- Between Dreams and Reality: The Military Examination in Late Chosûn Korea, 1600–1894
This work is a social history of the military examination (mukwa) system in late Chosûn Dynasty (1392–1910) Korea. The author, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, asks why the military examination system expanded and recruited so many more men from all walks of life in the late Chosûn period despite the fact that the military was rarely needed for dealing with major foreign threats, nor was it particularly effective in even fulfilling domestic obligations. Park argues that "the late Chosûn military examination assumed a dual role: as a political institution it guaranteed a place in the power structure for one segment of the aristocracy, and as a sociocultural medium, it released the tensions engendered by the rigid status hierarchy" (p. 2).
Utilizing a wide array of heretofore under-studied military examination records, genealogies, personal writings, assorted local and national historical gazetteers and compilations, the author has assembled a database of over 32,000 military examination graduates. Park finds that the military examination system allowed marginalized elements of society from outside the capital region some, albeit limited, political opportunity and influence, thereby serving the social function of "mollifying nonelites beyond the locus of power" (p. 143). In the process, the military examination system also bridged the gap between the worlds of the yangban aristocrats and the common people (p. 176), many of whom, Park suggests, may have been inspired to partake in the examinations by reading or hearing tales of martial heroes drawn from Korean history and legend, in addition to the real benefits to be obtained from the acquisition of an examination degree, which included exemption from military draft registers and exemptions from certain taxes (pp. 166–78). Indeed, readers of this journal may be surprised to find that the military examination system played little role in enhancing the state's military competence or effectiveness; rather "it functioned as a state-sanctioned status credential for men of martial talent regardless of whether they were actually performing military duty" (p. 116).
Casting Chosûn dynasty Korea as a highly status-conscious society dominated by an ascriptive Confucian elite that jealously protected its privileged [End Page 1227] position, Park draws upon the social theories of scholars such as Pierre Bourdieu, William Sewell, and James Scott to inform and augment his study of the broader social context of the military examination system without letting the theories themselves unduly shape his conclusions. Perhaps his most important finding is demonstrating how military elites, even if generally excluded from the highest official posts, could play key roles in factional struggles and might even be used by monarchs to counterbalance the tremendous power of civil elites, a state of affairs we sometimes see in late imperial China, though the author regrettably does not explore this issue in much detail. While admitting that civil officials always enjoyed greater overall prestige within the Chosûn political order vis-à-vis their military counterparts, Park nonetheless makes a convincing case for the broader local impact of the military exams, if for no other reason than the simple fact that the latter were easier to pass (at times thousands passed a single examination) than their civil counterparts and therefore constituted a more realistic goal for upwardly mobile regional and local elites, not to mention a significant number of nonelites, as discussed in chapter five.
Scholars of Korean history will benefit from the author's nuanced treatment of an impressive source base and his deep understanding of yangban society. Comparative military historians, on the other hand, may occasionally become lost in the morass of specialized terms and anecdotes. A more straightforward and detailed discussion of the actual examination process would have been welcome, as would more comparisons between other contemporary military recruitment and training systems such as those of China and Europe. Likewise, a more explicit treatment of the utilization...