(Translation) 成宗實錄 卷140, 13年 4月 15日(癸丑)

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The pyramid of Joseon society comprises four main status groups: at the top was the aristocracy (yangban, 兩班), comprising both offices who passed the examinations and non-office holding members, who were the legitimate successors of the aristocratic clans. Below the aristocracy was the group of middle people (jungin,中人), most of whom were government technical specialists, but also encompassed noncommissioned military officials, administrative functionaries and the sons of aristocratic fathers by concubines. The third group was the commoners (yangin, 良人, yangmin, 良民, sangmin, 常民), whose occupations were peasants, artisans, and merchants. And the group at the bottom was the lowborn (cheonin, 賤人, cheonmin, 賤民), representative by “slaves” (nobi, 奴婢) [1], shamans and female entertainers (gisaeong, 妓生)[2]. Interestingly, this hierarchy intertwined with almost every facet of social life in Joseon, including the imperial examination and the bureaucratic system. Though it is true that any Joseon people possessed the legal qualification to sit for the examinations, given that taking the examinations could be sort of the gateway for the mobility of social status, the Joseon court restricted and protected civil positions to the designating group – the aristocracy. Therefore, the yangban virtually monopolized appointment to the civil offices[3]. The miscellaneous examination (japgwa, 雜科) was exclusive to the middle people, as the Great Code of National Governance (Gyeongguk Daejeon, 經國大典) explicitly stipulates that sons of officials of the second rank and above by concubines were only allowed to be recruited by the technical offices, which required candidates to pass the miscellaneous examination [4].In other words, since the illegitimate sons were ruled out from civil positions, they could only seek their bureaucratic fortunes in the specialist fields by taking the japgwa exam[5] and served the court as technology specialists. In the eyes of the yangban, the technology people were mean and their jobs were menial due to their low birth. There is plenty of clues we can find in official writings on how the technology people were discriminated in the bureaucratic system. Such an episode happened in the thirteenth year of Seongjong (1482) in accordance with the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty. King Seongjong was considering rewarding meritorious interpreters and royal doctors who made significant contributions to the court by promoting them to prestigious civil positions, while a protest was prompted by the civil officials. Chae Su (채수, 蔡壽), one representative of the protestors, presented a petition to the king which overfills contempt and disdain for the interpreters and doctors.

Original Script

Classical Chinese English

且天生黔黎, 分爲四民, 士、農、工、商, 各有其分。 士治庶事, 農力田功, 工執藝事, 商通有無, 不可混也。 若欲士夫力田功, 農夫治庶事, 則豈非逆亂而難就, 顚倒而無章乎?

今殿下欲勸勵醫、譯, 精於其術者, 特命擢用東、西班, 臣等未知所以。謹按《周禮》, 醫師掌醫之政, 聚毒藥以供醫事, 歲終稽其醫事, 以制其食, 十全爲上, 十失四爲下, 則是分其等次, 以爲祿之厚薄, 未聞擢用於淸班也。 至如象(諝)〔胥〕 、舌人之類, 不過諭言語、協辭令而已, 其任固已輕矣。 故雖神於醫術如華佗之輩, 前史皆列於方技, 不入於列傳。 豈以其人微、其事賤, 不可列於士大夫也歟?

故我朝自祖宗以來, 別設醫官、譯官, 考其勤慢, 迭爲陞降, 以受其祿, 庶合周官之制。 其間稍優者, 或陞爲堂上官, 或陞爲二品, 是亦特恩, 非先王之制也。 況類皆賤微, 本非名流。 猥蒙國恩, 不爲不過, 國家勸勵, 不爲不至。 而猶希非分, 自占顯官, 所當窮推痛懲, 以警其餘, 而殿下不惟不罪, 又加傾採, 是猶使尸祝越樽俎, 代庖人之事, 不事其事, 不任其任, 終於貴賤相亂, 用舍乖及。

士夫恥與爲伍, 醫、譯不專其業, 則是謂兩失, 而無一可者也。 夫農、工、商、賈、巫、醫、藥師之人, 皆國之不可無者也。 況農桑爲民之天, 禮樂治國之本, 比於醫、譯, 輕重萬萬矣。 今旣欲勸勵醫、譯, 擢用於東、西班, 則設若欲興起禮樂, 則樂工擢用於東、西班, 欲勸勵農桑, 則農夫擢用於東、西班矣, 其可乎哉?

夫聖王之用人也, 猶匠之用木, 大小、長短, 各當其材。 弱木不可爲棟樑, 大材不可爲扂楔。 宰相須用宰相之才, 六卿須用六卿之才, 下至百執事, 各當其才, 然後可以稱其職矣。 今欲使醫舌, 不治醫舌之事, 而任士夫之職, 何異責農夫以治事, 用弱材於棟樑乎?

古人雖云立賢無方, 有敎無類, 其所謂賢、所謂敎, 豈醫舌云乎哉? 稽之於古, 則所任各異, 不可以相侵, 考之於今, 則貴賤異路, 不可以相雜, 其不可混也明矣。 殿下欽明文思, 超出百王, 而猶日御經筵, 孜孜學問, 乙夜忘疲者, 豈効儒生博士, 雕篆口讀而已哉? 乃欲洞觀前代, 明見得失, 以處於行事之際, 欲與聖王同歸耳。 然則宦者之不可加以崇班, 醫、譯之不可雜於淸流, 以殿下之明聖, 而豈不知之乎?

若曰: "大妃年深, 醫不可不重, 事大交隣, 譯不可不重," 則有一說焉。 世宗之世, 善於譯者, 金何、李邊也, 當今之時, 良於醫者, 韓繼禧、任元濬、權攅也, 皆非出於賤品也。 若申明講肄、習讀之法, 擇其聰敏, 明其賞罰, 以勸勵之, 金何、李邊、繼禧、元濬、權攅, (河)〔何〕 獨乏於將來也? 不務於此, 而必欲變舊章, 毁先憲, 卑朝廷, 辱君子, 棄先王之制, 崇賤微之人, 臣等不知其可也。 伏望亟收成命, 以副臣民之望。

Furthermore, Heaven produced mankind and divided them into the four groups -- scholars, farmers, artisans, and merchants, each of whom all have their own duties. Scholars deal with affairs of the multitude; farmers devote themselves to cultivating; artisans are dedicated to craftsmanship; merchants exchange goods. All these four groups cannot be confused. Given that you want to make scholars do farm work and let farmers govern the affairs of the people, would not it be disobedient, and difficult to achieved [in governing the society]? Would not it be topsy-turvy and disordered?

Your Majesty nowadays wants to award the royal doctors and interpreters who have distinguished merits by promoting them into the yangban. Your ministers do not know the whys. In accordance with the Rites of Zhou, royal doctors take charge of the medicine regulations, collecting poison and medicine to support medical affairs. [Regularly,] their performance is evaluated at the end of the year, and their salary [for the next year] will be regulated in accordance with the evaluation result. The grading system sets ten grades: those who have achieved all the missions would be graded as “superior”, and those who have failed four of ten missions [and above] will be graded as “inferior”. [It has been a convention] to decide the amount of their salary according to the grading result while your minister has not heard that [technical officials] could be improved into essential positions.[6] As to the mouthpieces, they merely announce and harmonize the words of diplomacy. Their responsibility is exceedingly light. Therefore, even though there were people whose medical skills were as divine as Hua Tuo, they could only be included in the chapter of craftsmanship, not the biography. As for why they cannot be involved in the civil class, is not it the reason because of their smallness of the social status and the vulgarity of their occupation?

Since from the founder of our dynasty, [all kings] had separately set positions for doctors and interpreters. It matches the regulations on the Rites of Zhou that evaluating their diligence, frequently promoting and demoting their positions, and accordingly giving them the corresponding salaries. Given that there is someone who is relatively outstanding, promoting him to either the palace-ascendable official [7]or the second rank[8]</ref> is already the special grace, which does not fit the institution of the deceased kings. Their birth is low and humble, and they are not well-names. It shouldn’t be called "not excessive" that these low people receive the favor from the country. It’s already extremely sufficient to receive the encouragement from the nation. Nevertheless, [these technical officials] still hold the improper [thought] of occupying the honorable and important posts (顯官). [Their doings] should be blamed and severely punished so as to warn the others. However, not only your majesty uncondemn them, even more so, your majesty is inclining to promote these people. This is as if asking officiant to exceed the sacrificial vessels and replace the chef. If people are neither engaged in their own affairs nor perform duties, consequently, the hierarchy standard will be chaotic, and employment (selection of people) of the court will be disordered.

Literati are ashamed of being on the same line with the interpreters and doctors, as they do not specialize in their own affairs. This will be resulting in losing the both and neither will be advantageous. Famers, artisans, merchants, shop owners, shamans, doctors, and pharmacists are all indispensable to the country. Besides, farming and sericulture is the sky for people, and rites and music is the root for ruling the country, which much outweigh than interpreters and doctors. Now [your majesty] wants to encourage the interpreters and doctors by promoting them to the yangban class. What if prospering rites and music by promoting court musicians into the yangban class? What if encouraging farming and sericulture by promoting farmers to the yangban class?

The personnel policy of a sage king shall be as if a carpenter picks up the wood. The use of the wood should be based on its natural state. Inferior wood cannot be used as pillars. Big-sized wood cannot be used as gateposts. The position of prime minister should employ the one qualified as prime minister; the six ministers should be qualified as six ministers. As for the hundreds of civil officials, they should all be employed based on their qualities so that they can perform duties competently in the future. Nowadays, your majesty does not want interpreters and doctors to focus on their own affairs but carry out the responsibilities instead of literati and scholars. Does it make any difference from asking farmers to rule the country or using inferior wood as pillars?

Even though the ancient said “there is no standard when erecting a person of virtue” and “we should provide education for all people without discrimination”, how can we refer the person of virtue and object of providing education to the interpreters and doctors? If we examine the antique, people’s occupations were distinct and incompatible with each other. [If we apply it to today's circumstances,] it is clear that the noble and the humble are alien to each other, which cannot be mixed up. Your majesty is reverential, intelligent, accomplished, and thoughtful,[9] who is exceeding numerous kings. Especially your majesty attends Classic Mat-Lectures[10] every day never feels tired of asking and learning, works day and night, forgetting about the weariness. It is not only for the sake that scholars and court academicians will emulate and recite your writings but for the sake of observing the previous dynasties and gaining a deep insight of gains and losses, so as to act in the same way with sage kings when handling matters.

Your majesty says: ”Given that the empress dowager is old, the royal doctors are crucial; Considering the diplomatic affairs, interpreters are significant.” This is on one hand. But on the other, [we cannot ignore the fact that] people who were sophisticated at interpreting during the time of Sejong such as Kim Ha, [11] Lee Byeon,[12]and people who are skillful at medicine nowadays like Han Gyehui,[13] Lim Wonjun [14] and Gwon Chan [15]are all low-born.Given that we clarify the method of lecture and study, select sagacious people, and encourage the technical official through transparentizing reward and punishment, how could [the court] be short for [talented] people like Kim Ha, Lee Byeon, Han Gyehui, Lim Wonjun and Gwon in future? If your majesty does not deal with this, you shall have to amend old statutes, destroy the previous constitution, depreciate the court, humiliate the gentlemen, abandon the institution of the deceased kings, and uphold the low born. Your ministers do not know if that is appropriate. Your minister kneels and humbly begs you to countermand the order so as to live up to the expectations of your subjects.


  1. The “slaves” might not be a proper translation for nobi (노비 奴婢) since the attribute of Joseon’s nobi is distinct from the western slaves.
  2. Eugene Y. Park, between dreams and reality: The Military Examination in Late Chosŏn Korea, 1600-1894, Harvard University Press (2007): 6-7
  3. Carter J. Eckert, Ki-baik Lee, Young Ick Lew, Michael Robinson, Edward W. Wagner, Korea old and New: A History, Ilchokak Publishers (1990): 114.
  4. 二品以上妾子孫,許于司譯院典醫監觀象監內需司惠民署圖畫署算學律學,隨才敘用. See: Korean Database: The Great Code of National Governance, 吏典:
  5. Kyung Moon Hwang, Beyond Birth: Social Status in the Emergence of Modern Korea, Harvard University Press (2004): 113.
  6. 淸班: the alternative for 淸職. In the Joseon dynasty, high positions of civil offices such as 의정부(議政府)•이조(吏曹)•병조(兵曹)•사헌부(司憲府)•사간원(司諫院)•홍문관(弘文館)•예문관(藝文館), and military offices like 도총부(都摠府)•선전관(宣傳官)•부장(部長) could be called as cheongban. What is worth noting is that only people born in a noble clan can rise to a cheongban position.
  7. 堂上官, referring to officials with high rank who can take a seat on the court.
  8. In accordance with the Great Code of National Governance(經國大典), the highest position of a technical official is the third rank. As the ordinance of restrictive recruitment (한품서용, 限品敍用) restricted the career trajectory of the middle people, that all descendants by concubines were not allowed to exceed senior third rank.
  9. Quoted from 《尚书·虞书·尧典》:"曰若稽古帝堯,曰放勳,欽、明、文、思、安安"
  10. 經筵: ceremonial lectures on the Classics
  11. 金何(?∼1462), civil official in the early Joseon period. See 민족문화대백과사전
  12. 李邊(1391∼1473), civil official in the early Joseon period. See 민족문화대백과사전
  13. 韓繼禧(1423∼1482), civil official in the early Joseon period. See 민족문화대백과사전
  14. 任元濬(1423∼1500), civil official in the middle Joseon period. See 민족문화대백과사전
  15. 權攢(1430∼1487), civil official and royal doctor in the early Joseon period. See 민족문화대백과사전