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Female Slaves and the Joseon Court System

This article was previously published as an essay for the SOAS course “Literary Traditions and Culture of Korea”. It was awarded with a distinction. It has been simplified and shortened for this blog post. 


Painting of a Weaving Scene, by Kim Hong-do (1745-1806)

With the start of the Joseon Dynasty in 1392, Confucianism became the official state ideology that set up a strict class system and introduced gendered ethics. In the 17th and 18th centuries, people began to question the unethical treatment of slaves (nobi) and commoners promoted by Confucian ideals. As the hardships of the lower classes gained acknowledgment from those in the royal court, an influx in petitions by slave and commoner women were written. Significant changes in the Joseon legal system can be seen after 1730, when the state introduced a matrilineal law that provided the offspring of male slaves with commoner status. This began a slow route to the abolishment of slavery and heightened social awareness of difficulties slaves and commoners faced.

Confucianism in Korea

The state’s use of Confucianism officially began amongst the elite class during the late 14th century, and later spread to wider society. Emphasis on creating an ideal Confucian society was so highly valued amongst the elite, that many yangban ministers were later accused of promoting morals, rather than protecting the country from invaders, such as the Qing Invasion of 1636 and the Japanese Invasions of Korea from 1592 to 1598 [2].

One of Confucianism’s core values was the promotion of a hierarchical society that focussed on five key relationships: ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger, and friend to friend. If these relationships failed, one’s virtue, as well as the natural world, was at risk of being damaged. Although the hierarchies within Confucianism worked in favor of men, its principles were to be rigidly followed by both genders [3].

Slavery in Joseon

Slavery in Joseon was commonplace from its foundation and by the 1680s, slaves were recorded to make up over half the population [4]. The defense of slavery was based on the Confucian principle of moral obligation; a slave and master’s relationship was viewed as similar to ruler and subject, the most important of the social hierarchies. Slaves were kept by members of the middle and elite classes in order to trade goods, conduct land transactions, and receive punishment for their masters [5].

However, society’s opinion on slaves began to significantly change during the 17th and 18th centuries due to economic growth, increased movement across villages, and a shift in rigid status lines [6]. Arguments began to arise, most notably from the politician and scholar Yu Hyongwon, on the grounds that slaves were often brutalized by their owners or discarded as common chattel, and that the mistreatment of slaves would bring physical and moral destruction to Joseon society [7].

Additionally, searches for runaway slaves were discouraged by the state due to high costs, and the opportunity for slaves to work as soldiers was legalised to form a larger national army [8]. Thus, from 1731, the slave and commoner class grew considerably closer; slaves were also able to purchase commoner status while commoners were quick to become slaves in efforts to evade taxes [9].


‘Won’ and Natural Disasters

In 1570, one official stated that there was nothing more detrimental to the Joseon kingdom than the accumulation of won over a long period of time [10]. Won is often translated as an emotion that arose from a combination of victimization, grief and anger. If a large amount of won built up within society, the state believed natural and social disasters would befall the kingdom. In fact, when natural catastrophes such as drought occurred, the state often pardoned prisoners or resolved pending lawsuits to relieve won and maintain cosmic harmony [11].

Due to the widespread implementation of Confucian gendered values in the mid-17th century, Joseon slave and commoner women were considered to suffer from won more than any other social group. Thus, the won of these women was often rapidly acknowledged by courts to maintain order. This belief was embedded into two Joseon proverbs: “a woman’s grievance can bring three years’ draught” and “the grievance of a woman can bring late spring frost”, both of which were often cited in court regarding petitions submitted by women [12].

Petitions of Pen, Cries and Blood

Due to a lack of formal education, slave and commoner women often had to pay professional scriveners or ask a male to draft their petitions [13]. The state originally required petitions to be written in classical Chinese, which was viewed as public, male and cosmopolitan. In contrast, the idea of vernacular Korean was that it represented the private, female and local [14]. However, from the 17th century onwards, the court regarded the won of lower-class women as too dangerous to ignore, and vernacular Korean became a legally recognised petition language.

In a petition, women first explained their problem and mentioned their vulnerable gender in the hopes of gaining empathy. At the end of most petitions, women wrote something akin to, ‘I hope Your Honour will take this into serious consideration and relieve my painful won’. For example, in the case of the slave Malgum, her written petition includes phrases such as, “I, the humble petitioner, address my grievous situation that occurred in this world…”, as well as a request to listen to her petition “so that I can relieve my grievance [won]”[15].

As many commoner and slave women were illiterate and did not have the money to hire a scrivener, they performed verbal petitions that helped reach a larger audience. While written petitions could legally be presented only twice, the performance of oral petitions was unlimited [16]. By protesting in their own voice, women could attract the attention of yangban or the king during royal processions. When petitioning orally during a royal procession, most women struck a gong or climbed to a high spot when the king was near. This would in turn capture his attention, forcing the parade to stop and listen to the decree.

Additionally, petitioners often waited outside of the palace several days before a procession began. Women were known to scream, sob, or make unnatural noises in an attempt to embody their won. Many civilians believed that if their agony could be heard or seen by members of the palace, they could pass local courts and petition the king directly. This was certainly a conscious effort on their part, as it was the ruler’s Confucian duty to relieve the won of his people and take their petitions seriously.

Although it was illegal to submit petitions or hold banners penned in blood, self-harm emphasized the sincerity of their pain. A prime example of this format can be found in records from 1771, in the petition written by commoner woman Kim. Although petitions from poor women were acknowledged by the state, it would be frivolous to say that this gave them an advantage over men. Aristocratic and commoner men were believed to possess less won than women, but they remained the most popular petitioners in the Joseon Dynasty at both state and local levels [17]. Therefore, to increase her chances of being heard, Kim disguised herself as a man and hit the gong outside of the palace gate. She brought with her a written petition, signed in her own blood, stating that her father was unlawfully tortured to death by a county magistrate [18]. Kim was successful in her case, and the magistrate was eventually relieved of duty and imprisoned.


Unlawful Magistrates

Most slave and commoner women submitted cases about personal grievances relating to taxes, land, and debt. However, in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were numerous other cases of women petitioning against local magistrates, as well as on behalf of their husbands.

If magistrates were not fulfilling their duties and were seen to be inflicting won upon the people, it was considered an act by the king himself. However, accusation against magistrates was not legal for most of the Joseon Dynasty due to social hierarchies. As more petitions against magistrates began to appear in the early 18th century, torture and oppression against slaves and commoners became a newly codified grievance in the Great Code of Administration [19].

Another example of a magistrate unlawfully killing a citizen can be seen in 1795, when the commoner wife of Jong Jun petitioned the king to accuse a magistrate for murdering her husband. The king had ordered the provincial governor to conduct an interrogation of the murderer Yi Yeojeol, but the governor had attempted to conceal Yi’s crimes due to their close relationship. Upon discovering that the accused had not only murdered Jong, but several others, the king arrested Yi as well as those who failed to acknowledge his crimes in local court. The king then set the case as a legal precedent to warn bureaucrats that dared to challenge royal orders and make a mockery of Joseon law [20].

In 1796, three brothers were murdered by their local magistrate. Their wives then went to the capital to address their grievances at court. Once there, the three women struck the gong together and reportedly cried for an entire day to advertise their grief in front of the State Tribunal. Ju Jungong, a high official, explained the situation to King Jeongjo (r. 1776-1800) by stating that “the three women’s grievances were transgressing heaven and was likely to produce frost in May” [21]. The petition was resolved in the women’s favour, but also initiated local authorities to inform the state of those who failed to administer justice at county and provincial courts. The royal court also sent secret emissaries to numerous regions to monitor the treatment of civilians.

Authorship of Petitions

The final content to note is the authorship of the petitions. In the late 17th century, King Sukjong (r. 1647-1720) legally allowed petitioners to address won on behalf of others [22]. Most petitions submitted by women on behalf of another related to their spouse. This legal change derived from the belief that a woman feeling won for her husband was natural and in line with Confucian morals. Many biographies of virtuous Joseon women were published during the 17th and 18th centuries, proving that wifely devotion was a popular theme in late Joseon literature [23]. Therefore, emphasising matrimonial loyalty was highly respectable in court. It should be noted that petitioning on behalf of another did not require that person to be alive, as seen in the case of Yeonni and Seonnae.

Yeonni was a public slave of the Royal College and petitioned to the king that Jong Panbong had murdered her husband without receiving punishment, despite confessing his crime. The investigation continued for four months when the commoner wife of Panbong counter-petitioned Yeonni’s claim. The Board of Punishments required further examination and discovered that there was another culprit, Kim Gwangdeok. When Gwangdeok entered the interrogation, his slave wife Seonnae petitioned on his behalf. The case lasted for two years with no clear outcome due to minimal evidence, and minor punishment was inflicted on Panbong [24]. Although the case was never resolved, it remains an important example of women petitioning on behalf of their husbands, living or dead.

Additionally, commoner woman Jong submitted a petition to the local authorities in either 1731, 1791 or 1851 [25]. Her complaint was about a village resident who dug up the grave of her father-in-law and buried another body in his spot [26]. Although the case did not relate to her biological father, Jong petitioned in place of her husband. It is interesting to note is that her husband was still alive at the time, and the choice to make her petitioner can be considered a narrative strategy that valued her gendered won. Not only was she representing her own frustration as a filial daughter-in-law and wife, but she was also expected to properly emphasise the won that her husband felt. Jong petitioned on multiple occasions and eventually won the case.

A Late Ending

Perceptions of slavery and the mistreatment of the common class continued to change until 1801, when 66,000 slave records were burned under the mission of King Sunjo (r. 1800-1834). King Sunjo believed that the grievances of slaves had reached the heavens and that the abolishment of slavery was necessary to maintain harmony. It was in 1886 that the final surviving form of slavery was officially abolished [27].

Although the life of a slave or commoner in Korea often encompassed discrimination, abuse, and exploitation, the act of petitioning in a Joseon court frequently worked in their favour. We can note this most thoroughly in petitions after 1730, when the concept of slavery was heavily criticized and legally diminished. Although their place in society was considered small, these women were able to initiate significant change in the Joseon legal system.

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[2] JaHyun Kim Haboush and Martina Deuchler, ed., Culture and the State in Late Choson Korea (Harvard University Press: Boston, 1999), 5.

[3] Haboush and Deuchler, Culture and the State, 7.

[4] James B. Palais, Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyongwon and the Late Choson Dynasty (University of Washington Press: Seattle and London, 1996), 231.

[5] Sun Joo Kim, “Letters on Everyday Life”, in Epistolary Korea: Letters in The Communicative Space of the Choson, 1392-1910, ed. JaHyun Haboush (Columbia         University Press: New York, 2009), 230.

[6] Palais, Confucian Statecraft, 246.

[7] Palais, Confucian Statecraft, 203.

[8] Palais, Confucian Statecraft, 246.

[9] Palais, Confucian Statecraft, 258.

[10] Jisoo M. Kim, The Emotions of Justice: Gender, Status, and Legal Performance in Choson Korea (University of Washington Press: Seattle and London, 2015), 33.

[11] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 124.

[12] William Shaw, Human Rights in Korea: Historical and Policy Perspectives (Harvard University Press: Boston, 1991), 82.

[13] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 47.

[14] JaHyun Kim Haboush, “Letters Between Spouses”, in Epistolary Korea: Letters in The Communicative Space of the Choson, 1392-1910, ed. JaHyun Haboush (Columbia University Press: New York, 2009), 249.

[15] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 3-4.

[16] Jisoo Kim, “Petitions by Women in the Choson” in Epistolary Korea: Letters in The Communicative Space of the Choson, 1392-1910, ed. JaHyun Haboush (Columbia University Press: New York, 2009), 68.

[17] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 78.

[18] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 121.

[19] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 122.

[20] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 136.

[21] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 136.

[22] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 49.

[23] Jungwon Kim, “Madame Yi’s Farewell Letter to Her Son”, in Epistolary Korea: Letters in The Communicative Space of the Choson, 1392-1910, ed. JaHyun Haboush (Columbia University Press: New York, 2009), 375.

[24] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 117-8.

[25] Due to numerous years in Joseon having the same name, scholars are unable to date the petitions with complete accuracy.

[26] Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 81.

[27] Palais, Confucian Statecraft, 269.

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