(Translation) 1801年 龍山書院 首奴 禹發 自賣明文

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Introduction by Youngsuk Park

This document of "self-selling" is written in 1801 and related to Yongsan Academy which belonged to the Head House of Chŏngmugong of Kyŏngju Ch'oe clan. This is rarely-seen type of a document of a father 'selling' his two young daughters, and requires a close examination in light of the characteristics of the clan and its social and economic activities.

Yongsan Academy was a royally chartered private academy, dedicated to Ch'oe Chinlip (1568-1636), the military official patriot. The academy maintained and subjugated the surrounding land centered on Ch'oe family and the community relationships. Around the year 1800 there registered thirty boarding students ten more than originally designated number, and in 1801 the academy was called upon by the state to take care of official documents for Kyŏngju region. This is the year the abovementioned girls were received to the academy perhaps for increased need of helpers. Ch'oe family supported the academy to establish their family tradition of social contribution, noblesse oblige. The war refugees were allowed to stay in the academy, and needy families were given financial aids. To carry out the financial duties they had Sŏwŏnch'ŏng (書員廳, Office for Recording People)[1] headed by kojik (庫直, The keeper of storage). Among the financial dealings they included inspecting duty to examine poor debtors and to write off their obligations, if appropriate. This additional function of financial aid for the poor made Yongsan academy unlike the other academies whose typical functions were ancestral worship and education.

Inferred to such activities of Ch'oe clan's noblesse oblige, this document of 'self-selling' [or self-demolishing] is likewise the result of kojik's decision to write off for the debtor (the father) in hopeless (不得已) situation to give up his two daughters to earn their keep under the organization's custody.

Original Script

Classical Chinese English











First Part (by Jong Woo): The sixth year of Jiaqing (1801), second month, second day. The document to Ugae, the slave in chief of the Yongsan Academy. As to what this documents pertains, the reason [for the transaction] is that I have many debts to the academy and yet I have no means to repay them.

Middle Part (by Kim Young): Therefore, I cannot help but set the value of my ten-year-old daughter Geonlijin and my seven-year-old second daughter Geonlideok, two persons in total. I take seventeen 錢文 for them and the sale to the academy is...

Ending Part (by Ren Zhijun, Martin Gehlmann) ...permanent, should there be dispute at a later date, take this document and report to the authorities for justice to this matter.

[Seller] Father Amwi [Signed with fingerjoint][2]

Witness Yongbong, Storage Keeper

Scribe Kim Mangu

Discussion Questions

Further Readings


  1. Sŏwŏnch'ŏng (書員廳) was the office space in which the nobi class workers convened to manage the supplement storage of Yongsan Academy for its financial activities. This office functioned just as today's people's bank to serve the commoners and nobi to loan cash or grains. The borrowers were then obligated to pay back the principle and interest in time.
  2. As the seller here seemed to be illiterate he signed the document by tracing his fingerjoints, which was to be identifiable at a later point


Student 1 : (Irina)

  • Discussion Questions:

In Korean texts Chinese characters are used for units of measurement, but often Korean units do not correspond to Chinese. Is there a reliable source for checking Korean units of quantity, length, and so on?

Student 2 : (Kim Young)

  • Discussion Questions:
  1. 2 A Document of Selling One's Person

1. In this document, the father states the reason for selling his two daughters as owing a great debt to the Yongsan Academy. But the document does not clarify either how much he owed or if the debt was entirely cleared with his selling of the two daughters. Given the unusually blurry language used in this contract document, could we possibly understand "owing to the Academy" not so much as owing a specific fiscal amount, but more as a rhetorical pretext for entrusting the daughters to the Academy?

  1. 3 A Document of a Slave Selling Land to a Yangban

1. In this document,

  1. 4 A Document of Trading a Slave with a Horse

1. How could Mrs. Kim claim ownership over the slave Jongnam, who was a descendant of a slave bought by the slave Jeongryeon (Mr. Kim's slave)? If a slave bought a slave, did the master have any ownership over the bought slave? If a slave could own another slave, then he could buy himself out by paying for his freedom with the slave he owned. Did the state have any legal measure to prevent this? Or, was "buying oneself out" a common practice which ensured some flexibility and class mobility?

Student 3 : (Masha)

  • Discussion Questions:

1. Judging from the content of these documents, what was the role of nobi as part of state's economy? How much did the transactions that involved nobi account for (vs other selling/trading agreements)? Would it be possible to say that nobi were equal to one kind of commodity of particular value?
2. What can we infer about the rights of nobi based on these texts?
3. Was there a difference between male and female slaves in terms of their treatment and responsibilities? Was there a general perception at the time that male or female slaves have better life, or having a female or male slave is better for the household? Could we make a case that a female slave might be better off than male one? For example, in document #3, father is entrusting his daughters to serve the academy. Was it an example of extreme desperate case or the father really believed that his daughters would be better off?

Student 4 : (Jong Woo Park)

  • Discussion Questions:

Education and sacrificial rite are known to be the main functions of the private academies (sǒwǒn). In this document, Mr. Sǒn could not repay a debt that he had borrowed from the academy so he sold out his two daughters to the academy. If we think about it from the perspective of non-yangban people, what might be the social and economic functions of sǒwǒn in local society? How did sǒwǒn affect the life of the commoners or slaves at that time?

Student 5 : (Kanghun Ahn)

1) Was there any standard as to how to calculate the price of slaves in Choson Korea?

2) To what extent were the Sowons in charge of loaning system in late Choson? Didn't it bring about any disputes (or problems) in Choson society? (If so, are there any sources (e.g. pleas, appeals) for that?)

Student 6 : (Hu Jing)

  • Discussion Questions:

Q-4. We can learned from the Document 4 that Jongnam was sold from a yangban family to a slave family. How would his fate would have been changed? Even though they were both called nobi, was there any different between yangban slaves and slave slaves?

Q-3. In my impression, the "slaves" should have been in a low status both socially and economically. But how Park Geumson, a private "slave", could own a land? How was the economical statue of the Joseon "slaves"? Were the public "slaves" also allowed to own their land?

Student 7 : King Kwong Wong

  • Discussion Questions:
  1. For Document no.2: since the document does not specify that the two daughters were sold as slaves, what was the status of the daughters after the transaction? Were they slaves or remained as commoners? Are there other similar cases?
  2. For Document no.4: since the document was signed by Madame Kim and witnessed by (possibly) her relatives, would this be the case that Madame Kim managed her husband's family property as the widow of the deceased Yun Sahoe, considering that none of the Yun was represented?

Student 8 : (Write your name)

  • Discussion Questions:

Is there any other place that a slave leaves his/her name in history other than contacts like this?

Are these contracts useful outside socio-economy history?

How does the "micro-history" discovered in the contracts help us construct a bigger picture of the Choson dynasty?

Student 9 : 마틴

  • Discussion Questions:

1. In Document 4, a horse is traded for a person. The quality of the horse is measured by its teeth(age), the worth of the slave is also decided by his age. We have seen before some categories employed to judge the worth of slaves (dumb, young, able, old). How about other characteristics or skills of the slaves? (strong, easily sick, can weave, likes to run away...etc.) Are there cases like this, or is a slave just a slave?

2. In Document 2, two daugthers are sold to an academy, in later Choson academies often served as the "unofficial" center of their respective localities. Considering that all public slaves are manumitted in the same year as the trade is conducted, how can we view this document?

Student 10 : (YoungSuk)

  • Discussion Questions:

2: Document of Selling One's Person 自賣明文

2-1. Are those 'sold' daughters becoming nobi, servants, or slaves? Which class did their father belong to? Was this father harassed by creditors and eventually cornered to give in? Did they need to make this 'sold' document for some reason? [as we could imagine that in many cases children were 'given away' for their own good in some inevitable circumstances such as starvation or living with an alcoholic single parent, but without a cruel legal document such as this one]

2-2. As to the culture of Chosŏn society, selling is one of the most despised human activities as indicated in the word 士農工商 which classifies human works from high to low: scholar, farmer, manufacturer, and seller. Therefore, 'selling' is not simply financial activities as it sounds in English. The translated word may not convey the implications but mislead the meaning. In particular for the rare case as this one -- a father 'selling' his daughters-- the translation of the word 賣 needs even more cautious considerations. Could the word 'self-selling' be replaced by 'self-demolishing' to be more precise to convey the meaning based on the Chosŏn culture?

Student 11 : (Write your name)

  • Discussion Questions:

Student 12 : (Write your name)

  • Discussion Questions:

Student 13 : (Write your name)

  • Discussion Questions:

Student 14 : (Write your name)

  • Discussion Questions: 1. What roles does the state play in these documents? 2. How does the state contribute toward the endurance of "slavery" in Joseon society?

Further Readings