The Village Code

The Village Code, Courtesy of the National Folk Museum

Written by Cody Thiel
Researcher at The Korea Society

A well-known adage in East Asia is, “the mountain is high and the king is far away.”  In many ways, this adage applied to the Chosŏn Kingdom. While the Chosŏn king and the court had the power to issue and implement laws, the local villages and hamlets were responsible for providing for their basic needs such as adequate food, protective shelter, and supporting local schools. Confucian scholars believed that a safe society — as well as a society that provided for the fundamental needs of its people — could be created if a village adhered to Neo-Confucian principles. In order to accomplish this, scholars, such as Yi I among others, took it upon themselves to establish Village Codes throughout Korea.

The First Village Code

Village Codes, based in Neo-Confucian principles, sought to improve society at the grassroots level by creating an association that emphasized a village’s self-reliance. The concept of the Village Code first originated in China during the Song dynasty (960 – 1279). The original Village Code from Song China, The Community Compact of the Lu Family, had four major purposes; “mutual encouragement of morality, mutual supervision of wrong conduct, mutual decorum of social relationships, and mutual succor in times of disaster or hardship.” 1 Eventually as these ideas spread into Korea, Neo-Confucian scholars used the Chinese models to establish their own Village Codes.

When the first Korean Village codes were written and established, Confucian societies and the Chosŏn society in particular respected a very traditional hierarchy. In this rigid system, there was little class mobility. Classes seldom intermingled outside of what was necessary. Yangban typically devoted their time to their studies and government service while commoners tended their fields. Due to this separation of classes, commoners and slaves had little or no say in local government. As such, Village Codes in Korea, like their predecessors from Song China, sought to establish a local Confucian-oriented association headed by a Confucian scholar. However, the prominent scholar Yi I attempted to reform many aspects of this system. Yi I’s Village Codes are not only good examples of Village Codes, but also show how scholars used Neo-Confucian principles to encourage order and self-reliance.

Korea’s (Yi I’s) Village Code

Yi felt strongly that Village Codes should be established in order to benefit all members of its village. Yi’s Sowǒn Village Code and the Haeju Village Code reflect this sentiment. In each Village Code, Master Yi organized a three-tier system of governance. Scholar-officials served at the top two tiers as the directors and unit chiefs, respectively. However, in the lowest tier, both scholars and commoners could serve as administrative officers and aides. 2 In choosing men for these positions, Master Yi wrote that the chosen individuals needed to be “hard working and righteous, irrespective of whether they belonged to upper or lower classes.” 3 Yi’s decision to install lower class men into positions of power was in stark contrast to the prevailing culture of the time.

The officers in these positions, along with other villagers, gathered regularly to read the Village Code. Because most commoners could not read Classical Chinese, Master Yi required that the Village Code be read and explained to the masses by the aristocracy. Commoners and even slaves needed to have a solid knowledge of their own rights. This edict demonstrated Master Yi’s desire of ensuring that all members of society were protected against exploitation.

As previously mentioned, the Village Code ensured that all members of the village were adequately provided for and protected. To do this, the Village Code in Haeju established connections with the local Confucian academy (sŏwŏn) and the local granary. This connection permitted any member of the village, high or low class, to attend the academy in order to receive an education. The village granary also provided a means to give relief supplies to families that suffered during hard times. If any family in the village underwent famine, disease, or other disaster, then, as stated by the Village Code, all members of the village had to band together to help that family in their “difficulties and misfortunes.” 4 In addition, officials kept a ledger in order to record the deeds, good and bad, of all the citizens residing in the village. This ledger made all village members accountable and required them to be honest in their dealings. 5

As time passed, other Neo-Confucian scholars set up new Village Codes modeled after Yi I’s Village Code and those of other contemporary scholars like Yi T’oegye. Eventually, scholars established many Villages Codes along with hundreds of Confucian academies. These institutions were particularly helpful after the Japanese and Manchu invasions as they helped stabilize the local areas and provided relief supplies. Consequently, the Village Codes became a fundamental part of society as they used Neo-Confucian principles to implement practical solutions for the community and society.