Ch 9 - A Centralized Society
Setting New Foundations
Taxation, forced labor and conscription for military service heavily burdened Choson's peasants. The increased numbers of Merit Subjects put a growing demand on real estate and tax revenues. Choson's government solidified the structure it would have for the remainder of the Yi dynasty.
As Choson's agricultural system took on the characteristics of a landlord-tenant relationship, peasants found themselves having to deal with two landlords: the private landowner and the state. The yangban landowner took up to fifty percent of the farmer's harvest and the state took its land taxes, which amounted to about ten percent of the harvest, from both the farmer and the landowner. The tax burden on the yangban was as different from that of the peasants as the aristocratic tile-roofed houses were from the thatched huts of farmers.
The yangban paid only the ten percent land tax in grain that came from the peasants in the form of rent. Peasants had to pay not only the land tax, but rent to the landowner and all other costs associated with the collection of those payments. Tax collections generated a whole host of added costs and charges that were billed directly to the peasants: transportation expenses, damage and loss recovery, paper and supplies for reports and records, loading and unloading charges, and the hire of private vessels when government ships were unavailable. The growing size and number of agricultural estates not only reduced government receipts, it had the deleterious effect of further impoverishing the lives of peasant farmers.
The Choson government further aggravated the peasants' financial hardships by imposing the "tribute tax," a tax originally intended to finance the government and support the armed forces in the local military garrisons. Over time however, this onerous form of taxation became increasingly confused and corrupted in its collection. Peasant farmers paid the "tribute tax," also known as "local tribute," in the form of specialty items and locally produced goods such as utensils, fabrics, paper and woven mats, as well as refined metals, marine products, furs, fruits, and lumber. Local district magistrates, the very men responsible for tax collections, periodically estimated the productivity of each household and set the amount of tribute tax accordingly. Not only did they frequently exaggerate their estimates, but many of the items they demanded for local tribute were not even the specialties of the district where they were collected. The peasants were obliged to buy them elsewhere.
Tribute collection agents sometimes imposed additional levies of such goods as sesame oil, honey, pheasants, chickens, firewood and charcoal. Each tribute payment had to meet exact specifications as to volume, size, and quality before it was accepted. If it did not, the payment could be rejected and a replacement demanded. To the peasant, the tribute tax often amounted to as much as three or four times that of the land tax and, more often than not, the excess tribute found its way into the personal holdings of the local tax collector. The amount and manner of payment varied so much from one collector to the next that the whole system became troublesome in the extreme. Despite its inception as a means to help finance government and military expenses, the tribute tax ultimately evolved into nothing more than a sophisticated method of enriching the lives of yangban bureaucrats and the local magistrates responsible for its collection at the expense of the peasants.
King Taejong abolished the royal household's private armies entirely during his reign and assigned their soldiers to the Three Armies Headquarters. In 1464, King Sejo reorganized the entire military command structure under the Five Military Commands Headquarters, gave it authority over the five military divisions that garrisoned the capital, and brought the military under the control of the king. The five commands referred to the Center, North, South, East and West divisions, each of which had military jurisdiction over the corresponding region of the country. Each division was organized with five brigades, each having four regiments. Regiments contained battalions, companies, and platoons. The yangban soldiers who formed the core of the Five Military Commands were professional military men selected through rigorous tests of their military skills.
The Five Military Commands in Seoul represented but a small portion of the Yi dynasty's defense structure. The heart of Choson's military lay in the existence of numerous provincial armies. Each province in Choson had its own Army Command and Navy Command with jurisdiction over the military forces in its own area. Three types of garrison forces were attached to each provincial command: combat soldiers who manned the garrison fortifications, labor battalions that provided garrison support, and the sailors who manned the navy's ships.
Changes in the military and the forced labor system also added to the woes of Choson's peasants. The common peasant-soldier formed the core of Choson's national defense force. He was a conscript who normally went about his life as a farmer, but who could be assigned to military service in the capital garrison or dispatched to defend any of the provincial strongholds. Not all commoner peasants became conscript soldiers. In the past, the government made a distinction between military duty and the peasant's obligation to meet forced labor conscriptions. King Sejo however, allowed that any man could avoid military service altogether if he paid a special tax. Under a process known as the Paired Provisioner System, a team of two or three able-bodied men supported one man on active duty and the "provisioners" received an exemption from military service. The Choson military met most of its expenses in just this manner.
As the military rosters grew, it became more difficult, if not impossible, to fill the requirements for forced labor manpower. Many men simply decided to serve in the military rather than pay the special tax for exemption. This had the unintended result that military revenues shrank. Inevitably, the soldiers themselves were mobilized for forced labor duty. To escape this double burden, military conscripts resorted to hiring laborers to stand in their place on labor projects. The whole system soon fell apart due to confusion and local corruption. Moreover, the excessively harsh payment required for stand-in laborers caused a steadily increasing number of exempted men and conscript soldiers to flee service altogether to avoid the financial burden. Many of the peasants and farmers who could not meet their tax obligations just gave up, abandoned the military and their villages, and turned to lives of wandering, only to have tax collection enforced upon their relatives or neighbors. Banditry and outlawry became rampant throughout the peninsula as ever more peasants abandoned the land.
In 1467, a military insurrection erupted in Hamgyong Province led by the military commander Yi Si-ae. The revolt was quickly suppressed and Sejo rewarded forty-four men with the creation of yet another roster of Merit Subjects. King Sejo died the following year, succeeded by his eighteen-year-old son who ruled as King Yejong. Shortly after the teen-aged monarch took up his royal duties, the Fourth Minister of War reported the discovery of a plot against the king. He alleged that Nam-I,a brilliant young former minister who played a key role in crushing the Yi Si-ae revolt, was scheming to place one of Taejong's great-grandsons on the throne. The bloody suppression of this plot resulted in the execution of about forty men, including a former Chief State Councilor. The Minister of War's loyalty to Yejong placed his name at the head of a new merit roster that named thirty-nine new Merit Subjects.
Yejong died in 1469 after a brief reign of only fourteen months. His regent, Queen Dowager Yun, Sejo's queen, steered yet another of her sons to the throne, a thirteen-year-old boy who became King Songjong. To insure against the outbreak of yet another factional battle for the throne, a new roster of Merit Subjects was made, the longest list to date. It included some seventy-three men enrolled in four classes of merit and another 1,059 men listed as Minor Merit Subjects in three classes. In less than twenty years, five Merit Subject lists had been created, with a total enrollment approaching 250 men. In addition, the sons and grandsons of Merit Subjects enrolled during the first decade of the Yi dynasty also clamored for preferential consideration. Beyond these were the thousands of Minor Merit Subjects who played leading roles in many of the government's highest civil and military offices.
Merit Subjects dominated the seven-member High State Council, the Yi government's highest ruling body. Appointment to the High State Council marked the culmination of a lifetime of public service and ranked as one of the chief glories to which an official might aspire. The High State Council held general powers of surveillance over all government affairs and offices. Beneath the High State Council were the ministries known as the Six Boards, the government's chief administrative arms: the Board of Personnel, the Board of Taxation, the Board of War, the Board of Rites, the Board of Punishments and the Board of Works. Three ministerial grade officials directed the work of each board.
The Board of Personnel, without doubt the most important of the six ministries, managed the entire prefectural system throughout Choson. It controlled the great national civil service examinations, prepared the lists of nominees for most government positions and evaluated the performance of office holders. It certified appointments, rank, and titles, and had much to say about the appointment of officials.
The Board of Taxation maintained population registers, made land surveys and kept land registers, collected taxes and disbursed government funds, and administered grain storehouses and transport systems.
The Board of War concerned itself with all matters relating to the army and navy, including personnel recruitment, supply, post roads, the beacon fire communications system, fortifications, weapons production, and special police and security problems. It also managed the great military examinations, controlled the broad lands set aside for the use of the army, and collected the taxes on those lands.
The Board of Rites handled problems of foreign relations, administered the schools and examination systems, licensed Buddhist monks and handled the wide variety of state ceremonies such as royal marriages, funerals, and sacrifices. The numerous elaborate ceremonies conducted by the Board of Rites taxed the ingenuity and patience of those responsible for arranging them. Since the ceremonies were public spectacles, mistakes were sure to be detected and punished.
The Board of Punishments attended to the making and mending of laws. It handled both civil and criminal cases and functioned more as judge and prison administrator than as public prosecutor. Closely connected with the Board of Punishments, the Bureau of Police carried out requests from the Board to detect and apprehend criminals, although it primarily kept the peace in the capital. The Bureau of Police did little more than carry out a preliminary investigation of suspects after which it turned them over to the Board of Punishments for full trial and conviction.
Although the Board of Works was the least considered of all the great departments, it proved to be the busiest and most useful. It provided all the furnishings for royal functions, managed the construction and repair of public buildings, bridges and roads, state mining and lumbering activities, and the production of a corps of artisans who made articles for state use.
King Songjong, the most thoroughly Confucian of Choson's monarchs up to his time, came to the throne as a boy under the regency of his grandmother. Having received a Confucian education administered by Confucian scholar-officials, Songjong grew into the crown with a greater than normal sense of direction and urgency. He zealously pushed forward a number of enterprises that built on the momentum supplied by the efforts of Sejong and Sejo before him. New moveable type was freshly cast, setting off a new round of great compilations and publication. In 1478, Songjong established the Office of Special Councilors (OSC) to serve as an advisory office to the king. The OSC maintained a law library, searched out administrative and legal precedents, wrote major state documents, and became the acknowledged authority on the Chinese classics and Chinese and Koryo history. It also served as a panel of advisers to the king on matters of policy or principle.
With no overriding obligation to any particular group or individual in government, the young king displayed an unusual degree of impartiality in his relationships with the Yi bureaucracy and tended to be open minded in passing judgement on their character and ability. Despite the remarkable achievements in Songjong's twenty-five year this period is most remarkable for the degree of political conflict that challenged the system of government established by the Yi dynasty. At the heart of this challenge were the two central government departments entrusted with the powers of review and criticism; the Office of the Inspector-General (OIG) and the Office of the Censor-General (OCG).
On paper at least, the Office of the Inspector-General was a surveillance organization. It not only looked into the personal history and background of every candidate for public office, but evaluated contemporary political issues, corrected or improved public mores, scrutinized the conduct of the bureaucracy, and prevented forgery and fraudulent misuse of public credentials. The Office of the Censor-General operated, in effect, as the guardian of Confucian orthodoxy. Its authorization allowed it to critically examine, review and, if necessary, offer opposition to the king and lodge complaints against office holders. The two offices together took under surveillance all aspects of royal, official, and popular (primarily yangban) morality and conduct. In practice, these two offices frequently presented their views jointly and came to be known by a single inclusive term: the Censorate, taegan. The taegan provided a system of government checks and balances in combination with the Six Boards and existed to prevent the abusive exercise of administrative and political authority in government. The constant scrutiny of both the public and private conduct of the king and his high government officials provides a key to understanding the character and nature of Choson's literati-centered yangban society.