3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
The Winds of Change Tribute and Trade


Ch 8 - Choson

Status is Everything

From the king to the lowliest slave, Choson became a rigidly stratified society of hereditary classes. The yangban, a broad group that included anyone privileged to occupy civil and military posts in the bureaucracy, dominated society. The peasant, as always, remained at the heart of Choson society. At the bottom, Choson's slaves and social outcasts lived lives of nearly continuous hardship.

If you put the average Korean in charge of a small amount of money, even though it was not his own, or gave him supervision over the labor of a few men, anything that would put him over somebody either physically or financially, he would swell to almost bursting. Any rise in importance or prestige went to his head like new wine, and he would likely become very offensive. While there were many brilliant exceptions to this trait, it was as true of Choson as of most countries that offensive pride showed itself far less among those who had cause for pride than among those who tried to establish a claim to it. Few people on earth made more desperate attempts to pursue status and keep up appearances than did the people of Choson, especially the yangban class that dominated Choson society. This broadly defined status group included all those people privileged to occupy civil and military posts in the bureaucracy. Even those who did little to better their intellectual status or to broaden their mental horizons evolved a passionate desire to climb even one rung on the social ladder.

Among Choson's yangban, civil servants, people whose sole profession and ambition in life was to hold public office, occupied the "east rank," tongban. Men of the "west rank," soban, held the military posts. Eighteen grades of office rank further delineated the hierarchy within each of these primary ranks. The highest level was called Senior First Rank, followed by Junior First Rank, and so on, down through Junior Ninth Rank. Each official possessed a personal rank classified essentially the same way and received an office warrant, which he forfeited only if convicted of a serious crime. The typical path to promotion in rank involved either winning an appointment to a higher ranked post or receiving an extraordinary promotion. Extraordinary promotions occurred for a variety of reasons such as enrollment as a Merit Subject, marriage into the royal family, winning a royal literary competition, or rendering distinguished military service. The yangban regarded the military ranks less highly than the civil ranks and even made regional distinctions within the same order to reflect that view.

The yangban did not perform the routine jobs of petty clerks or local civil officials. Technical positions, jobs such as translator-interpreter, medical officer, astronomical or meteorological technician, accountant, law clerk, secretary, and government artist belonged to the hereditary preserve of the so-called "middle people," the chungin. A third group of "middle people," known as hyangni, lived and worked in the provinces. These were the local officials and petty bureaucrats who held hereditary rights to the administrative and clerical jobs in the offices of the provincial governors and local magistrates. Ever mindful of the need to preserve the distinctions of their social status, the yangban had no interest in working in agriculture, manufacture, or commerce. These occupations belonged to the "commoners," or sangin; Choson's farmers, fishermen, artisans, and merchants. At the bottom of the social ladder were the "low born," or ch'onmin, a class that included the slaves, actors, shamans, kisaeng (female entertainers), and other pariah groups.

Ever since Confucianism appeared in the ancient Silla period (c. 788 AD), anyone aspiring to receive a government appointment had to pass a difficult state examination on their knowledge and mastery of Confucian and Chinese classics. Far more family lineages gained recognition as yangban under the Yi dynasty than under either Silla or Koryo, a fact that made individual advancement in government service solely on the basis of family background much more difficult. The increased competition for a finite number of government appointments dramatically elevated the importance of the state examination system.

Academic training in Confucian doctrine became a necessary precondition to qualifying for office. To protect the common interests of the entire yangban class, the Yi government made a number of educational agencies available to provide the schooling required to pass the state examinations. Exempted from normal service obligations to the state, primarily military service and serving as forced labor, students immersed themselves in the tenets of Confucianism and devoted themselves exclusively to study and the cultivation of self. The fear that an increase in their numbers would erode their position of special class privilege led to a well-developed process of self-selection. Marrying only among themselves, yangban status became a matter of heredity. The yangban became an elitist group, enjoying the special privileges that enabled them to pursue government office. Their heightened sense of social status prevented them from even living next door to anyone who was not yangban.

The peasant, as always, remained at the heart of Choson society. While the typical peasant still toiled as a tenant farmer on various kinds of state land, under the Yi dynasty he held the social status of a freeborn commoner. Despite improvements among the middle and upper classes in Choson, the kingdom still retained a substantial population of "lowborn" people. The most significant group in this class were the slaves, those who tilled their owner's land. Two basic categories of slaves lived in Choson:  the public slaves owned by the government and the private slaves of individuals. Slaves lived from day to day not much differently than peasant tenant farmers. According to Choson law, a child inherited its status from its mother however, a situation that made slavery strictly hereditary. Slaves could be bought and sold like horses and cattle at officially set prices.

Although Choson had its social outcasts, those who inherited such occupations as butchering, tanning and wickerwork, the Yi dynasty legally defined them as commoners. It completely abolished the dismal little villages and hamlets that comprised the forced labor settlements of the lowborn during the Koryo period. This was a very slow process that actually extended over some hundreds of years, but it represented a new trend that took hold which allowed Choson's lowborn to move up to commoner status, the status of free men.

In 1413, King Taejong instituted a system of personal identity tags, hop'ae, presumably to assist in the compilation of census and tax records. The law required every Choson male between the ages of fifteen and seventy to make his own identity tag, which functioned much like a modern identification card. The law requrired each individual to have his tag validated by a government office with an official brand and to always keep it in his personal possession. The hop'ae system clearly distinguished five general groups of people in Choson. The highest military and civil officials wore ivory tags. Lesser government and military officials wore tags made from deer horn. The civil yangban carried yellow tags made of poplar wood and small square wooden tags identified all others down to commoners. Outcastes and slaves wore large square wooden tags. The tags made it much easier to enforce regulations forbidding movement outside a province, and stations were set up at provincial borders to check the tags of all travelers. The government offered rewards to anyone reporting persons who forged, altered, or failed to carry their identity tags. The net effect of Taejong's hop'ae system was to rigidly define and solidify the Yi dynasty's stratified social class structure.

KingTaejong selected his successor to the Choson throne in 1418. He disinherited his oldest son, ostensibly for displaying disturbing character traits, and designated his third son as Crown Prince. Following the precedent set by his own father, King Taejong abdicated the throne. Yi Pang-won's successful transition of power to his son during his own lifetime ensured the continuation of the reign of Yi kings after his death. Freed from the ceremonial obligations of office, Taejong found more time to participate in political decisions and placed his prestige and counsel at the disposal of the new king.

Taejong's twenty-two year old son ascended the throne in 1418 as King Sejong, the fourth king of Choson. This remarkable young man became the greatest monarch to rule under the Yi dynasty. The magnitude and variety of his gifts to the country earned him a reputation as the Korean Leonardo da Vinci. Under his reign Choson entered its greatest period of cultural creativity. King Sejong firmly believed in the Confucian doctrine that the path to individual virtue, and therefore to virtuous government, lay in the cultivation of the literary arts. One of his first official acts was to reestablish the Hall of Assembled Scholars, chiphyonjon, on the grounds of the Kyongbok Palace.

Originally created during the Koryo dynasty, the chiphyonjon had been largely neglected until Sejong turned it into a center of advanced scholarly and scientific learning. The royal research institute began with a staff of ten members, later expanded to twenty, and modeled itself after a Chinese institution dating back to the Tang dynasty. Staffed for the most part by dedicated younger men, its members had wide latitude to conduct research. They busily produced numerous political studies, wrote and compiled commentaries on the Confucian classics, issued monographs on geography and medicine, compiled official histories of the kingdom, sponsored open lectures attended by the king and his court, and even furnished tutors for the Crown Prince. They reworked the compilations of statutes published by Taejong and brought them nearer to completion as the National Code, Kyongguk taejon, the basic legal text of the dynasty. In addition to its regular duties, the chiphyonjon also trained a number of aspiring officials. Through both direct intervention and the influence of the very officials it trained, the chiphyonjon gained important influence over policy-making in Choson, eventually becoming a power center as well.

Throughout the centuries, an overwhelming percentage of the population, perhaps as much as 80 percent, devoted their lives to food production. The majority were engaged in the cultivation of food grains, particularly wet-field rice. The peasants who tilled the land were tied to the farm by Taejong's rigid, restrictive identity tag system. Forced to live in one place, peasant households of the Yi dynasty evolved into generally self-sufficient units living generation after generation, providing their own needs for food, clothing and shelter. To assimilate the lowborn of Choson into the general farming population, the government gave them land and taught them how to work it. In the eyes of the law at least, they became commoners. Their treatment however, in no way transformed them into peasant farmers. All able-bodied male commoners faced the obligation of military and forced labor service. Whenever the government saw fit, it drafted peasants into service to perform such construction work as building or repairing palaces, royal tombs and town walls, as well as working in the mines. In fact, Taejong started the identity tag system as much to support forced labor drafts as for ensuring the stability of agricultural production.

The Confucian expression "agriculture is the basis of government" was a practical fact of life in Choson and King Sejong and his scholars at the chiphyonjon paid particular attention to agricultural research. The government took an active role in improving the lot of Choson's farmers by investing in the development of new and better agricultural technology. It sponsored research that led to the development of new seed strains better adapted to Korea's climate. Acknowledging the differences beteen Korean and Chinese soils and climate, scholars compiled a manual in 1430 on agricultural techniques called, Straight Talk on Farming, a custom-designed manual that addressed the specific needs of Choson agriculture. The manual included methods for storing seed, transplanting rice seedlings, and how to use a variety of fertilizers. New construction projects were undertaken to build thousands of reservoirs and catch basins to provide water in times of drought - over six hundred in Kyongsang Province alone. The introduction of water wheels based on Chinese and Japanese designs greatly improved irrigation methods, particularly in P'yong'an Province where irrigation works had been scarce. Armed with far better agricultural technology than their predecessors had ever known, Choson's peasant farmers not only improved their lot in life but produced increased crop yields.

Taejong's Rank Land Law gave the farmer land to cultivate. In return for this land, the peasant farmer was required to pay a land tax. In 1444, King Sejong proclaimed the Tribute Tax Law to meet a wide variety of government needs. King Sejong refined Choson's land use system by categorizing agricultural land into one of six categories on a graduated scale of land fertility. The government assessed taxes according to which category the land belonged and took into consideration how weather conditions had affected the crop yield on that land in a particular year. Sejong's approach effectively reduced the peasant's state tax burden in less productive years, but it did nothing to alter the fact that peasants had to share the fruits of their labor on an equal basis with the landlord who stood between them and the state government. The peasants also paid a tribute tax known as "local tribute." This onerous tax was levied on products made in a particular locality and was used to meet a wide range of government needs. The tribute tax included such things as utensils, fabrics, paper, fruits, refined metals, furs and lumber. It proved to be even more onerous than the land tax since its cost, originally borne by local magistrates, became an additional burden ultimately borne by peasants.

Scientific applications of mathematics, surveying, weights and measures, astronomy, and meteorology brought many new advances to Choson during King Sejong's reign. The development of a triangulation device and the surveyor's rod made it possible to measure distances and land elevations accurately. These tools made it possible to produce detailed and accurate land surveys which aided in monitoring the new land laws and stimulated the compilation of gazetteers and improvements in geographic knowledge. In 1432, Maeng Sasong published his New Gazetteer of the Eight Provinces, sinch'an p'aldo chiriji, which became a useful guide to officials in the central government.

The importance of agriculture to Yi society made knowledge of the weather extremely valuable. Farmers installed "wind streamers," a kind of wind direction indicator, near their crop fields so they could judge wind direction and speed. In 1442, the government introduced a gauge to measure rainfall. Approximately 42.5 cm deep and 17 cm in diameter, several versions of this cylindrical instrument were manufactured from ceramic, iron, or copper and distributed to the eight provinces. With its improved knowledge, Choson began producing accurate rainfall weather records throughout the country some two hundred years before any such data appeared in the West.

Choson's traditions in medicine continued under King Sejong with the printing of numerous medical texts and guides concerned with diagnosis and remedies for a variety of ailments. The careful study and exploitation of Choson's own traditional folk remedies led to the development of an indigenous medical science. In one epochal achievement in 1445, scientists accumulated and organized the medical knowledge of the time into a comprehensive encyclopedic work of 25 volumes called the Treasured Mirror of Korean Medicine, Tongui pogam.

Among the many talented scientists who worked in the chiphyonjon during the reign of Sejong, Yi Ch'on, Chang Yongsil, and Yi Sun-ji ranked among the best and the brightest. Yi Ch'on, who became a noteworthy military commander in the northeast, contributed improvements in the fields of firearms, musical instruments, metallic type, and astronomical instruments. Chang Yongsil created a variety of astronomical clocks, sundials and water clocks (clepsydras), constructed to automatically indicate not just the time of day, but such astronomical phenomena as changes of seasons and the changing times for the rising and setting of the sun and moon. Yi Sun-ji produced a number of refinements in the science of calendars based on his work with Chinese and Arabian calendar systems and the specific geographical location of Choson.

Choson's military campaigns against Jurchen tribesmen in the northern regions influenced metal foundries to produce improvements in the techniques for casting and using cannons. These new cannon also found use in New Year's Eve celebrations at the Ch'anggyong Palace. Royal guests enjoyed the numerous pyrotechnic displays presented during festivities that often lasted all night long. A particularly impressive display involved the use of cannon placed on a nearby mountain. Gunners loaded the cannon with gunpowder and tightly packed thick paper into the barrel. When they lit these gigantic firecrackers, thousands of fire-arrows shot through the night sky giving every appearance of a grand meteor shower. Previously used as defensive weapons, these new artillery pieces quickly evolved into offensive weapons. By 1451, Choson had developed a unique carriage-mounted artillery piece that used gunpowder ignited by a fuse wick to fire one hundred arrow-like missiles and other rocket projectiles. Ship designers modified the standard Koryo warship used to ram and sink enemy vessels by adding protective armor and deck guns, transforming the ship into a close-quarters attack galley for use in naval warfare.

Korean scholars had long paid attention to the study of foreign languages and scripts, particularly Chinese. During Sejong's reign, this interest expanded to include Japanese (after 1413), Jurchen, Mongolian, and Ryukyuan. Han'ja, the oldest writing system in Korea, adopted Chinese pictographs - symbols that depict not sounds, but ideas - for the language of government and business. Since only Korea's upper class were educated to read, write, and publish in Chinese, not everyone could manage the language. King Sejong decided to develop a system of writing suitable for all Koreans, regardless of their class. He wanted a system that could not only express the language of everyday speech, but one that all his subjects could easily learn and use. This was unheard of in a time when Korea's literati spent most of their time trying to secure and enhance their own status over everyone else.

HangulIn 1440, King Sejong commissoned chiphyonjon scholars to create a unique, simple, easily learnable phonetic alphabet. Scholars made many trips to Liaodong and to consult Chinese phonologists. Although work on the new alphabet proceeded slowly, after three years and nearly 100 man-years of work, the scholars presented King Sejong with a simple alphabet of 28 characters, the Hunmin-chongum, "proper sounds to instruct the people." Three years later, with the able assistance of such scholars as Song Sam-un, Chong In-ji, and Sin Suk-chu, chiphyonjon scholars presented King Sejong with a second, much longer thesis that set down the principles behind the alphabet's invention and its usage:  Hunmin-chongum Haerae, "Example and Explanation for the Correct Sounds for the Instruction of People."

"The bright can learn the [Korean writing] system in a single morning, and even the not-so-bright can do so within ten days."
-- Chong In-ji, 1446

In October 1446, King Sejong presented the Korean people an alphabet of their very own, an alphabet invented by Koreans for Koreans. The grammarian Zhu Sigyong (1876-1914) gave this language its modern name Han'gul, which means "script of the Han (Korean) people."

"Because our language differs from the Chinese language, my poor people cannot express their thoughts in Chinese writing. In my pity for them I create 28 letters, which all can easily learn and use in their daily lives."
-- King Sejong, 1446

King Sejong's simple act of benevolence shook the very foundations of class-conscious Choson society. Almost overnight, Hunmin-chongum erased any distinction among Koreans in the area of communication and brought the social status of the underclass dangerously close to the aristocracy. The introduction of Han'gul was particularly disturbing to the yangban ruling class. Early critics dismissed the new writing and for the next few centuries scholars insisted on using Han'ja. The literati not only opposed the new script, they feared it, hated it, and wanted desperately to abolish the onmun, or "vulgar script." The very existence of Han'gul meant they could no longer claim a monopoly on access to learning, the one key needed to ensure the perpetuation of their status in Yi society. Against such opposition, King Sejong pushed ahead with his moral imperative to further the education of the populace as a whole.

For the first time in their history the Korean people had a convenient, efficient method of writing their own language. The creation of Han'gul is perhaps the finest single achievement of the chiphyonjon and to this date it ranks as the only known deliberately contrived alphabet still in use. Koreans regard the invention of Han'gul as an event of such great importance that even now it is honored with a national holiday, perhaps the only holiday in the world in honor of an alphabet.


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