The Society of Silla


One custom from Korea’s tribal heritage that did not disappear in the new order was the tradition of status by birth. Indeed, one of the hall-marks of Silla society was its rigid, almost castelike social hierarchy. Royalty could come only from the top two ranks, known as the “holy bone” rank and the “true bone” rank (Ki-dong Lee 1980, 31).

The holy bone rank was so exclusive that it died out, and the remaining kings of the dynasty came from the true bone rank. Below the bone ranks were the head ranks, the highest being the “six-head” rank, then the “five-head” rank, and so on.

The highest government positions were reserved for those from the six-head rank. A six-head rank candidate could also serve in lower offices and work his way up. A lower-head rank official had a ceiling; he could serve only in the position matching his rank and could never move up.

Beneath the bone ranks and the head ranks were the commoners, and below the commoners were the slaves. In the late Silla period and then in the early Koryo, Korean society became less stratified under Confucian influence. The Confucian ideal was a society with four classes—the official (or scholar-official), the farmer, the artisan, and the merchant.

Elsewhere the adoption of the Confucian social order led to greater social stratification; in Silla, on the other hand, pre-Confucian social classes had been so rigid that the new philosophy pushed society toward less stratification. The official class, once the bone and the head ranks, simplified into a two-rank class of civilian scholar/officials on one hand and the military on the other. The arti-san-farmer-merchant ideal of Confucianism came to be interpreted as the commoner class.

And at the bottom—off the chart of the Confucian ideal—were the slaves. Slavery never played an important role in Chinese society. However, from the Silla period until the 20th century, slaveholding was one of the hallmarks of Korean society. Despite the Mongol invasion in the 13th century and the Japanese in the 16th century, there was never sufficient social upheaval to unseat the slaveholding system.

Rather, hereditary slaveholding through sev-eral dynasties became part of the longest unbroken chain of slavery of any country on Earth. The children of slaves became slaves, and over the centuries little happened to change the pattern of slaveholding (Patterson 1982, 143). Manumission was possible, but rare, even in times of war; in times of famine, some commoners would sell them-selves into slavery and the care and keeping of a wealthy owner.

Slaves were primarily held by aristocrats, some of whom owned hundreds of slaves. When an aristocrat married he would double his slave hold-ings in that sons and daughters, and therefore husbands and wives, each inherited a portion of their respective family’s slaves, and at the time of marriage, each side brought slaves into the new household.There were two categories of slaves, privately owned and publicly owned, or in other words, government slaves.

Government slaves were held by various offices in the central government as well as at each provincial office. Public schools and later private schools all had a staff of slaves to serve the young students. Privately held slaves were also divided into two categories and registered as such on the regular census documents: domestic slaves and field slaves. Domestic slaves lived in the house of the owner, while field slaves lived on land held by the owner, sometimes located far from the owner’s house.

Sometimes field slaves were rented out to other landowners, in which case the field slave would submit his tribute, a share of his yield, to the absentee owner. There were also slaves held by Buddhist temples and appeared in the census documents as such. Estimates of the percentage of the populace that were slaves hover around one-third until the 18th century, at which point wage labor became more advan-tageous to farm owners and the newly emerging factory owners.