Confucian World Order


Way to the Market, Kim Hongdo, 18th century, Courtesy of the National Museum of Korea

Because the Chosŏn Kingdom extended over a period of five hundred years and included millions of people within that timeframe, it is difficult to describe what life was like during the period. The Chosŏn Kingdom in the sixteenth century was drastically different from the Chosŏn Kingdom in the nineteenth century. There was, however, a very rigid social hierarchy throughout the period. This hierarchy helps us to understand the daily life of people during that time.


From as far back as the Silla Kingdom (57 BCE – 935 CE) Korean society has had a rigid social hierarchy. During the Silla and Koryŏ dynasties, native customs, traditions, ideologies, and laws — as well as philosophies and religions such as Buddhism, Shamanism, Daoism, and Confucianism — all had an impact on determining the overall make-up of Korean society.

Moreover, with the fall of the Koryŏ dynasty and the beginning of the Chosŏn Kingdom in 1392 CE, there was a shift in ideology towards Confucianism. Although Buddhism, Shamanism, and other ideologies had an influence on Korean society throughout the Chosŏn period, the founders of Chosŏn Kingdom strongly emphasized Confucianism as the main mode of thought. This emphasis on Confucianism helped to create a distinctly Confucian social hierarchy.

Confucian Social Hierarchy

Confucianism emphasizes five key relationships: ruler to subject, father to son, husband to wife, elder to younger, and friend to friend. The first of the five relationships is that of ruler and subject. In Confucianism, the king or emperor was the highest authority in the land. He stood at the pinnacle of society and was treated with complete deference.

Citing the relationship of subject to ruler, the people were expected to be completely loyal to the king and follow his laws. This did not mean that the king was all-powerful. However, saddled with the people’s trust, the king’s duty was to provide for his people in following Confucian tradition. In the Analects, Confucius gave counsel to how a ruler should act. He said, “By his generosity, he won all. By his sincerity, he made the people trust in him. By his earnest activity, his achievements were great. By his justice, all were delighted.”(The Internet Classics Archive, “The Analects,” Accessed, June 7, 2012, In Confucianism, the kings were not only the ultimate authority in the kingdom, but also were expected to live the exemplary moral life.

The class following the king in the social hierarchy, was the aristocracy or yangban. The yangban served as the government officials. Within the Confucian Chosŏn Kingdom, these government officials were also scholars. They are often called scholar-officials because of these dual roles.

The next level of Korean society consisted of farmers, craftsmen, artisans, and, at the very bottom of the class, merchants. In Korean, these people were called yangmin meaning the “good” or “virtuous people.” These people were considered “good” because they produced goods and services that helped to support life. The farmers provided the agricultural base for Chosŏn society by harvesting grains and produce. The craftsmen and artisans produced everything from bowls to ox carts. The merchants, however, were not necessarily seen as “good.” Confucians looked down on businessmen and merchants because they believed that there was an inherent dishonesty in buying someone’s work for a low price and selling it for a profit.

At the bottom of the hierarchy were the ch’ŏnmin, or “lowborn.” This social class primarily consisted of slaves; however, butchers, monks, shamans, and entertainers were also classified as ch’ŏnmin. Sadly, in Chosŏn-style Confucianism these people were seen as lesser beings. In the case of butchers, it was simply the nature of their work that placed them in this class. For slaves, it was a matter of heredity.

In summary, the king and the royal family reigned at the top of the social pyramid. Under the king stood the yangban (aristocrats), then the yangmin (farmers, craftsmen, artisans), and, finally, the ch’ŏnmin (slaves, butchers, shamans).

Implications of Social Status

Social status and mobility was limited and carefully scrutinized throughout the dynasty. Although there was some crossover and mobility between classes, mostly people remained in their own class. It was especially difficult to climb up the social ladder. In addition to being social classifications, these classes were also legally binding. Not only did one’s social class determine one’s place in society, but also one’s individual rights and freedoms. The Chosŏn rulers were so committed to maintaining the social classes that they even required each citizen to wear an identification tag, or hop’ae. The hop’ae recorded the name, social status, and home address of the wearer. In addition to the hop’ae, the government kept detailed census records of the population. With these records, modern day scholars have determined that the population at the beginning of the dynasty was around 4.4 million people and rose to as high as 17 million in the latter part of the dynasty. Hence, the government regulated the people’s rights through social status, hop’ae, and the census.