Silla Economy and Society

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This article uses the Samguk sagi, one of premodern Korea's most valuable historical resources, as a basis for an examination of the economy and society of the Silla dynasty. It begins by offering the historiographical limitations of the document, followed by a discussion of the significance of the policy of nongjajongbon (agriculture-is-the-basis-of-the-government) on Sillan society and economy. Other scholarly writings on the Samguk sagi and Silla are also considered.

Historiographical Problems of the Samguk sagi

Of the scanty material available on ancient Korean history, the Samguk sagi, the oldest surviving historical record of the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods, is the most helpful primary source in the study of the socioeconomic life of the early Korean people. Kim Pusik, an elder statesman and the chief keeper of the official records of the Koryo dynasty, with his ten assistants, compiled the Samguk sagi in 1145 to legitimize the monarchy and dynastic institutions in which he had vested interests. In order to be an effective spokesman for the system, he even criticized the bad kings and wicked officials of the past as examples for his contemporaries and future generations. In the course of describing political and administrative events related to monarchical rule and its legitimacy, he also recorded socioeconomic events faithfully, based on whatever materials were available at that time. In particular, purely socioeconomic events, which differed from palace political events and which he recorded for the most part free from political bias, are reliable sources of information for our inquiry into the nature of early Korean social and economic formations.

Modern historians have studied the circumstances under which the Samguk sagi was compiled, the time in which Kim Pusik lived, his career and historiography, and the source materials he used. Although they have differed on some minor points, they have all agreed on the fairness of Kim Pusik as a compiler and as a historian, discrediting certain notions that in the Samguk sagi he intentionally altered many unpleasant facts. Finding neither wholesale expurgation nor any careless elimination of substantive items in the Samguk sagi, John C. Jamieson, for example, pointed out that Kim Pusik demonstrated Confucian historical objectivity. (1) According to Lee Ki-baik, Kim Pusik had to express his own thoughts, and yet the Samguk sagi retained more or less the characteristics of the collections of original materials he used. (2)

One important adjunct to the Samguk sagi is a Chinese source, the Eastern Barbarian section of the San Guo zhi. It covers a short span of time during the second and third centuries a.d., describing political events and lifestyles of the various Korean tribes on the peninsula. Although it contains some important comments on haho (low households) and taega (big families), which help us to understand that the socioeconomic structure of the early Korean society was divided into two distinct classes, it would not be a useful source of information on the Three Kingdoms (Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche) and the United Silla periods. There are other Chinese accounts on the Korean tribes in Jin shu, Song shu, Nan Oi shu, Liang shu, Zhou shu, Sui shu, Nan shi, Bei shi, and Tang shu, but they are to a large extent repetitions of the Eastern Barbarian section of San Guo zhi, and therefore they cannot shed significant light on the periods after the third century.

Supplemental to the Samguk sagi among Korean sources are the Samguk yusa and a few inscriptions and evidence from archeological excavations. Although the Samguk yusa contains more information than the latter two and has some useful accounts of the fiscal affairs of Buddhist monasteries, the bulk of the information it contains is mainly devoted to Koreanized Buddhism, omens, visions, miracles, prophecies, and indigenous shamanistic beliefs. Therefore, the Samguk yusa lacks any useful clues pertinent to, for example, kwallogup (salary land of officialdom) and sigup (food producing land), which are mentioned but not at all clarified in the Samguk sagi. …