At the outset of the Choson dynasty in 1392, the Yi royal family and their supporters had consciously chosen Neo-Confucianism as the ide-ology for the new dynasty. Confucianism had been influential in Korea for a thousand years, but previous dynasties were somewhat divided in their allegiances to Buddhism and Confucianism. With the new group that took power at the end of the 14th century, Confucianism and spe-cifically Neo-Confucianism became the only orthodoxy acceptable.
In the early years under King Sejong, the court and the state reformed court rituals and state ceremonies to put them in line with the Confucian classics, but the early dynastic reforms affected only the court and government; the ordinary person, even an aristocrat, could take it or leave it. An event from the royal annals of Sejong’s time illustrates this casual attitude.
It was a complaint from an official that a certain other high official was not carrying out ancestor ceremonies. Such a complaint would never have been raised in the mid-Choson period or thereafter, because by then all aristocrats proudly carried out ceremonies for their ancestors as a mark of their higher status.
Changes in Inheritance, Marriage, and Adoption Customs
For centuries, because of the difference between what Koreans prac-ticed and what was written in the Confucian classics, society functioned under the terms of a kind of compromise between the ideal and the real. The classics spoke of the role of the eldest son as the primary heir, but Koreans were dividing property equally and conducting ceremonies for the ancestors on a rotational basis, with all sons and even daughters participating equally.
This compromise continued for centuries, even after the founding of the Choson dynasty, a court founded on Confucian principles, but when the Confucian values of primogeniture (the eldest son’s exclusive right of inheritance) and eldest son preference caught on, their impact on the family was dramatic. In the first half of the dynasty, people wrote wills outlining which child inherited which parcel of land and which slaves, but as the transition to primo-geniture took place, fewer and fewer wills were written: There was no point in writing a will when the eldest son inherited control of all the property.
These changes started to unfold in the late 17th century. One by one, as families were faced with dividing the inheritances of the father and mother between the children, they began to break with the tradition of dividing property equally between sons and daughters and started to give more to the eldest son and less to the daughters.
In one case the family elders wrote in the inheritance document that since the daughter had married into a family that lived so far away, she could not return to carry on the ceremonies properly, and therefore she would be given only half as much as was given to the sons. In another case the family cited the Confucian classics: Since the sons mourned for three years at the passing of a parent but the daughter mourned for only one year, the daughter would be given only one-third as much as a son.
Gradually, case by case, daughters were disinherited, younger sons got small par-cels, and the eldest son came to inherit the largest, controlling share of an estate. Although younger sons’ portions were usually large enough to live on, sometimes the eldest son would have to assist the younger sons or their children. The eldest son’s estate would then become a center for the extended family. The resources of the estate would be used for carrying out the ceremonies and for assisting all the extended family should the need arise.
Ceremonies became more and more elaborate. Huge feasts became part of the ceremonies for the dead, and since all the descendants of the deceased would meet together on those occasions, they became large family reunions. Relatives renewed family ties and took the chance to discuss issues of common concern, such as marriage arrangements of family members with other lineage groups or the success of the next generation in studying for the all-important state examinations.
This change in inheritance practices brought about changes in mar-riage practices. Before the transition a daughter would sometimes move into her husband’s household, while sometimes a son would move into his bride’s house. A couple who had only daughters would certainly have a son-in-law move in. With the disinheritance of daughters and the new emphasis on a son inheriting the line, however, a couple with-out a son would no longer let the property go to a daughter and son-in-law. Instead, they would adopt a son.
Legally, the adoption of a son was allowed only if the “son” to be adopted was already a member of the lineage group, a member of the bloodline. The son-elect had to be a member of the lineage carrying the same surname, and he had to belong to the next lower generation—for instance, a nephew to the adopting parent.
Adoption did not mean bringing up an orphan. The focus of the adoption was not the son, but the father. It meant the care and keeping of the ancestor—the adopt-ing father, who would at some point die and become an ancestor who needed offerings in the ancestor ceremonies. In fact, as this practice of adoption took hold in the 18th and 19th centuries, about half the time the adopting father was already dead by the time the adoption was sub-mitted to the government for approval, and the adopted son was not a baby; he was often 20, 30, or 40 years old.
The Choson government had a Ministry of Ritual whose function it was, among others, to monitor adoption procedures. Its officials kept a register of requests for adoption. Dating from 1618, the register is kept in 18 large books wherein handwritten entries detail the facts of each request and whether it was authorized. Most were.The adopted son was a party to the process of agnatic adoption (adoption to continue the male line) and had to submit documents showing that he agreed to the procedure.
Two lineage elders, one from “both sides of the family,” as well as the adopting father and the bio-logical father also had to submit affidavits affirming that the proposed adoption was appropriate. Until the late 17th century the term both sides of the family was interpreted to mean the heads of the lineage of the adopting father and the adopting mother. Afterward, both sides of the family came to mean the family of the adopting father and that of the biological father.
This signifies that in the early and middle 17th century, “both sides” included two different surnames; from the late 17th century on, the “both sides” clause indicated two men with the same surname, since agnatic adoption means adoption from within the same surname group. Matters evolved further in the late 18th and 19th centuries, as recorded toward the end of the register. In some cases, despite the formula that called for representatives from “both sides” of the case to agree to the adoption, only one lineage elder is listed as agreeing to the procedure.
That single lineage elder would have been the senior family representative for both the adopting father and the biological father, both in the same segment of the lineage.With the daughters marrying out and the sons staying in the same house or building a new house nearby, there developed villages of fami-lies with the same surname, all members of the same lineage group or extended family. Particularly for aristocratic families, single-surname villages became the norm.
These changes—primogeniture, marrying out of daughters, adoption of bloodline male relatives, ancestor ceremonies conducted by the eldest son, and single-surname villages—all became part of what Koreans today think of as their “traditional” values. Research on this subject is fairly new, however, and most Koreans today do not realize that this “traditional family” and the system associated with it are really only two or three centuries old. These Confucian-based changes permanently changed Korean society starting in the middle of the Choson period, that is, from the late 17th century onward.
Decay of the Examination System
One of the great strengths of the Confucian system was that it was, in theory, a meritocracy, a civil service system into which entry was based on an examination in the Confucian classics. There were three categories of examinations, civil, military, and technical, and civil was considered the most important; those who passed the civil examinations were Korea’s hands-on rulers. In reality only the wealthy could afford the extensive study that was necessary to succeed in the examination system; this usually limited participation to the top tiers of Korean society.
Training for the civil examinations was limited to the landowning Korean aristocracy, the yangban. Since the government also required the services of people with knowledge of technology, science, and foreign languages and because the yangban considered such activities to be beneath them, students trained in these subjects were drawn from the hereditary class of petty officials that formed Korea’s “middle people,” the chungin.
Hence, the examination system, unlike its iteration in China, was hardly egalitarian—as an expression of Confucianism, which strongly supports class differences, one would not expect it to be. However, while it worked honestly, it gave an intellectual cast to Korea’s upper classes by emphasizing learning and competence. Knowledge of the Confucian classics was the path to prestige and power.
From the outset, there was a tension in Korea between the Confucian system, with its emphasis on competence and justice within the limits of an inherently unequal, hierarchal society, and the traditions of the landowning yangban who administered the system. As good Confucian administrators, they were expected to act according to the dictates of virtue.
As landowners, they had obligations to their family and their clan, and they tended to use their power to increase their family hold-ings. The power that came with success in the examination system resulted in the corruption of the system. Whatever political faction happened to be in power was able to see to it that those on its side had access to the examination questions and to deny posts to enemies even if they had passed the exams.
In the 1800s access to high office was regularly achieved by bribery, a process that led to corrupt government, since those who had acquired their posts by bribery used their posi-tions to squeeze profits out of the common people (Eckert 1990, 179). By its end the examination system had become a formality, and bribes for certain posts were such a regular feature of the system that regular prices were set for them.
Increased Factionalism in the Wake of the Invasions
The identification of the ruling elite with the interests of their own clans or regions also led to increased political factionalism, a key weakness of the Korean state during the late Choson period, accord-ing to the 20th-century Korean historian Han Woo-keun. The factions that formed as a result of these regional alliances struggled to control Korea by controlling the throne. When the northerners were in power, they excluded the westerners and southerners. Factionalism increased after the invasions.
According to Han, factionalism intensified in the postinvasion period, “the old factions splitting and multiplying at a bewildering rate. They often centered around succession to the throne or points of Confucian ritual and etiquette, especially the proper period of mourning on the death of a royal personage, but their actual motivation was for the most part pure and simple greed for power” (Han 1970, 300).
The chronic factionalism of the late Choson period had large and mostly bad effects on the country. Struggles over the succession often put incompetent leaders in power. Factions, once in power, ruled to suit their own interests, not necessarily the interests of the state. Yangban excluded from power for long periods had to find other occupations, some building up their estates, some developing into a Korean intel-ligentsia, and some engaging (mostly covertly) in the despised activity of commerce.
The Tax System
In the tax system as well as in the examination system, there came to be a great gulf between theory and practice. Under a system developed in the 17th century, the government collected taxes through local offi-cials in the form of grain, then paid contractors in grain for whatever special products the government required. The amount of tax required was based on an assessment of the amount of arable land.
Farmers were also required to pay for exemption from military service: The amount required was two rolls of cloth for each man of military age, that is, between 16 and 60. Yangban families were exempt from this tax. Farmers did everything they could to evade it, sometimes going to the length of leaving their homes at collection time.
Local officials did everything they could to maximize the tax, sometimes falsifying the ages of children to make them seem qualified or counting dead men eligible for military service (and making their families therefore responsible for two rolls of cloth for each dead man).Wasteland, newly reclaimed land, land subject to drought or flood, and land belonging to the royal clan were exempt from tax (Han 1970, 341). These loopholes in the tax system were originally instituted as measures to offer peasants relief, but like all such loopholes they were ripe for abuse.
As time went on corrupt local officials, who had found ways of diverting the lands’ products into their own pockets, managed to have much of the land they controlled reclassified as tax-exempt under one or another sort of provision. The result was that a smaller and smaller percentage of the land provided the government with its finances.
The burden on all farmers became greater as they found themselves supporting both the government and an ever-enlarging aristocracy.
The evils of the tax system were recognized, and on occa-sion strong kings attempted to reform it (for example, the military tax was cut in half in 1750 by King Yongjo). Over the long run, however, the burden on the common people only became worse.