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Korean Culture Lesson

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Back in 2008, I ran a one-shot called “Beast of Namgakksan,” which was set in Korea during the Japanese invasion of the 16th century, known as the Imjin War. A very important part of Korean culture and history was social class. I glossed over that in the one-shot, but wrote about it on the blog.

Beast of Namgakksan – Your Korean Culture Lesson

Originally published 11 Jun 2008.

An important aspect of any individual in Choson (What Koreans call Korea during the time of the Yi Dynasty) was social class. Choson Korea was extremely stratified, with minimal movement between classes. For an interesting look at the class dynamic in a Korean period action movie, check out Musa (sometimes subtitled the Warrior), with its yangban leader who leads only because of the accident of birth, its yangmin archer who is a true leader despite the accident of his birth, and the chonmin martial artist, given freedom from his patron but denied that freedom due to prejudice.

Yangmin tiger hunters with matchlocks and pipes. 1899-1900 Photograph by an unknown photographer shooting pictures for the Kilburn Stereoview Company of New Hampshire.

Please note, this is only for use for those interested in adding depth to their characters. I don’t intend the game to turn into a veiled Korean history and culture lesson. A quick synopsis of the class system will be delivered in the pre-game warm-up. Were this to grow into a campaign, or if you are drawing inspiration for a campaign, the class system can definitely help bring some party conflict and role-playing.

At the top of society were the yangban (yawng-bawn), the aristocracy. Not only were the yangban nobility, they were exempt from taxation, from the military draft, and from the labour service demanded of other Koreans. Only the yangban could sit for government exams, and therefore they maintained their dominance by dominating the bureaucracy. Just as France had nobles of the robe and nobles of the sword, yangban could be military or bureaucratic nobles, though a military yangban did not necessarily know how to fight and a bureaucratic yangban did not necessarily know how to administer.

Beneath the yangban were the chungin (choong-een). There were few of these “middle people,” and they represented a fledgling middle class in Choson society. The chungin were professionals, be it of medicine, languages, accounting, law, painting, whatever. Their roles were as hereditary as the nobility of the yangban, meaning the son of a painter was a painter, whether he could paint or not. The chungin also filled the offices of the minor bureaucracy–clerks, messengers, law enforcement: those roles which had direct contact with the yangmin.

The yangmin (yawng-meen) were also known as pyongmin (pyohng-meen). Yangmin literally means “good people,” though their lives were rarely what one might call good. These were the lower class–the farmers and the labourers–and they were the taxpayers in Choson society. Along with taxes, they owed military service and labour service to their yangban lords. These were the peasants of Korea.

Within the yangmin were the sangmin (sawng-meen), a fringe element of mercantilism within the lower classes. The sangmin lead a precarious existence, hoping to find themselves accepted into the chungin, but often despised by the yangban, who saw any hint of yangmin turning a profit as unethical under Confucianism. Sangmin who earned well soon found their practice made illegal and themselves forced back into peasantry, until they could think up a new scheme and make money fast enough to buy themselves into the chungin.

And at the bottom were the chonmin (chohn-meen), or people in bondage. This class was made up of slaves–called hain (hah-een)–and the untouchables. Slaves were owned by yangban families and were considered chattel, possessions which could be traded, sold, loaned, etc. Slaves could enter the ranks of the yangmin if their master emancipated them. Often, when the population of slaves grew too great, and fears of an uprising or revolt grew with them, the government would emancipate all government slaves or all the slaves in a region or province, regardless of if there were land enough to sustain more farming or other yangmin activity.

The untouchables among Choson society were entertainers like singers, dancers, or actors. Sorcerers, witches, and butchers were all untouchables. Unlike the slaves, these chonmin could not be emancipated. A butcher, though, could disappear with his family and reappear in another village, suddenly an itinerant labourer and therefore yangmin. Slave records were maintained meticulously. Records of the untouchables, not so much.

But not all entertainers were untouchables. The kisaeng (gee-sang) were a variation of the entertainer similar in many ways to the Japanese geisha. Highly educated, kisaeng became renowned poets and painters, showered with honours, and their company highly prized. No matter how famed they became, they remained paid escorts–until a partner of sufficient power or wealth made of them a concubine or even, and extremely rarely, a wife.

For the purpose of simplicity, consider the yangban the aristocracy, the chungmin the middle class, the yangmin the peasants, and the chonmin the untouchables.

You can learn more about the movie Musa at Wikipedia or IMDB, and you can watch a trailer on Youtube. Note, this movie is set during the time of Koryo, the kingdom that preceded Choson, but the class interaction mirrors what one would expect in Choson.