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Birth and Merit for Chosŏn Korea’s Secondary Status Groups

In modern Western culture, most agree that certain jobs should be given to the most qualified, regardless of birth or parentage. However, in Chosŏn Korea (1392 - 1910), this was not the case. Chosŏn society “tended to emphasize aristocratic birth rather than bureaucratic skill and moral stature” (Kim, 3). Although Chosŏn society was largely governed by Confucianism, a Chinese philosophy that emphasized ability over birth and “idealized the Confucian prescription of employing men of talent,” many Chosŏn Koreans still overlooked merit in favor of inheritance (Kim, 3).

Interestingly, the secondary status groups, people who were ranked below the elite yangban class in the social hierarchy, relied on both lineage and merit. For these groups, which include the muban (military officials), chungin (technical specialists), sŏŏl (illegitimate children of concubines), hyangni (clerks), and northern elites, “heredity remained the indispensable feature in determining status.” However, because “the bureaucracy, in fact, was the institution in which achievement and merit could most affect the social hierarchy,” the secondary status groups used their employment in the government bureaucracy to gain upward mobility in the social hierarchy and secure their status (Hwang, 27).

To become a member of the muban early in the Chosŏn dynasty, men from non-yangban status groups could take the mukwa, or the military examination. By passing, they could raise their status by becoming military officials. Military officials and yangban families intermarried, but by the early 17th century, they separated into different groups. Certain muban families married only within their class and “monopolized” the top military posts. Simply put, the lower status men “took advantage of the increasing accessibility of the mukwa military exam and military posts to gain a measure of upward mobility” (Hwang, 33). Initially, lower status men were able to elevate their status through merit by passing the mukwa military exam to the point where they could marry with yangban, but later they secured their status using their lineage later in the Chosŏn era by marrying exclusively within their own group. 

The sŏŏl group had an ambivalent relationship with ascriptive status, social status acquired from birth. Although their fathers were of higher, yangban status, their mothers were their secondary wives (or concubines) and therefore women of non-yangban backgrounds. This pedigree doomed them to a lower social status because they were considered “illegitimate.” This meant that all descendants of concubines were socially ruined because no one wanted to marry them and they were legally excluded from the highest rungs of the civil bureaucracy (Hwang, 34). The sŏŏl group was unhappy with this system and sought to “be recognized as members of the yangban elite” since they descended from yangban fathers (Kim, 15). To protest their lack of yangban privileges and inability to participate in the civil bureaucracy, the sŏŏl group quoted Mencius (372-279 BC ), an ancient Confucian philosopher, who argued that kings should “employ men of talents and virtue regardless of their origin” (Kim, 15). Nevertheless, Chosŏn society still limited peoples’ advancement based on birth. Consequently, as the number of sŏŏl grew, so did their discontent. They “became truly forceful” as a result of their “campaigns to escape their legal and societal stigmata” (Hwang, 54). For example, in 1823 they gathered nearly ten thousand signatures on a petition submitted to the king. This resulted in political reforms that came slowly, but, discrimination against the sŏŏl remained until the end of the Chosŏn dynasty (Kim, 12). Ultimately, the sŏŏl had to work against and with their heritage as they fought to gain the privileges that their yangban fathers had in order to overcome the barriers that came with their mother’s lower status and obtain opportunities that merit could grant them in the bureaucracy.

Similar to the sŏŏl, the chungin class also disputed discriminatory practices based on lineage to obtain opportunities through merit. The chungin had their own exam (chapkwa) which allowed them to become technical specialists such as astronomers, painters, medical officials, and so on. Despite their importance, the chungin had a “subordinate standing in the hierarchies of both the bureaucracy and the society” (Hwang, 34). Unlike the sŏŏl, they didn’t really participate in many movements to gain privileges for their status group, “possibly because the number of technical specialists was relatively small” (Kim, 22). Nevertheless, in 1851, the chungin organized a movement against the discriminatory policy that kept the chungin from prestigious positions. The chungin reasoned against this policy by “[emphasizing] merit and talent, rather than pedigree” (Kim, 22). However, they didn’t hesitate to put forth their prestigious ancestry as another justification, claiming that they “originated from the pure scholar official class” (Kim, 23). 

The elites from the northern Py’ŏngan province also argued for meritocracy when faced with discrimination. The origin of discriminatory practices against northern elites is somewhat unknown but according to Paek Kyonghae (1765–1842), a P’yŏngan literatus, regional discrimination rooted itself in the social environment during the Chosŏn dynasty (Kim, 27). Unfortunately for the northern elites, this meant that they were “effectively barred northerners from obtaining prestigious positions” despite the fact that this policy “contradicted the Neo-Confucian prescription for a meritocracy” (Kim, 27). Eventually, they grew sick and tired of discriminatory practices and took advantage of reforms that improved life for other secondary status groups. In 1823, northern elites organized themselves to collectively protest against the unfair policies and in their argument, “invoked the Confucian principle of meritocracy” (Kim, 32). 

In an ideal Confucian society, meritocracy would be celebrated over aristocracy. On the other hand, Chosŏn was far from an ideal Confucian society and unfortunately for the secondary status group, factors out of their control, such as heritage, often kept them from equal opportunities. Overall, something that all of these groups had in common was their intent to elevate their status based on meritocratic achievement. Whether or not they used their prestigious lineage to justify their calling for a better social standing depended on the group and the situation. In the end, the struggle to climb the ladder of social hierarchy demonstrates the neverending endeavor for better opportunities in Chosŏn society.


Beyond Birth: Social Status in the Emergence of Modern Korea Cover Page Source: Creator: Kyung Moon Hwang Date: 2024


Rebekah Lee, “Birth and Merit for Chosŏn Korea’s Secondary Status Groups,” UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum, accessed July 12, 2024,