Traditional Korea was highly stratified, topped by an imperial court and an aristocracy. During the Yi dynasty ( 1392-1910), political rights were reserved to the Yangban class, an aristocratic elite. All other, lower classes were considered incapable of handling political decisions. "Such strata had no wisdom, and only wisdom, as demonstrated by a combination of high lineage and high educational attainments, could qualify one to participate in political matters." 1
An examination system based on the Chinese model largely reserved top official positions to sons of Yangban origin. At times, the law expressly excluded all others from taking examinations, an extreme that was unknown in China. At the base of Korean society was a large slave contingent comprising at times about one third of the population--comparable to the United States during the early 19th century. 2 Slaves possessed certain minimal rights such as marriage and property holding but were excluded from political activity. Nevertheless, slave revolts were not unknown. Peasants were free persons but depended on sporadic insurrections for occasional expansion of their rights. A scant education was offered in village schools where the lower orders were drilled principally in obedience rather than cognitive knowledge. Women were excluded from political activity; they were barred from the examination system as well as from attendance at any educational institution. 3The gentry, owning land and being more educated than other classes, were dominant powers in many localities. Some even moved into Yangban circles where they could participate in, although not dominate, national decisions as they did local issues.
From time to time, commoners attended schools and, rarely, even some very