Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Status and "Defunct" Offices in Early Modern Korea: The Case of Five Guards Generals (Owijang), 1864-1910

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Status and "Defunct" Offices in Early Modern Korea: The Case of Five Guards Generals (Owijang), 1864-1910

Article excerpt

A striking feature of nineteenth-century Korea is the proliferation of generals. Seasoned military officers received appointments as generals of the Five Guards (Owijang), but so did local yamen clerks, Manchurian language interpreters, palace physicians responsible for the health of royal household women, and octogenarian Confucian students. In many cases, the lucky recipient held the appointment for only one day. Why was the position of Five Guards general so evidently useful beyond the military realm? How did it retain its value to the state as a way to honor subjects and remain attractive to those who received it?

An effort to answer these questions focuses attention on the status system and its weaknesses during a period of great transition. In the late Choson period (1700-1910), Korean society ostensibly consisted of four status groups. The aristocracy (yangban) comprised both office and non-officeholding members, rich and poor, and numbered perhaps no more than five percent of the population. (1) Below it was a larger yet still relatively small group, the chungin ("middle people"). The most prominent members were government technical specialists, but it also encompassed lower-ranking military officers, administrative functionaries, and the illegitimate sons of aristocratic men. (2) Commoners made up the third group. They were mostly peasants but also artisans and merchants. At the very bottom were the lowborn, a group consisting of slaves and socially stigmatized people such as shamans and entertainers.

By the mid-nineteenth century, a dozen or so aristocratic families based in Seoul had come to wield paramount political power through occupying the most important positions in the government. As proprietors of the state, they still had to find ways to mollify the status aspirations held by an increasing body of nonelites who possessed considerable cultural and economic capital. The effort was not entirely successful, as the uprisings of the nineteenth century attest, but one method was to grant court ranks and offices as honors to worthy notables. The central aristocracy utilized the high-ranking post of Five Guards generals, among others, as a mechanism of social integration within the parameters of the status bound society.

The actual military significance of the office had, in fact, long since become attenuated. In early Choson (1392-1550), the generals had a military function just like other officials in the Five Guards which formed the main capital army. After the breakdown of this system in the sixteenth century, however, new military units eventually known as the Five Military Divisions took over their role. (3) Late Choson law codes and private writings alike note that nonetheless the post of general and other Five Guards offices survived. In fact, the state continued to fill these positions at least until 1894, and official histories, local gazetteers, and genealogies, among other sources, record countless Five Guards generals.

This study argues that appointment as a general recognized the special merit of those who had no prospect of attaining the kind of important, high-level offices monopolized by the central aristocracy. Although many appointees saw the post purely as an honor and resigned after a brief tenure, those with a military background often performed security functions. The generalship did not completely lose its prestige, as did many court ranks and offices sold by the late Choson state. By the late nineteenth century, many nonelites had become both cultured and wealthy to the extent that the state, which needed their services and cooperation, could not fool them with empty signs of recognition. All the same, maintaining an adequate gradation of mollifiers helped aristocratic statesmen defend the integrity of the existing status hierarchy. Both donor and recipient benefited.

In reaching these conclusions, I dissect the problem from various angles. …

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