The nineteenth century is a period of significant political, social, and cultural change as Korea lurches into the modern era and world order. Much political jostling occurs among the royal in-law families, creating drama but little stability or visionary leadership. Socially, the class system weakens considerably, even within the so-called elites, as more and more “fallen” yangban (literati) demand greater equality and recognition. Culturally, exciting developments occur in all the arts, including visual, literary, and performing arts.
Dubbed the “hermit kingdom,” Korea is known especially to the West for its reluctance to engage in relations with the outside world. This stands in stark contrast to China and Japan, with whom the Europeans enjoy trade and cultural exchange, if at times antagonistic. By the late nineteenth century, however, Korea, as a result of both internal politics and external pressure, signs formal treaties with the U.S. and various European nations. Around the same period, the Korean peninsula becomes a targeted territory of the Japanese, whose new and “modern” Meiji government develops increasingly imperialist ambitions, competing with other global powers boasting empires or colonies, notably Britain, France, Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain (the U.S. coming into the game late with the acquisition of the Philippines from Spain in 1889).