Just a nugget of information I thought I might throw out to our readers, all comments or reflections are welcome:

It seems that unskilled wage labourers in late Chosŏn Seoul were paid a real wage at a similar level to their contemporaries in London and Amsterdam (about 140-160kg of rice per month). The workers of Paris, Vienna and Istanbul, by contrast, were remunerated at about half of that level. Of course, if this (highly approximate) comparison of wages is at all accurate, the obvious question is why this was the case. Perhaps a shortage of labour in Chosŏn Seoul? Or a result of the fact that most labourers were employed by the state, where paternalistic, Confucian ideas of moral economy prevented it from squeezing workers too much?

This information comes from an article in the collection edited by Lee Young-hoon: 수량경제사로 다시 본 조선후기 [Re-examining Late Chosŏn through Quantitive Economic History]. The article, entitled 서울의 숙련 및 미수련 노동자의 임금, 1600-1909 [Wages of skilled and unskilled labourers in Seoul, 1600-1909], is by Pak I-t’aek. You can find the note on comparative wages on page 85.

Actually, this book as a whole is one that I cannot recommend highly enough for anyone who is interested in Korean economic history (although I suppose that you have to be the sort of historian – like me – who gets more excited by seeing lots of charts and tables than by reading about battles or revolutions). When it came out in autumn 2004 it seems to have generated quite a bit of interest in the Korean press. One article from Yonhap highlighted the fact that the book reveals that the Korean peninsula was already heavily deforested in the nineteenth century (“한반도 산림은 이미 19세기에 벌거숭이”). An interview with Lee Young-hoon in Chosun Ilbo, on the other hand, focused on his opinion that by the nineteenth century the Chosŏn dynasty was collapsing of its own accord (“19세기 朝鮮은 체력 다해 스스로 무너졌다”). All this attention probably shows just how important this book is to Korean historiography, but I think it’s just the beginning of a new wave of history writing of this sort.

새해 복 많이 받으세요!


  1. At that time, Asia has many problems. China, Qing dynasty became corrupt, Chosun’s royal authority was weakened, Japan, Dokugawa bakufu degenerate. including economics failure. Bring about The hour of the doom was invasion, and internal trouble. Generally speaking, Asia showed signs of decrepitude. It was fortuity of history? And what a point of difference of these countrys? I feel curious about this.

  2. Perhaps we can say that it is the three different responses among the three countries (China, Japan, Korea) to their internal problems (economic decline, social unrest) and external challenges (encroachment by the Euro-American capitalist powers) that should be most crucial to historians. I think much comparative work needs to be done on this yet. But at least now we are beginning to get some serious quantitive data on Korea for this period, which shows that while the ChosOn economy grew during the 17th and 18th centuries, it stagnated or declined in the 19th century. I think this means we can get away from the old view that it was just the intervention of the imperialist powers that prevented Korea from modernising independently.

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