The Commoners

kimhongdo

Farming, Kim Hongdo, 18th century,
Courtesey of the National Museum of Korea

Although the Neo-Confucian ideology worked to provide all members of the society with the necessities of life, the reality was strikingly different. The actual gap between the quality of yangban and commoners’ lives was actually quite large. This was because, many times, yangban used their status to take advantage of commoners instead of assisting them.

Peasants

Peasants were tied to the land, often surviving only upon their own harvests and homespun crafts. Although many farmers were independent and owned their own plots, many were tenant farmers. Landlords taxed these tenant farmers by requiring a share of the harvest in exchange for using the land. Sometimes farmers paid this tax with other forms of payment, such as bolts of cloth, because Koreans during the Chosŏn dynasty seldom used coins.

In addition to tribute taxes paid to the landlords, those without yangban status were required to perform corvée labor and military duty. The government required peasants to serve as corvée — or unpaid laborers — on government projects throughout the year. These projects built canals, dams, roads, and government offices. The military duty, while just as onerous, was required on a rotational basis (i.e. every other year). Often, peasants could avoid this duty.

Craftsmen and Merchants

Craftsmen, compared to peasants, were not much better off in earning a livelihood. At the beginning of the dynasty, most worked for government agencies and had little freedom in choosing their trade. Most craftsmen inherited the position from their parents and had to obtain permission from the government in order to sell their goods. But at certain times throughout the dynasty, the government permitted craftsmen to engage in free trade. This allowed them to make their own goods on the side and increase their quality of life.

Below craftsmen on the social hierarchy were the merchants. The merchants tried to make a living on the fringes of society. In Confucianism, merchants were typically looked down upon because they tried to make a profit off of another man’s labor. Although some merchants did make a good living, many were simple peddlers that traveled from village market to village market.

Life Other than Work

Although the plight of the commoners was hard, commoners used music and dance to add joy into their lives. As women and men worked in the fields and vineyards, they sang songs to help pass the time. At times, groups of men would form small musical bands, known as samulnori, and entertain people with their upbeat percussion performances. Other art forms such as p’ansori, a Korean style opera, became popular during the later part of the Chosŏn dynasty. P’ansori entertained crowds by telling epic stories through long chants accompanied by a single drum.