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

(Darren Dugan) #1

between landlords and tenants and slaveholders and slaves. Commoner tenants
as well as slaves were subjected to demands on their labor as well as payment
of rent to a system of contractual, short-term sharecropping and hired labor. There
was a rapid decline in the slave population from about one-third to less than
one-tenth of the population after 1780-1800. As the line between slaves and
commoners began to disappear, so too did the dividing line between the semi-
aristocratic yangban and commoners dissolve as the new entrepreneurial peas-
ants accumulated wealth and pushed their way into the upper echelons of society.
More recently, a number of scholars have been associating these developments
with a virtual rise of the masses (minjung) and a higher level of national con-
sciousness. In contemporary historiography the masses have become the most
important factor in explaining the surge of dynamism in the late Choson period
and the drive toward modernity and capitalism in the economy. There is height-
ened awareness of Korea as an independent nation in contradistinction to the
universalistic moral philosophy of Confucianism and the subordination of
nationality and independence to the dependence, if not subservience, of Korea
to Chinese imperial authority.
These revisionist interpretations of the history of the late Choson dynasty have
been consciously designed not only to prove the existence of dynamism and
development, but also to counteract the previous emphasis on political history
and the actions of the educated yangban class at the top of the political struc-
ture. The focus of more recent historians has been the activities of the previ-
ously neglected mass of the people, who failed to leave much of a written record
of their lives because the educated elite monopolized the use of writing.
The contribution of the new Korean historiography to our understanding of
Korean history has been valuable by uncovering very important, but previously
unnoticed, trends in the economy. What is needed at this stage, however, is to
restore some balance by examining the ideas and policies of the educated offi-
cials and statecraft writers of the time, who were attempting to analyze the prob-
lems of society and devise solutions for them. Their efforts arc of invaluable aid
in understanding the nature of Korean society and the changes it was experi-
encing in the last half of the dynasty.


There are a number of ways by which the current wisdom of the changes that
occurred in the late Choson dynasty could be studied, but it is my belief that a
useful beginning could be made by analyzing what was probably the greatest
piece of writing on the problems of statecraft in Korean history up to the time
of its composition. That work is the Pan 'gye surok (A miscellaneous account of
the man from Pan 'gye), written by the scholar-recluse, Yu Hy6ngw6n, probably
between 1652 and 1670. Born in 1622 to a yangban family of officials, Yu made
two brief but desultory attempts at the civil service examinations, but he gave

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