(Translation) 成大中 靑城雜記 醒言

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This short essay by Sŏngdaejung(成大中, Seongdaejung) provides a social background and justification for the policy of emancipating the slaves.

His status as a son of concubine(庶孼) seems to imply his personal connection with this rebellious groups of slaves described in the document. In the late Choson period, the capital suffered from the activities of many lawless gangs. With the increase of monetary economy and market, the number of people who were detached from the land and subsisted on their participation in the market economy has grown. At the same time, this new domain of social action opened up social places where people with grievances toward government can gather. The member of these gangs spanned all the classes of Choson society. In particular, one type of gang, called the compact of swords(劍契, Kŏmgye), consisted mainly of sons of concubine and Chungin(中人, the middle person).[1] Although Sŏngdaejung went high up in the hierarchy of officialdom, he might have real connection through this widespread network of gangs.

Although the source of this story is unclear, the slave gang that appears in the story is likely to be one of these newly formed gangs in the late Choson period. In the wandering commoners and the run-away slaves often came to Seoul for living, and as a result the population of the capital increased fast. These people often resided outside the gates of the capital city.[2] The geographical reference of the event in the document is also the outside of one of those gates(惠化門外).

The reference to firewood also indicates that these are the slaves or daily laborers who subsisted mainly by providing their manual labor. Also, the fact that they are identified by their work rather than their master's house might indicate the confusion between the categories of slaves as master's property and daily laborers.

The presence of the stature of Buddha is also interesting. According to a research, the gangs made a compact of swords and followers against the nobles based on its faith in Maitreya Buddha.

The reference to Kija also appears in the Royal instruction that proclaims the emancipation of the government slaves.[3]. One of the Eight Regulations attributed to Kija says those convicted as thieves shall be punished by turning them into slavery. The royal instruction and this essay argues it was only a temporary measure and not to be inherited by the descendants of the punished slaves.

In connection with the Master-Slave compact document of the same period, this essay shows the social change surrounding the status of slaves in the late Choson. Ahn Seungjun, who discovered the Master-Slave compact document, argues that they are symptomatic of the growing social power and grievances of slaves which pressured the government to emancipate the government slaves.[4]

Original Script

Classical Chinese English



Slaves’ Buddha and the Public Slaves Emancipated

Outside the gate of the benevolent transformation, there is a stone wall on the east of the stream. It is covered by a stone roof and supported by two pillars, which are also made of stones. On the surface of the wall is carved a statue of Buddha. They call it as slaves' Buddha and also names the stream Buddha's stream. The firewood slaves on the east of the city wall has been gathering from day to day under this Buddha statue. Scolding it as they look up to the Buddha, they said "that which made us the slaves of others is this Buddha. With what eyes, does this Buddha see us?" Raising the sickle, they made holes into it, and the two eyes of the Buddha wept. The resentment of cruel labor is moved to the Buddha; could it not be feared? Their vernacular says once there is no this Buddha, then there will be no slaves. Making slaves none is rather possible; as to this stone Buddha who would be able to make it none? When I was child, I still saw the high hill and the low stream. There was great rain each year. The hill got shaved, and the marsh got thick. After 10 years, the accumulated sand reached the eaves of the roof. The body of the Buddha was completely buried. There was no way to get rid of the sand. Truly, there was no this Buddha. In Shinhae year of King Yŏngjo(英宗)'s reign, those who were born from the commoner women were ordered to follow the maternal status. The number of slaves began declining, and today there are numerous houses without slaves. In Shinyu year of our King's reign, the slave register of the palace temples was ordered to be burned, and the government slavery was abolished; Would the private slaves be willing to be worked? It will be led to being none in the end. In general, the inheritance of slave status was not a model from the Sagely era of the Central Efflorescence. Only our country has this; it was a momentary measure that was created when Kija(箕子, Gija) punished the thieves. How would he have made them to be worked for generations? The poison of resentment finally reached to that of digging out the eyes of the Buddha. The Buddha, as if it has a soul, wept and did not get angry as this is being done. The government slave register is now burnt down to ashes. When it comes to straightening eyebrows and praying the eternal life to Heaven, there has been nothing that is greater than this. The great flourishing of this period is enough to be hoped for years. The wealth returns to the state, and the benefits goes to the slaves. The house without slaves do not need the relief. Also, how can there be none of those who sell themselves to become slaves.[5] This is an ancient method. It is simply that they did not pass down the slave status to later generations.


  1. 송정란. 2017. "17~18세기 서울 ‘무뢰배’의 존재와 활동." 역사학보 제 236호. 238쪽.
  2. 송정란. 2017. "17~18세기 서울 ‘무뢰배’의 존재와 활동." 231쪽
  3. 순조실록 2권, 순조 1년 1월 28일 을사. http://sillok.history.go.kr/id/kwa_10101028_003
  4. 안승준. 2018. "공노비 혁파, 76,067명의 노비문서를 불사르다." 장서각아카데미 왕실문화강좌. http://jsg.aks.ac.kr/cmm/fms/FileDown.do?fileSn=0&atchFileId=FILE_000000000008328
  5. Selling one's own person as a property to be owned by others was probably a prevalent practice during this period.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who are the firewood slaves? Are they slaves belonging to the private households? If so, how could they gather everyday to express their grievances? Or were they mixed with other manual laborers of lower standings?
  2. What socioeconomic changes can be gleaned from this document? The emergence of manual laborers? The increase of population in the capital and the problem of providing inhabitable places to the new population? The growth of informal social network, including criminal gangs, among the lower stratum of the society which might lead to the upheavals of various kinds? How the government responded to these new groups and networks?
  3. What new political argument is being made through this story? For example, by putting together the fortune of the state(福歸於國) and the benefits to slaves(澤歸於奴), is he arguing that the emancipation of slaves is a means to increas the wealth of the state?
  • 송정란. 2017. "17~18세기 서울 ‘무뢰배’의 존재와 활동." 역사학보 제 236호.
  • 안승준. 2018. "공노비 혁파, 76,067명의 노비문서를 불사르다." 장서각아카데미 왕실문화강좌. http://jsg.aks.ac.kr/cmm/fms/FileDown.do?fileSn=0&atchFileId=FILE_000000000008328
  • 권내현. 2014. 노비에서 양반으로, 그 머나먼 여정: 어느 노비 가계 2백 년의 기록. 역사비평사.
  • 김재호. 2005. "자매노비(自賣奴婢)와 인간에 대한 재산권, 1750-1905." 경제사학. 제 38권.