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Nobi: Rescuing the Nation from Slavery

One of the interesting aspects of pre-modern Korean history is the existence of a huge number of slaves, perhaps averaging 30% or perhaps 40% of the population for the Chosŏn dynasty. As I read about this for my class and we had our discussion of it today, I found that there seems to be considerable resistance in Korean historiography and amongst many Koreans towards using the “S” word with all its negative connotations.

Called nobi 노비(奴婢), slaves in Korea were owned as property by the elite Yangban class and could be bought, sold, given away as gifts, and left to one’s descendants. These slaves were either public slaves who served in the royal court or other arms of the state’s bureaucracy at the central and local level, or were privately owned slaves that worked in the household or worked the fields. They were frequently beaten or flogged, and the killing of slaves, while legally prohibited as early as 1444 during the rule of Sejong, rarely went punished. Slavery was largely hereditary, though the laws determining the status of the offspring of mixed marriages with non-slaves changed throughout the period.

The institution of slavery in Korea has a very long history and there are a number of unusual and interesting features of it. Slaves, for example, could own property for which they were taxed, though this appears to have been uncommon. They were given base names which often had the suffix “kae” which apparently implied a tool of some kind. The slaves were not prohibited from marrying commoners though their offspring could then often be enslaved. Marriage with the Yangban was banned, but this ban was sometimes ignored and slave women were sometimes taken on as secondary wives or concubines of the elite.

Ironically, because the institution of slavery was such an important part of elite life in the Chosŏn period, we apparently have more historical records in which slaves are mentioned than there is available information about non-slave commoner class, who were of less consequence to the Yangban who depended so much on their household and farm slaves to get by.

While there appears to be some disagreement on this (see my next posting), some scholars argue that there was a fairly strong drop in the slave population before legal prohibition. I read two texts on slavery in Korea for my Chosŏn history class this week: James B. Palais’s chapter 6 in Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Kyŏngwŏn and the Late Chosŏn Dynasty (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996) and Rhee, Rhee Young-hoon and Donghyu Yang’s “Korean Nobi in American Mirror [sic]: Yi Dynasty Coerced Labor in Comparison to Savery in the Antebellum Southern United States” which is downloadable online in PDF format (As the title reveals, the English in this paper is kinda shaky in places). Palais argues that for reasons not yet really known, there was a drop in the 18th century. Rhee and Yang note a significant drop in slave prices in Korea as early as 1690. While the “emancipation” of the government or “official” slaves happened in the apparently oft-mentioned year of 1801 under the rule of King Sunjo, private slavery continued until hereditary slavery was banned in 1886 and the whole institution was legally banned in 1894 in the kabo reforms. Apparently cases of slaves still serving in that capacity exist through the colonial period as well.

It seems that the reasons for decline are not well known. Palais (and Rhee and Yang) and Martina Deuchler emphasize the rise of more efficient hired labor practices as land became scarce and lots smaller. Palais also emphasizes the 1) increasing number of runaways and the decline in their recapture and 2) the spread in influence of Neo-Confucian scholars such as Yu Kyŏngwŏn who argued against slavery on the basis of ancient Confucian texts and proposed its gradual fading out. In what is perhaps the article’s most bizarre moment, Rhee and Yang also believe that the eventual prohibition on official slaves in 1801 shows its end was “political” rather than “moral” and represents a Korean “Declaration of Human Rights, only ten-odd years late [sic] than the French equivalent, the principle of liberty, equality and fraternity is sought for in the great cause of royal regime [sic].” (33)

What I found most interesting about my reading on this and especially the Rhee/Yang article and the discussion that resulted from our readings in class, surrounds the main thesis of the Rhee/Yang essay: “it is inappropriate to call nobi of Chosŏn slaves.” (37)

Basically Rhee and Yang argue that the nobi of Korea should not be called “slaves” because of various unique aspects of the institution there (its non-racial nature, the fact that their collective memory as “extrusive” were obscure, the fact that the dividing line between them and commoners was thinner than the US, and that they were less isolated from the rest of the population as compared to slavery in the US). Rhee and Yang depend entirely on the US example of slavery for their comparison to make this argument and presumably want us to stop calling the nobi slaves and just call them nobi.

Unfortunately, it is hard not to see this entire article as a bit wasted to make an argument that is not only wrong, but not really useful even if it was true. However thin the lines between commoners and slaves were when compared to the huge dividing line between the “base” and Yangban classes, it doesn’t change the fact that an entire legal and social institution existed in Korea which traded human beings as property that could be bought and sold, given and inherited. The closest word commonly used in historical literature to slavery which implies this kind of deep servitude is serfdom and it hardly compares. However, this is not really the point. I am not really that concerned with what word they choose to use, what is more interesting is why Korean scholars might feel so much resistance towards using the word “slavery” in English to describe this hugely important institution?

As the first few pages of Rhee and Yang’s essay suggest, what seems to be at stake here is a kind of enlightenment concern over the moral calculus of slavery. Palais seems to have made some comments at some conference suggesting that Koreans own up historically to the existence of this disgusting institution and many Korean scholars, going back as much as 40 years, have countered by suggesting that their nobi weren’t slaves at all, thus preventing the stain of slavery which has so tainted the history of the United States, from touching the Korean Nation.

When I read this, I couldn’t help thinking this smacked of a “My nation was less evil than your nation” debate. Our class discussion only added to my suspicion. Martina Deuchler, who was a special guest to our class, confirmed when I asked her that this “Nobi ≠ Slave” claim is widespread in Korean historiography, though she thinks a younger generation and even Rhee may be looking at this differently in the last few years. A Korean graduate student in the audience who joined us for Professor Deuchler’s visit put it in even more plain terms, “When we hear how Westerners translate nobi 노비(奴婢) into slave, and we translate slave back into Korean we get the word noye 노예(奴隸 C:núlì J:どれい) which sounds really bad.”

I can’t help but think, “Ya, well that’s too bad.” Whatever you want to call them, its original word nobi included, I don’t think you need the word noye to realize that there might be something less than warm and fuzzy about owning people as property, working them without pay (though they were sometimes fed, clothed and housed far better than some of the non-slave commoners who might be starving to death in the same village), and beating or flogging them when they didn’t work hard enough. However, lets not get distracted with the complex issue of condemning historical practices. The most important point is that only through the lens of nationalist scholarship is this really a problem. Only with the assumption that by reference to some purported universal yardstick of barbarity this somehow reflects badly on the national character of the Korean people in comparison to the national character of other peoples does this become an issue worth arguing over semantics.

{ 10 } Comments

  1. Antti Leppänen | 2005.4.8 at 1:20 | Permalink

    Good overview and discussion!
    One thing must be that so much of the Korean historiography is entangled with the theme of “modernization” that taking slavery into account isn’t easy.
    It also seems that the Korean slavery doesn’t really figure in the schemes which track the development of the so-called “people’s consciousness” from the premodern times either. In the novel I’m currently reading, Taebaek Sanmaek (太白山脈), which is about the conflicts in the post-liberation South Korea, the grandfather of the communist rebel leader was a family slave (kabok 家僕). It’s not this family heritage which is given as the origin of the character’s ideology but his father’s (slave’s son) adherence of Confucian thinking, which made him do his utmost for the oldest son’s education, which in turn led him to revolutionary Communism. (Now does this have much to do with your post anymore?)

  2. Muninn | 2005.4.8 at 3:29 | Permalink

    Actually Antti, that is a good point. My post suggests that this is only a problem for historiography which places its primary emphasis on the “national” unit. However, you can also argue that for historiographical approaches where the “people’s consciousness” is primary, the problem of slavery essentially slices or divides their otherwise unified subaltern into yet another layer of social class.

    Accounting for this could produce tremors in the narration of premodern history from this perspective.

  3. Jonathan Dresner | 2005.4.9 at 17:49 | Permalink

    Hasn’t anyone pointed out that slavery predates the US South and that the world history of slavery includes any number of sub-serf classes who are routinely and legitimately called “slaves”? If they don’t want to be compared to the atrocities of the antebellum South, how about the glories of Greece and Rome….

  4. Kotaji | 2005.4.11 at 3:38 | Permalink

    Thanks for an excellent discussion of this interesting topic. As you and the commenter above have hinted, this debate needs to be historically contextualised and universalised a lot further. The fact that Korean historians are obsessed by a comparison with the American South tells us more about the history of modern South Korea than anything else. I would hazard to say that almost every corner of the world has seen slavery of some form at some point in its history.

    Clearly slavery holds a particular horror for us, but in terms of political economy it is one of a range of forms of surplus extraction found in pre-modern societies, none of which were particularly pleasant. If slavery meant the seizure of the labour of an individual ‘lock and stock’ then corvee was the direct ‘non-economic’ seizure of a person’s labour in smaller, discrete parcels. The taking of tax/rent in kind would have commonly meant half of the crop if not considerably more and cash taxes didn’t necessarily improve things for direct producers as this could open the door to innumerable smaller extractions by petty officials.

    All of these forms of surplus extraction coexisted in Chosôn Korea – like many premodern societies it can’t be neatly categorised as a ‘slave society’ or a ‘feudal (rent-extracting) society’. You can’t help thinking that life must have been pretty awful whether you were born slave, commoner or ch’ônmin. But then Korea doesn’t stand out particularly in this respect – I wouldn’t want to have been born a peasant in medieval England either.

  5. djm | 2006.4.7 at 23:03 | Permalink

    I am not sure if anyone even looks at this web site anymore but I could not help adding my “two cents.”

    The Korean denial of the use of the word slave for nobi is not surprising at all. having lived in Korea for six years I have discovered the notion of hiding or denying anything that is embarrassing or shameful to be part of the influences of Confucian thought that still prevails today.

    That coupled with the strong nationalism in reaction to the feelings of inferiority caused by the rule of the Japanese, makes many Koreans appear to be willfully ignorant of their own history.

    I don’t entirely blame them for this as the West’s liberal elite has been pushing revisionist history for some time.

    What also might be of some interest to anyone who happens to stumble upon this website is the broader history of slavery that has been ignored by many accademic scholars. Please take a look at this, it is a real eye opener.


  6. Anne Hiltner | 2006.4.9 at 15:20 | Permalink

    Your comments on slavery in Korea are most interesting. But it is far more notable to compare slavery as defined in the Old Testament and its historical expansion throughout Europe and the US by Jewish traders with the terms of slavery in Korea than to compare it with pre-Civil War America. For it is the religious zealotry about slaves described in the Old Testament which was used to justify slavery in America which contributed to its perpetuation in many parts of the world. Food for thought!

  7. Sid Van | 2010.4.22 at 23:02 | Permalink

    It has been a long time since I read this. It was a book on the Japan vs Korea Samurai war in the 15th century. It had said that there was a monk to instill patriotism and mobilize people into an army, had burned the official Korean registrys at the “town hall” Thus freeing the “slaves” and motivating them to join in the fight. Just a little more piece of the puzzle for anyone whose interested.

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{ 4 } Trackbacks

  1. Simon World | 2005.4.13 at 20:36 | Permalink

    Daily linklets 14th April

    This is a daily collection of links, some with commentary, to news stories and interesting blog posts. It will be updated throughout the day with a new timestamp for the updates. Scroll down for today’s other posts. Eaglespeak has a great map, albeit …

  2. […] Konrad Lawson did some very nice work in Korean history a while back (and more to come, I’m sure): among my favorites were his discussions of the language and reality of slavery and an old geography text. […]

  3. […], […]

  4. […] more plausible though. Clean, good vs evil stories tend to be false, especially when one side has all the incentives to lie. Yet, the narrative of the evil Nazi allies enslaving the daughters of the poor has strike a nerve […]