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Traditional Korean 'seoja' discrimination

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By Mark Peterson

Two things have set my mind recently to writing about traditional social class and discrimination between classes. The first was a video I was asked to make for the Korean Cultural Center Los Angeles ― it was a video, actually four videos, about Pak Ji-won and his lesser-known disciple, Pak Je-ga. More on that below. The second occurred when I binge-watched "Crash Landing on You" in the last few weeks ― it was the "throw-away fact" (incidental mentioning) that the main female protagonist, Seri, was born "illegitimately." This brings up the topic traditionally termed "seoja" ― a child born between a "yangban" aristocratic father and a commoner or slave mother.

The reason filming videos about Pak Ji-won and Pak Je-ga brings up the subject is that Pak Je-ga was a seoja. He was one of the successful seoja because he lived at a time when the king and the court allowed a limited number of seoja to take and pass exams.

For most of the 1390-1910 Joseon Kingdom, a seoja could not take the exams, and therefore could not hold a government office ― and lest you say, well, he could be a lawyer or doctor or businessman, no, those occupations had limits as well, and nothing ― nothing! ― provided a good livelihood, stipend, wealth, power and prestige like passing the exam and having a government position. It was what all yangban aspired to.

Traditional Korean society was strictly hierarchical, even "vertical" one might say. There were basically three distinct social classes. The yangban were at the top, the commoners were in the middle and the slaves on the bottom. When registering for the census every three years one would re-affirm one's status in that one had to register based on the last census and thus there was little to no social mobility. But there were people in the gaps.

There were what I like to think of as "lesser yangban." Some histories, written from the perspective of the traditional upper-class yangban, looked down their collective nose at the "clerks" ― the "jungin" or "hyangni." And the implication is that they were non-yangban. But they had all the trappings of yangban ― they had government positions, albeit lesser positions. Their homes, and clothes, were nicer. And they had "jokbo" ― the prized genealogical books. Now, yangban would never intermarry with the jungin or hyangni. Never. So, though the jungin and hyangni could never pretend to be true yangban, they occupied the lesser government offices ― the jungin were lawyers, doctors, accountants, scientists and interpreters in the central government, and there were exams for each of those five specialties: law, medicine, accounting, science (meaning either astronomy or geomancy) and translating/interpreting. In the countryside, the hyangni were clerks at the magistracy and they were literate and mediated between people desiring government intervention, a lawsuit or an appeal to the government.

From the perspective of the yangban, the jungin and the hyangni were definitely not yangban. But from the perspective of the commoners and the slaves, the jungin and hyangni were in the same place as the yangban, wore clothes like yangban, lived in houses like yangban, and had government stipends ― from the lower perspective, they were yangban!

In such a strictly hierarchical society where one could not marry outside of one's own social class, what happens when a yangban man "takes up with" a commoner or slave woman? It's clear that a yangban man could not legally, legitimately marry a woman of a lower class, but after marrying a yangban woman legally, he could take a "secondary wife" (some say "concubine"). This was not a "mistress"; a mistress is a secret liaison. The secondary wife moved into the house and was known by everyone.

A seoja was a child born to the yangban father and the commoner or slave "secondary wife." Through most of the Joseon period, the seoja could not take the all-important civil service exams. Some inherited property, were protected by their yangban father, and were able to maintain a yangban lifestyle. Others, maybe in the second and third generation, fell to commoner ― or in some cases even slave ― status.

Pak Je-ga was a seoja. But in the late 18th century, by a special provision, he was able to pass the exam and became a teacher and research scholar in the government. He went to China and was impressed with what he saw and encouraged Korea to follow China's example in such things as using carts and developing roads that could handle cart traffic. He was active in the "Silhak" movement, which was aimed at social reform.

And Seri in "Crash Landing," though a "seoja" (or technically, "seonyeo" ― illegitimate daughter) and clearly suffering from discrimination, still, like Pak Jega in the 18th century, was able to succeed in modern Korean society. Which leads me to the question, how are the "seoja" of Korea today faring in modern society? Are they still discriminated against? Do they have to try harder, like Seri, to overcome this discrimination?


Mark Peterson (markpeterson@byu.edu) is professor emeritus of Korean, Asian and Near Eastern languages at Brigham Young University in Utah.




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