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The Yangban: the ignoble noble

A Korean aristocrat and his family, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean aristocrat and his family, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

A Korean aristocrat and his son, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean aristocrat and his son, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
The Korean yangban (aristocrat) was a popular subject to write about for Westerners living in Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Often these accounts were filled with humorous anecdotes pointing out how stubborn or idle the noblemen were ― some even painted the nobles as effeminate and weak.

One of the most popular Western writers was James Scarth Gale, a Canadian missionary. He observed that no yangban "indulges in manual labor, or in fact in labor of any kind. His life consists in one supreme command of coolie service, while the coolie responds to every order. The lighting of his pipe or the rubbing of ink on the inkstone must be done for him. Down to the simplest requirement of life he does nothing, so his hands become soft and his finger nails grow long. From constant sitting his bones seem to disintegrate and he becomes almost a mollusk before he passes middle life."

He went on to add that the yangban "is a master of inaccuracy. He pretends to be absolutely certain of everything under the sun, and no subject ever daunts him or is beyond his ability to elucidate." Apparently Gale had been schooled by one of the Korean noblemen as to what made up the heavens. The yangban was able to tell him what a comet's tail was composed of and "what color the dog is that causes the eclipse of the moon."

Gale acknowledged that "by the rarest accident" the yangban was occasionally correct but it was the exception. Gale's disdain for the noble class did not end there.

A young nobleman, circa 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars CollectionA young nobleman, circa 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
A scholar at rest, circa 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars CollectionA young nobleman, circa 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

The Korean nobleman was filled with "profound contempt for women" who were "altogether beneath the consideration of the male sex with its massive understanding." He took every opportunity to remind her of her subservient status. There was very little happiness in his life for it was "marked by periods of mourning ― three years for parents, and lesser periods for more distant relatives. A succession of fasts and feasts, requiring forms of dress and outlays of money …"

And it was money ― or the lack of ― that made or destroyed yangbans. Generally, great amounts of money and time were required to study for and pass the civil exams required for their positions. But not everyone took this difficult route.

Sometimes aristocracy could also be purchased. According to the September 1902 edition of The Korea Review:

"Three thousand seven hundred people in Pyongyang have been forcibly presented with yangbanship at a uniform price of $61.20 a head. This will furnish funds for work on the new Western Palace."

While many Westerners looked upon the yangban and their lives others ― allegedly ― adopted the manners of the Korean yangbans.

Charles LeGendre, an American employed by the Korean government as an adviser, apparently lived the life of a yangban. According to Seo Jai-pil (Philip Jaisohn), the American possessed neither education nor refinement and lived with a Korean woman he kept as his concubine.

According to Seo: "[LeGendre] used to hold a private court of his own at his house and settled disputed debts among the Koreans, for which work he had no authority." He gained a great deal of money from this illegal enterprise and when Seo chastised him for it, LeGendre became angry and never spoke to him again.

Seo concluded that "when a foreigner becomes yangbanized he is worse than the most conservative yangban."


A Korean aristocrat and his family, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean aristocrat and his family, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

A Korean aristocrat and his son, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
A Korean aristocrat and his son, circa 1900s. Robert Neff Collection
The Korean yangban (aristocrat) was a popular subject to write about for Westerners living in Korea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Often these accounts were filled with humorous anecdotes pointing out how stubborn or idle the noblemen were ― some even painted the nobles as effeminate and weak.

One of the most popular Western writers was James Scarth Gale, a Canadian missionary. He observed that no yangban "indulges in manual labor, or in fact in labor of any kind. His life consists in one supreme command of coolie service, while the coolie responds to every order. The lighting of his pipe or the rubbing of ink on the inkstone must be done for him. Down to the simplest requirement of life he does nothing, so his hands become soft and his finger nails grow long. From constant sitting his bones seem to disintegrate and he becomes almost a mollusk before he passes middle life."

He went on to add that the yangban "is a master of inaccuracy. He pretends to be absolutely certain of everything under the sun, and no subject ever daunts him or is beyond his ability to elucidate." Apparently Gale had been schooled by one of the Korean noblemen as to what made up the heavens. The yangban was able to tell him what a comet's tail was composed of and "what color the dog is that causes the eclipse of the moon."

Gale acknowledged that "by the rarest accident" the yangban was occasionally correct but it was the exception. Gale's disdain for the noble class did not end there.

A young nobleman, circa 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars CollectionA young nobleman, circa 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection
A scholar at rest, circa 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars CollectionA young nobleman, circa 1900s. Courtesy of Diane Nars Collection

The Korean nobleman was filled with "profound contempt for women" who were "altogether beneath the consideration of the male sex with its massive understanding." He took every opportunity to remind her of her subservient status. There was very little happiness in his life for it was "marked by periods of mourning ― three years for parents, and lesser periods for more distant relatives. A succession of fasts and feasts, requiring forms of dress and outlays of money …"

And it was money ― or the lack of ― that made or destroyed yangbans. Generally, great amounts of money and time were required to study for and pass the civil exams required for their positions. But not everyone took this difficult route.

Sometimes aristocracy could also be purchased. According to the September 1902 edition of The Korea Review:

"Three thousand seven hundred people in Pyongyang have been forcibly presented with yangbanship at a uniform price of $61.20 a head. This will furnish funds for work on the new Western Palace."

While many Westerners looked upon the yangban and their lives others ― allegedly ― adopted the manners of the Korean yangbans.

Charles LeGendre, an American employed by the Korean government as an adviser, apparently lived the life of a yangban. According to Seo Jai-pil (Philip Jaisohn), the American possessed neither education nor refinement and lived with a Korean woman he kept as his concubine.

According to Seo: "[LeGendre] used to hold a private court of his own at his house and settled disputed debts among the Koreans, for which work he had no authority." He gained a great deal of money from this illegal enterprise and when Seo chastised him for it, LeGendre became angry and never spoke to him again.

Seo concluded that "when a foreigner becomes yangbanized he is worse than the most conservative yangban."




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