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Emotions and Law in Chosŏn Korea

  Do you think that negative emotions can cause natural disasters? Would you enact laws to help relieve negative emotions? Well, that is exactly what Chosŏn Korea did. The Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910) was Korea's longest-lasting dynasty. It is typically characterized by its strong Confucian influence and its rigid hierarchical and patriarchal social structure. However, less well understood is the role emotions played in Chosŏn's legal realm.

Emotions were able to influence law because of the concept of wŏn. According to Emotions of Justice by Jisoo Kim, the term wŏn refers to the negative emotions felt when a person has been wronged in some way, including anger, grief, pain, the desire for vengeance, and more. The stronger one's wŏn, the greater the desire to have the state address the injustice.1 (Kim 7). To give you an understanding of how important wŏn was in Chosŏn, when natural disasters occurred, the state hurried to pardon prisoners and address unresolved lawsuits.2 That is the extent to which it was believed that wŏn affected the harmony of the world. Emotions and law were therefore closely intertwined in Chosŏn because wŏn was the "primary motive" 3 pushing one towards requesting the state to redress their grievance and encouraging the state to take said negative emotions very seriously.

Since wŏn was understood to have the power to upset the natural balance of the world if it was not relieved (Kim 11), it was crucial to relieve everyone's wŏn. That means that every individual, regardless of social status or gender, had equal legal standing in Chosŏn. Women, slaves, and high-status men all had legal standing to petition the courts and address the cause of their wŏn, thereby "neutraliz[ing] gender and status hierarchies to a certain extent in the judicial domain" (Kim 13). However, individuals were only able to petition the courts within the boundaries of their social status. For example, slaves were not able to petition against their masters.4They could petition against other elites, but in this way the legal system still reinforced the social hierarchy.5

Nevertheless, the courts did view relieving everyone's wŏn as equally important. The most important factor was therefore the feelings of the victim because the main goal of the Chosŏn courts was not necessarily to punish the offender, but to relieve the wŏn. In some cases, this may mean that as long as one's wŏn was relieved, it did not matter if the full extent of the criminal's punishment was carried out. For example, let's look at the case of Konsaeng, a female entertainer whose three daughters were murdered by a county magistrate named Yi Huitae. Yi falsely believed that Konsaeng's three daughters had spread gossip about him, but since he had no proof, he ordered other women to make accusations against the daughters so he could "legally" arrest them. After arresting the daughters, he tortured them to death.6Konsaeng wanted to avenge her daughters, so she turned to the Chosŏn legal system and petitioned the courts. After numerous trials that took all the factors regarding Yi's background as an unjust magistrate and the details of the case into consideration, it was decided that Yi would be "exiled to the farthest frontier."7 Due to the severity of his crime, Yi was originally supposed to be exiled for life, but just three years later he was reassigned to a different province. How then was justice served? According to a report regarding the case, the punishment was able to "relieve Konsaeng's wŏn at least to a certain degree."8 This shows that relieving wŏn was the courts' main goal in serving justice. Punishing offenders and trying to maintain a just society was important, but relieving wŏn was perhaps more crucial.

Another interesting point to look at in the case of Konsaeng is that since she was of a lower class than Yi, the only way that she could take revenge against him without violating the law was through the petitioning system.9 Petitions were the tools used to appeal to the courts and to say one's story and explain how they were wronged. Petitions were submitted either in writing or presented to the court orally in a speech. The attraction of oral petitions was that the petitioner was able to use their emotions to directly appeal to the listener, thereby heightening and emphasizing their wŏn.10 As you can imagine, it was probably much more powerful to hear the petitioner cry and speak from the heart rather than simply reading their words on a paper. Seeing and hearing the petitioner's raw emotions would show just how severe the petitioners' wŏn was and therefore how urgent it was for the courts to address their case.

A petitioners' wŏn was not necessarily based on their own experience. It was believed that wŏn could be shared and passed on amongst family members.11 This is a similar idea to generational trauma, where one inherits the negative feelings of a previous generation despite not having experienced the event oneself. In the same vein, the family members of those who had been wronged still felt wŏn despite not having been wronged themselves. Petitioners who appealed on behalf of their family members would highlight the wŏn felt by their family members and how that shared wŏn pushed them to want to appeal on family members' behalf.12

However, these situations were not always recognized as being a valid reason to petition. Originally, when Chosŏn's petitioning system was first institutionalized, the Chosŏn courts definition of wŏn was confined to the petitioner's own emotions due to personal harm, and petitioners could only appeal because of personal wŏn.13 Eventually, in the early 18th century, the courts decided that wŏn shared among family members was harmful and therefore allowed four categories of relationships to be legal grounds for petitioning.14 Specifically, a son petitioning for his father, a wife for her husband, a younger brother for his elder brother, and a slave for their master. These four categories were based on the four fundamental Confucian familial relationships and also highlight the hierarchical order within the family itself, with those in lower social positions petitioning on behalf of their superiors.15 When petitioning, women also had to emphasize their fidelity, a Confucian virtue meaning devotion to one's husband, in order to appeal to the sympathies of the court and make their petitions heard.16 The ability to petition on behalf of family members thereby still reinforced Confucian ideals and the hierarchical social order.17 In this way the definition of wŏn was legally expanded to allow for more people to relieve their wŏn while simultaneously preserving the social hierarchy.


It is important to understand the significance and impact that wŏn had in Chosŏn because it shows a new aspect of Chosŏn culture and values that is vastly different from the more commonly spoken about rigid social hierarchies. Even if the "facts" that petitioners presented were exaggerated or outright lies, the petitioner's negative emotions were still taken into consideration. In one case, a petitioner lied on behalf of her husband who had already plead guilty, but the courts still took her wŏn into account and lessened his sentence.18 Clearly, based on the extent that wŏn was taken into consideration in the legal sphere, emotions were a significant aspect of the legal culture. But despite new laws being enacted to relieve wŏn, all laws enacted were still within the constraints of Chosŏn's hierarchical and patriarchal system. Just because every individual's wŏn was viewed as being able to have the same negative impact on the world, it did not mean that there was any semblance of equality in Chosŏn. It simply means that in terms of the legal sphere, since everyone's wŏn was understood to have the same impact, everyone was given equal legal standing. But equal legal standing did not mean equality. 

1 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 7
2 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 124
3 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 12
4 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 13
5 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 14
6 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 127
7 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 129
8 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 130
9 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 127
10 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 17
11 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 123
12 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 108
13 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 120
14 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 104
15 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 105
16 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 114
17 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 106
18 Jisoo Kim, The Emotions of Justice, 116




Bayla Dermer (Korean UCLA '22), “Emotions and Law in Chosŏn Korea,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed December 1, 2023,