By Andrei Lankov
If you talk to the average Korean nowadays about his or her family background, you can be almost certain that your interlocutor will tell you that he or she comes from some aristocratic ``yangban’’ family through a direct line of descent. Indeed, across the globe, many people fancy themselves descendents of the rich and mighty aristocratic clans of the past. But in Korea, self-proclaimed descendents of nobility seem to be exceptionally numerous.
But how did the social structure of pre-modern Korea appear in real life and not as imagined by our contemporaries?
In the 16th to 19th centuries, Korea emulated China in many regards, but its social structure was quite peculiar. Perhaps it was more similar to the social structure of medieval Europe rather than that in China.
Old Korea was a country of inherited social status. People were born into an established social group (privileged or discriminated against), and had little or no opportunity to change their standing through their lifetime. As a rule, their children remained in the same group.
There was a great multitude of hereditary groups and sub-groups in old Korea, but to simplify things a bit, we can categorize people according to four major social groups ― the gentry, ``middling sort,’’ commoners and the so-called ``base people.’’
Like nearly all pre-modern societies, old Korea had a hereditary elite which was known as the yangban ― literally ``two halves.’’ This somewhat strange name hints that this social group included both civil officials and military officers. Unlike old Europe and Japan, in Korea the civil service was seen as superior to military service. Only people born into this group were theoretically eligible to sit the civil service or officer exams. These exams were the only way to political power.
In theory, a yangban family could maintain its privileged status only as long as once every few generations one of its members served in the government, even briefly. A majority of the yangban did not serve though; they were land owners who lived off their estates.
The number of yangban was relatively low, some 5 percent of the total population in the early 18th century and maybe twice that number a century later. So the roughly 90 percent of Koreans today who claim yangban origins via a direct line of descent cannot but be wrong.
Just below the yangban, there was a hereditary social group known as ``jungin’’ ― literally ``middle people.’’ Some of them were born into this group, while others were children of yangban born of concubines rather than primary wives. These people were usually engaged in what we would now describe as ``professions.’’ They were doctors, legal specialists, translators, accountants and the like.
They were often described as underprivileged and a lot of ink was used in the 17th and 18th centuries in lamentations of their sorry fate. So this perception would become part of historical tradition but it is quite different from what was actually the case. Jungin lived much better than most in Korea at the time. They did not have full yangban rights, this is undeniable, but legally they were well above the average commoner. So this group can best be described as semi-privileged.
One step further down were commoners, known as the ``yangmin’’ (good people). This group included the majority of farmers, as well as nearly all artisans and merchants (the only exceptions were those engaged in ``base activities’’ like butchers). These people were free but they paid taxes and served in the military and could also be called to do corvee labor (unpaid labor).
Commoners were clearly the largest of all the hereditary groups in old Korea ― they included well over half of the nation’s entire population.
At the bottom of this hierarchy were ``cheonmin’’ (cheap people). This class was not free and most of them were private slaves known as ``nobi.’’ Nobi were owned by their yangban masters and usually worked in agriculture. Unlike free tenants, they did not rent land, rather they were ordered to toil their master’s land for moderate compensation. They could be beaten and tortured (but not killed) by their masters.
The cheonmin also included some social groups whose members were technically considered to be slaves of the state. In reality they were just people whose legal rights were seriously constrained. These groups included people who may have been well educated and had good incomes.
For example, all people who dealt with the slaughter and processing of animals were members of this group ― like butchers and saddle makers. Surprisingly, Buddhist monks were technically base people as well, because they did not enjoy full legal rights in the system (in real life, they could hardly be described as underprivileged). Gisaeng, the female entertainers cum high-end prostitutes, also belonged to this group.
So whatever your interlocutor says, the chances are that he or she is a descendent of a free farmer or a blacksmith not of some arrogant (but admittedly well educated) yangban. After all the same is applicable to any society on earth. We are all descendents of peasants.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.