Inheritance Document of Yi Seonggye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty

Essay by Park Jun-ho

Document Related to the Property Inheritance from Yi Seong-gye (King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty) to His Daughter Princess Suksin, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 56.5 x 55.5 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 515)

Document Related to the Property Inheritance from Yi Seong-gye (King Taejo of the Joseon Dynasty) to His Daughter Princess Suksin, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 56.5 x 55.5 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 515)

In 1401, this legal document was written by Yi Seonggye, the founder and first king of the Joseon Dynasty, who reigned for six years as King Taejo (太祖). In this document, Yi Seonggye relays his instructions regarding his inheritance, specifically pertaining to a house that he wished to bequeath to his daughter Myeochi (㫆致), or Princess Suksin (淑愼翁主), the youngest child of his union with a royal consort. Yi Seonggye’s signature appears on the left side of the document, along with his royal seal on the right. Believed to have been handwritten by King Taejo himself, this document was inscribed into stone and used to produce rubbings, one of which was included in Collected Calligraphy Works by Kings (列聖御筆). Today, many different museums and libraries have copies of these rubbings, but this document has special significance as the original from which those copies were produced.

Yi Seonggye: a loving and dutiful father

Even after more than 500 years, this document resonates with Yi Seonggye’s deep love and concern for his daughter. At the beginning of the text, Yi Seonggye wrote, “Myeochi is still very young, and a girl born to a royal consort. But since I am nearing seventy years of age, I believe that I must address this situation now.” He then wrote a detailed list of the items that should be inherited by Myeochi in the event of his death. The text is somewhat difficult to decipher, because of the use of obscure terms and the idu writing system. Even so, the main point of the document is that Yi Seonggye ordered the construction of a house that would be handed down to Myeochi and her descendants. The text states that Yi had purchased an “empty lot and foundation stones that once belonged to Heo Geum, located in Hyangbang-dong in the east of Seoul,” and that he wanted a new roof-tiled wooden house built on the lot, with a size of 24 kan (one kan being the standard space between four pillars). The document concludes by declaring that Myeochi and her descendants should be allowed to “live in the house for perpetuity, and that, should any dispute arise, this inheritance document should be brought to the appropriate government office as legal validation for a proper judgment.”

Stone Inscribed with the Inheritance Document of Yi Seonggye, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, 31.2–31.4 x 42.9–43 x 8-8.3 cm (National Palace Museum of Korea)

Stone Inscribed with the Inheritance Document of Yi Seonggye, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, 31.2–31.4 x 42.9–43 x 8-8.3 cm (National Palace Museum of Korea)

Discovery of this document, as recorded in Annals of the Joseon Dynasty

Detailed records about the discovery and early preservation of this document can be found in The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty. In 1746, King Yeongjo (英祖) was supervising the state examination in Chundangdae, Changgyeonggung Palace, when the document was presented to him by Hong Cheonbo, a Neo-Confucian student from Isan, Chungcheong Province. Being a descendant of the family of Hong Hae (Princess Suksin’s husband), Hong Cheonbo said that this document had been handed down in his family for generations. As a reward, King Yeongjo conferred a government post to Hong Cheonbo. It is further recorded that, in future years, many people brought documents to government offices, claiming that they had been personally written by previous kings.

Believing that this document had been personally written by King Taejo himself, King Yeongjo ordered the calligraphy to be precisely inscribed in stone. He then had rubbings of the stone produced and published in Collected Calligraphy Works by Kings, which was widely distributed. The original stone inscribed with this document is now housed in the National Palace Museum of Korea.

Stone Inscribed with the Inheritance Document of Yi Seonggye, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, 31.2–31.4 x 42.9–43 x 8-8.3 cm (National Palace Museum of Korea)

Stone Inscribed with the Inheritance Document of Yi Seonggye, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, 31.2–31.4 x 42.9–43 x 8-8.3 cm (National Palace Museum of Korea)

This document is an extremely rare example of an inheritance document for a member of the royal court from the earliest years of the Joseon Dynasty. Also, whereas most such documents pertain to the inheritance of land, slaves, or servants, this document uniquely describes the inheritance of a house. Furthermore, it is considered to be an invaluable resource for studying the language of the time and the use of the idu writing system.

Full translation of the text

On September 15, 1401, I write this inheritance document for Myeochi (㫆致), my child from a consort. Myeochi is still very young, and a girl born to a royal consort. But since I am nearing seventy years of age, I believe that I must address this situation now. I purchased an empty lot located in Hyangbang-dong in the east of Seoul, which formerly belonged to the late prime minister Heo Geum, along with the well-trimmed foundation stones in the lot. I order servants to build a wooden house on this lot, with the following rooms and dimensions: the middle two kan will have a maru on both the front and back, with one kan added to the east, and a one-kan kitchen, all of which will be covered with a tiled roof. There will also be a three-kan drinking room; a three-kan storage shed with a front and back maru; a two-kan attic storeroom; a four-kan inner-sarang; a two-kan room in the west with a front and back maru; and a three-kan room in the south with a front maru. All of these structures will have a straw-thatched roof. Finally, there will be a three-kan attic storeroom with a tiled roof. I herein bequeath this new house, with a total area of twenty-four kan, along with the deeds to the lot and the foundation stones of Heo Geum, to my daughter Myeochi. She and her descendants should be allowed to live in the house for perpetuity. If any dispute should arise, this inheritance document should be brought to the appropriate government office as legal validation for a proper judgment.

Original text:

建文參年辛巳玖月拾伍日 妾生女子旀致亦中 文字成給爲□□事叱段 必于年小
妾生是去有而亦 今如 矣身年將七十 一任爲乎不喩 東部屬香房洞空□□故
宰臣許錦戶代 熟石幷以 交易爲旀 材木乙良 奴子乙用良 斫取造家爲□身梗貳
間前後退瓦蓋 東付舍壹間瓦蓋 厨舍壹間瓦蓋 酒房参間草蓋 庫房参
間前後退草蓋 樓上庫貳間草蓋 內斜廊肆間草蓋 西房貳間前後退草蓋 南廳
参間前退草蓋 又樓上庫参間瓦蓋 合貳拾肆間等乙 交易本文記幷以 許與爲去乎
在等以 永永居住爲乎矣 後次別爲所有去等 此文字內事意乙用良 告官辨別
子孫傳持鎭長居住爲乎事
太上王(御押)

*Although some of the characters in the original document are illegible, the translation was completed by consulting the rubbing of the inscription in Collected Calligraphy Works by Kings, produced in the Joseon period.

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Additional resources

Read the essay and learn more on the National Museum of Korea’s website.

Cite this page as: The National Museum of Korea, "Inheritance Document of Yi Seonggye, founder of the Joseon Dynasty," in Smarthistory, March 10, 2023, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/inheritance-document-of-yi-seonggye-founder-of-the-joseon-dynasty/.