Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions. Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty - James B. Palais

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Since liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 Korean historians have
been waging a mighty struggle to rid themselves of the burden of Japanese colo-
nial historiography, which decreed that for the five hundred years ofthe Choson
(Yi) dynasty (1392-1 910) Korea was mired in stagnation and incapable of devel-
opment and progress. In the last few years this struggle has been won because
the efforts of Korean historians have shown that Korea appeared to be caught
up in significant changes in its social structure, economy, and other important
institutions, particularly after emerging from the disaster inflicted on the Korean
people by the marauding armies of Hideyoshi Toyotomi bet ween 1592 and 1598.
Despite the success in demonstrating that change rather than stasis is a better
way of understanding the flow of history in the latter Choson dynasty, the inter-
pretation of the nature of that change has not been as successful. In crude out-
line the essential argument about the nature of change was that the rigid social
structure of the early Chason period, often described as "feudal," had been dis-
rupted and opencd to greater upward and downward social mobility, and that the
primary cause of social change consistcd of the growth of the market and the
liberalization of the economy. Economic liberalization flowed from the increase
not only in agricultural production, but also in per capita productivity and the
creation of a surplus over subsistence gained through developments in agricul-
tural technology and methods. There was, in addition, the creation of a new class
of entrepreneurial farmers seeking to maximize production and wealth, expan-
sion of the marketing of the agricultural surplus, development of handicraft indus-
try and an increase in the division oflabor, and the intrusion of private merchants
into the privileges and profits of state-licensed merchant monopolies. These eco-
nomic developments showed signs of a transition toward capitalism, particularly
in the partial monetization of the economy after 1608, the growth of private mer-
chant activity and the accumulation of commercial capital, the development of
private enterprise in cotton textiles, ginseng cultivation, mining, pottery, and met-
allurgy, and increased division of labor in minting, mining, and ceramics.
These changes were allegedly accompanied by a shift from "feudal" relations


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