Change and Continuity between Koryŏ and Chosŏn: A View from California

This paper was originally published in Korean as "Koryŏ wa Chosŏn ŭi pyŏnhwa mit chisoksŏng," in Han’guk chungsesahoe, eds., Koryo wangjo wa 21 segi: K’oria mirae yusan (Seoul: Kyungin munhwasa, 2019). John B. Duncan is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. He has taught at UCLA since 1989


The effort to identify and explain elements of change and continuity has long been a central task for historians. How we understand change and continuity helps us to construct models of interpretation, and at the same time is also informed by the models we choose. We are all painfully aware of how the imperialist powers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries chose to emphasize change in their societies and continuity in the societies they colonized. We also know that the Stalinist version of Marxist historiography held that progressive change was necessary and inevitable in all societies. In the case of south Korea, we saw the rise from the 1960s of the internal development theory which refuted the stagnation theory of the apologists for Japanese colonization and sought to demonstrate that Korean history featured a series of changes along a path of linear progress that would have led to modernization had it not been for imperialist intervention in the nineteenth century.

More recently a new generation of scholars working on Korea, influenced by what has come to be known as cultural studies, have begun to argue for a sudden and radical change in the form of an epistemic break (인식체계의 단절) that happened in the late nineteenth century. These scholars are almost all working on twentieth and early twenty first century Korea. However well this approach may serve their purposes in deconstructing various twentieth century discourses, it leaves those of us working on pre-1876 Korea feeling as though we and our research have been thoroughly “othered” (타자화) and rendered largely irrelevant to the effort to understand and explain today’s. Western historians working on earlier Korea have responded to this in a number of ways. Some of us have opted to try to undermine the notion of a radical epistemic break by showing that there are interesting similarities between aspects of more recent and earlier Korean historical experiences.1 Others have begun to question the way in which the “modern” has been privileged as the telos of history in historical scholarship.2 While these interesting issues suggest how the study of pre-1876 Korea is changing, to the extent that they interrogate the “modern” and raise questions about historical time, they are also relevant to how we evaluate the significance of the change from Koryŏ to Chosŏn, and how we understand Koryŏ and Chosŏn within the context of world history.

For purposes of the topic that has been assigned to me, “Change and Continuity between Koryŏ and Chosŏn”, I find it necessary to turn back to the notion of historical time that framed my book, The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty. In that study, I used Fernand Braudel’s conceptualization of historical time that recognizes plural temporalities (short-term event, intermediate duration conjuncture, and long durée) but emphasizes the long durée as the underlying structuring element that enables us to distinguish fundamental historical change from simple events or trends that can be seen in the conjecture that may or may not prove to be enduring. I found Braudel’s approach appealing for two reasons. One, he rejected the positivist linear conception of historical time and emphasis on the event. Two, his emphasis on the long durée allowed for consideration of the kind of underlying, elemental change that is hard to detect without looking over several centuries of history.3 Here I also feel constrained to point out how long durée is translated in Korean. The usual rendering is changgi chisok 장기지속; that captures the emphasis Braudel placed on certain structural conditions such as the natural environment. But it seems to disregard the important point that for Braudel the focus on the long durée allows us to perceive fundamental long-term change. Perhaps a better translation of long durée for my purposes would be changgi chŏk pyŏnhwa 장기적 변화.

Many scholars have understood my work to emphasize continuity over change, apparently because I took issue with the “new scholar-official” hypothesis and argued instead that the old Koryŏ aristocracy continued to occupy positions of power and prestige well into the new dynasty. But one of the points I was trying to make in the Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty is that the institutional reforms that accompanied the founding of the Chosŏn resulted in the creation of a new socio-political order that, while it represented the working out of the tensions and contradictions of the early Koryŏ system, constituted fundamental long-term change of the kind that can only be fully appreciated perceived over the long durée.

In this paper, I will begin with an overview of what I perceive to be the ways in which the early Chosŏn differed from the Koryŏ. But the main focus of the paper will be on the question of how we understand the Koryŏ and, more importantly, the Chosŏn in the context of world history. For that purpose, I will be drawing from the scholarship of the “California School” of historians and historical sociologists. As many of you are aware, the California School, as seen in the work of such scholars as Kenneth Pomeranz and R Bin Wong among others, has presented a serious challenge to Eurocentric interpretations of history by arguing that up until the nineteenth century, there was no significance difference between the economies of China and Western Europe. Both areas were struggling with problems related to population growth: shortages of land intensive crops and agrarian raw materials such as foodstuffs, wood used for both construction and fuel, and plant and animal fibers used for clothing. The initial rise of industrial capitalism in England was not the result of some uniquely Western process of historical development but rather was the outcome of what might be termed a historical accident, the fortuitous convergence of such factors as easily available sources of alternative fuel in coal, access to the resources of the “new world”, and a labor force of slaves from Africa that could be utilized to exploit those new resources.

The comparative nature of the California School’s research has led to an intense engagement with world history, a field that has emerged and grown rapidly in tandem with the process of globalization that has accelerated over the past three-four decades. Various interpretive schemes have been advanced for world history, but perhaps the most widely used one for historians of Asia divides historical time into pre-modern, early modern, and modern/contemporary. Several of the most prominent members of the California School argue that Ming and Qing China were “early modern” societies; they are joined by historians of India and Japan, who also use “early modern” for those countries’ histories in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. This is reflected not only in the research these scholars do, but also in world history courses taught at the college, high school, and even middle school level. This situation presents us with a challenge: how do we depict Korea within the context of world history?

II. From Koryŏ to Chosŏn

Over the past few decades, there have been numerous studies dealing with various aspects of Koryŏ and Chosŏn politics, society, and thought. Most of those, however, have given us a more detailed and nuanced understanding without advancing major revisions of the generally accepted views of Koryŏ and Chosŏn. For the most part, therefore, I will focus here on what seem to me to be the mainstream interpretations of what might regard as the mature Koryŏ and Chosŏn systems.

A. Status Systems

The Koryŏ status system, as seen in eleventh and early twelfth century Koryŏ, was made up of four major groups: the central aristocracy or munbŏl, which was dominated by a number of civil branch descent groups such as the Kyŏngwŏn Yi, the Haeju Ch’oe, the Chŏngan Im, the Kyŏngju Kim, the Munhwa Yu, the P’apyŏng Yun and others; the hyangni, whom I regard as a local aristocracy because of their origins as local strongmen of the Later Three Kingdoms period, their hereditary nature, their high degree of autonomy, and their guaranteed access to positions in their central government through the examination system and other means;4 the commoners, mostly peasants but also merchants and craftsmen; and the mean people, mostly persons of servile status (nobi) or of despised occupations. One of the features of the Koryŏ status system, as seen over three or four centuries, was the ability of certain descent groups to maintain themselves at the top of society; another was, the first feature notwithstanding, was a kind of limited social mobility in which persons of non-munbŏl origins, hyangni and others, were able to rise to high office and, in some cases, establish themselves as members of the munbŏl. The Koryŏ status system underwent a number of challenges, during both the period of military rule from 1170 to 1258 and the period of Koryŏ’s incorporation in the Mongol empire from 1259 through 1368. Both those periods saw the rise of elements of elements of low social status, but in the final analysis the nucleus of the ruling stratum remained descent groups of munbŏl origins.5 Simply put, the Koryŏ status system, despite challenges and fluctuations over the centuries, was made up of four major groups: a central aristocracy composed primarily of civil bureaucrats; a local aristocracy (hyangni) made up of people who were descendants of the local strongmen of the Silla-Koryŏ transition; a common stratum mostly of peasants; and a servile stratum.

There is, of course, some controversy over the Chosŏn status system. The conventional view, as advanced by scholars such as Yi T’aejin and Han Yŏngu, is that the late Koryŏ period saw the rise of a new social group, commonly called by modern scholars as the sinjin sadaebu or similar terms, who were locally-based medium and small landlords using as their ideology Cheng-Zhu Learning (commonly referred to as Zhu Xi Learning or Nature and Principle Learning in Korea). This new group, it is argued, overthrew the late Koryŏ ruling stratum, made up of centrally-based absentee large landlords who were adherents of Buddhism. The outcome was the advent of a new social system, defined in the early Chosŏn legal codes as one of free and non-free people (yangchŏn) whose status was determined in terms of their duties toward the state. These scholars contend that the four status group system of yangban/sajok, middle people (chungin), commoners, and servile people came into being in the mid-/late Chosŏn period. Other scholars, such as Yi Sŏngmu, have argued that, early Chosŏn legal codes notwithstanding, the yangban had already become a distinct and privileged social group by the late fourteenth century and that the early Chosŏn saw the beginnings of the formation of the four status group system.6

I think that there is no doubt that the status system was in some degree of flux immediately after the founding of the Chosŏn. Nonetheless, if we are to compare the mature Koryŏ system with the mature Chosŏn system, the pansangje of the mid-dynastic period, there are a number of features that command our attention. One similarity is that there was a four-group status system in both dynasties. Another is that the highest elites were civil official descent groups. And, of course, the two lowest status groups were commoners and servile people. But a major difference was the second group—whereas in the Koryŏ the second group, made up mostly of hyangni, comprised a stratum of local aristocrats socially qualified to be a source of new members of the central ruling stratum, in the Chosŏn the second group, or chungin, were excluded from access to the highest levels of the bureaucracy. The story behind this is complicated, but basically it signifies the long-term victory of the central bureaucratic yangban/sajok as the dominant social stratum. This can be seen in the pŏllyŏl/kyŏnghwa sejok of the late Chosŏn. Ch’a Changsŏp’s analysis of the late Chosŏn pŏllyŏl indicates that the dominant descent groups of that period included the Andong Kim, P’ap’yŏng Yu, Hwangnyŏ Min, Kwangsan Kim, Namyang Hong, and the Kyŏngju Yi. My own analysis of the early Chosŏn ruling elites shows that those descent groups were also at the very top of the political elites. Furthermore, my examination indicates that most of those descent groups had been major members of the Koryŏ munbŏl elites from the eleventh and early twelfth centuries.

There are two recent studies that require consideration here. One is Han Yŏngu’s extensive examination of the graduates of the Chosŏn period civil service examinations, which lays out clearly many examples of men of non-elite origins passing the examinations and, in some cases, even rising to high offices. Professor Han concludes that the Chosŏn civil service examination constituted a ladder of social mobility.7 The implication is, as suggested by the term social mobility, that the Chosŏn status system was, unlike conventional views that stressed domination, if not monopoly, by the hereditary yangban stratum, open to upward mobility. The other is Martina Deuchler’s recent book, Under the Ancestors’ Eyes: Kinship, Status, and Locality in Pre-modern Korea,8 which contends that elite Korean kinship groups maintained power from the Silla through the late Chosŏn period. What are we to make of the radically different views of these two authorities on pre-modern Korea?

I think it important to note two issues here. One is that recruitment of new officials of non-central official backgrounds was not a new phenomenon of the Chosŏn. To the contrary it was a central feature of the Koryŏ system; although our conventional understanding is that such recruitment was limited to members of the Koryŏ local aristocracy (hyangni), we cannot rule out the possibility that men from commoner backgrounds may have also passed the Koryŏ examinations. The second is that the kind of aristocratic continuity that Professor Deuchler notes is hardly unique to Korea. To the contrary, centuries-long aristocratic continuity was a major feature of European history, but was not a phenomenon that precluded the rise of new elements, as seen—for example--in the noblesse de robe of France. Simply put, these two apparently divergent views of Chosŏn society are not as mutually exclusive as they may seem at first glance. The social structures of Koryŏ and Chosŏn, while somewhat different, do not, in my view, display some sort of radical change, except perhaps for status of elite women who, by the seventeenth century, had lost many of the privileges they had enjoyed during the Koryŏ period.

B. Bureaucratic Systems

As seen on paper in the description in the Koryŏsa, the Koryŏ bureaucracy appears to have been a faithful replication of the centralized bureaucratic system of the Tang dynasty. Such appearance notwithstanding, the actual organization and functioning of the Koryŏ political system differed substantially from that of the Tang model. As Pyŏn T’aesŏp and others have shown, a relatively small number of high ranking officials in the Privy Council (재주/도당) were not only responsible for policy formulation, but also exercised control over almost all the other major agencies in the government, including the six boards, the Hallim Academy, and even the Office of the Inspector General (어사대). Furthermore, the Koryŏ system of local administration was also quite different from the Tang model. Whereas the Tang had a regular hierarchy of governors, prefectures and counties, Koryŏ had a somewhat unusual system of local administration. Koryŏ governors were relatively low-ranking officials with minimal staffs and limited authority over prefectures and counties. Furthermore, centrally-appointed magistrates were not posted in the vast majority of Koryŏ’s prefectures and counties, which formed an irregular patchwork in which some prefectures and counties (속군/속현) were subordinated to other control prefectures and counties (영군/영현), an arrangement that reflected the relative power and status of the leading families of each locale, who enjoyed a substantial degree of autonomy in handling local affairs. Below the counties and prefectures were other units, such as the pugok, whose leading families had limits to how high their members could rise in the central bureaucracy. Perhaps the best way to describe the Koryŏ system was that it was based in a “territorial status system.”

Superficially, the Chosŏn central government can perhaps be seen as similar to that of the Koryŏ. There was a body of high-ranking officials that was charged with formulation policy recommendations in the State Council (의정부) and which also, except for the reigns of T’aejong and Sejo, exercised some supervision over the six boards. But a major difference between Koryŏ and Chosŏn was that the practice of giving the high-ranking officials concurrent appointments as the heads of the six boards and other agencies was discontinued. Unlike the Koryŏ, such key offices as the Censorate, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Office of Special Counselors were independent of the State Council and reported directly to the throne. This, in my view, meant that Chosŏn kings, while perhaps not total autocrats, had the potential to exercise significantly greater power than their Koryŏ predecessors. But the greatest difference between Koryŏ and Chosŏn lay in the system of local administration. As the consequence of a series of reforms carried during the late fourteenth and earlier fifteenth centuries, the new dynasty created a regular hierarchy in which the governors held high rank, had large staffs, and exercised a much more authority over the prefectures and counties. Furthermore, the old system of subordinate and control prefectures and counties was abolished, as were the lower levels of administrations such as the pugok, and centrally appointed magistrates were posted in all prefectures and counties. The outcome was a highly centralized system of bureaucratic rule that was effective in registering the populace for purposes of taxation, military service and corvee labor; the state was even able to relocate thousands of households, some described as prosperous, from the more densely populated southern provinces to the sparsely populated northern provinces. Simply put, whereas the Koryŏ displayed features of a decentralized system of governance, the Chosŏn constituted a very centralized system in which status was determined not by one’s territorial origins but rather by one’s access to positions in the central government.

C. Thought and Culture

Despite the conventional depictions of Koryŏ as a Buddhist society and Chosŏn as a Confucian society, we all know that Confucianism was a significant part of Koryŏ intellectual life and that Buddhism, despite periodic bouts of oppression, remained an important element of Chosŏn religious and cultural life. There is no doubt, nonetheless, that the flourishing of Confucianism in the Chosŏn brought major changes in Korea’s political and social aspects. We can also note that artistic tastes changed from a more aristocratic and refined style in the Koryŏ to a more plain and simple style in the Chosŏn, as seen most clearly in the production of ceramic ware. We can also mention the rise of True View (chin’gyŏng) landscape painting in the mid-Chosŏn period and the genre paintings of such artists and Kim Hongdo and Sin Yunbok in the late Chosŏn.

What interests me for purposes of this paper, however, is the creation in the mid-fifteenth century of the phonetic writing system known as Hunmin chŏngŭm, commonly referred to in the Chosŏn as ŏnmun. Even though literary Sinitic (referred to in the Choson as Chinmun but now known as Hanmun) remained as the form of writing for official, philosophical and most literary works and many scholars relegate ŏnmun to the writing form of women and commoners, it seems to me that ŏnmun gradually became more widely used, even by male elites, as time passed. I have in mind not only the mixed-script (kukhanmun honyong) sijo poetry and ŏnmun narrative fiction such as the Tale of Hong Kiltong, but also such eighteenth and nineteenth century writings such as Hapkangjŏng ka and the Kŏch’ang ka, both written in mixed script, or Pak Chŏngyang’s 1871 P’oswae ilgi, a lengthy description of his trip to Muju beautifully written in the phonetic script. Whereas the Koryŏ period saw the use of such hybrid writing systems as hyangch’al and idu, as well as various text-pointing techniques, (kugyŏl), it wasn’t until the Chosŏn that Koreans developed a genuine phonetic system for writing vernacular Korea. This has to be seen as a major change from Koryŏ culture, one that reflected a new, stronger awareness of Korea’s cultural distinctiveness.

D. Economy

Both Koryŏ and Chosŏn were primarily agrarian economies. There appears to have been some sporadic use of silver-based money in the Koryŏ period and trade with Chinese and Arab merchants calling at the port of Kaegyŏng, but there is little evidence of anything we might see as a flourishing market economy. There was substantial growth in trade and commerce during the Mongol period, but the men who founded the Chosŏn adopted a policy of tight control of the economy and of the suppression of commercial activities, apparently under the influence of the model laid out in the Zhouli (周禮). Early Chosŏn policies notwithstanding, by the end of the fifteenth century private markets began to appear in parts of the country, and, as has been demonstrated by many historians, there was substantial growth in the market economy during the mid-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, leading to a substantial degree of monetization of the economy. This came about within the context of increasing agricultural productivity and substantial increase in the population and constitutes a major change from the Koryŏ period.

In sum, despite what appears to be substantial (but not total) continuity in the structure of society between Koryŏ and Chosŏn, in systems of governance, culture, and economy the two dynasties were quite different. Now let me turn to the question of how to assess the significance of these changes, of how we place Korea and particularly Chosŏn in the context of the burgeoning field of world history.

III. Questions of Interpretation

As mentioned earlier, the field of world history has become increasingly important in recent decades and, because of their focus on China, the California School has come to play an important role in the development of world history since at least the 1990s. Most scholars identified as the California School have focused on the “early modern” 근대초기, arguing that Ming and Qing China constituted “early modern” societies. There is one other alternative view advanced by another member of the California School, Jack Goldstone, who remains skeptical of the teleological implications of the “early modern” model and argues instead for an “advanced organic society” 고도 개발 유기사회. In this section I will consider how Chosŏn might be seen within both models.

A: Chosŏn as Early Modern

Typical efforts to describe the “early modern” include: 1) the period immediately prior to and leading to industrialization; 2) a period that saw the rise of centralized bureaucratic states; 3) a period that witnessed an increase in commerce and of global trade; 4) the rise of vernacular language in literature; and 5) fundamental religious change. Perhaps the most comprehensive and thoughtful effort to date is that set forth by Kenneth Pomeranz. Pomeranz is somewhat leery of attempts to apply the “early modern” can be applied across the world without taking into consideration temporal differences (or time scales, as he terms them), but he provides an extensive list of criteria for the “early modern”. the key features of the “early modern” include: 1) population growth; 2) increased commerce and overseas trade; 3) rise of centralized bureaucratic states; 4) upwardly mobile literate groups; 5) new kinds of organized lay piety; 6) growing use of print; 7) production of maps; 8) enumeration of plant and animal species; and 9) cataloguing the diversity of human beings.9 The question here is how the Chosŏn compares to Pomeranz’ list?

Let me begin with the question of population increase. Most scholars dealing with Chosŏn era demographic trends estimate that there was an increase in population of 200% to 300% between the early 15th century and mid-18th century.10 These estimates show steady growth through the 15th and 16th centuries, followed by a decline in registered population in the wake the Japanese and Manchu invasions of the late 15th and 16th centuries and renewed population growth through the mid-18th century. The overall trend was an increase in population that suggests that Chosŏn was following the same trend as other countries identified as “early modern”.

As noted earlier, scholars have demonstrated that there was significant growth in the Chosŏn market economy during the 17th and 18th centuries. Furthermore, studies have shown that Chosŏn played an important role in the triangular trade among Korea, China, and Japan during that period, profiting from the import of silver from Japan and the re-export of silks from China.11 Given the importance silver in overseas trade in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, we can perhaps argue that Chosŏn was at least tangentially involved in the world trading system of that time.

It is abundantly clear to me that the Chosŏn constituted a strong centralized bureaucratic system not only in comparison to its predecessor the Koryŏ dynasty but also in comparison to Western Europe, where similarly strong centralized bureaucratic systems did not emerge until the seventeenth century. From the late 14th century through the mid-15th century, reformers implements a profound restructuring of local administration, replacing the locally autonomous Koryŏ system with one in which provincial governors enjoyed broad powers and all the kingdom’s prefectures and counties were put under the direct control of centrally appointed magistrates, who carried out comprehensive land and population surveys, required all inhabitants to carry identification tags that specified names and places of residence and even carried out the force relocation of thousands of commoner households from the southern reaches of the peninsula to the sparsely population north. This may be the strongest area for which we can argue that Chosŏn was “early modern,” although there is reason to think that the Chosŏn state was much less efficient in later centuries. One instance of this was the way in which land surveys (yangan) which the Chosŏn legal code (Kyŏngguk taejŏn) called for conducting every twenty years were only carried out sporadically in the late Chosŏn, and only three times on a kingdom-wi8de basis during the second half of the dynasty.

There was increasing use of print media in the Chosŏn, at least in contrast to what we know about the Koryŏ.12 There were numerous instances of state-sponsored printing projects, including the late 15th Kyŏngguk taejŏn, morality handbooks such Samgang haengsil to of the 15th century, the Sok samgang haengsil to of the 16th century, and the Tongguk sinsok samgang haengsil to of the 17th century, as well as private printing of such handbooks like Kim An’guk’s early 16th century Kyŏngmin p’yŏn or Song Siyŏl’s Kyenyŏ sŏ of the 17th century. And we must take into consideration the rise of commercial printing enterprises around the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries in such locales as the capital city, Chŏnju, and Ansŏng.13

The production of maps was an important enterprise for the Chosŏn state. The early 15th century Kangni-do has been acclaimed for its surprisingly accurate depictions of Asia, Africa, and Europe. Both Han Young Woo and Gari Ledyard have devoted much effort to showing the sophistication of Chosŏn period maps, especially in the 18th century.14

Chosŏn dynasty Koreans also engaged in the cataloguing of plant and animal species. From early on, literati interested in hyangyak 향약 鄕藥(local medicinal botanicals) had compiled lists of medically useful plants.15 The Sejong sillok chiriji also detailed local products from each county and prefectures throughout the country, although the primary motive was probably less science than efficient taxation. We can also note is the Chasan ŏbo, Chŏng Yakchŏn’s taxonomy of sea life which he compiled while he was in exile on Hŭksan (Chasan) Island in the early 19th century.

The rise of the vernacular is often cited as an important feature of “early modern” Europe as intellectuals began to turn away from the more-or-less exclusive use of Latin to write in vernacular languages as seen, for example, in Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German. It seems to me that we can make a strong case for the invention and gradually spreading use of ŏnmun in the Chosŏn period as conforming to the “early modern.”

This brief survey, however, is quite superficial and requires more substantiation. Furthermore, there are important areas in which the Chosŏn doesn’t seem to be “early modern”. One of the key issues for the proponents of the “early modern” is incorporation into the new world-wide maritime trading system. While we may argue that Chosŏn’s trade with China and Japan was indirectly influenced by the maritime trade that arose between Europe and Asia from the 16th century on, that fact is that Chosŏn was never a direct participant in that system until after the opening of the ports in the late 19th century. Furthermore, we have to take note of the way in which Chosŏn’s importance in the China-Korea-Japan triangular trade declined significantly after the Qing established direct trading links with Japan in the late 17th century.16 Simply put, the importance of overseas trade in Chosŏn, never that great, was in decline from the late 17th century on.

Although Han Yŏngu has argued for upward social mobility through the examination system and many scholars have contended that the late Chosŏn was a time when the so-called “feudal status system” was collapsing, other scholars—mostly in the West—argue that it was only after the opening of the ports in 1876 that social groups like the chungin began to rise and challenge the *yangban *monopoly on high position and social prestige.

It is also difficult to ascertain the appearance of an organized lay piety in the Chosŏn. Prior to the 19th century, such a phenomenon may have emerged emerge among believers in Buddhism. We know that lay societies (kyŏlsa) were a prominent feature of Koryŏ era Buddhism, but the current state of research in Buddhism in the Chosŏn period provides no indication of the reappearance of organized lay piety,17 although there is some indication of the formation of Buddhist lay societies in the mid-19th century.18 We can perhaps argue that the development of the underground organizations of the Tonghak movement after the execution of Ch’oe Che-u in 1864 represented the rise of an organized lay piety in Korea,19 but that, like the new Buddhist lay associations, came very late in the dynasty, right before the opening of the ports in 1876.

This brings us to another important issue in seeing the Choson as “early modern”: the time lags between various elements. Although we can see the rise of a strong centralized bureaucratic system in the early 15th century and population increase from the 15th century through the mid-18th century, significant growth in commercial activity does not appear to have developed until the mid-17th century, roughly 250 years after the founding of the Chosŏn. Although the *Hunmin chŏngŭm *system for writing vernacular Korea was created in the mid-15th century, it does appear to have been widely used until the late 18th or 19th centuries, and current research provides no evidence for the rise of an organized lay piety until the mid-19th century. One would assume that there needed to be some sort of temporal convergence among key elements in order to have the kind of synergy that would produce the “early modern” as a distinct new stage of historical development. Pomeranz, in fact, notes in his discussion of the problems of the “early modern”, that unless we find a way to develop multiple but interrelated time scales, we are left with a huge time frame that is inadequate to explain the “early modern”.20 Otherwise we are left with “moments of modernity” that did not eventually develop in to full-fledged “modernity”.21 Here we need to think about “time scales”. Rather than conceiving of scales as set classifications of time with distinct beginnings and ends, perhaps it is more useful to think of them as being like the scales 비눌 of fish skin that overlap each other. Such could certainly be the case in the West, where Pomeranz notes that although the steam engine was invented in the late 18th century and is conventionally used to mark the beginning of a new time, horses and oxen were still widely used in major Western cities all the way into the early 20th century.22

It seems to me that the “early modern” as currently conceived is in some ways an awkward fit for Chosŏn era Korea and that any attempt to force the Korean square peg into the “early modern” round hole will inevitably produce serious distortions in our understanding of the Korean past.

B. Chosŏn as an Advanced Organic Society

Is there an alternative approach that challenges the teleological and Eurocentric biases of the “early modern” and that can apply to the Chosŏn? One intriguing possibility is Jack Goldstone’s “advanced organic society.” Goldstone engages in a thorough critique of the “modern”, the “early modern”, as well as the Eurocentric and teleological conceits in which those concepts are based. He notes that such supposed characteristics of the “early modern” as thriving commercial economies and centralized bureaucratic political systems can be found in many places throughout the world over a very long span of time, and yet failed to progress to the “modern”. To explain this, Goldstone developed the idea of the “advanced organic society.” To quote Goldstone ,

“Nonetheless, if there are common social practices to be found among merchants from ancient Assyria to Song China to sixteenth century Europe, it is worth bracketing the issue of transitions to modernity, and simply asking if there is, in fact, some social formation that is extremely widespread c. 1500 and does represent a common stage of political and economic development in world history. I believe that there is, and that it corresponds to what E.A. Wrigley has called the ‘advanced organic societies.’ Wrigley coined this term to point out that, prior to the exploitation of coal for cheap energy, all societies were dependent on organic sources of energy­ biomass from crops that could be converted into muscle power of men and draft animals, and forest wood that could be used for fuel and (as charcoal) for industrial processes. The problem with these organic sources (and with wind and water-power that supplemented them) is that they existed as fixed flows--muscle power from draft animals was limited by how many animals the land could feed, and wood fuel from forests was limited by how fast forests would grow and how much land could be kept out of food cultivation… Thus, although advanced organic societies could grow mightily through exploitation of efficiencies of manufacturing and trade, such societies would inevitably reach a limit to growth when they fully tapped their arable land and forest.”23

For Goldstone and other California school scholars, the first place to overcome the limits of the advanced organic society was England in the early 19th century. As discussed earlier, that is seen as having come about almost as a matter of chance, of the fortuitous circumstance of having large and easily accessed deposits of coal near major population centers that allowed the English to make use of non-organic sources of power. That this did not happen in China, for example, was because China’s large deposits of coal in Shanxi lay far way from centers of commercial activity and population density in central and southern China. Hence, the English breakthrough becomes not the universal norm but rather an aberration. The historical mainstream, according to Goldstone, was the “advanced organic society.”24 Goldstone notes that Holland was the most advanced country in Europe in the 17th century but had fallen behind the rest of Western Europe by the 19th century because it made no use of coal and thus had no industrial revolution. China had seen extensive commercial development since the Song period and had a huge commercial economy at the end of the 18th century but was still an organic economy with no movement toward industrialization, due in part to the remote location of its coal deposits. Japan experienced extensive commercial development and urbanization in the Tokugawa period, but was not a growth economy from the mid-Tokugawa period on and was undergoing demographic stress as reflected in infanticide and other birth control practices. Goldstone notes that Japan’s coal deposits were in Kyushu and Hokkaido and that there is no evidence that Japan was on its way to industrialization before being forced to open its ports in the mid-19th century.25

Goldstone lays out what he sees as the key characteristics of advanced organic societies. They were primarily agrarian with predominantly peasant populations, but also had substantial urban cultures, centralized bureaucratic governments, substantial commercial activities, and some degree of differentiation or tension between religion and state (here Goldstone notes Buddhists and Confucian literati in the case of East Asia).26

How, then, do the features of Chosŏn era Korea fit with this model? Chosŏn was, of course, primarily agrarian and the bulk of its population was made up of peasants. While Chosŏn did not see urbanization on the same scale as China or Japan, Hanyang (Seoul), P’yŏngyang, Kaesŏng, Chŏngju, Chŏnju, and Ansŏng did constitute centers of urban culture. Chosŏn, as noted before, had formed a centralized bureaucratic state in the 15th century. Chosŏn also experienced rapid growth in commerce during the 17th and 18th centuries. Finally, the early Chosŏn saw the separation of state and Buddhism and, one can argue, also experienced considerable tension between the state and rural Confucian literati based in private academies (sŏwŏn) from the mid-Chosŏn period, if not earlier. As JaHyun Kim Haboush has argued, from the mid-17th century on provincial private academies engaged actively in criticizing the state, often in collaboration with each other.27 Pending further elaboration of the “advanced organic society” model and more detailed investigation of how Chosŏn may have conformed to that model, I will suggest at this point that it appears that Chosŏn era Korea might fit rather comfortably within the parameters of Goldstone’s concept. Indeed, I would be inclined to say that Chosŏn Korea was in the mainstream of 15th-18th century world history.

IV My Dilemma

Although it seems to me that Goldstone’s “advanced organic society” model may be the best fit for Chosŏn period Korea, I have been reluctant to use it in my research and my teaching. Goldstone’s model has failed to gain traction and the largely Eurocentric and teleological “early modern” continues to dominate the field of world history. This presents me with a practical and ethical dilemma.

If we do not make an effort to present Chosŏn Korea as “early modern,” we run the risk of relegating Korea to the status of a kind of historical backwater outside the main stream of world history, in much the same as did the historian apologists for imperial Japan. Hence, I have begun to use “early modern” in my classroom, distinguishing the highly centralized system of Chosŏn from the largely decentralized system of the Koryŏ, which, I suppose means that I see the Koryŏ in the same light as most historians have viewed medieval Europe and medieval Japan. But in my research, I will continue to problematize the “early modern,” even as I show how the Chosŏn conformed in some important ways to the “early modern” model of world history advocated by most of the members of the California School. Perhaps such research and writing will help to illuminate the limitations of the “early modern” model and lead, eventually to a less Eurocentric and less teleological way of researching and teaching world history.28

1 For comparisons of Mongol era Koryŏ and 20th century Korea, see Brueker, Remco E., “Colonial modernities in the 14th century: Empire as the harbinger of modernity,” in Brueker, Remco E., ed., Korea in the middle: Korean studies and area studies (Leiden: CNWS Publications, 2007) and Duncan, John, “Dealing with Empires: A Comparison of Mongol Era Koryŏ and 20th Century Colonial Period Intellectuals,” Kyushu daiguku kankoku kenkyujo nenbo 16 (2016) 1-12. For arguments that nation and nationalism in Korea are not simply modern novelties, see Breuker, Remco, "The Three in One, the One in Three:  The Koryo Three Han as a Pre-modern Nation," Journal of Inner and East Asian Studies 2-2 (2005) and Haboush, JaHyun Kim, The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
2 See, for example, Karlsson, Anders, “Recent Western European Historical Studies on ‘Pre-modern’ Korea and the Idea of ‘Modernity’ Revisited,” International Journal of Korean History 18-1 (2013) 185-202, and Duncan, John, “Han’guksa yŏn’guja ŭi dilemma” (Dilemmas for the Historian of Korea) in Miyajima Hiroshi and Pae Hangsŏp, eds., Tongasia nŭn myŏtsiin’ga? (Seoul: Nomo Books, 2015).
3 See Tomich, Dale, “The Order of Historical Time: The Long Duree and Micro-history,” Almanack 2 (2011) pp 38-65, for a recent concise discussion of Braudel’s concept of historical time and how it might be reconciled with microhistory.
4 Some scholars define this group as composed of central clerks, hyangni, and soldiers who functioned as the lower level of the ruling stratum. See Koryŏ taehakkyo Han’guksa yŏn’guso ed,, Han’guksa (Seoul: Saemunsa, 2014), p. 125.
5 There is considerable controversy about the composition of the ruling stratum in the late Koryŏ. The conventional view has been that a group known as the kwŏnmun sejok, made up primarily of people of non-munbŏl origins who gained power through their connections with the Mongols, dominated society and politics in that period. Other scholars make a distinction between kwŏnmun and sejok, arguing that the former were mostly people mostly of non-aristocratic origins who were able to rise to power through their military prowess and their connections with the Mongols and that the latter were people of old munbŏl origins. See, for example, Kim Tangt’aek, ”Ch’ungnyŏl wang ŭi pongnip kwajŏng ŭl t’onghaebon ch’ŏn’gye ch’ulsin kwallyo was ‘sajok’ ch’ulsin kwallyo ŭi chŏngch’I chŏk kaltung,” ‘sadaebu’ kaenyŏm e taehan chae kŏmt’o,” Tonga yŏn’gu 17 (1989).
6 Yi Sŏngmu, ”Chosŏn ch’ogi sinbunsa yŏn’gu ŭi chae kŏmt’o,” Yŏksa hakpo 102 (1984).
7 Han Yŏngu, Kwagŏ, ch’ulse ŭi sadari, volumes 1-4 (Seoul: Chisik sanŏpsa, 2013).
8 Deuchler, Martina, Under the Ancestors’ Eyes: Kinship, Status, and Locality in Pre-modern Korea (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asian Center, 2015).
9 Pomeranz, Kenneth, “Teleology, Discontinuity and World History: Periodization and Some Creation Myths of Modernity,” Asian Review of World Histories 1:2 (July 2013), 189-226.
10 For a discussion of various estimates of Chosŏn period population, see Shin, Gi-Wook, Peasant Protest and Scoial Change in Colonial Korea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996) pp 24-25.
11 Lee Hun-chang, “State Finance in the Early Modern Korea, 1652-1876,” paper presented at the IV International Economic History Congress, Helsinki, Finland, August 2006, p 4.
12 We can, of course, find examples of printing in the Koryŏ period, including the Samguk sagi of the 12th century, the Sangjŏng kogŭm yemun of the 13th century (no longer extant), and the Chikchi of the 14th century, but the Chosŏn appears to have featured much more active printing.
13 See Kim Tonguk, “P”anbon’go: Han’gŭl sosŏl ŭi panggakpon ŭi sŏngnip e taehayŏ,” in Ch’unhyang chŏn yŏn’gu (Seoul: Yonsei taehakkyo, 1983) pp. 385-399.For an early English-language account of commercial printing in late Chosŏn Korea, see W.E. Skillend, Kodae sosŏl: A Survey of Korean Popular Style Novels (London: School of Oriental and African Studies, 1968).
14 See Han Young Woo et al, eds., Uri yet chido wa kŭ arŭmdaŭm (Seoul: Hyohyŏng ch’ulp’an, 1999) and Ledyard, Gari, "Cartography in Korea." In J.B. Harley and David Woodward, eds. The History of Cartography, Volume Two, Book Two: Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994).
15 Yi T’aejin, “Koryŏ hugi ŭi in’gu chŭngga youin saengsŏng kwa hyangyak hugi ŭi in’gu chŭngga yoin saengsŏng kwa hyangyak ŭisul paltal,” Han’guk saron 19 (1988).
16 Kuksa p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe, ed., Han’guksa volume 33 (Kwach’on: Kuksap’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe, 1995) pp 449-450. See also Matsuura Akira, Shindai kaigai boekishi no kenkyu (Kyoto: Hoyu shoten, 2002).
17 For an overview of the status of research on Chosŏn era Buddhism, see Kim, Sung-Eun Richard, “From Degenerate to Regenerate: Redefining Methods of Approach to Joseon Buddhism,” paper presented at the Academy of Korean Studies 6th World Congress (2012).
18 Kim Chŏnghŭ, “Han’guk kŭndae pulgyo ŭi kyŏlsa undong kwa sŭngp’ung ŭi chŏngnip,” Wŏn pulgyo sasang kwa chonggyo munhwa 41 (2009) pp 223-246.
19 See O Munhwan, “Tonghak sasang esŏ ŭi chayulsŏng and konggongsŏng,” Han’guk chŏngch’ihak hoebo 36-2 (2002) pp 7-24 for an argument about how Tonghak institutions developed into Korea’s first autonomous local organizations.
20 Pomeranz, “Teleology, Discontinuity and World History,” pp 193-197.
21 See Woodside, Alexander, Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006) for nuanced treatment of this issue.
22 Pomeranz, “Teleology, Discontinuity and World History,: p 219.
23 Goldstone, Jack, “The Problem of the ‘Early Modern’ World”, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 41/3 (1998), 249-284. The quotation is from pp 261-263.
24 Goldstone, “The Problem of the ‘Early Modern’ World,” p 266.
25 Goldstone, “The Problem of the ‘Early Modern’,” pp 263-265.
26 Goldstone, “The Problem of the ‘Early Modern’,” pp 265-66.
27 Haboush, JaHyun Kim, “Academies and Civil Society in Chosŏn Korea,” in Leon Vandermeersch, ed., La Societe Civil Face a L’etat: dans le traditions chinoise, japponaise, correene, et vietnamienne. (Paris: Ecole Francais de Extreme-Orient, 1994) pp 383-392.
28 For an earlier paper in which I concluded that we should use the “advanced organic society” model for Chosŏn, see my “Dilemmas for the Historian of Korea 한국사 연구자의 딜레마,” in Miyajima Hiroshi and Pae Hangsŏp, eds., Tong Asia nŭn myŏtsi in’ga—Tong Asia ŭi saeroun ihae rŭl ch’ajasŏ (Seoul: Nŏmŏ Books, 2016).


John B. Duncan, “Change and Continuity between Koryŏ and Chosŏn: A View from California,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 18, 2024,