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Affective Politics and Slavery in Chosŏn Korea

Between 1392 and 1910, during the Chosŏn period in Korea, a strict hierarchical structure existed in society. As in many premodern cultures, a system of slavery existed within this structure and served as the base upon which society operated. Nobi (slaves) and their labor contributed to the wealth of Yangban (elites) who thrived within this system. At first glance, this system may appear to resemble other systems of slavery and class hierarchy such as those of Western societies including slavery in antebellum America or ancient Rome. However, Sun Joo Kim’s examination of the system in the article “My Own Flesh and Blood: Stratified Paternal Compassion and Law in Korean Slavery,” unravels the complexities of the Chosŏn legal system and the role of emotion and affective politics in Chosŏn society.

Kim’s findings reveal the positive impact paternal emotion had in laws governing class and social status. These findings surprised me in light of the rigid nature of Chosŏn society, where upwards social mobility was virtually nonexistent and slaves were considered property. I was surprised to learn that Yangban men who fathered children with concubines of slave status would be moved to advocate for the child’s future and that the legal system would allow for the child to take on a higher status than what they were born into.

Nobi existed at the bottom of the social hierarchy in Chosŏn Korea. In some time periods, nobi made up about 30% of the entire population and were a highly sought after “commodity” for the wealthy. As nobi provided both domestic and agricultural labor, yangban depended on their work for economic gain. Yangban viewed slaves as resources rather than people. They “regarded slaves as stupid, disloyal, deceptive, and slanderous” and did not treat nobi as equals or as individuals deserving of respect. Instead, they treated nobi as “less than” and were intent on maintaining their own superiority. Additionally, “slaves were bought and sold and inherited; their families were divided in accordance with the owner’s need; and they were usually denied a family name” (Kim 2). These patterns reveal the nature of nobi’s relationships with the yangban: slave and master, property and owner. Nobi did not enjoy the privileges of the yangban such as individual freedom, accumulation of wealth, or even having a family name. Additionally, upwards mobility was nonexistent for those of  nobi status.

Because upwards mobility was impossible for nobi, the occurrence of children born between two classes such as the nobi class and the common class presented a dilemma. However, according to Chosŏn law, “‘a child is base if one parent is base’” (Kim 3). Thus, if a child was born between a nobi and a commoner, the child would take on the lower status and become part of the nobi status. This could occur even between elite and lower classes as well, however. As yangban males often had sexual relationships with concubines of slave status, children were born out of these relationships. These children were supposed to inherit their mother’s status and entered the slave class upon birth. However, as described Kim puts it, “the yangban elites’ desire to buttress status distinction and maintain wealth, and basic human values and feelings were entangled to a surprising degree” (Kim 5). Yangban elites benefitted economically from children being born into slave status, as this would increase the number of slaves producing labor and would support the flow of the economy. However, when it came to their own children who were born into slavery, parental compassion played a large role into determining the social status of these children; they did not always remain slaves on behalf of their father’s advocation.

Affective politics allowed for children who were born to a slave-status concubine and a yangban father to assume a higher status, such as that of commoner, rather than take on the status of their mother and remain in slavery, as was usually done. Yangban elites pointed to the “Neo-confucian ideal of patriarchy and patrilineality” (Kim 5) in order to justify their arguments that their children should not be slaves merely due the status of the children’s mothers. Although motivated by paternal compassion and human emotion, these Neo-Confucian ideals were used as justifications in legal cases through which yangban elites sought to free their children from slavery. For example, the Chosŏn scholar-official Yu Hŭi-ch’un  advocated for four daughters who were born into slavery, recording the processes in his diary entitled Miam’s Diary. He made deals with the owners of his daughters and completed court documents and records to ensure their freedom and recorded his joy at successfully freeing them from slavery. As Kim recounts “the affective norms [can be] sense[d] from Yu’s dealings with his slave-status daughters” (Kim 18). Not only did Yu acknowledge his daughters as his own, but he also advocated for their freedom. He actively pursued their freedom via deals with their owner and monetary exchanges. He clearly recorded his own positive feelings towards them as well, revealing the role of emotion in his legal pursuits.

Chosŏn Korea saw a period of strict social hierarchy with little to no social mobility. However, affective politics allowed for emotion to motivate elite yangban to overturn these strict categories in cases of their children being born into slavery. While children who had at least one parent who belonged to the slave status were automatically placed in this status as well, parental compassion overruled these preexisting norms. Recognizing the role of emotion in Korean politics is important to understanding how laws were not strictly black in white; in other words, set laws were still accountable to emotion and human morality, rather than being set in stone or directed solely by economic gain.

 I value Sun Joo Kim’s article for the depth in which she analyzes the overlap between policy and human emotion. She shows how affective politics can lead to the contradiction of pre-existing societal norms through the examination of the manumission of slaves in Chosŏn Korea on behalf of parental compassion and advocation. With this in mind, we might look more deeply into current politics and societies and further examine affective politics in modern times.


“My Own Flesh and Blood: Stratified Parental Compassion and Law in Korean Slavery” Front Page Source: Social History 44, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 1–25. Creator: Sun Joo Kim


Emma Kehl, “Affective Politics and Slavery in Chosŏn Korea,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 12, 2024,