Chosn Dynasty Social Structure

North Korea Table of Contents

In the Chosn Dynasty, four distinct social strata developed: the scholar-officials (or nobility), collectively referred to as the yangban; the chungin (literally, "middle people"), technicians and administrators subordinate to the yangban; the commoners or sangmin, a large group composed of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants; and the ch'mmin (despised, or base people, often slaves) at the bottom of society. To arrest social mobility and ensure stability, the government devised a system of personal tallies in order to identify people according to their status, and elites kept detailed genealogies, or chokpo.

In the strictest sense of the term, yangban referred to government officials or officeholders who had passed the civil service examinations, which tested knowledge of the Confucian classics and their neo-Confucian interpretations. They were the Korean counterparts of the scholar-officials, or mandarins, of imperial China. The term yangban, first used during the Kory Dynasty (918-1392), literally means two groups, that is, civil and military officials. Over the centuries, however, its usage became rather vague, so the term can be said to have several overlapping meanings. A broader use of the term included within the yangban two other groups that could be considered associated with, but outside, the ruling elite. The first included those scholars who had passed the preliminary civil service examination and sometimes the higher examinations but failed to secure government appointment. In the late Chosn Dynasty, there were many more successful examination candidates than there were positions. The second included the relatives and descendants of government officials because formal yangban rank was hereditary. Even if these people were poor and did not themselves serve in the government, they were considered members of a "yangban family" and thus shared the aura of the elite so long as they retained Confucian culture and rituals.

In principle, however, the yangban were a meritocratic elite. They gained their positions through educational achievement. Although certain groups of persons (including artisans, merchants, shamans [mudang], slaves, and Buddhist monks) were prohibited from taking the higher civil service examinations, they formed only a small portion of the population. In theory, the examinations were open to the majority of people, who were farmers. In the early years of the Chosn Dynasty, some commoners may have been able to attain high positions by passing the examinations and advancing on sheer talent. Later, talent was a necessary but not a sufficient prerequisite for getting into the core elite because of the surplus of successful examinees. Influential family connections were virtually indispensable for obtaining high official positions. Moreover, special posts called "protection appointments" were inherited by descendants of the Chosn royal family and certain high officials. Despite the emphasis on educational merit, the yangban became in a very real sense a hereditary elite. Thus, when progressive officials enacted the 1984 Kabo Reforms, a program of social reforms, they found it necessary to abolish the social distinctions between yangban and commoners.

Below the yangban, yet superior to the commoners, were the chungin, a small group of technical and administrative officials. This group included astronomers, physicians, interpreters, and career military officers. Local functionaries, who were members of an inferior hereditary class, were an important and frequently oppressive link between the yangban and the common people, and were often the de facto rulers of a local region.

The sangmin, or commoners, comprised about 75 percent of the total population. These farmers, craftsmen, and merchants bore the burden of taxation and were subject to military conscription. Farmers had higher prestige than merchants, but lived a hard life. Below the commoners, the ch'mmin performed what was considered vile or low-prestige work. They included servants and slaves in government offices and resthouses, jailkeepers and convicts, shamans, actors, female entertainers (kisaeng), professional mourners, shoemakers, executioners, and, for a time, Buddhist monks and nuns. Also included in the category were the paekchng who dealt with meat and the hides of animals; they were considered "unclean" and lived in segregated communities. Slaves were treated as chattel but could own property and even other slaves. Although slaves were numerous at the beginning of the Chosn Dynasty, their numbers had dwindled by the time slavery was officially abolished with the Kabo Reforms.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress