The Lowborn


Woman by a Lotus Pond, Shin Yun-bok, 18th century
Courtesey of the National Museum of Korea


Bodhidarma, Kim Myeong-guk, 17th century
Courtesey of the National Museum of Korea

The lowborn, or ch’ŏnmin formed the bottom of the Korean caste system. Though the majority of the lowborn were slaves, other lowborn consisted of monks, shamans, butchers, and those that handled the dead. Each of these classes, besides Buddhist monks, was hereditary. There was very little social mobility for people during the Chosŏn dynasty, but this was especially prevalent for the lowborn.

At the beginning of the Chosŏn Kingdom, nearly a full third of this class were slaves largely owned by the government and the wealthy yangban. Most slaves lived among hundreds of other slaves on wealthy yangban estates; however, some private farmers owned a small numbers of slaves. Slaves typically remained with the family that owned them and owners typically kept slave families together.

Interestingly, monks were also considered lowborn because of the strong Confucian-oriented government. As ruling ideologies competed, the Confucian government enacted harsh policies that discriminated against Buddhist monks and monasteries. This gradual discrimination against Buddhism forced groups of monks to leave the cities and find refuge in mountain monasteries. Even today, the largest and most prominent monasteries in Korea are in the mountains.