Korea’s First Comprehensive Legal Code: Joseon Sijeong Uigwe

The Joseon Sijeong Uigwe, a 1,893 volume legal code, is a comprehensive set of laws, regulations and rules that were developed during Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. IPG Legal shall be writing more on Korean history over the next couple of months in order to add to the body of knowledge available in the English language. Little information is available in the English language on the history of the Korean legal system. Hopefully, these articles can spark the interest of some readers and make them considering digging more deeply into the topic.

King Sejong First Legal Code of Korea
King Sejong

Uigwe (Korean: 의궤; Hanja: 儀軌) is not easily translated into one word. Uigwe means, in general, a collection of rites, protocols, codes and rules. Thus, the Joseon Sijeong Uigwe are the “Protocols” or legal “Code” of the Joseon Sijeong. I shall refer to Uigwe as a Code for our ease, but the word, in reality, takes on a much more nuanced and encompassing meaning as noted in the link above.

Joseon Dynasty and Confucianism

The Joseon Dynasty lasted from 1392 to 1910. The Joseon Sijeong Uigwe was created, in short, to govern the society based on Confucian principles, which emphasized social order, harmony and a hierarchy. One of the most significant features of the Joseon Sijeong Uigwe was the role of Confucianism in the legal system and life.

Confucianism was the dominant ideology in Korea at the time and had a profound influence on this legal code. The Code reflected the Confucian principles of morality, loyalty, hierarchy, deference and filial piety. The Code emphasized the importance of obedience to authority and the strict following of moral principles, the king, nobles, government officials and the Code. The Joseon Sijeong Uigwe emphasized the critical importance of the king’s authority, right to power and the duty of citizens to obey the law and superiors.

The Joseon Sijeong Uigwe, additionally, created a comprehensive hierarchical system where the king was at the top, followed by nobles, officials, other senior leaders and ordinary citizens. Additionally, these protocols included detailed rules and regulations for the conduct for the lives of citizens and detailed responsibilities and rules governing marriage, family, relations between citizens and business transactions. With violations leading to punishment. The Code details the allowed and appropriate punishment including death, imprisonment, flogging, amputations and fines.

King Sejong the Great

The Joseon Sijeong Uigwe was compiled under the reign of King Sejong. King Sejong ruled Korea from 1418 to 1450 and was the 4th King of the Joseon Dynasty.

King Sejong is credited for organizing a body of scholars that consolidated, refined and codified various laws, practices, beliefs and the accepted Confucius systems into law. The Joseon Sijeong Uigwe was compiled into an volumes, similar, to a modern encyclopedia. Volumes included comprehensive criminal, civil, administrative and tax laws.

King Sejong is known, mainly, for his contribution to the creation of Hangul – the Korean writing system. However, he, also, is credited with the creation of a centralized bureaucracy, reform of the tax system and creation of a national education academy.

Joseon Sijeong Uigwe is an important development in the history of the Korean legal system that has an effect on the Korean legal system to this day.

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