(566) Confucian morality sapped Korean commerce
Like it or not, it is natural for humans to trade. People began to swap quality obsidian for cowry shells a few tens of thousands of years ago and have not stopped trading ever since. Even when the authorities of a particular country decided that trade was immoral, or anti-state, or otherwise they never succeeded in completely eradicating it.
Nonetheless there were societies where trade was suppressed to some extent. Korea of the 14th to 19th centuries was one such society. This did not mean that Koreans of this period did not trade, of course. There were countryside markets and even large trade companies with officially approved monopoly rights. But it appears that Korea in the 1600s had a low level of commercial activity, when compared to other similarly developed societies across the globe.
For example, coins were almost never used in Korea until the late 17th century. There were earlier attempts to build a coin-based currency system, but the public could not understand why they should accept pieces of metal instead of real things like cloth or sacks of rice. Therefore earlier attempts to introduce a monetary system ended in failure and only from around 1700 did coinage become common.
This is unusual for a literate society run by a sophisticated bureaucracy _ and Korea was such a society. Of course, one must remember that ancient Egyptians also didn’t use coinage, but few would doubt that Korea of the Joseon Kingdom period was well ahead of ancient Egypt when it came to levels of social development.
In the cultural life of Seoul, the presence of a large merchant class was not particularly noticeable either. If we compare Korean cities of pre-modern times with contemporary cities of other countries we will immediately see an important difference. In Seoul, the cultural scene was dominated by the yangban gentry, not by rich merchants.
Old Korea had no commercial prostitution. Gisaeng girls did sleep with fee-paying customers, but they were beyond the reach of the vast majority and providing sex was only a minor part of their many responsibilities.
Nor did old Korea have restaurants. A hungry traveler could have a quick snack at the market, but there were no taverns where people of repute would meet to discuss business.
Old Korea lacked theater. There were professional jesters for the masses and semi-professional pansori performers for the elite, but no plays in the strictest sense.
Nationalist-minded Korean scholars feel proud about the absence of prostitution. The same historians are very reluctant to admit the absence of theater and usually try to present some genres of traditional performance as a Korean analogue. They don’t bother about the absence of restaurants and taverns.
However the absence of these institutions reflects one important feature of Korea’s traditional society _ the cultural and economic weakness of the commercial class in the cities of old Korea. In England and Japan, in Turkey and Thailand, it was largely the merchant class who frequented brothels, taverns and theaters.
What was the reason for their conspicuous absence? One can only speculate about it, but it seems that the decisive role was played by Confucian attitudes toward commerce and trade. Throughout the Joseon Kingdom, a rigid version of Confucianism was emphasized as the basis of Korea’s identity. At that time, the ruling class proudly presented itself as more devout and pure Confucians than even the Chinese themselves. And this approach could not but be felt.
In the Confucian worldview, all occupations had a place in a clear hierarchy. At the top were the “sa” (士), often called literati in English. Their right to rule came from them spending their lives mastering the teachings of the great Confucian sages.
One step below were farmers, “nong” (農). Needless to say in real life, farmers were at the bottom of the social pyramid, but in the traditional Confucian worldview still considered them the second most necessary group in the society.
The third group were artisans, “gong” (工). Handicrafts were assumed to be excessive, since a society can do without them. Nevertheless, handicrafts could be useful and were sometimes even necessary.
At the very bottom of this hierarchy were merchants, “sang” (商). Confucian sages believed that trade was somewhat superficial, so a perfect society would probably find ways to do without it. It was often repeated that merchants encouraged unproductive and vulgar consumption and exacerbated social tension.
It was therefore assumed that in a properly-run society merchants might be tolerated but should always know their proper station and should never be given excessive power.
It seems that Confucian zeal and sincere belief in Confucian morality to a very large extent inhibited the growth of Korean commerce in the Joseon era. Probably it might be one of the reasons why Korea in the late 19th century could not adjust to the demands of the times in order to keep its independence.
As often happens, sincere and well-intended efforts of moralists may well have produced completely unintended consequences.
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.