Things I don’t know about Korea, part 1 of many

Now that I’m teaching my Korean History course I am, of course, running into questions I cannot answer. I’m going to post them here periodically:

  • Though the Choson-era Korean Army (in its various commanderies and provincial forms) was conscripted from peasantry (and officered, it appears, by military Yangban), where did the Navy get its personnel? You can’t just conscript a peasant and put him on a ship and expect him to be useful: did they recruit from fishing communities, or was there a training process?
  • What’s the numerical breakdown of Choson society? I’ve seen suggestions that as much as 20-30% were in the unfree categories at the bottom of the social scale, but I can’t seem to get a handle on the Yangban and Chungnin classes, either in total population or (as one of my students asked) rate of shedding members to lower classes.
  • Who was the aged, deeply bearded gentleman depicted on the Japanese colonial-era Korean bills? (See below)

Tokai Currency - Korea Japanese Colonial One Yen


  1. Hi Jonathan,

    I checked a few sources and it seems that the bearded gentleman on the Bank of Chosen notes is probably the legendary Japanese hero-statesman 武内宿禰, who had earlier been depicted on Japanese yen-notes.

  2. The social class system of Choson was not inflexible as many people(both foreigners and Koreans) think.
    When Choson was established, there were only two classes, which are the lyangmin(양민) and the cheonmin(천민), but as time passed, yangban class was differentiated, and this was mainly due to economic reason. Of course, there were real ‘yangbans’ who were actually scholars and were eager to become prominent, but many yangbans lived as self-satisfied landlords in country. About this time(mid-15th century), the percentage of yangban in the entire population was less than 10%. (at first, it was less than 3%) However, the Imjin war was the point where the system collapsed. The post-war government was in desperate need of money, so it was allowed for commoners to have honorary titles and become yangban only if they donate money to the government. Also, since 17th century, forgery of jokbo became very prevalent, so any commoners could become yangban if they had enough wealth. As a result, about late-18th century, the percentage of yangban was about 30%; right before the socieal hierarchy was abolished, it was almost 70%(!)

  3. And about the navy, well, it was never considered as a significant part of army(even during the Imjin war!) by officials. Of course, this does not belittles the feats of Choson navy, but that is the truth. Most of the navy consisted of recruits from fishing communities, as you guessed. However, service in navy was very infamous as a difficult one, so most people tried to avoid it. However, as far as I know, there were some elite soldiers in Navy, too. These guys were the gunners and officers, and they were paid quite well for their service.
    There was no special training protocol provided by the government. However, the commanders of jins(or naval bases) were expected to perform training in any way.

  4. Europe has a history of “pressing” men into the navy- often taking the form of kidnapping. Or, they sometimes used paroled criminals. Could such a thing also have happened in Korea? We know that sometimes Korean textbooks are expunged of such details, as they are now considered embarrassing. But, I must wonder if there are any independent sources from that time that might also mention this?

  5. Both of those were relatively rare, though, and more often done by commercial vessels than by military ones, as I understand it.

    If the Korean navy did something like that, I’d expect Korea’s marxist historians — and even in the South there’s a tradition of marxist social analysis in Korean historiography — to have noted it pretty clearly.

  6. We can draw some estimates of Choson social composition using proxy data, but such figures are highly disputable and subject to wide regional variations. The yangban/chungin/commoner/base division is also very tricky. Yangban denotes a sociopolitical elite, since the term originates from those members of society who can potentially rise to the position of the two ranks in the central bureaucracy. The problem is that yangban was not a common actor’s category in Choson (they preferred to refer to themselves as sa 士 or sajok 士族) and plus not every Choson elite pursued officialdom or partook in civil examinations. The Haenam Yun family in the southwest, for example, amassed enormous estates and boasted owning hundreds of servants/slaves but extremely few clan members (something like less than ten in five hundred years of Choson) passed the higher civil examinations.

    The most thorough Choson institutional history in English would be Palais’ second book, Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions. The book itself has some problems because the author is split between treating this work as intellectual or institutional history. Rather often, the book conflates the author’s own perspectives with the arguments of Yu Hyongwon, the purported target of analysis, and some of the later chapters completely leave out Yu Hyongwon from the picture altogether. But Palais is extremely erudite, that is undeniable, and offers some exceptional insights. He devotes a whole section to the Choson military system. His arguments need to be taken with some caution but the book is still definitely worth reading.

  7. Hi everyone,

    Even if answers were given more than one month ago, I might bring back to life this topic to offer another point of view on one of the questions raised behind.

    Working myself on 17th century Chosŏn, I read some time ago quite intensely Palais’ “Confucian Statecraft”. He dealt indeed very precisely with 17th military institutions’ reform, but I do not remember anything about a training unit for the explicit usage of the navy. However, training units did exist, for instance the Hullyŏn togam 訓練都監 which trained soldiers using firearms. Navy gunners were mentionned above, they have to be trained somehow because you can not fire a cannon without previous training, and I guess it was in the Hullyŏn togam.

    As for the question about outlaws’ recrutment, we do know the importance of piracy in the region, and we do know also that Chosŏn navy recruted at several occasions former pirates to strenghten their troops, or just to reduce the piracy groups. This was done at least at two occasions, under Sejong and once in the mid-15th century. I guess this was often repeated, I think in particular of the Imjin war, but I am not sure and someone else might confirm. Of course, this lead to other questions such as how to integrate pirates, especially the ones who were not Japanese or Chinese, into a national army. But this is another story.

    If you still look for more precise information, Eugene Park’s “Between Dreams and Reality: The Military Examination in Late Choson Korea , 1600-1894 (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2007) might be the solution, if you did not yet look at it.

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