Traditional Social Structure

South Korea Table of Contents

In Choson Dynasty Korea, four rather distinct social strata developed: the scholar-officials, 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'ommin (literally despised people)," at the bottom of society. To ensure stability, the government devised a system of personal tallies in order to identify people according to their status.

In the strictest sense of the term, yangban referred to government officials or officeholders who had passed the civil service examinations that tested knowledge of the Confucian classics and their neo-Confucian interpreters. They were the Korean counterparts of the scholar-officials, or mandarins, of imperial China. The term yangban, first used during the Koryo Dynasty, means literally "two groups," that is, civil and military officials. Over the centuries, however, its usage became rather vague, so that the term can be said to have several overlapping meanings. Strictly speaking, a yangban lineage was one that consistently combined examination success with appointments to government office over a period of some generations. During the Choson period, examination candidates had to show several generations of such ancestry on both sides to be admitted to the civil service examinations. A broader use of the term included within the yangban two other groups that could be considered associated with, but outside of, the ruling elite. The first group 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 Choson Dynasty, there were many more successful examination candidates than there were positions. The second group included the more remote relatives and descendants of government officials. 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 as long as they retained Confucian culture and rituals.

An interesting development in the social history of the Choson Dynasty occurred after the government began to sell honorary patents of office to people who were not yangban to raise revenue following the dislocations of the Hideyoshi invasions. Wealthy commoners sometimes went beyond such status symbols to commission forged genealogies or to take on other trappings of yangban status. This form of social climbing was highly irritating to traditional yangban families of the types mentioned above. Probably even more common were former yangban families that had drifted down into genteel poverty and commoner status. Both developments show that the Choson Dynasty class system was beginning to lose some of its rigidity on the eve of the momentous changes of the late nineteenth century.

Yangban serving as officials could enrich themselves because they were given royal grants of land and had many opportunities for graft; but unemployed scholars and local gentry often were poor, a kind of "twilight elite" that was both feared and yet often mocked in peasant entertainments. In his satirical Tale of a Yangban, the writer Pak Chi-won (1737-1805) describes the life of a yangban, however poor, as one of enforced idleness, exacerbated by the need to maintain appearances. A yangban had to study Confucian literature and pass at least the preliminary examinations. He was prohibited from engaging in manual labor or commerce and had to present an image of poise and self-control. A yangban could not, among other things, "poke and play with his chopsticks," "eat raw onions," or "puff hard on his pipe, pulling in his cheeks." Yet he exercised much arbitrary power in his own village.

In principle, the yangban were a meritocratic elite. They gained their positions through educational achievement. Certain groups of persons (artisans, merchants, shamans, slaves, Buddhist monks, and others) were prohibited from taking the higher civil service examinations, but these formed only a small minority of the population. In theory, the examinations were open to the large majority of people who were farmers. In the early years of the Choson Dynasty, some commoners may have been able to attain high positions by passing the examinations and advancing on sheer talent. In later years, talent was a necessary but not sufficient prerequisite for entry 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 Choson royal family and certain high officials. Despite the emphasis on educational merit, the yangban became in a very real sense a hereditary elite.

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

The commoners, or sangmin, composed about 75 percent of the total population. These farmers, craftsmen, and merchants alone 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 "base people" or ch'ommin did 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 at least, Buddhist monks and nuns. Also included in this category were the paekchong, apparently descended from Inner Asian nomads, who dealt with meat and the hides of animals, were considered "unclean," and lived in segregated communities. Slaves were treated as chattels but could own property and even other slaves. Although numerous at the beginning of the Choson Dynasty, their numbers had dwindled by the time slavery was officially abolished at the end of the nineteenth century.

During their invasions in 1592 and 1597, the armies of the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi destroyed many genealogical records, making it difficult to determine who was and who was not a member of a yangban family. Also, as Japanese armies were approaching Seoul, slaves in the capital rose up and burned documentary evidence of their servitude. By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the old social distinctions were breaking down. During the early Choson Dynasty, commoners did not have family names or class affiliations. However, they began to adopt names in order to avoid the stigma of low status. Counterfeit genealogies could frequently be purchased, and commoners sometimes attached their names to yangban genealogies to avoid military service taxes. Other late Choson Dynasty social changes included the gradual shift of agricultural labor from slave status to contractual arrangements, and the emergence of "entrepreneurial farmers"--commoners who earned small surpluses through innovative agricultural techniques.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress