By Chung Ah-young
KBS's drama "The Slave Hunters (Chuno)" is enjoying huge popularity for its heart-pumping action sequences and its focus on those who are often overlooked by history books and dramas.
Set in the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910), the drama depicts the world of slave hunters and fugitive slaves. Some were born into forced servitude and for others it was a form of legal punishment.
In the drama, a slave hunter named Dae-gil (Jang Hyuk) seeks to track down the escaped Song Tae-ha (Oh Ji-ho). Tae-ha became a slave after being falsely framed for a crime. Dae-gil is also looking for Eon-nyeon (Lee Dae-hae), a female slave he loves.
As the 24-episode drama, which began on Jan. 6, draws to a close, many are wondering what is fact and what is fiction concerning slavery during the era.
The Academy of Korean Studies (AKS) offers a Web-based service to address such questions regarding the drama by providing relevant historical facts analysis.
Did Slave Hunters Really Exist?
In the 18th century, the number of fugitive slaves sharply rose, although their economic situation improved a little with commercial and agricultural development.
To prevent further escapes, the government came up with measures that ended up being unsuccessful. As a result, slave owners began to seek their own solutions.
"'Sokdaejeon" (a supplement to the Nation Code) states that the government punished the illegal chasing of slaves to reduce evil practices carried out by the noble class and slave hunters. Owners were supposed to attain the government's permission before hiring such hunters. But in most cases, they defied the government.
In the drama, Dae-gil and other slave hunters pursue Tae-ha hoping to earn a bounty. In the historical records, slave hunters were paid with such rewards. According to "Chuangeupgukan," a book that documented statements of felons, slave hunters could make money but their earnings were considered "unfairly acquired property."
The academy said that often owners sent other slaves to capture the runaways.
Were Runaway Slaves Stigmatized?
One of the noticeable points in the drama are the marks made on runaway slaves' foreheads or chests identifying them as such.
There is a historical record of tyrant King Yeonsan ordering runaway slaves to be marked in 1506.
However, as stigmatization was considered a ruthless punishment, it was actually never implemented and was abolished in 1740.
Instead, slaves were recorded in the official documents that recorded transactions involving them. Fugitive slaves were also documented.
Who Became Slaves?
The drama portrays more than half of the population falling victim to forced servitude during the reign of King Injo in the early 17th century.
The slavery system, during the Joseon Kingdom, was based on lineage, following a rigid Confucian hierarchy.
Under the law, if one parent was a slave, the children were also. If an owner had a female slave, her children were born into that life. So slavery was one of the best ways to increase an owner's assets.
Felons became slaves as a legal punishment. In the drama, Tae-ha was originally a high-class military officer but became a slave after being framed for political scheming.
According to the academy, historical documents such as "Daejeonhoetong" (the Comprehensive Compendium of the National Code) prove that there were indeed such cases during the Joseon era.
Some people voluntarily became slaves because of poverty. The historical document recorded one wife becoming a slave in the late 18th century to take care of her husband and pay for a funeral for her father-in-law. Such cases were not rare despite the fact that once they became slaves, their status would be handed down to their children.
Sometimes, due to poverty, parents sold their children as slaves to noble families. For the noble class, this situation offered a good opportunity to buy slaves at a low price.
Could Slaves Change Their Destiny?
In the drama, Keun-nom and Eon-nyeon run away after robbing and setting fire to Dae-gil's house. They succeeded in starting a new life, hiding their original social status.
"Yeongjo Sillok" (The Annals of King Yeongjo) states that there was a figure named Eom Taek-ju who was born as a slave but ran away and passed the state examination to become a civil officer in the royal court.
After his origin was divulged, King Yeongjo ordered a strict punishment for Eom and sent him into exile on Heuksan Island, where he again became a slave.
After being exiled, he fled from the island to Seoul and eventually posted a statement criticizing the state, which was regarded as treason at that time. He was arrested and tortured to death.
The case shows the human will to overcome the obstacles of social status, the academy said.
For more details, visit www.kostma.net/Contents/Chuno.