- Between Dreams and Reality: The Military Examination in Late Choson Korea, 1600-1894
Jutting out of the northeastern corner of the Eurasian landmass, the Korean peninsula has not attracted as much attention as its larger neighbors China, Japan, and Russia have. That is unfortunate, since Korea has much to offer those interested in comparative history, including social history.
For 2,000 years, Korea looked up to China, its neighbor to the west, for advice on how to run its government and organize its society. Like China at the same time, Korea's Choson dynasty (1392–1910) used a civil service examination system to staff its bureaucracy. China had decided that a meritocracy was the best civil service, and Korea followed its example. However, Korea did not pursue the Chinese example slavishly. Unlike the Chinese but like the Japanese, their neighbors to the east, Koreans believed that family background was more important than individual ability in determining who was meritorious and who was not. Unlike Japan, however, Korea did not let individuals inherit official posts. Instead, it used family background to determine who was allowed to take the civil service examinations. Korea thus stands between China and Japan, combining the two criteria of ascription and achievement to choose those who would help the king run the country and who would, as a result, enjoy the highest social status in the land, second only to that of the royal family itself.
Eugene Park, in this masterful study of one of those government examinations, the military examination system, shows the impact of that contradictory combination of criteria on Korea's social structure over the last half of its last dynasty. In the late 14th century, at the beginning of the Choson dynasty, descendants of aristocratic office-holders from the previous dynasty restricted access to the examinations so they could monopolize high-status central government posts. Over the centuries that followed, the number of their descendants grew, but the number of prestigious positions stayed the same, leading to fragmentation of the elite according to how well they performed on the examinations. The more successful families intermarried among themselves to form a small group of lineages that dominated the top positions in the civilian bureaucracy. A few less successful lineages branched off to concentrate on the less prestigious military examinations, and they also intermarried, unable to marry into more successful lineages and not wishing to risk a further drop in status by marrying into families of lower rank. Those lineages that were unable to produce either civilian or military examination passers retreated to the countryside, where they used their connections to the capital-based elite as well as their family tradition of exam-oriented Confucian education to establish themselves as the political and social leaders of their local communities.
The linking of achievement with inherited status permitted social mobility in one direction only. Korean families that failed to produce successful examination passers would move down the social ladder. However, the descendants of those who had moved to a lower step were blocked from climbing back up to the higher level their ancestors had once occupied. Moreover, once the lower strata of the elite fell so low that many were no better off economically than commoners [End Page 843] were, commoners tried to rearrange the social ladder to narrow the gap between social rank and economic status. After 1600, richer commoners began buying official titles and taking the military examination. In response, all segments of the original elite, from the families of capital-based civilian officials to their distant relatives in the countryside, reemphasized hereditary status to ensure that those with degrees and titles who were not related to the original elite families would not be treated with the same respect, or afforded the same opportunities, as those who were related to the original elite.
Korean respect for inherited status ensured that what upward social mobility occurred was nominal social mobility. A few were able to obtain degrees and official titles that...