Filed Under Essay

Sowŏn and Hangŭl

Assessing the Egalitarianism of Government Policies in Chosŏn Korea

The Chosŏn dynasty, which ruled Korea from 1392 to 1910, enacted many policies that might appear through a modern lens to have expanded the representation and rights of marginalized groups in their society, including commoners and women. The increase of female participation in legal cases discussed by Jisoo Kim in Emotions of Justice and the spread of literacy as a result of the invention of the Korean alphabet addressed by Hwisang Cho in The Power of the Brush: Epistolary Practices in Chosŏn Korea are some examples of such arrangements. I argue these policies in Chosŏn Korea reinforced oppressive ideologies and social hierarchies, despite appearing to have expanded the social and political participation of women and commoners.

In her book, Jisoo Kim describes how in 1401, the Chosŏn state institutionalized a physical "petition drum" to allow people (including slaves, women, and other groups of subordinated people in the Chosŏn state) to directly petition the sovereign by striking the drum installed which was purposefully placed in front of the Chosŏn State Tribunal (uigŭmbu, 義禁府, 의금부). The petition process (sowŏn, 訴冤, 소원) allowed negative emotions caused by injustices (wŏn, 冤, 원) to play a central role in the performance of legal justice in Chosŏn society. As the petitioners embodied more wŏn in their pleas for justice, the stronger their case became. Kim refers to a specific example of a female slave named Malgŭm who petitioned a magistrate against a male relative who had stolen her late husband's land. Malgŭm's petition follows:

I, the humble petitioner, address my grievous situation that occurred in this world... In the year kapcha when my husband passed away, Myŏngbok's cousin Sungun... stole the deed [to her late husband's land] when he visited us several times during my husband's funeral... While my husband and father-in-law had cultivated the fields for two generations, he [Sungun] remained silent. How could he attempt to deprive me of my land now? When my husband, Myŏngbok, was alive, he did not say a word to stop him from selling the fields. Now that my husband is dead, how could he file suit?... Please restrict Sungun from selfishly scheming to dispossess my land and help save this widow by cleaning a false charge made against me so that I can relieve my grievance. I address Your Honor and sincerely wish you to settle the case by giving an order (Kim 3-4).

After listening to her speech, the Chosŏn state magistrate upheld Malgŭm's case and returned the stolen land back to the female slave. While this petition did create a space for Malgŭm to speak in Chosŏn Korea, it still underscores oppressive Chosŏn ideals of female fidelity that subordinated women to their husbands (Kim 7). These ideas were largely supported by the dominant Confucian ideology that treated Chosŏn women as inferior to men (Han 117). For example, in contrast to men who were not widely held to requirements of chastity, Chosŏn women were barred from remarrying once their husbands had passed away (Han 118).

These ideals are highlighted in Malgŭm's speech as she pleaded with the magistrate to "help save this widow" in her speech: Malgŭm relied heavily on a narrative of pity as she emphasized her pain as that of a weaker and subordinate woman in comparison to the powerful, male magistrate. In doing so, she was only able to receive justice with sowŏn when reproducing Confucian gender ideologies that reinforced the belief that women were inferior and dependent on the sympathy of men. Malgŭm's petition also highlights how the sowŏn process reinforced the female obligation to chastity. This ideology can be seen in Malgŭm's petition and many other petitions of the time as she pleads a case on behalf of her deceased husband. In petitioning her case, Malgŭm's emotions were only recognized and validated by the Chosŏn state when concerning her dedication to her late husband and his family's honor. Petitioning, therefore, not only dismissed female value outside of the needs of her husband and his patriline but also reinforced limits to female agency in the Chosŏn society. Sowŏn resulted in a woman's domestic role as a wife now carrying into her legal status as a representative of her husband. In this way, petitioning in Chosŏn proves to be a government system that, while appearing to increase female representation, still reinforced patriarchal ideologies.

Similar patterns of social hierarchy can also be seen with the inception of the vernacular Korean script (ŏnmun 諺文, -- now known as hangul 한글 today). Though a reader today may assume that its invention in 1443 would have increased literacy among commoners in Chosŏn, hangul also reinforced social hierarchies and limited the production of knowledge by newly literate commoners. Prior to its invention, the only writing system used in Korea was a complex writing system that required knowledge of Chinese characters (hanja 漢字, 한자) that did not align with spoken Korean. The high barrier to entry for learning and properly using this writing system meant that writing had long been reserved for the elite of Korean society -- mostly men of yangban (兩班, 양반) background. 

The vernacular script, being a much more simple writing system based on an alphabet, was created specifically by King Sejong to make writing more accessible for commoners in Chosŏn (See Wikipedia entry on Hunminjeongeum). One may assume that this, in turn, would have expanded the role of commoners in literature and other people who previously did not have an outlet to express themselves in Chosŏn society. However, the alphabet also created a new outlet for the Korean male elite to continue their social and literary superiority in the Chosŏn state. Scholars of yangban background produced vernacular translations of classical texts to control the production of knowledge now accessible to commoners. Since the traditional Confucian texts that dictated the values of Chosŏn society had previously only been available in hanja, the yangban remained the custodians of these important texts as their translators.

Furthermore, yangban decided that texts that might have impacted the lives of commoners were never translated into hangul. In Power of the Brush, Hwisang Cho explains how a well-known manual for agricultural techniques, Straightforward Explanation of Agriculture (農事直說, 농사직설, nongsa chiksol), was never made available to Chosŏn farmers in the vernacular script. Instead, it was kept in hanja, accessible only to state officials like local magistrates and yangban who had the means to read the complicated writing system. While hangul clearly had the ability to democratize the spread of knowledge, Chosŏn yangban, and the Chosŏn state still "intended to control the flow of information by selecting the types of knowledge to be translated" (Cho 17).

In analyzing the Chosŏn implementation of sowŏn and hangul, one can see that Chosŏn systems which -- as seen through modern ideals -- might seem to have expanded the opportunities of marginalized classes, still reinforced strict Chosŏn social hierarchies. In the history of the United States, there are also cases where seemingly emancipatory policies still reproduced oppressive hierarchies. The 14th and 15th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution enacted in 1868 and 1870, respectively, granted Black Americans the right to vote, but -- just as with sowŏn and hangul -- these supposedly egalitarian reforms reinforced oppressive hierarchies for marginalized populations; extreme suppression of the Black voter in the United States continued along with other forms of oppression in the United States despite the wording of the law promoting ideas of equality and new opportunities for marginalized Black populations. Just as in Chosŏn Korea, it is not enough to conclude based on the progressive framing of a government policy that it necessarily resulted in concrete changes to oppressive hierarchies. However, in analyzing and understanding the true social implications of such policies, one can develop the means by which to construct fair and just policies in the future.


Cover of The Power of the Brush: Epistolary Practices in Chosŏn Korea. Source: Creator: Hwisang Cho Date: 2020


Natalia Ureña-Tregillis, “Sowŏn and Hangŭl,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 18, 2024,