The Yangban: Chosŏn Aristocracy

Although the king sat on the throne and held the mandate of heaven, the Chosŏn aristocrats (also known as the yangban) were the true cultural and intellectual masters of the Chosŏn Kingdom. As the king’s advisors, the yangban positioned their power and status by calling on Confucian teaching, instituting civil service exams, and governing smaller sections of the kingdom.

The Yangban Role

portraitofseojiksoo

The Portrait of Seo Jik-su, Yi Myeong-gi and Kim Hong-do,
18th century, Courtesey of the National Museum of Korea

The yangban rose to power during the founding of the dynasty. King T’aejo, the first Chosŏn king, rewarded those who helped him overturn the Koryŏ Kingdom with land and important positions in the government. Most of these collaborators were Neo-Confucian scholars that helped establish Neo-Confucianism as the state ideology. Some famous yangban scholars include Chŏng To-chŏn, Kwŏn Kŭn, Yi Saek, and others.

Following older models of government, the scholars divided the government between civil and military bureaucracies. Because of this separation, they called themselves yangban. Yangban literally means two orders. This is symbolically represented in the main court of the palace. Stone markers on the east side of the court mark the civil officials’ side and similar markers represent the military on the west.

Yangban Education

Early in the dynasty, yangban held positions and received support from the government because of their ancestors’ great deeds. However, as time passed, yangban maintained their status and received support from the government because they passed the civil or military service exams. By passing the exam, individuals and families received important titles. During the Chosŏn Kingdom, titles were vitally important — insomuch that people seldom addressed others without using titles.

Each yangban family hoped that one of their children would pass an exam and worked hard to educate the male children in the Confucian classics so that they could pass the exam. The highest honor for a young yangban male was to pass a government exam, especially a civil service exam.

Yangban girls did not receive the same type of formal education that the boys received, but they did learn to read and write, especially after the invention of Han’gŭl. Yangban women were typically educated in proper etiquette and manners by their mothers.

Yangban Life

In Confucianism, distinguishing between men and women’s roles was very important. As in the palace, yangban homes similarly had different sleeping quarters for men and women. Yangban men typically did much of their work outside the home: studying, government business, and greeting visitors. Yangban women, on the other hand, seldom left the house. (Although some can see this as discrimination, it was simply seen as separation of roles to those during the Chosŏn period.)

Yangban clans were very large. Most clans set up estates throughout the country in order to support immediate and extended family members. These clans were the most prominent families in the villages they chose to reside in and often governed in local matters.

After the death of the head of the household, the children inherited the property and slaves. Early in the dynasty, inheritance was divided equally among all the children. However, as the Chosŏn Kingdom became more confucianized during the late seventeenth century, the eldest son inherited most of the property. Along with the property, the eldest son also inherited the responsibility to host and perform all the ancestral rites, or chesa. These elaborate ceremonies were conducted frequently and, many times, were a difficult responsibility.