Document for My Daughters, et al

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Until the mid-1980s scholars had generally overlooked primary sources regarding private slaves in early Chosŏn Korea. Among the primary Chosŏn sources on early private slaves are old documents and diaries; most of these documents were created by the hands of yangban literati, and should, therefore, reflect class biases. Unlike most sources, we are fortunate to have received a rare document created by a private slave by the name of Pok-man (卜萬).

In 1540 (Jungjong 35), after a long consideration, the private slave Pok-man, then aged seventy-six, made a decision to distribute his properties to his two daughters, Yok-keum and Pok-keum. His wife seems to have passed away by this time; it is reasonable to believe that his wife was a slave to another slave-owner because both of their daughters had different lords.

We do not know how Pok-man made a fortune; to the best of our knowledge, we might guess that he was a tribute-paying (napgong 納貢) slave because in the document he says that he has paid his annual dues to the lord. Pok-man's lord distributed Pok-man's two daughters to his own son and daughter, for which the three of them including Pok-man came to serve different lords. To serve different lords did not mean the break-up of the slave family itself because slave-owers owned each slave on an individual basis. As a result, slave families were subject to disintegration due to inheritance, trade, required service, and tribute payment. Slave-owners had reason to distribute slaves on an individual basis: that is, the principle of equitable distribution. If they distributed slaves on a family basis, it would result in unequal distribution of slaves among the family members.

After his lord distributed Pok-man's daugthers to his family members, on the lord's ledger of slaves existed only Pok-man. For this reason, Pok-man seems to have been mistreated by his lord for being a slave without children. According to law, the properties of a slave without children should belong to his/her lord. Of course, the lord must have been aware that Pok-man had two daughters, but he pressured Pok-man to yield his properties to him. Although it was a legal practice for a slave at the age of sixty and above to be exempt from tribute payment; however, Pok-man's lord requested tributes from Pok-man for another sixteen years. In short, the lord tried all mean to extort Pok-man's properties. As shown in the document, Pok-man divided his properties into three equal parts, and offered one third to his lord before distributing the rest equally among the two daughters.

(Summarized and translated by Jaeyoon Song from Ahn Seung-jun, Social Economic Characteristics of early Chosŏn Private Slaves <<조선전기 사노비의 사회 경제적 성격>> (Seoul: Kyŏng-in munhwasa 경인문화사, 2007), pp.178-180.)

Primary Source Text

English Classical Chinese
As to this document, I made it because I am now 76 years old, and do not know if I will die today or tomorrow, not to mention that my two daughters belong to their respective masters, and therefore my master, not counting my old age (不計年老), considers me a case of a slave without offspring (無子息奴一例), collecting revenues every year and interfering in every case.

It is for this reason that I offered up to him 16 pok of wet field in Anhŭngwŏn; 3 pok of dry field in Pan’gŏgogwŏn; one stove, one brass pot, and two bulls as an itemized inventory under the heading of ‘one child [for filial inheritance].’ As to the remaining houses, fields, household utensils for daily use, I pass them on to the two of you, so do hold on to them.

My eldest daughter Ok-geum’s share of inheritance is 14 pok of wet field in Gama-won (加亇員), 6 out of 12 majigi of wet fields in Anheung-won (安興員), 8 majigi out of 1 seomjigi of dry field in Yulgok-won (栗谷員); 5 pok of dry land needed for the house in Ban-geogok-won (反居谷員); 17 pok of dry land in Somok-won (召木員), 1 tile-roofed house in the lower border, 1 cart, 1 brazier, 1 pot, 5 jars, 1 ax, 5 seom of grain, 25 pok of tilling dry field, and 10 fruit trees at the eastern border. The End.

My second daughter Bok-geum’s share of inheritance is: 14 pok of wet field in Gama-won (加亇員); 6 pok of wet field in Myoji-won (墓枝員); 6 majigi out of 12 majigi of wet fields in Anheung-won (安興員); 8 majigi out of 1 seomjigi of dry field in Yulgok-won (栗谷員); 3 pok of dry land leading to the house at the lower border of Ban-geogok-won (反居谷員); 17 pok of dry land in Somok-won (召木員); 1 tile-roofed house at the lower border, on top of which one bull is given because the house is small; 10 fruit trees at the western border, 1 brazier, 1 pot, 5 large jars, farming equipment, ax, and 5 seom of grain. The End.

Property Owner: Bok-man, Father, Private Male Slave [Signature]

Guarantor: Bok-san, Younger Brother [Signature]

Brother-in-Law, Private Male Slave, Nae Bu-san [Signature]

Scribe, Chŏng Suon [Signature] [Seal]

右明文成給爲臥乎事叱段矣 身亦時年七十六歲以, 今明日生死難知叱分 不喩矣女子二人各各, 他上典衿付爲有去乙, 矣上典敎是 矣身乙 不計年老, 無子息奴一例 ▣每年收貢爲旀, 物物侵勞爲白去乙

安興員畓十六 卜, 反居谷員田三卜, ▣爐壹鍮盆壹大牛貳隻等乙矣上典前一子息條以各別記上爲白遣 其餘家舍田畓及日用家財等乙汝矣兄弟亦中傳係爲 去乎, 各各執持爲▣事

長女子玉今衿, 加亇員畓十四卜, 安興員畓十二斗落只, 內六斗落只, 栗谷員田壹石落只, 內八斗 落只, 反居谷員家入田五卜, 召木員田十七卜, 下过瓦家一坐車子壹釜壹鼎壹甕五斧壹穀食伍石, 栗谷員加耕田卄■(五)卜, 東邊果實木十條印

次女子福今衿, 加亇員畓十四卜, 墓枝員畓六卜, 安興員畓十二斗落只, 內六斗落只, 栗谷員田壹石落只, 內八斗落只, 下邊反居谷員家入田三卜召木員田十七卜上邊瓦 家一坐以俠窄乙, 仍于大牛壹隻西邊果實木十條釜壹鼎壹甕伍農 器斧穀伍石印.





Discussion Questions

  1. How does this document inform our understanding of slaves in early Chosŏn society?
  2. What does it tell us about the possibilities and limitations for some slaves?
  3. Would this document be representative? How can we interpret the meaning of such documents?
  4. This document concerns nobi, but what can it tell us generally about inheritance in the early Chosŏn period?
  5. How do you think Pongman could amass so much land and property?
  6. What can be said about the relationship between Pongman and his master?
  7. What does this tell us about the ways in which nobi-owners sought to control their nobi and their property?
  8. Slaves are properties of their masters. If slaves can have their own property, and have the freedom to distribute and receive properties from other slaves, how shall we understand the status of these slaves?
  9. It seems this slave is dividing up each of the fields he owned into shares to distribute them to his daughters (and his master). Why didn't he give one or two of the whole field to one child and give the rest to the other one?
  10. How does status or gender play a role in the distribution of property? Does this document follow the principle of equal distribution? Who among the two daughters gets more property?
  11. Pongman possesses significant property. How does the notion of a property-owning slave challenge preexisting conceptions of slaves and their economic lives? How much economic freedom do you think a slave like Pongman would have had in Chosŏn society?
  12. Compare Pongman with Makchông, another slave from the 16th century who held property (See Kichung Kim, 2003)
  13. How much and what types of property does the slave Bokman possess? How do you think he would have been able to obtain this property?
  14. How much property does Bokman own relative to the amounts of property owned by yangban?
  15. Why is Bokman able to give property in 5 locations to his daughters and property in only 2 locations to his master?Did Bokman write this document?
  16. What happened if a male slave married a female slave who belonged to another family lineage? If they produced children, who acquired the ownership of the kids?
  17. It looks like Pongman himself had a lot of property. As a slave, how could he obtain/accumulate it? Where did it come from?
  18. Why did he decide to allocate a certain share (一子息條) to his master?
  19. Do you think Bok-man’s attempt to distribute his wealth to his two daughters will help his descendants in the long run? Or will a big portion of his daughters’ inheritance eventually become part of their master’s property through various tributes and taxes?

Further Readings