Certificate of Manumission for the House Slave

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Primary Source Text

English Classical Chinese

Certificate of Manumission for the House Slave Sŏnil

The duty of a male slave is to selflessly offer loyalty, and the right of his owner is to repay service and reward merit. My slave Sŏnil is the offspring of the slave Yong Wŏnryang (龍元良) from Yesan [in Ch’ungch’ŏng Province], and is now 47 years of age. During the 36 years of his service to me, we had occasions both joyous and sad. Yet, not once did he harbor a deceitful heart, and his sincerity is praiseworthy in every way.
When I was ill, he worried for me as one would for a father; and when he came upon meat, he cared for me like a filial son. Truly, this is something rarely seen or heard. Also, bandits in the ŭrhae year (1695) and the epidemic in the muin year (1698) were times of pressing danger. Facing matters of life and death, [Sŏnil] did not fear for his own life but only lamented that he would no longer see his owner. He begged to heaven like a fly [rubbing its hands], and [his acts] touched those around him.
This story has already spread wide and far, becoming a famous tale in the southern provinces. This also stems from his nature, which is pure and constant. He toils at his duty day and night, and [his good deeds] cannot be exhaustively enumerated. I commend him greatly.
Starting from this year, I shall specially manumit him to be a commoner. I shall also give him a stallion as the seed for his prosperity, for which I am now writing on the flipside to substantiate later considerations in accordance with law. If, at some point, my family members try to divide [and take] his property, this would be a deep shame for my household.
From previous generations, [my ancestors] have used slaves at their convenience, [but] originally there were no contractual documents. I hereby use my own handwriting, which is no different from inscriptions on bronze and stone, to put my thoughts into words. Sŏnil above is to be given commoner status forever, and it should be done this way.

Cho Songnyŏn, [my] non-agnatic grandson and the Jr 5-rank (朝散大夫) former pyŏlchwa (別坐), is the scrivener. [Signature]

約家奴善一契券

忘身獻忠。奴之分也。酬勞報功。主之權也。 吾奴有善一。是槩禮山奴龍元良產。而年今四十七歲也。 三十六年仰役之際。與共吉慶喪葬。而無一欺隱之心。有萬嘉尙之誠。
當疾病則戀憂如父。得膳肴則孝養若子。此固耳目所罕。而乙亥逢賊。戊寅疑染。正是急遽危匀之頃也。死生在於面前。而不恤其命。惟以未見上典爲恨。蠅手籲天。感動傍人。
此事傳播。已作湖嶺間故實 。是又根於天性者素然。而宵晝竭意。勤於職事者。有不足毛擧也。余用嘉之。
今年爲始。特爲放良。且給卜馬一匹。以爲營產之資。所當依法背頉。以憑後考。 而同氣析產。亦吾家之所深恥也。
粤自先代。隨便使喚而已。本無所成契券。況此親筆。無異金石。以此措辭。上項善一。永永許良。宜當。

筆執外孫朝散大夫前別坐趙松年[着名]

Certificate of Manumission for the House Slaves Inbal et al.

The slaves Ch’ŏnik (天翼) and company of Chŏlla have been passed down [in our family] for eight or nine generations. They did not dare conceal themselves forever, so last year they compiled a roster and submitted it themselves. Over the last two years, they have come three times, staying each time for several months, asking that their whole family be redeemed by paying [their outstanding dues]. Now, the number of their names listed in the register is not small. According to what they say, if the elderly, young, men and women are all included, then number should exceed several hundred. The family came and sincerely begged [before me].
If I were to allow this, I would be lifted out of poverty and our family would be enriched. But I know that the law code states that “if an incident is from sixty years ago, the right to a hearing expires.” The ways of heaven may change slightly in thirty years and greatly in sixty years. This is moreover true of people, and of wealth. I have adjudicated disputes in nine localities, and I always attached importance to the statutes of limitations, for in my mind I know this to be proper. The current matter has come down from the distant past, and they too should be well aware of this. Although they returned of their own accord asking for redemption, we have not looked into this for 60 years.
Now, if I were to [take them back as] slaves, then the public and the private, my sentiment and the law, would be separated into two. If my lifelong conduct were to change suddenly for the sake of profit, I would be forever ashamed. Even if I had great wealth (“thousand quadrigas and ten-thousand sŏm of rice”), how could I treasure them? Needless to say, it is all the more unbearable knowing that in their midst are also scholars and military officials.
Last year, I specially manumitted five slaves to commoner status also for this reason. Thinking of that now, only manumitting five implies I am mistreating the rest. This is stopping when the job is only half done. If I do something unprincipled, then wealth is not as good as poverty. I have thus discussed this with my children and [we agreed] to the manumission of all slaves. Based on this certificate (牌旨), a document will be composed and issued, so as to protect this family from the encroachment of my descendants. It should be done this way.

約家奴仁發文

湖南奴天翼等。本自八九世傳來。渠亦不敢終隱。昨年名錄。亦自書以納。到今二年之內。三度來現。每留數月。願爲合族盡贖。今其名數不少。且以渠等所告言之。則老弱男女幷計。殆過累百。方血誠來乞。
許之則吾貧可拔。吾家可饒。但念法典曰。“事在六十年前。勿許聽理。” 且天道三十年一小變。六十年一大變。況於人乎。況於財乎。吾於九邑決訟。每以年限爲重者。心知其的當也。此旣久遠傳來。故渠等亦甚明知。雖自歸而請贖。其實六十年未探者也。
今若奴之。則公與私。情與法。判而爲二。平生所行。見利倏變。吾心生死而愧矣。千駟萬鍾。亦何可貴也。況其中又有儒生將官。尤所不忍。
昨年五奴之特爲放良者。亦以此也。到今思之。只許五良。獨賤其餘。則正所謂半上落下。取旣非理。則富不如貧。議于子女。盡數放良。依此牌旨。成文斜給。俾免後孫更侵之患。宜當。

Discussion Questions

  1. Was Korea a slave society? What constitutes a slave or a slave society? Is nobi a slave?
  2. Why is slavery not discussed in Korean historiography as much?
  3. How does the idea of a land-owning slave or an outside-resident slave different from the slaves we are familiar with?
  4. How might you compare the nobi system with slavery institutions from elsewhere in the world? Is the nobi system qualitatively different from, for example, American slavery? Is it appropriate or useful to compare the two? Is it problematic to use universalizing analytic categories such as slavery to frame research?
  5. What does this document tell us about the position and mobility of slaves in Choson society? Who is determining for us how to understand this case? To what extent does this document appear as formulaic rhetoric? Can we ever know a slave’s opinion?
  6. Why would a male slave want his family to be reincorporated into his master’s family after 60 years of “freedom” (fending for themselves without paying tribute to the master)? What is the main driving force behind Yi Hyŏngsang’s manumission of slaves? How do the two cases differ in this regard? What is his attitude towards wealth, as suggested in the second document?


Further Readings

  • Ellen Salem. “The Landowning Slave.” Korea Journal 16:4 (April 1976): 27-34.
  • Ellen Salem. “Slavery in Medieval Korea.” Unpubl. Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, (1978).
  • Ellen Salem. “The Utilization of Slave Labor in the Koryŏ Period; 918-1392.” Papers of the 1st International Conference on Korean Studies, 1980: 630-642.
  • Kim Hyong-in, “Rural Slavery in Antebellum South Carolina and Early Chosŏn Korea,” Ph.D dissertation, University of New Mexico, 1990.
  • Palais, James B. “Slavery and Slave Society in the Koryŏ Period,” Journal of Korean Studies 5 (1984): 173-90.
  • Rhee Young-hoon and Yang Donghyu. “Korean Nobi in American Mirror: Yi Dynasty Coerced Labor in Comparison to the Slavery in the Antebellum Southern United States.”
  • Kim, Chong Sun. “Slavery in Silla and its Sociological and Economic Implications.” in Andrew G. Nahm, ed., Traditional Korea: Theory and Practice (1974): 29–43.
  • Kim Kichung. “Unheard Voices: The Life of the Nobi in O Hwi-mun’s Swaemirok.” Korean Studies 27 (2003): 10–37.
  • “Case 3. Yi Pong-dol: A Defiant Slave Challenges His Overlord with Death (Anŭi, Kyŏngsang Province, 1842).” In Sun Joo Kim and Jungwon Kim, Wrongful Deaths: Selected Inquest Records from Nineteenth-Century Korea. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014), 55–61.
  • Kim, Joy Sung-hee, “Representing Slavery. Class and Status in Late Chosŏn-Korea,” Ph.D dissertation, Columbia University, 2004.

References