it is believed he felt more comfortable, away from the power struggle. However, Yi Bang-won retained royal power and was soon in conflict with his older brother Yi Banggan, who also yearned for power. In the 1400s, tensions between the Yi Bang-won faction and the Yi Banggan camp escalated into an all-out conflict that became known as the Second Princes' Struggle. In the aftermath of the fighting, the defeated Yi Banggan was exiled to Dosan while his supporters were executed. Intimidated, King Jeongjong immediately invested Yi Bangwon as his heir presumptive and abdicated. In the same year, Yi Bang-won ascended the Joseon throne as King Taejong, the third king of Joseon.

Consolidation of royal power

Early in Taejong's reign, his father Taejo refused to give up the royal seal (a symbol of the legitimacy of any king's rule). Taejong, then, began to initiate policies that he believed would prove his qualification as ruler. One of his first acts was to abolish the privilege enjoyed by the upper echelons of government and the aristocracy to maintain private armies. The revocation interrupted the ability to organize large-scale uprisings and drastically increased the number of men employed in the national army. Taejong's next act was to revise existing legislation concerning the taxation of land ownership and the registration of the status of subjects. Previously hidden land was discovered, and in this way the national income increased twofold.

Movable characters

Taejong is, among other things, remembered for ordering the production of 100,000 pieces of movable metal typefaces, thus preceding Johannes Gutenberg and Laurens Janszoon by several decades.

Absolute monarchy

Taejong created a strong central government, establishing an absolute monarchy. In 1399, Taejong succeeded in eliminating the Dopyeong Assembly, a council of the old government administration that held a monopoly on court power during the waning years of the Goryeo Dynasty. In its place, he devised the Joseon State Council (의정부), a new branch of the central administration that revolved around the king and his edicts. He then issued a decree stating that all decisions approved by the Council of State could take effect only after the sovereign's approval. This ended the custom of ministers and court advisers making decisions through debates and negotiations among themselves. Soon after, Taejong installed an office, known as the Sinmun Office, to hear from subjects who felt they had been exploited or mistreated by government officials or aristocrats.

Despite the various changes, Taejong kept Jeong Do-jeon's reforms intact. He promoted Confucianism, thereby downgrading Buddhism. He then closed many temples that had been founded by the Goryeo kings and seized their large estates, adding them to the national treasury. Meanwhile, he honored Jeong Mong-ju with the posthumous title of Chief State Councilor (equivalent of Prime Minister), even though he himself had assassinated him.

In foreign policy, he attacked the Jurchen on the northern border and Japanese pirates on the southern coast. During his reign also occurred the Ōei invasion of Tsushima Island in 1419. He promoted publications, trade, education and founded the Uigeumbu, the royal guard and secret police. In 1418 he abdicated and ceded the throne to Sejong, although in fact he continued to rule.

Taejong executed or exiled many of his supporters who helped him ascend the throne to strengthen royal authority. To limit his in-laws' influence, he also killed all four of Queen Wongyeong's brothers and her son Sejong's in-laws. For this reason, Taejong remains a controversial figure, who killed many of his rivals and relatives to gain power, but ruled effectively to improve people's lives, strengthen national defense, and lay a solid foundation for his successor's rule. Taejong was also known for his passion for hunting, which was considered improper for a ruler.

Joseon's Taejong, in film and television, has been played by the following actors:


  1. Taejong of Joseon
  2. Taejong di Joseon
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