Professor Martina Deuchler – Professor of Korean Emerita & Professorial Research Associate, SOAS
The social in society: some reflections on the meaning of descent groups in Korean history
Abstract: The presentation will focus on the history of what I call the Korean “descent group” (ssijok) and trace its evolution from early Korea (Silla and Koryŏ, ca. fifth to fourteenth centuries) through the Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910). It will be argued that descent groups were not only the fundamental social organization of Korean kin; they also dominated the allocation of the political and economic resources. Two momentous events had a profound impact on their development: the introduction of the Chinese-style examination system in 958 and the adoption of Neo-Confucianism as state ideology by the founders of the Chosŏn. Both these events altered the inner workings of the indigenous kin group. Yet despite its Confucian transformation into a patrilineal lineage system during the sixteenth century the Korean kin group retained certain characteristics that made it substantially different from its Chinese prototype.
Notes (the usual caveats about my amateur efforts apply)
- The Silla ssijok
- The ssijok was gender-neutral: daughters received an equal share of the patrimony
- The family was traced through both male and female lines (the family tree spread horizontally as well as simply vertically)
- The Bone Rank system
- Only the top ranks got the top political posts: social status determined political power
- As branches of the family left Seoul for the country, identification with a particular locality (eg the Andong Kwons) became an important factor
- The Chinese examination system (in which anyone could take the exams)
- Replaces birth / social status with merit as the driver of political power
- Therefore a threat to the established aristocratic order
- Korea restricted the exams to those who could pass the “four ancestors” test (father, paternal grandfather, paternal great-grandfather, maternal grandfather)
- Passing the exams endorsed your status as a member of that family / ssijok
- Outsiders could only enter the exams by falsifying their family history
- While passing the exams was a passport to the civil service, it was your contacts and your family that determined how influential you became (how different is that from today…?)
- Some clans reinforced their influence by intermarriage: a very high percentage of successful examination candidates 1391 — 1567 are named in both the Andong Kwon and Munhwa Yu records.
- A patrilineal system
- Elder brothers take precedence over younger brothers
- Wives are classified into “primary” and “secondary” (in order to identify which is the senior son)
- Domestic shrines are built to patrilineal ancestor. Ancestral rites are focused on the domestic shrine, and are conducted by a restricted group of male close family members, the senior family member presiding. Rites focus on ancestors back four generations. By contrast, Buddhist memorial practices were focused on the ancestor’s grave, with a much wider family circle (including women) participating; ancestors further back than four generations were honoured.
- The Korean compromise
- Establish a wider group than normal under conventional Confucian practice — the munjung. Ancestors honoured went back further than four generations, and the celebrant was not necessarily the clan head. In this grouping brothers were treated as equals, but women were still excluded.
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