(Translation) 1801年 李希誠 衿給文記

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1. The Record of Property Distribution

The record of property distribution (punjaegi 分財記) includes various types of documents of property transfer, dating from the Koryŏ dynasty. Although this term is not commonly found in original sources, it is preferred over a will or testament (yusŏ 遺書) among researchers. [1] Depending on the contents, this record is divided into three types: bequest to posterity (hŏyŏ 許與), writ on the mutual consent of the siblings (hwahoe 和會), and special bequest to those who had particular merits (pyŏlgŭp 別給) like success in the civil service examination. The present record is categorized into the first type because it contains a father's wish to give possessions to his son.

2. Slave-master Association

The possessions, however, did not only belong to the father, Yi Huisŏng (李希誠, ca. 1720-1801), but also to a cooperative association called kye (lit. “contract” or “bond”) he had formed in 1741.[2] The association consisted of a master and his slaves, and thus was named slave-master association (noju kye 奴主契). As shown in this document, Yi and his ten slaves raised a grain fund. Yi contributed half and the slaves paid the other half and thereby forming the slave-master association. The fund was spent for Yi to pay for the restoration of his fences. It was also used for the slaves to hire others to carry out corvée labor imposed upon them.[3] While the slaves benefitted from it, Yi was able to retain his slaves by promoting their welfare. However, when the situations were unfavorable for him in sixty years, without the slaves' consent he broke up the association that he had established with them. He made a decision to give the association property over to his son, Yi Rip 李岦. He explains why he had to break up the association as follows: some slaves used the fund and ran away or died; some, by marrying commoners, gave birth to children of commoner status; others left him for another family by marrying to another master’s slave.[4]

3. Significance of This Document in Korean History

Slavery had been gradually disappearing since the Imjin War (1592-1598). The number of slaves on the government's rosters had fallen from 350,000 in the 15th century to less than 200,000 by the 17th century. This decrease was caused in part by the destruction of slave records and scattering of the slave population during the war.[5] In such social conditions, the association was organized in 1741 during King Yongjo's reign (1694-1776) when more and more slaves fled from their masters.[6]. This urgent situation seemed to drive Yi Huisŏng to make a deal with his slaves by establishing the association. This document shows that the social status of slaves rose high enough to participate in it. It is interesting to see that the word 'slave' comes first in the name of the association. It is also interesting to see that this document was made in the year 1801 when 66,067 slaves were emancipated.[7]

Original Script

Classical Chinese English


右文爲許與事 昔在辛酉年間 吾與故奴日先次奉禾里同等十名相議 刱出四石租谷爲設契 而二石吾出之 二石奴輩出之 因之曰奴主契 多年貨殖者 保奴屬爲宗家計也 宗家坦檣修毁之日 及其他雜役使喚之時 皆出契谷 以爲要用是遣 又値年荒 則契中出用分給者 已多年數矣 中間契穀[8] 或食或逃亡者 或食身死者 則全不收捧 閪失頗多 故更議買畓 每名各給二斗落[9]次知耕食 而傳子傳孫 永爲規例矣 目今奴屬中 或有無去處逃亡者 或有身死後無後者 又或娶良女所生者 及娶他婢所生者 不肯使喚 自退契中 還納同畓 則無歸屬處 故上典次知自有前例 此後段 汝亦次知 永爲宗家保用之地是旀 且無前戶首處劃給四斗落段 自刱而自罷 則誰禁而誰咎乎 曾有奴輩中 不得參分畓時遺漏者二名 而龍世時同處均給爲㫆 其餘三斗落段 契中次知要用是旀 奴輩處各耕食畓庫果 字號卜數後錄成給爲去乎 永永次次 傳給以爲遵奉吾意事

通政大夫僉知中樞府事 父 (着名署押)

(後錄 -생략)


李希誠 奴主契 許與文 (1801)


The document of property distribution to the legitimate son, Rip, on the fifth day of the twelfth month of the year sinyu [1801], the sixth year of Emperor Jiaqing's reign (1796-1820).


The document mentioned on the right is to bequeath my property as follows:

昔在辛酉年間 吾與故奴日先次奉禾里同等十名相議 刱出四石租穀(谷)爲設契

Earlier, in the year sinyu [1741], I and ten slaves, including the late slaves Ilseon, Cha'bong, and Hwaridong, had a discussion to set aside four sŏk of rice and formed an association (kye 契).

而二石吾出之 二石奴輩出之 因之曰奴主契

I offered two sŏk and a group of slaves presented the other two sŏk, thereby calling it slave-master association (noju kye 奴主契).

多年貨殖者 保奴屬爲宗家計也

For many years we increased profits to protect slaves and to do good to head-family.

宗家垣牆修毁之日 及其他雜役使喚之時 皆出契穀(谷) 以爲要用是遣

When the family had to renovate the fences and slaves were employed to do miscellaneous menial tasks, all of us could take grain out of the association granary for the necessary purposes.

又値年荒 則契中出用分給者 已多年數矣

Also encountering a drought, we have taken grain from the association and distributed it evenly amongst us.

中間契穀 或食或逃亡者 或食身死者 則全不收捧 閪失頗多

Meanwhile, some ate grain and ran away, and others ate and then died, so we could not recollect them and such losses were huge.

故更議買畓 每名各給二斗落 次知耕食 而傳子傳孫 永爲規例矣

Therefore, we discussed the matter again and bought rice paddies. I distributed two turak[10] of the paddies to each to live on them and made it a lasting ordinance to pass them down to descendants.

目今奴屬中 或有無去處逃亡者 或有身死後無後者 又或娶良女所生者 及娶他婢所生者

Now, there are slaves as follows: who ran away without any permanent place; who died without leaving any descendants; who married to a commoner woman and their children became commoners; who took another master’s slave as a wife and their children belonged to the master.

不肯使喚 自退契中 還納同畓 則無歸屬處 故上典次知自有前例

All of them would not work for this family, backed out of the association, and returned the paddies. But since there was no place to return, the owner was supposed to take charge of them according to a precedent.

此後段 汝亦次知 永爲宗家保用之地是旀

From now on, you [my son] will be in charge of them and make them a permanent property of this head-family.

且無前戶首處劃給四斗落段 自刱而自罷 則誰禁而誰咎乎

In addition, as for the four turak given to heads of households who were not present before, they were voluntarily collected and given up, so who could be forbidden and who could be blamed?

曾有奴輩中 不得參分畓時遺漏者二名 而龍世時同處均給爲㫆 *爲㫆: 하며

Earlier there were two slaves who did not take part in the paddy distribution and were left out. They are Yongse and Sidong to whom you ought to distribute the land evenly.

其餘三斗落段 契中次知要用是旀

As for the rest, three turak, they shall belong to the compact land and be used for its need.

奴輩處各耕食畓庫果 字號卜數後錄成給爲去乎

As for the paddies distributed to slaves, I will state their location and yields in the postscript.

永永次次 傳給以爲遵奉吾意事

You shall respect my will by transmitting them for generation after generation, forever.

通政大夫僉知中樞府事 父 (着名署押)

Great Master of Thoroughly Administrative (Tongjeong taebu)[11] and Fifth Minister at the Office of Ministers-without-Portfolio, Father 【Signature】

後錄 -생략

The postscript is omitted.

Discussion Questions

1. How does this document reveal the relationship between master and slaves?

2. How does this document tell about the status of slaves during the Chosŏn period?

3. For what purposes, do both parties have this kind of agreement?

4. What does this document tell us about the social condition of the time?

5. How would the slaves understand the contract if it is written in Korean literary sinitic language?

6. Are all these documents written by the owner of the slaves themselves or by someone at a specific position? How are they going to ensure the legality of this?

7. What can we learn from this document with regard to the relation between the yangban and nobi in the Chosŏn dynasty, particularly when thinking of that the slavery system was under transition at the point?

8. Following the contents of the document describing the inheritance of the compact between slaves and master, who actually benefited from the establishment of the contract?

9. Is kye 契 a exclusively private arrangement, or does government somehow guarantee its effect and help its enforcement?

10. Is there any shift in the meaning of no 奴 (“male slave”) in the early 19th century that allows them to make a compact with their master?

11. How many documents covering slave-master association 奴主契 can be found from the Chosŏn dynasty?

12. Was it a common practice? And what sort of sociopolitical significance (or implication) does it have on Chosŏn social history as a whole?

13. To what extent could we say that this document shows the upward social mobility in Chosŏn Korea?

14. What is the nature of slave-master compact that we can conceptualize from this document?

15. Could the clauses of this contract be in conflict with the ones of the former slave contracts (there is no mention of "this contract hereby cancels the previous contract")? How would the author of this contract avoid such issues?

16. How would the inheritance of the 2 durak be changed in case of the demographic changes among the slaves, ex. more children in one slave's house whereas no children in the other's?

17. From where did the slaves employ the substitute laborers to fix the walls and to be paid?

18. How are the slaves in Korea different from serfs or peasants in European feudalism?

19. Since when such compact between master and slaves began to appear in Chosŏn? Was this common in the society? Was there a regional difference or tendency?

20. How does Yi Huiseong rationalize/justify his distribution of the property to his son?

21. How does the matrilineal rule for slaves (奴婢從母法) in the seventh year of King Yeongjo's reign (1731) affect this document issued in 1801?

22. What’s the historical significance of this document?

Further Readings

  • Kennedy, Gerard F. “The Korean Kye: Maintaining Human Scale in a Modernizing Society,” Korean Studies 1 (1977): 197–222.
  • Jangseogak Archives of The Academy of Korean Studies ed., More Than Wills: Property Distribution Documents of the Joseon Dynasty. Seongnam: AKS Press, 2017.
  • Mun, Sukja 文叔子. "The Writing Process of the Record of Property Distribution during the Chosŏn Period (朝鮮時代 分財文記의 作成過程과 그 特徵)," Yŏngnam Studies 18 (December 2010): 215-248.
  • The Academy of Korean Studies ed., Komunsŏ chipsŏng 65. Sŏngnam: AKS Press, 2003.


  1. See Jangseogak Archives of The Academy of Korean Studies ed., More Than Wills: Property Distribution Documents of the Joseon Dynasty (Seongnam: AKS Press, 2017). See also Mun Sukja, "The Writing Process of the Record of Property Distribution during the Chosŏn Period (조선시대 分財文記의 작성과정과 그 특징)," Yŏngnam Studies 18 (December 2010):217.
  2. There are several translations for the term "kye": compact, bond, mutual aid, cooperative, association, and band. Since kye refers to a group of people, 'cooperative,' 'association,' and 'band' are more proper than 'compact,' 'bond,' 'mutual aid.' According to Kennedy, Pratt, and Rutt, the word 'association' is adopted here. See Gerard F. Kennedy, “The Korean Kye: Maintaining Human Scale in a Modernizing Society,” Korean Studies 1 (1977): 198. See also Keith Pratt and Richard Rutt, Korea: A Historical and Cultural Dictionary (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999):255.
  3. The Academy of Korean Studies ed., Komunsŏ chipsŏng 65 (Sŏngnam: AKS Press, 2003) http://archive.aks.ac.kr/heje/heje.aspx?booknum=65.
  4. According to the matrilineal rule for slaves (奴婢從母法) enforced in the seventh year (1731) of King Yeongjo's reign, children's social status was determined by their mother's status.
  5. Ki-baik Lee, A New History of Korea. trans. Edward W. Wagner (Seoul: Ilchokak Publishers, 1984), 251.
  6. Center for Korean Studies Materials http://kostma.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Chuno/Default.aspx?Body=08
  7. Encyclopedia of Korean Culture (available at http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/SearchNavi?keyword=%EA%B3%B5%EB%85%B8%EB%B9%84&ridx=0&tot=1384)
  8. ‘契谷’은 契員이 出資한 곡식으로서 ‘契穀’이 맞으나 음가가 같으므로 ‘谷’자로도 흔히 사용하였다.
  9. 畓二斗落=600坪(1斗落=300坪, 1坪 =3.3058㎡)=1,983.48㎡=0.49ac(1ac=4,047㎡)
  10. Turak 斗落 (Majigi in vernacular Korean) is the amount of land on which one mal (eighteen liters) could be planted as seed. The size of land has varied in different regions. It is approximately 150-300 pyŏng (495-990 square meters) for rice paddies and 100 pyŏng (330 square meters) for dry fields. See James B. Palais, Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyŏngwŏn and the Late Chosŏn Dynasty (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1996), 364.
  11. Tongjeong taebu is the senior third-rank title.