The Nobi of Joseon: Slaves or Serfs?

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Gyeongguk daejeon (經國大典), the legal code of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), states that in the early Joseon period there were two social classes: yangin and cheonin. Yangin were free people and cheonin were mostly nobi - bondservants of individuals or government offices. As Joseon became more stable, a class system consisting of the ruling yangban and jungin, and the laboring sangmin and cheonin, was established.

The yangban class consisted of the scholar-officials leading the central government and the landed gentry of rural society. The jungin (literally "middle people") consisted of skilled technical workers such as administrators, interpreters and doctors in the narrow sense, and formed the middle class in the broad sense.

The sangmin ("common people") were a class of taxpayers including farmers, merchants and craftsmen. The cheonmin ("lowly people") were at the bottom of society, and aside from the nobi, included butchers, clowns, shamans and gisaeng. Nobi were divided into the servants of government offices and the servants of private families.

The class system began to fall apart in the latter half of the Joseon period. When agricultural productivity increased and the monetary economy developed, a new class of wealthy merchants and farmers emerged. After the Japanese invasions (1592-1598) many joined the yangban class by purchasing genealogies. To fill the depleted state coffers the government even resorted to selling yangban status.

Among the nobi class, those who had distinguished themselves in war were freed, and eventually, demands were made to abolish the whole class-ranking system. In 1801, some 66,000 government servants were set free and in 1894, the nobi system was completely abolished.

During the Joseon Dynasty, nobi were considered as property that could be sold, transferred or inherited. In this sense, they were similar to the slaves of Europe. But unlike slaves, they could officially own land. Like serfs, many of them lived in their own homes with their own families. According to their abilities, nobi were able to accumulate wealth, some even rising to influential positions in society. Considering their complicated legal and social position in society, nobi should not be simply defined as either slaves or serfs.

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