Village Compact from Tunya, 3rd Village

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While life in Chosŏn Korea in many ways was defined by a remarkable level of political centralization and the increasing penetration of Neo-Confucian culture into all levels of society, local communities still enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and regional distinctiveness. The two texts selected for this section exemplify ways in which village-level society maintained and carried out local forms of government.

No discussion of Late-Chosŏn local society is complete without a mention of the so-called community compact (Kor. hyangyak). Modelled after the ideas of Zhu Xi (1130–1200),[1] this institution increasingly gained popularity in Korea starting in the latter half of the sixteenth century.[2] Like Zhu Xi before them, Korean literati perceived the compact as an instrument for popular education and edification, which circumvented the need for coercive indoctrination and punitive legalism. In its simplest form, the compact consisted of an agreement entered by all community members, regardless of social status, encouraging them to help each other to act virtuously, to correct each other’s faults, to jointly participate in ritual activity, and to assist each other in times of calamity. Yet, despite the noble intentions that lay at its base, the compact came to function mainly as a tool for provincial yangban seeking to control their communities, while at the same time solidifying local autonomy.[3]

Although we should not underestimate the importance of the community compact in the late Chosŏn period, we also need to qualify the same. The texts show two examples of agreements entered by village residents. Both sought to regulate collective life, but they differed in important ways, telling us something about the complexity and reality of village life as well as the part played by the Neo-Confucian compact therein.

The first text is from Yangjwa Village in Kyŏngju, Kyŏngsang Province, and dates from 1609. It declares a village-wide prohibition on diverting water from the newly constructed dam and irrigation canal and was intermittently reaffirmed throughout the seventeenth century. Its immediate goal was the protection of common economic interests. Attached was a list twenty-two names. These were the members of the village association (Kor. tongyak) and it is apparent that they were all men of high social status, provincial yangban turned community leaders. Significantly, the overwhelming majority belonged to either the Kyŏngju Son or the Yŏju Yi, indicating the preeminent psosition occupied by these two families in the village. Furthermore, the indented names signify concubine descent, which condemned these men to a lower social status, revealing something about status hierarchies in rural Chosŏn. The origins of this form of communal regulation are uncertain, but it likely contained elements that predate the introduction of the Neo-Confucian community compact in Korea.[4]

The second text is from Tunya, 3rd village, in Yangju, Kyŏnggi Province, and probably dates from the eighteenth century. It declares a village compact concerning mutual help in times of bereavement and crisis. The nature of this document differs greatly from the first in its Neo-Confucian rhetoric and focus on ritual propriety even when discussing financial hardship. Of the two, this text most clearly reflects the ideals of Zhu Xi’s community compact.

As these two documents show, village communities in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Chosŏn Korea enjoyed some local autonomy although their politics tended toward domination by local yangban, even as their position was weakening toward the end of the dynasty.[5] They also hint at the variety of communal arrangements that existed in Korean villages, going beyond the community compact and defying straightforward categorization. Oftentimes, several provisions would overlap so that one village could have both an economic-interest association consisting of local yangban and a broader, more porous compact membership geared toward moral cultivation.[6] Yet it is seldom obvious whether a line can or should be drawn between these various forms of community-building arrangements.

Primary Source Text

English Classical Chinese
The sages have bequeathed to us the practice of residents in the same village coming to each other’s aid in times of crisis and calamity. We, the residents of Tunya, 3rd village, number more than fifty, yet we have without prior deliberation reached a consensus, and so we form this compact, which we call the village compact. Such a compact existed in the past, but it inevitably was abrogated due to wrongs committed over time. It is now restored through our good will.

On the whole, among the crises and calamities that befall people, the loss of a relative is the most severe. Those who are poor and without the means will unavoidably be impoverished by a funeral.[7] How can this not evoke our sympathy? It is also particularly lamentable that an only child without relatives may have none to attend to his affairs after death. If his neighbors do not attend to such funerary affairs,[8] who will?

Therefore, all entrants of this compact unanimously agree to the following: In our village’s good work of providing mutual aid, funerary affairs take precedence. All other sufferings from disease or unexpected tribulations will each elicit support and aid, but will remain secondary. Each will be properly addressed following a discussion of its severity. How good and just this is!

All the items discussed and recorded below are hereby to be taken as the statutes of this compact. The fifty entrants of this compact, listen reverently with one mind![9] You shall respect these statutes in perpetuity without idleness or neglect.

里中契立議 辛卯

同里共井而居者, 救災恤患, 實聖人之遺法. 惟我芚夜第 三里所居者, 共五十餘人不謀同辭, 合成一契. 名之曰里 中契. 里中舊有此契法久弊生, 不免發却. 今此重修實好意也.

盖以人之災患喪戚最大, 而窮無所營至, 不免薄於 送終, 則憾於人情爲如何哉. 至或獨子無依之人身死, 而無親戚可以相願者, 則尤可憫惻. 虆梩之掩捨鄰人其誰乎.

於是同契之人齊聲相約曰, 凡吾里中相救恤之義, 以喪葬爲首, 其他疾病之災橫罹之患, 亦各有扶持濟助之道, 而爲次焉. 因興之講論輕重厥有條理. 呼亦美事也.

今以所講條目列錄于左以爲契中憲. 嗟爾五十同契, 敬恭聽一乃心, 永遵此, 毋或怠忽.

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the most important differences between the two declarations?
  2. What does the first document tell us about inter-village disputes and conflict resolution in the response to encroachments?
  3. The second text underscores the importance of communal involvement in funerary rites. What positive effects were expected to follow from joint ritual practice?

Further Readings

  • de Bary, William Theodore. Asian Values and Human Rights: A Confucian Communitarian Perspective. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Deuchler, Martina. “The Practice of Confucianism: Ritual and Order in Chosŏn Dynasty Korea.” In Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Edited by Benjamin A. Elman, John B. Duncan, and Herman Ooms. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 2002: 293–334.
  • Kwon, Nae-Hyun. “Rural Society and Zhu Xi’s Community Compact.” In Everyday Life in Joseon-Era Korea: Economy and Society. Translated by Edward Park and Michael D. Shin; edited by Michael D. Shin. Leiden: Global Oriental, 2014: 145–154.


  1. Zhu Xi’s community compact (Ch. xiangyue) was presented in his Lü Family Community Compact, Amended and Emended (Zengsun Lü-shi xiangyue), which, as the title implies, was based on the already existing Lü Family Community Compact (Lü-shi xiangyue), written by Lü Dajun (1031–1082) a century prior.
  2. Ch'a Yonggŏl (車勇杰). “Hyangyak ŭi sŏngnip kwa sihaeng kwajŏng (鄕約의 成立과 施行過程).” Han'guk saron (韓國史論) 8, 1980: 189–207.
  3. Kwon, Nae-Hyun. “Rural Society and Zhu Xi’s Community Compact.” In Everyday Life in Joseon-Era Korea: Economy and Society. Translated by Edward Park and Michael D. Shin; edited by Michael D. Shin. Leiden: Global Oriental, 2014: 145–154.
  4. Kim Yongdŏk (金龍德). “Hyangyak kwa hyanggyu (鄕約과 鄕規).” Han'guk saron (韓國史論) 8, 1980: 208–227.
  5. Kim Hyŏk (김혁). “18–19 segi hyangyak ŭi silch'ŏn kwa sahoe kwan'gye ŭi pyŏnhwa: Ch'ungch'ŏng-do Kyŏlsŏng-hyŏn p'ogu maŭl Sŏngho-ri ŭi sarye rŭl t'onghaesŏ (18~19세기 鄕約의 실천과 사회관계의 변화: 충청도 결성현 포구 마을 星湖里의 사례를 통해서).” Han'guk munhwa (한국문화) 66, 2014: 271–306.
  6. Kim Hyŏngyŏng (김현영). “Chosŏn chunghugi Kyŏngju Yangjwa-dong ch'ollak chojik kwa kŭ sŏngkyŏk (조선 중후기 경주 양좌동의 촌락 조직과 그 성격).” Yŏngnamhak (嶺南學) 17, 2010: 383–410.
  7. Specifically, a funeral for a parent or senior.
  8. Literally, “covering [the body] using baskets and spades.” See Duke Tengwen, Part 1 (滕文公上) in Mencius.
  9. This is alluding to one passage in the Book of Etiquette and Ceremonial (“敬恭聽, 宗爾父母之言”) and another in the Book of Documents (“爾尚一乃心力, 其克有勳”).