Chosun dynasty society was set up according to a strict Chinese-Confucian model. Confucianism became the state philosophy, the sexes were strictly segregated, women had few rights, and a bureaucracy made up of civil servants who passed difficult exam ran the country. The king and queen were regarded as the mother and father of all Koreans.

Buddhist influence in and complicity with the old system made it easier for the Confucian literati to urge an extirpation of Buddhist economic and political influence, and exile in the mountains for monks and their disciples. Indeed, the literati accomplished a deep Confucianization of Chosun society, which particularly affected the position of women. Often prominent in Koryo society, women were now relegated to domestic chores of child-rearing and housekeeping, as so-called inside people.

As neo-Confucian doctrines swept the old order away, Korea effectively developed a secular society. Common people, however, retained attachments to folk religions, shamanism, geomancy, and fortune-telling, influences condemned by both Confucianism and the world at that time. This Korean mass culture created remarkably lively and diverse art forms: uniquely colorful and unpretentiously naturalistic folk paintings of animals, popular novels in Korean vernacular, and characters like the mudang, shamans who summoned spirits and performed exorcisms in kt, or shamanistic, rituals.

The economy diversified as the transplant of rice seedlings boosted harvests and some peasants became enterprising small landlords. Commercial crops such as tobacco, ginseng, and cotton developed, and merchants proliferated at big markets like those in Seoul at East Gate and South Gate, at the gate to China at iju, and at the gate to Japan at Tongnae, near Pusan. The use of coins for commerce and for paying wages increased, and handicraft production increased outside government control. The old Koryo capital at Kaesng became a strong center of merchant commerce and conspicuous wealth. Finally, throughout the seventeenth century, Western learning filtered into Korea, often through the auspices of a spreading Roman Catholic movement, which especially attracted commoners by its creed of equality. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Social Classes in Chosun-Era Korea

In Chosun Dynasty Korea, there were four rather distinct social strata: 1) the scholar-officials, collectively referred to as the yangban; 2) the chungin (literally "middle people"), technicians and administrators subordinate to the yangban; 3) the commoners or sangmin, a large group composed of farmers, craftsmen, and merchants; and 4) the ch'ommin (literally despised people)," at the bottom of society. To ensure stability, the government devised a system of personal tallies in order to identify people according to their status. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Another feature that endured for centuries was the existence of a stratified social system characterized by a clear distinction between the rulers and the ruled. Under the Silla Dynasty, society was rigidly organized into a hereditary caste system. Silla society's "bone-rank" system also underlined that one's status in society was determined by birth and lineage. For this reason, each family and clan maintained an extensive genealogical record, or chokpo, with meticulous care. Because only male offspring prolonged the family and clan lines and were the only names registered in the genealogical tables, the birth of a son was greeted with great felicitation.

The Koryo Dynasty, which succeeded Silla, instituted a system of social classes according to which the rest of the population was subordinate to an elite composed of scholar-officials. The elite were most conscious of family pedigree. A major study of all those who passed examinations in the Chosun Dynasty (some 14,000) showed that the elite families were heavily represented; other studies have documented the persistence of this pattern into the early twentieth century. Even in 1945, this aristocracy was substantially intact, although it died out soon thereafter.

Korea's traditional class system also included a peasant majority and minorities of petty clerks, merchants, and so-called base classes (ch'ommin), that is, castelike hereditary groups (paekchng) such as butchers, leather tanners, and beggars. Although merchants ranked higher than members of low-born classes, Confucian elites frowned on commercial activity and up until the twentieth century squelched it as much as possible. Peasants or farmers ranked higher than merchants because they worked the land, but the life of the peasantry was almost always difficult during the dynasty, and became more so later on. Most peasants were tenants, were required to give up at least half their crop to landlords as tax, and were subject to various additional exactions. Those in the low-born classes were probably worse off, however, given very high rates of slavery for much of the Chosun period. One source reported more than 200,000 government slaves in Seoul alone in 1462, and recent scholarship has suggested that at one time as much as 60 percent of Seoul's population may have been slaves. In spite of slavery being hereditary, however, rates of escape from slavery and manumission also were unusually high. Class and status hierarchies also were built into the Korean language and have persisted into the contemporary period. Superiors and inferiors were addressed quite differently, and elaborate honorifics were used to address elders. Even verb endings and conjugations differed according to station.

Yangban in Chosun-Era Korea

Yangban is a term denoting the aristocratic class of landlords and officials particularly during the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). Usually a term of respect, it can sometimes simply mean "gentleman" as opposed to "commoner." Yangban lineages still carry great prestige and are documented in carefully-preserved genealogical records. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

The term yangban was also used to describe scholar-officials, like mandarins in China. In the strictest sense of the term, yangban referred to government officials or officeholders who had passed the civil service examinations that tested knowledge of the Confucian classics and their neo-Confucian interpreters. They were the Korean counterparts of the scholar-officials, or mandarins, of imperial China. The term yangban, first used during the Koryo Dynasty, means literally "two groups," that is, civil and military officials. Over the centuries, however, its usage became rather vague, so that the term can be said to have several overlapping meanings. Strictly speaking, a yangban lineage was one that consistently combined examination success with appointments to government office over a period of some generations.

The Chosun Dynasty had a traditional class structure that departed from the Chinese Confucian example, providing an important legacy for the modern period. The governing elite continued to be known as yangban but the term no longer simply connoted two official orders. In the Chosun Dynasty, the yangban had a virtual monopoly on education, official position, and possession of land. Entry to yangban status required a hereditary lineage.

Theoretically, by passing the higher civil service examination and becoming a government official a commoner could become a member of the elite, but since examinations presupposed both the time and wealth for education, upward mobility was not the rule. Thus, unlike in China, commoners for all intents and purposes could not sit for state-run examinations leading to official position. One had to prove membership in a yangban family, which in practice meant having a forebear who had sat for exams within the past four generations. In Korea as in China, the majority of peasant families could not spare a son to study for the exams, so upward social mobility was sharply limited. But because in Korea the limit also was specifically hereditary, people had even less mobility than in China and held attitudes toward class distinction that often seemed indistinguishable from the attitudes underlying the caste system.

This system originated in the Koryo Period and continued during the Chosun Dynasty. The strength of the aristocratic tradition may have been one factor contributing to the relative weakness of the Korean monarchy, in which the king usually presided over a council of senior officials as primus inter pares, rather than governing as absolute ruler. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Yangban and Chosun-Era Political and Social Struggles

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: During the Koryo period it had become customary to refer to the wealthy ruling class as the yangban ("two branches") class, referring to the two types of officials, the civil and the military. To become a yangban a man had to be appointed to government office, and to be appointed he had to either pass the merit examination or be chosen as a special favor by the king or other high official. The civil "branch" was more important than the military, and by the early Chosun period, it was better to have passed the examinations than to have been appointed on some other grounds. Nevertheless, appointments-by-favor were common, especially for officials who had stood loyally beside the king during a crisis, or had helped him take the throne when there were several contenders. These loyal defenders were called "merit subjects," and they were richly rewarded by the kings they helped. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

“ There was considerable tension between the examination passers and the merit subjects, and they often argued and struggled for power and the king's attention. King Sejong died in 1450 and his son King Munjong, a man who was in poor health, reigned only two years before passing away. Sejong's twelveyear-old grandson then was next in line, and he mounted the throne as King Tanjong. However, Sejong had had several sons, some of whom were still alive. One of them, Prince Suyang, resented the fact that the throne had passed into his brother's lineage and believed that he deserved a chance to rule in his dead brother's stead. Prince Suyang therefore had the young King Tanjong kidnapped and murdered, and then seized the throne for himself, reigning under the title of King Sejo. Many proper yangban officials were horrified that a king, however young and undeserving, had been murdered and they regarded Sejo as a wrongful king and a criminal in fact. Though Sejo arrested and punished many of his critics, the yangban disagreed about whether he was entitled to the throne. At issue was the question of whose descendants would succeed to the throne in future generations. At issue also were questions of loyalty and propriety: whether Sejo had proven himself disloyal to his own father by challenging the succession. To Confucianists especially, these questions were important.

“The Chosun dynasty had begun when Yi Songgye, a Koryo general, usurped the Koryo throne, grabbing power for himself. Now, just a little more than half a century later, the legitimacy of the ruling house was again in doubt because the king had taken power by violence instead of by legal means. This was one of several political and moral problems that weakened the Chosun monarchy and caused rifts within the yangban class. Groups of yangban joined one side or the other and fought each other bitterly, refusing to hire each other's younger members, purging members of the other side, and seeking revenge when the power changed hands. The kings, being at the center of many of the controversies, were unable to stop the quarreling, which worsened as more yangban passed the examinations and became eligible for appointment to only a limited number of jobs.

“Once again, as in the Koryo period, who a person was, or whether a person had a powerful patron, became more important than the moral qualifications that were desirable in wise and effective leaders. The remarkable power of the yangban as a group reflects the corresponding weakness of Chosun kings. Kings started out seeking support, first from the emperor of China, who had to approve the accession of all new kings in Korea, and then from factions of the yangban who were needed to carry out the king's will in government. The yangban cliques perpetuated themselves through academies called sowon, where young scholars were trained to support their elders' ideas and political positions. A sowon graduate was expected to be a loyal follower of his mentor, who most likely had spent some time at the group's sowon teaching and telling stories about what had happened in Seoul. The mentor was regarded as a kind of godfather, and he protected his followers and maneuvered them into government jobs. Strong mentors with active sowon academies thus spread the contagion of factional fighting in the government.”

Chosun-Era Bureaucracy and Governance

For more than a century after its founding, Chosun flourished as an exemplary agrarian bureaucracy deeply influenced by a cadre of learned scholar-officials who were steeped in the doctrines of neo-Confucianism. Like Kory, the Chosun Dynasty lacked the typical features of a feudal society. It was instead a classic agrarian bureaucracy. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

Chosun possessed an elaborate procedure for entry to the civil service, a highly articulated civil service, and a practice of administering the country from the top down and from the center. The system rested on an agrarian base, making it different from modern bureaucratic systems; the particular character of agrarian-bureaucratic interaction also provided one of Korea's departures from the typical Chinese experience.

James B. Palais, a widely respected historian of the Chosun Dynasty, has shown that conflict between bureaucrats seeking revenues for government coffers and landowners hoping to control tenants and harvests was a constant during the Chosun Dynasty, and that in this conflict over resources the landowners often won out. Controlling land theoretically owned by the state, private landed interests soon came to be stronger and more persistent in Korea than in China. Although Korea had a centralized administration, the ostensibly strong center was more often a façade concealing the reality of aristocratic power.

One interpretation suggests that Korea's agrarian bureaucracy was superficially strong but actually rather weak at the center. A more conventional interpretation is that the Chosun Dynasty was ruled by a highly centralized monarchy served by a hereditary aristocracy that competed via civil and military service examinations for access to bureaucratic office. The state ostensibly dominated the society, but in fact landed aristocratic families kept the state at bay and perpetuated local power for centuries. This pattern persisted until the late 1940s, when landed dominance was obliterated in a northern revolution and attenuated in southern land reform; since then the balance has shifted toward strong central power and top-down administration of the whole country in both Koreas. The disruptions caused by the Korean War magnified the sociopolitical consequences of these developments.

Chosun Slaves

During the Chosun period, most Koreans were slaves (noye) or slave-like serfs (nobi) who toiled for greedy, land-owning Buddhist monks or feudalist noblemen. As late as the late 19th century half of Koreans were slaves that were bought, sold, given away and killed at the owners discretion. "Slavery in Korea was indeed a demeaning and degrading experience," the Korean historian Yu Hyong-won wrote, "stemming from the complete control masters could exercise over their slaves if they wished."

Slavery was an important institution in Koryo and Chosun society. Exactly how it worked is still not fully understood by scholars today. Slaves, of course, stood at the very bottom of the social hierarchy; the existence and perpetuation of this status was an aspect of the continuing importance of hereditary status.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “The institution of Korean slavery was passed on from Koryo to Chosun and showed little sign of weakening by the seventeenth century. Indeed, though the “80 or 90 percent” that this text suggests as the proportion of slaves among the total population was probably an exaggeration, slaves were numerous and economically central in Korea in a way they were not in other East Asian countries, and despite significant differences from, for example, American slavery, pre-modern Korea has been considered a “slave society” along with ancient Greece and Rome, the antebellum U.S. South, the Caribbean during European colonization, and a few other historic instances. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ^^^ ]

The scholar Yu Hyongwon (1622-1673) argued for reform of several Chosun economic institutions, including slavery. On abolishing slavery he wrote in the Pangye surok: “But if the government of a true moral king is put into practice, and he rectifies the various institutions of government and washes away all partiality and vulgarity, then it is clear that the law governing slavery would definitely have to be abolished....What I mean by abolishing it, indeed, does not mean a sudden and total abolition of presently existing slaves. Just order that slavery stop with the slaves that exit at the presenttime.” [Source: translated by James B. Palais, “Sources of Korean Tradition,” edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 159-161]

Inherited Slave Status in the Chosun Period

A passage from the Koryo called “Inheritance of Slave Status” goes: “In the past, our founding ancestor, setting down instructions to posterity on the question of inheritance, stated: “In general, the offspring of the lowest class (ch’onnyu) are of a differentstock. Be sure not to allow the people of the lowest class to become emancipated. If they are permitted to become free, later they will certainly get government positions and gradually work into important offices, where they will plot rebellions against the state. If this admonition is ignored, the dynasty will be endangered.” [Source: translated by Hugh H.W. Kang and Edward J. Shultz, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 327.

“Accordingly, the law of our country provides that only if there is no evidence of lowborn status for eight generations in one’s official household registration may one receive a position in the government. As a rule, in the lowborn class, if either the father or mother is low, then the offspring is low. Even if the original owner of a lowborn person frees him, allowing him to achieve commoner status, the descendants of that freed individual must return to low status. If the owner has no heirs, the descendants of his freed lowborn belong to his clan. This is because they do not want to allow lowborns to achieve permanent commoner status.

“Still there is fear that some may flee and escape their status, becoming commoners. Accordingly, even though we take preventive measures, many take advantage of the situation and become crafty. There is also fear that some, relying on power or merit, will dare to take the law into their own hands and plot rebellion against the state, but eventually they are destroyed. Although we know it is not easy to heed the founder’s admonition, we still fear there is no way to check all disloyal feelings.”

Chosun Period Names and Geneologies

Until the late Chosun dynasty, only royals and a few aristocrats (yangban) had surnames. Slaves and outcasts such as butchers, shamans and prostitutes, but also artisans, traders and monks, did not have them. As the local gentry grew in importance, rulers tried to mollify it by granting surnames as a way to distinguish faithful subjects and government officials. [Source: The Economist, September 9, 2014]

According to The Economist: The gwageo, a civil-service examination that became an avenue for social advancement and royal preferment, required all those who sat it to register a surname. Thus elite households adopted one. It became increasingly common for successful merchants too to take on a last name. They could purchase an elite genealogy by physically buying a genealogical book (jokbo)—perhaps that of a bankrupt yangban—and using his surname. By the late 18th century, forgery of such records was rampant. Many families fiddled with theirs: when, for example, a bloodline came to an end, a non-relative could be written into a genealogical book in return for payment. The stranger, in turn, acquired a noble surname.”

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Chosun dynasty Neo-Confucianism placed a new emphasis on patrilineal descent, which led to the compilation of written family genealogies (chokpo), at first by powerful aristocratic clans and then, eventually, more widely. One of the first clans so to document their own historical lineage was the Andong Kwon (Andong is a place name that differentiates this Kwon clan from others). The first genealogy of this family appeared in 1476, and carried a preface by a scholar-official named So Kojong (1410-1488), excerpted here, that explained some of the rationale of compiling such documents. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University ]

“In Korea, however, there was of old neither clan law nor genealogy; even big families and great descent groups did not have family records. Thus, after several generations the names of the ancestors in the four ascending generations were lost, and their descendants consequently became estranged from each other, looking at one another like strangers in the street. Do they wait until after the mourning obligations are over and kinship has ended to become distant and remote? Would it not be difficult then to wish to stimulate filial and brotherly behavior among them and to achieve mutual courteousness? For this reason Kwon Che and Kwon Nam tirelessly compiled the genealogy, and I made an effort to bring their intention to completion.” [Source: translated by Martina Deuchler, “Sourcebook of Korean Civilization”, edited by Peter H. Lee, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 570-571.

Families in the Chosun Period

According to the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “Families were very different among the three historical periods of the Silla (57 B.C.– A.D. 935), Koryo (918–1392), and Chosun (1392–1910) Dynasties because of their religious orientation. When the Chosun Dynasty succeeded the Koryo in 1392, it adopted Confucianism as the familial and state philosophy, suppressing Buddhism. The term Confucianism is used to refer to the popular value system of China, Korea, and Japan. This system is derived from the synthesis of the traditional cultural values espoused by Confucius and his followers and subsequently influenced by elements of Taoism, Legalism, Mohism, Buddhism, and, in the case of Korea and Japan, Shamanism (Park and Cho 1995a). Confucianism declares the family the fundamental unit of society, responsible for the economic functions of production and consumption, as well as education and socialization, guided by moral and ethical principles (Lee 1990; Park and Cho 1995a). In its teachings, Confucianism has traditionally deified ancestors, institutionalized ancestor worship, and delegated the duties of ritual master to the head of the male lineage, that is, to the father and husband. Confucianism is a familial religion (Lee 1990). As Confucianism took hold, the ideal of male superiority within the patrilineal family became more prominent in the late Chosun dynasty than it had been during the early Chosun dynasty (1392–1650) (Park and Cho 1995a). [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“Values and functions of the family. The family is the basic component of social life in Korea, and its perpetuation has been of paramount importance under patriarchal Confucianism. In a Confucian patriarchal family, the family as an entity takes precedence over its individual members, and the family group is inseparably identified with the clan. The most important function of family members is to maintain and preserve the household within the traditional Confucian system (Lee 1960). Society became organized around two principles: that males shall dominate females and that elders shall dominate the young (Kim 1993). Growing old in Korea had advantages for both women and men, for age was respected. According to this perspective, women were often self-assertive and highly valued, as the family finance managers, decisionmakers in family matters, and educators of children (Brandt 1971; Osgood 1951).

“Traditionally, the ideal family type in Korea was a patrilocal stem family. The stem family typically consists of two families in successive generation, a father and mother living in the same household with married oldest son, his wife, and their children. The eldest son generally inherited the family estates. The other sons were expected to live in separate residences after their marriages (Cho and Shin 1996). The central familial relationship was not that between husband and wife, but rather between parent and child, especially between father and son. At the same time, the relationships among family members were part of a hierarchy. These relationships were characterized by benevolence, authority, and obedience. Authority rested with the (male) head of the household, and differences in status existed among the other family members (Park and Cho 1995a).

Women and Marriage in the Chosun Period

In a traditional Korean wedding, the groom rode to the home of his bride, accompanied by his father or grandfather and an entourage for gift bearers, servants, relatives and friends. The men wore two kinds of hats one that looked a black fez with Mickey Mouse ears and another that resembled a tall stovepipe hats. [see weddings]

According to the “International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family”: “During the Silla and Koryo period, among commoners, couples entered freely into marriage with their Chosun partners (Choi 1971). This changed, however, during the Chosun dynasty; strict rules were imposed on the selection of partners, and all marriages were arranged. Naehun (Instruction for Women), compiled by the mother of King Seongjong in 1475, was the most important and influential textbook used to teach proper Confucian roles to girls and married women. The book emphasized the basics of womanly behavior such as chastity, and it prepared girls for their future functions as moral guardians of the domestic sphere and providers for the physical needs of their families. The book also elaborated on a married woman's role, including being a self-sacrificing daughter-in-law, an obedient and dutiful wife, and a wise and caring mother (Kim 1993; Deuchler 1983). [Source: International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, The Gale Group Inc., 2003]

“Based on Confucian values, families observed strict gender differentiation in married life. Traditional Korean women's responsibility was restricted to the domestic sphere. As an inside master, the woman established her own authority and became a financial manager, symbolized by the right to carry the family keys to the storage areas for rice and other foods (Kim 1992; Lee 1990). Also, husbands and wives strictly observed a hierarchical relationship. A wife would sacrifice herself completely to serve her husband and family in an exemplary manner. In accordance with the rule of three obediences, a woman was required to obey her father, husband, and son, in that order. Under this system of severe discrimination, women of the Chosun Dynasty were confined to the home. Nevertheless, the position of women, at least those with children, was not hopeless. Just as women occupied a subordinate position in relation to men, children were subordinate to their parents and were required to revere their mothers as well as their fathers (Choi 1982a; Park and Cho 1995a).

“But what constituted filial behavior changed from the Silla to the Chosun Dynasty. In Samganghangsil, the most important expression of filial piety during the Silla Dynasty was supporting the material needs of elderly parents. In contrast, in the Koryo and Chosun periods, filial piety was best demonstrated in formal and ritual services, such as funeral services and worship in the Koryo and nursing in the Chosun period (see Table 2). In particular, nothing was as important as worshiping of the spirits of one's ancestors as well as one's parents in the period of Chosun (Chung and Yoo 2000).

Everyday Life During the Chosun Dynasty

In the Chosun dynasty, men braided their hair in long pony tails and tucked their hair under traditional horse-hair black hats. The also wore beards and mustaches and cut their fingernails according in special rituals. These customs were rooted in the Confucian belief that it was disrespectful for people to alter the bodies that was given to them by their parents and ancestors.

Common people lived in thatched roof homes and enjoyed listening to Salum-nori drum music while upper classes lived in tile-roof houses like classical music influenced by China and Japan. In early Chosun period people from all classes by golf.

In traditional Chosun dynasty schools, students kneeled on the floor and studied from hand-printed, woodblock texts. The first major school opened in the mid-1500s. The first major school for women was opened by foreign missionaries in Seoul in 1886.

Oeam Village: Home of the Yi Clan That Founded the Chosun Dynasty

Oeam Village (near Asan, 100 kilometers south of Seoul) is the ancestral home of the Yi clan, which established the Chosun Dynasty. It was placed on the Tentative List of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2011 According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “ Oeam Village, a typical rural town of Korea, is a clan village, home to the Yi family hailing from Yean. Oral traditions have it that it was about 500 years ago when people first inhabited the village site. But according to the records, the village was settled when the Yi clan moved to the site. The first person who settled in the village was Yi Sa-jong, and since his settlement, the village prospered, emerging as a major clan village for the Yean Yi family in late Joseon (1392-1910). [Source: Permanent Delegation of Republic of Korea to UNESCO; Location: Oeam-ri, Songak-myeon, Asan-si, Chungcheongnam-do, Coordinates: N36 43 52 E127 00 49]

The clan village of the Yean Yi family, a center for studies and education for years during the Joseon Dynasty, produced many distinguished Confucian scholars including Yi Gan (pen name Oeam), who led a series of philosophical debates in late Joseon. Block-printed books and writings reflecting the thought and philosophy of Master Yi have been passed down through generations, and the traditional bulcheonwi jesa (offerings to ancestors worshipped in perpetuity) for Master Yi and food for the offerings have been transmitted as well. Traditional folk games have also been handed down for generations as the intangible cultural heritage of community.

The tile-roofed houses of the nobility show the typical shapes and technologies of wooden buildings of late Joseon, while the thatch-roofed buildings of commoners display folk methods and styles in the traditional building structure. In particular, the technique of thatching a roof has come down to the present by local residents who recognize it as an authentic intangible heritage. Usually, village walls were built with stones and topped with roof tiles, but all the walls in Oeam were built with stones. The gardens of noble families were decorated much more elaborately than those in other villages. Streams and ponds were made using the artificial watercourse in the village, artificial mountains were built with trees and stones, and ornamental trees were planted. This distinctive garden of late Joseon cannot be found in other villages of Korea.

Currently, there are 69 households residing in the town, and 38 of them are engaged in farming. The resident population is 192 people in total. More than half of the buildings are thatch-roofed And every year, residents thatch their roof with new straw, and the technique has been handed down by tradition in the village, a work of valuable intangible cultural heritage. All the houses in the village are walled with stones from field, in that stones in various sizes were easily found in the town. Villagers built walls in the field too by using removed stones from the field. Again, this construction is very distinctive and is another special feature of Oeam Village. Champan House and Geonjae Old House are State-designated Important Folklore Materials, and in January 2000, the entire village was designated as Folk Village by the government. Additionally, valuable implements for daily life and intangible cultural heritage are transmitted in the village. Various rituals and offerings for ancestors and folklore events have continued, and traditional foods such as lotus-leaf liquor, food for ancestral rites and rice pancake (buggumi) were recognized unique to the village.

The site is important because: 1) it bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared. Oeam Village is a typical Korean traditional village developed based on its natural environment. The tile-roofed and thatch-roofed houses built with traditional materials are mingled, and the traditional technique of thatching the roof with straw has passed down in the village until today. 2) It is an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates significant stages in human history; Geologically, the village was formed on the stony ground. To secure dwelling places, people constructed a 6 km stone wall, incorporating rocks removed from the earth. In the process of creating farmland, they built walls in the field with stones from the site. This stone construction is unique and an excellent example of local building styles and materials.

3) It is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change; To prevent the spirit of fire from Mt. Seolhwasan from disturbing the villages, an artificial watercourse was constructed in the village by creating artificial waterways from a natural stream. The waterways reach almost all the houses in the town, providing water for daily life, gardens and fire prevention. The distinctive gardens of Oeam Village, which use the artificial watercourse, are a representative example of local culture in the Joseon period as well as an outstanding example of using water for residences for intangible and tangible purposes. 4) It is directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.

Layout and Buildings of Oeam Village

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: “ Oeam Village, a typical rural town of Korea, is a clan village, home to the Yi family hailing from Yean. Oral traditions have it that it was about 500 years ago when people first inhabited the village site. But according to the records, the village was settled when the Yi clan moved to the site. The first person who settled in the village was Yi Sa-jong, and since his settlement, the village prospered, emerging as a major clan village for the Yean Yi family in late Joseon (1392-1910). [Source: Permanent Delegation of Republic of Korea to UNESCO; Location: Oeam-ri, Songak-myeon, Asan-si, Chungcheongnam-do, Coordinates: N36 43 52 E127 00 49]

At the back of the village, Mt. Seolhwasan rises in the northeast and the mountain ranges encircle the village from behind. Also, the village faces Mt. Meonjeoksan in front and Mt. Bongsusan to its southwest. To the west, the village is bordered by a broad field, and a stream “Geundaegolnae” flows in between. It is the typical geographical features of a traditional rural village of Korea, having a broad field near the village.

The village was formed on the low hill of Mt. Seolhwasan. Houses are uniquely distributed along the main road, which is divided into many byroads leading inwards. The village seems to have been created sporadically corresponding to natural topographic conditions, but there is an underlaying principle in it: the village was settled along the straight line that connects Mt. Seolhwasan, the guardian mountain in the northeast, and Mt. Bongsusan in the southwest. The village is an oval shape settling in the low hill on the ranges of Mt. Seolhwasan stretching toward the southwest. The ground of the village is progressively higher toward the east and to fit this geographical condition, most houses were built facing southwest, with a few houses facing south.

The spatial composition of the village and houses display how Confucianism, the dominant ideology of Joseon, was settled in the society. Most villages that had emerged naturally went through an overall change at the beginning of the Joseon era, transforming itself befitting the novel ideology. The whole process can be witnessed in the village. Most houses in the central part of Korea consist of two L-shaped buildings. The buildings are facing each other, creating a rectangular inner courtyard at the center. The characteristic features are well exhibited in the houses of Oeam Village.

What makes this village distinctive is an artificial waterway. The village draws water from the upper valley in the village, creating an eco-friendly environment and ecological landscape. The water has been used for daily life and firefighting, and mountain streams and ponds made using the water elaborate the gardens of houses. The character “hwa ( )” in the name of Mt. Seolhwasan, is a homonym for the character meaning “fire ( ),” and the waterway was a symbolic means of balancing out the influence, making it a distinctive feature of the village not found in other places in Korea.

There are many houses showing the typical garden style of late Joseon. The gardens of Champan House, Geonjae Old House, Gyosu House and Gamchal House are regarded highly important and unique, as they demonstrate special techniques and characteristic features of garden construction of the era. Ponds, waterfalls and streams were made using the artificial waterways, and valleys and artificial mountains were constructed with stones and ornamental plants. The gardens are very particular to this village.

Royal Cuisine in the Chosun Period

In the Chosun Dynasty The meals served for the king were prepared by the best cooks in the court with quality ingredients procured from across the country, consisting of local specialties and fresh seasonal foods. Royal cuisine has been passed down by word of mouth of court cooks and royal descendants for generations, as well as in written records of royal feasts. Records on the daily court meals of the Chosun Dynasty can be found in “Wonhaeng Eulmyo Jeongni Uigwe” (Royal Protocols on a King’s Procession) which was written in 1795. The Royal Protocols provide a detailed description about the meals served during an eight-day journey of the king from Changdeokgung Palace to Suwon Hwaseong Fortress where he hosted a feast before he returned to the palace. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

Usually, meals were served five times a day: restorative medicine of rice gruel or porridge in the early morning; a royal breakfast table around 10:00 am; a simple meal in the afternoon; a royal dinner table around 5:00 pm; and a simple meal at night. The royal table, called surasang, was served with 12 dishes, including rice and soup, as well as stew, hot pot, kimchi and sauces. Both white rice and sweet rice were served, and the most common soups were miyeok-guk (seaweed soup) and gomtang (beef bone soup). Surasang was further divided into daewonban (a large round table; the main table), gyeotban (a small round table), and chaeksangban (a square table).

The Dishes of Surasang: 1) Deoungui: grilled or brochette dish made with meat or fish; 2) Changui: grilled or brochette dish made with dried seaweed, deodeok or vegetables; 3) Jeonyuhwa: pan-fried delicacies made with meat, fish or vegetables; 4) Pyeonyuk: boiled pork slices; 5) Sukchae: boiled and seasoned vegetables; 6) Saengchae: raw seasoned vegetables; 7) Jorigae: braised dish made with meat, fish or vegetables; 8) Janggwa: pickled vegetables; 9) Jeotgal: salted seafood; 10) Mareunchan: side dish made with dried, salted or fried beef, fish or kelp; 11) Byeolchanhoe: raw or parboiled meat or fish cooked with vegetables; 12) Byeolchansuran: suran (poached egg) or other special side dish; 13) Chimchae: three kinds of kimchi (fermented vegetables) - songsongi (diced radish kimchi), cabbage kimchi, and dongchimi (radish water kimchi); 14) Jochi: two kinds of stew - tojangjochi (soybean paste stew) and jeotgukjochi (salted seafood stew); 15) Jjim: steamed dish made with meat, fish or vegetables; 16) Sura & Tang: rice (white rice and red bean rice) & soup; 17) Jeongol: meat and vegetables mixed in pot of soup and boiled to eat; 18) Jangnyu: various sauces, such as soy sauce, soy sauce mixed with vinegar, red chili-pepper paste with vinegar, salted-shrimp juice, mustard, etc.

Surasang Table Setting: 1) Daewonban: white rice, miyeok-guk, togu (bone plate), soy sauce, soy sauce with vinegar, red chili paste with vinegar, changui, deoungui, raw fish, janggwa, saengchae, sukchae, suran, jeonyuhwa, jeotgal, jaban (salted fish), jorigae, pyeonyuk, songsongi, jeotgukji, dongchimi, jjim, tojangjochi, jeotgukjochi; 2) Sowonban: red bean rice, gomtang, empty bowl, empty plate, tray, tea pot; 3) Chaeksangban: sesame oil, meat, egg, vegetable, jangguk (clear soybean soup); 4) Jeongolteul: hot pot.

Banquet Meals in the Chosun Court

In the royal court, a number of events were held throughout the year. Annual events occurred on national holidays such as Jeongwol (the day of the first full moon of the Lunar New Year), Dano (the 5th day of the 5th month in the lunar calendar), Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving Day) and Dongji (winter solstice), as well as the birthdays of the royal family members residing in and outside of the court, the nomination and marriage of the crown prince, and welcoming events for foreign envoys. Jinyeon was a joyous feast in the royal court to celebrate a national event, while jinchan was held when there was a celebratory occasion within the royal family. In both cases, the banquet was planned and prepared for months leading up to the event day and the preparation process was kept on record. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

During large royal banquets like jinyeon or jinchan, high-legged tables were set up. The tables were piled with tteok (rice cake) in a variety of colors and styles to make unique patterns, hangwa (traditional Korean snack) and fruits stacked in amazing towers. These stacks of food were generally 40-60 centimeters high, and held the meaning of wishing for prosperity and longevity of the king. The foods presented on the table were only for appearances and not actually eaten. Instead, the king would eat simple noodles and side dishes served at a smaller table before the large table was presented.

During birthdays of the royal family members or on holidays, guests were offered Myeonsang. Myeonsang was a table serving noodles, tteokguk (sliced rice cake soup) or mandu (dumplings) rather than rice. Side dishes of this table included pyeonyuk, hoe, jeonyuhwa and sinseollo (royal hot pot), as well as tteok and hangwa for dessert.

When a banquet was held, not only were royal guests offered food but other banquet participants as well, including the court musicians, dancers and soldiers, although tables were served by rank and position. After the banquet was finished, the remaining dishes were distributed to the king’s relatives and servants.

Kitchen Court Ladies in the Chosun Period

Royal foods were prepared by court maids, who were given strict training about cooking from early childhood, as well as male cooks. Various kinds of royal cuisine were made with diverse cooking methods, as the foods were prepared using fresh seasonal ingredients and local specialties, including seafood, meat, vegetables and grains, to be served to the royal family. Vegetables and fish that looked irregular were not used. Instead, only ingredients that looked nice and the best parts of the ingredients were used to offer the best taste and style of the foods in hopes that the king would govern justly. Strong seasonings were not used in food preparation, and strong tastes, such as foods with salty and spicy flavors or with a strong smell, were avoided, so the meal could deliver the natural taste of the ingredients used. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

The Chosun Dynasty royal cuisine, which features such strict customs and manuals, was proclaimed an Important Intangible Cultural Property. Han Hui-sun (the first master of royal culinary art, 1889-1972) was a court maid who prepared meals for the last two kings of the Chosun Dynasty (King Gojong: 1863-1907, King Sunjong: 1889-1971). Hwang Hae-sung succeeded to the title (the second master, 1920-2006) and promoted royal cuisine. Now, Han Bok-ryeo (the third master, 1947-) and Chung Gil-ja (the third master, 1948-) have followed in their footsteps.

To begin to understand why Han Hui-sun, the last Chosun Dynasty kitchen court lady, was designated the first holder of the 38th Important Intangible Cultural Property; one must first understand what a kitchen court lady is. According to Han Bok-ryo and Chung Kil-ja’s “Chosun Dynasty Korean Royal Cuisine” (The Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine, 2009), kitchen court ladies were responsible for preparing the royal family’s regular meals, while male cooks were responsible for royal banquets.

In order to become a kitchen court lady, one needed to enter the palace at around the age of 13 and train for over 30 years. As a result, one generally became a kitchen court lady past the age of 40. “The best ingredients were brought in, a diverse range, because it was the palace, and professionals made it for the country’s most powerful being,” Han said, referring to the highly experienced kitchen court lady and her male counterpart.

Sura: the Royal Chosun Meal

According to “Chosun Dynasty Korean Royal Cuisine,” the king dined on “sura,” his main meals, at around 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. At the break of dawn, he enjoyed “chojoban” — usually a type of porridge or a medicinal brew. In between his morning and evening sura he would have “natgeot” — usually clear soup or tea and sweets — and after his evening sura he would have “yacham” — noodles, sweet rice with nuts and Korean dates, “sikhye” (rice punch) or milk porridge. This meant that the king ate approximately five times a day. [Source: Korea Tourism Organization ]

His most elaborate daily meals were sura, which, according to The Institute of Korean Royal Cuisine, consisted of two types of rice, two soups, three kinds of kimchi, two stews, three sauces and one steamed dish. Side dishes, a total of 12, also accompanied the meal. Sura was more than just food; it was a reflection of the crops harvested and the fish and meat caught and hunted by the country’s people. The food-laden table allowed the king to indirectly observe his people and the conditions of their crops and the land. “The king would taste a side dish first and then after chewing and savoring it, he would cleanse his palate with a little bit of rice,” Lee Soon-hwa, food and beverage team director of the court cuisine company Jihwaja, explained. “Therefore in order to eat all those different dishes, the food was somewhat blandly seasoned.” A surprising lack of salty dishes is not the only defining characteristic of royal cuisine. Health was stressed as well as the abundant use of garnishes (including the white and yellow strips of omelet called “jidan”), pine nut powder and three kinds of soy sauce, said Lee.

Court cuisine, however, is not drastically different from hansik as a whole. According to “Chosun Dynasty Korean Royal Cuisine,” the reason why palace food and hansik in general bear similarities to each other was because royalty did not wed one another. Instead, they wed nobility, resulting in an exchange of food, where dishes were traded up to court and dishes were traded down from the palace. Furthermore, food from royal banquets was given to the public, enabling them to develop a taste for court cuisine also.

The royal palaces in Seoul in the Chosun period were always equipped with a variety of wines for different purposes. There was wine for the king, wine presented to subjects by the king, wine for rituals and wine for foreign envoys, amongst others. The tradition of royal court liquor disappeared with the fall of the Chosun Dynasty, but some recipes of the royal wines still survive. One of them is hyangonju, or "fragrant liquor", which is designated as Seoul City Intangible

Chosun-Era Korean Mummies

In the mid 2000s, a number of mummified, 500-year-old bodies were found in South Korea Mati Milstein wrote in National Geographic News: ““Until recently no one even knew there were mummies in South Korea. The country's recent construction boom, however, means that cemeteries are now being relocated to make space for new homes, and mummified bodies are turning up in droves. That's odd, because the region has had a long tradition of ancestor worship, which includes letting bodies decay without outside interference. But a new burial process developed in the late 1300s may explain the mysterious remains. "The people believed the body should dissolve in a natural manner, without external factors such as worms," said Mark Spigelman of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who is known for his pioneering studies of ancient diseases found on mummified bodies around the world. "This is why they developed a special burial custom." [Source: Mati Milstein, National Geographic News, July 25, 2007]

“The method involves laying a body on ice for 3 to 30 days during mourning, placing the corpse inside an inner and an outer pine coffin surrounded by the deceased's clothes, and covering the coffin in a lime soil mixture. "In some cases, this inadvertently resulted in extremely good natural mummification," Spigelman added. "They didn't expect mummification and, in fact, that's the one thing they wouldn't want." The unusual Korean burial practice actually led to much better preserved DNA than the artificial mummification practiced in ancient Egypt, Spigelman said. The absence of chemicals in the Korean mummification practice was less traumatic on the body. Also, the initial laying of the deceased upon ice — used only on individuals who passed away during winter — suppressed degeneration during the critical initial period in the bodies' decay, Spigelman believes. "A mummy in Egypt is always very, very dry. It feels like paper," Spigelman said. "Whereas a Korean mummy feels much softer and the tissues are more pliable."

“The Buddhists who ruled Korea in the 1300s could never have imagined that their widespread corruption would lead to such accidental mummification. Buddhist monks, who were exempt from military service, allowed sons of the upper class to buy their own draft exemptions. And the rulers built huge monasteries that didn't contribute to state coffers. The discontent culminated in a bloody rebellion, with the neo-Confucianist Chosun Dynasty seizing power in 1392.

“In order to rid their subjects of Buddhist influence, the neo-Confucianists imposed changes on Korean ritual behavior — including the important burial practices that had been in use prior to the rebellion. The elaborate system of burial — which was actually cheaper than the previous Buddhist method of using locked tombs — was used for a few hundred years largely by the upper classes. Nearly all the Korean mummies being found date from this period. Such bodies are still held sacred as revered ancestors by the ancient clans who administer the cemeteries. When one turns up due to construction or archaeological excavations, it is examined and then returned to the clans for cremation or reburial in another location.

Chosun-Era Korean Mummies, Love and Hepatitis

Mati Milstein wrote in National Geographic News: The accidentally mummified, 500-year-old bodies recently unearthed in South Korea may offer scientists clues to combating a deadly modern-day illness — and tell a love story eerily similar to Romeo and Juliet. One of the exquisitely preserved bodies still contains traces of the hepatitis B virus, which scientists hope will provide clues to treating the modern version of the deadly liver disease. Another corpse, of an out-of-favor nobleman, was discovered with more than a dozen poems and other signs of his widow's bereavement. [Source: Mati Milstein, National Geographic News, July 25, 2007]

“Spigelman was asked to Korea to help examine the bodies by Dong Hoon-Shin of Seoul National University. Of particular importance are the remains of a 500-year-old child that still harbor samples of the virus that causes hepatitis B. The international team, including colleagues from Dankook University, University College London, and the Liver Unit at Hadassah University Hospital-Ein Kerem in Jerusalem, intends to study the virus's genome to determine if there have been any significant changes over the past 500 years. Such findings could help modern-day public health officials combat the severe liver disease.

“Another mummy was found buried with a love poem written by his bereaved wife. Dating to around the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, the verse bears striking similarities to the famous tragedy. It reads, in part:
You always said we would be living together, to die in the same day
However, why did you go to the heaven alone?
Why did you go alone leaving me and our child behind?...
I cannot live without you anymore.
I hope I could be with you.
Please let me go with you.
My love to you, it is unforgettable in this world,
and my sorrow, it is without end.

“Existing clan records identify the 32-year-old man as the second son of a senior figure involved in a revolt against the emperor. A total of 13 letters, as well as slippers woven from the wife's hair, were discovered with his preserved body. But the fate of his widow remains a mystery. Fearing retribution by the emperor's forces, she probably fled with her children to the safety of her own family, experts speculate.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.