AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 266

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Session 266: Nineteenth-Century Korea Revisited

Organizer: Jungwon Kim, Columbia University, USA

Discussant: Jungwon Kim, Columbia University, USA

Unlike the eighteenth century, when Chosŏn Korea flourished socially and culturally under the strong leadership of kings Yŏngjo (r. 1724-1776) and Chŏngjo (r. 1776-1800), Korea’s nineteenth century has been studied to date primarily only up to the 1876 Kanghwa Treaty, with historians focusing on the political incapacities of a government run by powerful in-laws to the throne and on a series of peasant uprisings, both of which slowly paved the way to dynastic decline. This panel aims to revisit Korea’s nineteenth century through the eyes of ordinary people and marginalized groups in the society. Sun Joo Kim’s paper discusses quotidian life in mid-nineteenth-century Korea society based on an underused legal source—namely, inquest records, which allow us a precious glimpse into the dynamic lives of people in virtually every stratum of that society, including the non-elites and illiterates. Yoonjeong Shim, in contrast, attempts to observe the famous intellectual Chŏng Tasan (1762-1836), not as a prominent Confucian scholar of that time, but as an exile who continuously questioned the meaning of being a scholar remote from the intellectual center, Seoul. Joy Kim explores the newly contesting concepts of freedom and liberty at the turn of the twentieth century by examining the institution of hereditary slavery (nobi-je) that had been long practiced under the exactly opposite connotation—unfreedom—during the late Chosŏn. Finally, Donghwan Ko’s paper reconsiders the so-called mid-nineteenth-century economic crisis, arguing that the Seoul market had already expanded and private merchant activity grown substantially before the opening of the ports in 1876. These four papers will shed a refreshing light on our understanding of nineteenth-century Korea, as well as complicating our view of the socio-economic-intellectual changes Koreans experienced at the time and their connection to the tumultuous period after 1876.

Jealous Husband, Heartless Wet Nurse, Drunken Monk, and Distressed Father: Mid-Nineteenth-Century Korea through Inquest Records
Sun Joo Kim, Harvard University, USA

Historical understanding of nineteenth-century Korea has been largely affected by contention between two major perspectives—nationalist and colonialist—and has tended to remain a larger structural analysis relying on official sources, although some recent studies based on unofficial sources have enriched our knowledge of local history and life. This paper aims to have a close look at quotidian life in mid-nineteenth-century Korea using an unconventional primary source—inquest records. Homicide investigation records from local magistrates’ courts contain a great deal of valuable evidence of an ethnographic nature, making possible a social history of previously invisible aspects of illiterate people’s lives. By closely reading ten murder cases that took place in the 1860s in a few counties, this paper examines ways of dealing with economic hardship, conjugal and family conflicts, gender relations, and ordinary people’s moral values that often contrasted sharply with the Confucian rationales that permeated Korean legal proceedings and adjudication at the time.

To an Exile’s Eye: Chong Tasan’s (1762-1836) View of Confucian Scholars
Yoonjeong Shim, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, USA

My presentation examines the significance of Chong Tasan’s exiles from 1801 to 1818 in formulating his thought and shaping his view of Confucian scholars. Tasan, a former scholar-official in the central government, was accused of being a Catholic, which was then considered to be a threat to Chosŏn society. The Chosŏn court punished him with exile and Tasan served seventeen years of his sentence, at which point he was granted amnesty. Due to the doctrinal conflicts between Confucianism and Catholicism, it was crucial for Tasan to identify himself as a Confucian in order to clear his name. However, actually living as a Confucian scholar was another matter. How did Tasan understand himself as a scholar? What was his role as a Confucian scholar and how did he carry it out? And were his views of scholars consistent? Comparing his views of scholars in relation to his own family versus society at large, I will complicate discussions of this issue by arguing that he had a rather inconsistent view of Confucian scholars, especially with respect to their social status. The standards that Tasan had for society at large did not necessarily apply to his own family.

Conceptualizing Freedom and Liberty in Late Chosŏn Korea
Joy S. Kim, Princeton University, USA

At the turn of the twentieth century, the growing foreign threats against Chosŏn Korea’s sovereignty created a unique political environment in which the concept of freedom (chayu or chaju) was suddenly subject to an unprecedented contest among both the ruling neo-Confucian elites and the reform-minded intellectuals. They began to question the meaning of freedom, and what it means to be “free,” both as an individual and as a nation. Rather than a single idea, freedom is a dynamic complex of values that has been defined with reference to its putative opposite: unfreedom. Slavery (nobi-je), as an institution that embodies ultimate unfreedom, became an important symbol to early twentieth century thinkers. Despite the importance the hereditary slavery had in early modern Korea, the historical engagement with this institution during late Chosŏn Korea was cursory at best. But for these turn of the century intellectuals, who were considering the meaning of freedom and unfreedom, slavery was an important and essential symbol. The institution of slavery helped to define Korean understandings of freedom, and in so doing offered a language with which to convey and claim legitimacy for all kinds of grievances and hopes, fears about the present and visions of the future. This paper explores the ideas of freedom and liberty, and in so doing the idea of unfreedom, in late Chosŏn Korea, and how the perceived threats against Chosŏn’s national political freedom prompted a new understanding of individual freedom and liberty.

Changes of the Seoul Market in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century: Merchants’ Guilds and Monopoly Trade
Donghwan Ko, KAIST, South Korea

Recent studies have argued that there was an economic crisis in mid-nineteenth-century Korea, based on their findings of inflation, deforestation, and a decline in agricultural productivity. These conclusions are derived from case studies of certain localities or limited economic sectors. This study intends to provide a counterpoint by examining the changes in the Seoul market—the merchants’ guilds and monopoly trade in particular. The Commercial Equalization Act of 1791 removed the monopoly trade rights from all the licensed guilds of Seoul except the Six Guilds, thus reflecting the growth of private merchants and the Seoul market in the late Chosŏn. This Act facilitated further commercial developments, with the result that the economic size of the Seoul market surpassed that of government finance in early nineteenth-century Korea. The state adopted a rather liberal market economy policy in which the price and circulation of goods were self-regulated by supply and demand. This attitude led to liberalization in the importing of foreign cloth in 1837, which subsequently caused a fivefold increase in imports. Although the merchant guilds still enjoyed their privileges in key trades, private merchants came to have more opportunities to make profits, due to better information on prices throughout the country and also close relations with Chinese merchants. The growth of private merchants and the expansion of the Seoul market in this period do not resonate with the “crisis” of the nineteenth century found in certain economic sectors and areas, and demand deeper and broader studies before making any firm conclusion on the issue.