3,000 years of East Asian history in Korea, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Russia
Beginning of the End New Philosophies


Ch 7 - The Death of Koryo

A Feudal Society

Koryo's land system centralized all economic authority in the hands of the king and subordinated all local administration to the central government in Kaesong. Many great landowners became virtually independent of the royal court in a society far more sharply divided by hereditary classes than the Chinese. The kingdom's eroding tax base and inherently adverse social and economic structure began pushing Koryo toward complete disintegration.

Agriculture had been the economic foundation under every Korean society since the emergence of walled-town city states. It provided not only food for the population, but economic wealth. The ownership and control of land, particularly rich agricultural land, meant not only wealth, but political power. Not long after the founding of Koryo, the aristocracy pushed hard to create more farmland and increase agricultural production. Instead of developing incentives for the peasants to create this wealth, they centralized all economic authority in the hands of the king and concentrated production control in the hands of wealthy local families. From its inception in the tenth century, Koryo developed an imposing, highly-centralized Chinese-style government and set in place the structure of a feudal society that continued without substantive changes until the beginning of the twentieth century.

In European-style feudalism, land belonged to feudal lords who were the actual territorial rulers. In Koryo, land belonged to the king and remained the property of the state. Land reform and land use rarely dealt with actual "ownership" of the land, but with matters of production and revenue and who enjoyed the right to collect taxes and/or rent on the use of state-owned land. Unlike other feudal societies of the period, Koryo's ruling class, including the Choe clan and other great military families who ruled from Kaesong, had no direct links to either the land or the peasants who worked the land. They owned vast estates and enriched themselves on tax yields and rents, but never took a personal hand in managing their property or even drawing their personal military forces from among the agricultural population. Instead, they remained essentially isolated from the population within a slowly degenerating central government.

When Koryo's ruling class first instituted their new land system, they created three separate programs for categorizing the land:  centralized property, private property, and property for small land-owners. The centralized property system established two types of land that concentrated property rights in the hands of Kaesong's central aristocracy. The income generated from konghai-donshi, land belonging to the executive body of the government, was considered national revenue to be used for national expenditures. The income from such lands paid for government buildings, royal palaces, and other public buildings and covered the general expenses of local administrative services, including local government employee salaries.

The private property system, which existed since the time of the Silla kingdom, provided land for local autonomous chieftains, land for meritorious retainers and land awarded by the king for meritorious service to the throne. In Koryo, this land was made inheritable.

The individual small-landholder system gave Koryo's commoners an opportunity become small landholders. Five types of land were made available to commoners:  soldier's land, permanent working land, "mouth-share" land, government service land, and land for naturalized subjects. Every able-bodied male who passed the national examination was entitled to receive a certain amount of soldier's land, gun-don, at the age of twenty and had the right to cultivate that land until age sixty. The peasant-soldiers were obligated to farm the land in peacetime and fight in time of war. Soldier's land was tax-exempt since it was used to pay salaries for military service.

If the peasant-soldier received permanent working land, youngyup-don, and had a son, then his land allotment could be handed down when the father retired. If the peasant-soldier reached retirement without having a son, his land became kubon-don, literally "mouth-share land," and he was entitled to continue farming the land until the age of seventy. If he should live past that age, the land was given him as private property.

Civilian government employees received land, waiyuk-don, for government service in place of an annual salary and were allowed to collect rent on this land. When they left government service however, the land was returned to the state.

In order to encourage immigration to Koryo, particularly to bolster labor shortages in the northeastern provinces, the central government allocated land, toohwa-don, to naturalized subjects. Under this system, many aliens, mostly Chinese and Japanese, became subjects of the Koryo kingdom.

Beneath the surface, Koryo developed a society which remained far more sharply divided by hereditary classes than the Chinese. At the very top of society was a closed ruling group of powerful aristocratic families with close connections to King Taejo and the founding of the kingdom. These families were concentrated in Kaesong and monopolized the highest positions in government. The sons of these elite aristocrats received government appointments without examination. In fact, the schools established to train candidates for the civil service examinations were, for the most part, open only to them.

The capital at Kaesong was the physical embodiment of a centralized feudal society. All government offices and buildings were located in the heavily-guarded capital. For over a century, over 340,000 compulsory laborers worked to remodel the city by building new palaces, castles, government offices, temples and roads. Envoys from the Chinese Song Dynasty admired Kaesong's beauty and magnificence, a city that symbolized the authority of the king and the focus of activity for Koryo's ruling classes. They also commented on the stark contrast between the opulent palaces and fine houses of Kaesong and the wretched hovels that existed throughout Koryo.

Koryo was divided into provinces, counties, districts, towns, villages, even geographic places and all local government administration was subordinated to the central government in Kaesong. The government appointed all officials at the county and provincial level, leaving district, town and village officials under the control of the local aristocracy. This system meant the central government did not rule directly and had no contact with the people. To get around this problem, the government introduced two new officials:  the local administrator, hyangsa, and the inspector, sashimkwan.

The local administrator was elected by local residents and charged with collecting taxes, recruiting compulsory laborers for the central government, and mediating disputes among the people. The hyangsa was not a member of the government's bureaucratic classes, but simply a servant charged with doing its work at the local level. Because he was in the best position to know and understand local economic conditions and the political winds that drove the peasants, his influence did not go unnoticed by Kaesong.

The inspector, the central government's "eyes and ears," was a political appointee. The sashimkwan, always under the watchful eye of the central government, supervised and restricted the activities of the local administrator. To ensure the loyalty of its appointee, the government required one of the inspector's sons to live in Kaesong as a hostage.

Feudalistic Koryo was a "two-tiered" society where a small minority of the privileged ruling class dominated the bulk of the population. Koryo's nobility did not live on their lands, but congregated in the capital. They were reluctant to take positions in the provinces and it was rare when they did so, leaving local government largely in the hands of local administrators. Political leadership and political activity were even more concentrated in Koryo than in China, a situation that created a vast gulf between the Kaesong aristocracy and the rest of the population.

The five primary groups of the ruling class included the royal family, civil bureaucrats, central military bureaucrats, local military bureaucrats, and the priesthood. The bulk of Koryo's population, whose hard work supported the government and the aristocracy through taxes and rents, were either commoners, yangmin, or "base people," ch'unmin, a group comprised mostly of slaves, but which also included government mine workers, merchants, handicraft artisans, postal service employees, and other low professional class positions.

The distinction between the ruling class and the ruled was literally a matter of record in Koryo. The government established a census registration system that officially recorded the status of its subjects. The government conducted a census registration for the aristocracy every three years. One copy of this record was kept in the official files and another copy was given to the aristocrats as certification of their social status. The government census for commoners was taken every year and they received no official certification of their status. The commoner census was used for conscription to military service, conscription to labor duty for public works, and to record the number of productive workers in agriculture, handicraft industries, fisheries, business, and other occupations.

Koryo's royal family, wangzok, included the king, the queen, princes and princesses. Thirty-two kings ruled during Koryo's 460 years of existence and each was the supreme landlord. He was, in theory at least, the sole owner of all land in the kingdom and could do with it as he wished. Private royal land was scattered in some 360 different locations across the kingdom, farmed by public slaves (sometimes called palace slaves) under the supervision of government-appointed officials.

Civil bureaucrats, munkwan, included the king's ministers, retainers, court nobles, and merit-system appointees who passed the state civil service examination. They wielded political power in Koryo under the accepted idea of civilian supremacy over the military from 976 until 1170, when the commanding general of the capital's Sentinel Corps led a military coup that put the military bureaucrats, mookwan, in power. For nearly a century, the mookwan ruled Koryo with the status of the king reduced to that of a mere puppet figure. Their lack of political experience and the nearly constant rivalry among various military factions kept the system so unstable it never managed to establish a successful regime.

Koryo's newly emerged ruling class distributed land to its peasant-soldiers as payment for military service. Many held a decided interest in protecting their income and were quick to fight off any attempt by the central government to encroach on their land. Small, local landlords joined this group of men to present a united front against the Kaesong aristocracy whenever it attempted to expand its interests into local areas.

Friction between the central government and the commoners had deep roots in Koryo. In 1041, the king decreed that the first born son of high-ranking aristocrats would be exempt from military service. At the same time, the government issued a directive that forbid commoners, meaning the peasant-soldier class, from wearing long swords. These two policies engendered a great deal of indignation in Koryo against the Kaesong aristocracy and made it much easier for the lower social classes, local forces and the military to unite against the central government. When peasant-soldiers and local landlords joined to back the military after its takeover in 1170, they secured the ultimate protection for their land holdings. In time, some of these peasant-soldiers acquired enough wealth and a large enough following to advance their status to that of local military bureaucrats, tohogun.

King Taejo, the kingdom's founder, stated that the success of his dynasty depended entirely on Buddha's protection. Although Kublai Khan's Mongol dynasty had a tremendous influence on the physical aspects of Koryo's government, it was Buddhism that had the greatest influence on the government's spirit. Koryo's ruling class accepted Buddhism as both a state religion and political ideology, largely because it promised a happy life for the aristocracy and protection for kings. Monasteries and temples were richly endowed with land and slaves to ensure happiness and Buddha's blessings.

Kublai Khan's Mongols liked Buddhism. They considered Confucianism too anti-foreign, too dense and too socially restrictive. The fact that Chinese intellectuals turned away from Buddhism did not bring the Mongols any closer to the Chinese. Kublai Khan tried to make the Chinese happier by reinstating the civil service examination and letting Chinese serve in lower level government positions, but the Mongols always remained foreigners in Chinese eyes. The strong support of Buddhism by Koryo's monarchy prompted a number of Buddhist priests to take advantage of their position. They organized their own small "temple armies" under the pretext of protecting Buddhist property, established textile and wine production using slave labor, and manufactured weapons for the temple soldiers. Unfettered by government interference, they gradually emerged as powerful landlords and began influencing government policy. The Buddhist priesthood in Koryo eventually acquired such power that no king could reign without first becoming a Buddhist monk.

Koryo had been subjected to numerous incursions and invasions by neighboring states throughout its history;  the Khitan of Liao, the Jurchen of Manchuria, the Jin and Song Chinese, and finally, the Mongols. This unrelenting pressure from the outside is likely the underlying reason why Koryo developed a capital-centered administration that rested on a highly centralized system of politics, economics, and military strength instead of evolving as a fragmented, locally-based feudal system controlled by wealthy warlords. Whatever the reason, Koryo's centralized government made the Mongol's goal of dominating the peninsula all the easier. With all power tightly controlled at the top by a small group of elite aristocrats, all the Mongols needed to do was get control of the upper echelon of government to dominate the entire population.

The Mongols had a firm grip on the Korean peninsula by the late 13th century. Kublai Khan's Japanese expeditions in 1274 and 1281 reduced the kingdom of Koryo to the brink of utter ruin. The immense Yuan economic levies on Koryo, the demands to furnish men and materiel and the expropriation of tons of supplies to support the expeditions sorely afflicted a nation already laid waste by prolonged warfare. First, the Koryo government had to pay an immense annual tribute to the Yuan dynasty. Each year vast sums of gold, silver and grain left Korea for the Mongol court in Khanbalik. The tribute payments also included such items as ginseng root, highly prized otter furs, and peregrine falcons and sparrow hawks, hunting birds long praised by Koryo's aristocracy. Second, in addition the regular expenditures associated with running the government, Koryo faced the cost of supporting the continuous travel between Kaesong and Khanbalik and the expenses associated with royal marriages to Mongol princesses.

Koryo also suffered the terrible personal costs associated with meeting annual Mongol demands to send artisans, young women and eunuchs to the Yuan imperial harem to satisfy the needs and desires of the Mongol aristocracy. This represented one of the saddest and most divisive Mongol practices in Koryo, the one that contributed so much to internal divisiveness. To meet the great demand, the Yuan dynasty established two special offices just to fill the annual levies. The majority of young girls sent to the Yuan capital suffered the unenviable fate of becoming either concubines or slaves of the Yuan Emperor or other Mongol aristocrats. This annual ritual led to a widespread increase in early marriages among Koryo families to prevent their young women from being herded off to Khanbalik. On occasion however, a young girl got lucky.

Ki Chao, a farmer's daughter from Haengju, was among the many young women sent to Khanbalik one year. Luckily, she was chosen for the court of Toghan-Temur, Emperor Shun Di, the last of the Yuan rulers. The young girl's beauty so moved the emperor and he enjoyed her so much as his concubine that in 1341, he elevated her to the official status of Yuan Empress Ki, second in rank only to the Mongol Empress herself. This fortunate change in status not only legitimized her offspring, but when Emperor Shun died, her son succeeded him on the Yuan throne. Ki Chao's family became a powerful force in Koryo, particularly her brother Ki Ch'ol, who led a strong pro-Mongol faction that included other men with daughters in the Yuan imperial harem. So it was that a simple farmer from Haengju, Korea, found himself the grandfather of a Mongol emperor and enjoyed a life of wealth and leisure for the rest of his days.

The Mongol occupation made the plight of Koryo's farmers more miserable than ever before. Unable to pay the exorbitant taxes levied against them, vast numbers of peasants abandoned their lands, moved onto private estates and became tenants. Some even became slaves. This massive population shift allowed many great landowners to rapidly expand their own wealth and power, especially those who cooperated with the Mongols. Under Yuan rule, the wealthiest landowners became virtually independent of the royal court in Kaesong. The dramatic erosion of Koryo's tax base reduced government revenues to almost nothing. The inherently adverse characteristics of Koryo's social and economic structure, encouraged and accelerated by the effects of Mongol dominance, began pushing the kingdom toward complete disintegration.


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