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Parental Compassion and Law in Korean Slavery

In a society with an established slave system, a father with four daughters born to a slave-status concubine narrates his own experience in the manumission process of his daughters. Paternal love is implemented in legal reasoning in manumission[1] cases of yangban elite children born to slave-status women. Through the phrase "my own flesh and blood," parental compassion, a Confucian emotional norm expected from parents, the manumission of yangban’s slave status offspring was validated. An example of this is the case of Yu Hŭi-ch’un’s daughters whose story is narrated in Yu’s diary entries.

Chosŏn Korea had a hierarchical system in which statutes were inherited and the slave society called nobi was considered the lowest rank. Slaves were considered the yangban’s ‘hand and feet’ and highly valuable possession, crucial to maintaining the established hierarchy system. Kim explains, “Hereditary slavery undergirded the hierarchical social structure of Choson Korea even though Confucian doctrine did not approve of hereditary slavery” (Kim, 2019, p. 3). Although not supported by Confucian doctrine, this system was created by the yangban elite using select Neo-Confucian teachings to legitimize the distinction between ‘noble and base’. This system determined that statuses were inherited and Kim remarks that the common practice was that “a child is base if one parent is base” (Kim, 2019, p. 3)

When deciding over the status of yangban offspring born to slave-status mothers, the phrase ‘my own flesh and blood’ called for compassion from the parents. It was used as a legal basis in disputes over offspring status. Kim notes, “the legislative discussions and decisions on the topic at the royal court often subscribed the notion that these children were also yangban’s flesh and blood and called for compassion, a Confucian emotional norm expected of parents” (Kim, 2019). However, because slaves were valuable possessions to yangban, , parental compassion conflicted with socioeconomic interests. However, for fathers like scholar-official Yu, parental love was stronger than any socioeconomic interest keeping his daughters as slave-status would have brought him.

Korean scholar-official Yu Hŭi-ch’un left a diary in which he narrated the last eleven years of his life. In this diary, called Miam’s Diary after his pen name, Yu explained the manumission process of his four daughters born to his slave status concubine named Kujiltŏk. Kim explains the importance of this diary in terms of the insight it provides to Yu’s time period, “...this document is exceptional source of material not only because it is rare to have first hand information from this period but because it discusses all sorts of official, personal and quotidian matters” (Kim, 2019, p.14). Through Yu’s entries, we are able to see how parental love plays a big role in the manumission process. Despite being married to Madam Song, whom Yu confesses he enjoyed a peaceful life with, the two did not live together for as long when they were married because of Yu’s official career and his the long period of exile he suffered. During the time he was away, he narrates in his diary about how he shared intimate relationships with courtesans and at least one concubine, Kim explains “during his exile in Chongsŏng, a woman named Kujiltŏk (1528?-?), a female slave owned by a man named Yi Ku, became Yu’s concubine (while remaining property of Yi Ku) and took care of Yu’s daily life there” (Kim, 2019, p.15). Yu had four daughters with Kujiltŏk, who inherited the slave status of their mother according to the practice at the time.

Yu did use the argument that his daughters were his own flesh and blood to manumit them, but he did not do it until they became the age of marriage. Before this time, Yu’s daughters were property of their mother’s owner, who then sold them to other people over the years. “Around the time these four daughters became of age to marry, Yu made material and legal arrangements to free them from slave status, following the process articulated in the Great Code of Administration” (Kim, 2019, p.16). Kim does not discuss the reason why Yu waited until his daughters were old enough to marry. Doing so would have probably saved him the trouble of paying tribute to the different owners, not only of his daughters but his concubine Kujiltŏk as well. It is not clear whether it was a condition that had to be met in order to complete the manumission process or a personal decision of Yu and Kujiltŏk.

Yu records in his diary that he was very happy once the manumission process was completed. Yu started the manumission process of his eldest daughter Hae-sŏng first as she became the concubine of Chŏng Hong, who helped Yu in the process. Yu offered Hae-sŏng’s owner a horse in exchange for her freedom, which was provided by Chŏng Hong. This is because according to the Great Code of Administration, slaves were to be replaced by another slave. However, Yu was able to negotiate his daughter’s freedom for a horse(p.16). Yu followed the same procedure with the second eldest daughter, who was also freed in exchange for a horse. For the two youngest daughters, Yu paid a lot less for their freedom. According to Kim Yu paid 600 units of paper money, about one-seventh of the price of a horse (Kim, 2019, p.18). This was probably because they were owned by the son-in-law of the mom and second eldest’s owner, whom Yu had helped in other ways after the success in the manumission process of the latter. After all his daughters were freed, Yu recorded in his diary, “All four daughters of my concubine have been manumitted and become commoners (yangin). How fortunate!” (Kim, 2019, p.17). Kim notes that Yu freed his daughters out of the emotion that they were his own flesh and blood (p.17).

As a parent, seeing your own child be of slave status must have been difficult and that emotion and compassion lead to the repeated use of the expression ‘flesh and blood’ in the manumission process of yangban offspring in Chosŏn Korea. It is very interesting to see this in a first-person perspective with Yu’s diary entries. Through his diary, we can see how his affection to his daughters as his being his own blood led him to make the necessary economic and legal arrangements to free them from their slave status. Overall, it is fascinating to see how parental love goes against an established norm and even against socioeconomic interests.

[1] Manumit: to release from slavery


Mariana Melgar (Political Science, UCLA '23), “Parental Compassion and Law in Korean Slavery,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 18, 2024,