Keimyung University, Academia Koreana
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  • Under the Ancestors’ Eyes: Kinship, Status, and Locality in Premodern Korea by Martina Deuchler
Under the Ancestors’ Eyes: Kinship, Status, and Locality in Premodern Korea. By Martina Deuchler. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015. xvi, 609 pp. (ISBN: 9780674504301)

In her long career, Martina Deuchler has been fortunate in opening up many new fields and questions concerning premodern Korean society and thought, and her new publication continues in this direction. Under the Ancestors’ Eyes is a pioneering study in the history, structure and strategies of Korean elite descent groups, from their ancient origins until the modern period. The reader will find, in this monograph, many motifs and topics from Deuchler’s previous works (inheritance practices, matrilineal patterns in Korean society, Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, and so on), with particular regard to the theme of elite descent groups and their role in [End Page 338] traditional Korean society. Yet this monograph, which provides a description of the “origin, function, and the development of the Korean descent group in an extended historical perspective reaching from early Silla to late Chosŏn” (p. 397) goes far beyond describing the kinship structures of Korea’s most powerful families in addressing the most specific features of traditional society on the peninsula—their extraordinary stable power, and the hereditary character of Korean local elites. Written almost as a family saga, Deuchler narrates how Korean elite descent groups created, maintained and ultimately lost their power and wealth through the centuries and the vicissitudes of history, highlighting, as an example, two localities, Andong in Kyŏngsang Province and Namwŏn in Chŏlla Province. The term “locality” mentioned in the subtitle of the book proves to be a very successful concept in demonstrating the shifting patterns of Korean elites: Andong and Namwŏn serve as vivid examples, and the nearly overwhelming number of local archival sources that the author brings to bear supply the reader with a lively image of local society. The stories of the main protagonists, narrated in detail, offer a wide range of examples illustrating the general trends of descent group survival strategies over the long centuries. From the arrival of first settlers in the area, we can witness the story of the creation of the descent groups’ economic base via the cultivation of land and the acquisition of slaves together with the military and bureaucratic careers of the early generations during the Koryŏ and early Chosŏn periods. We see the saga of family members competing in state examinations and identifying with the rising movement of Confucianism combined with the establishment of control over local society and the enhancement of family prestige via the building of shrines and schools, genealogical research or the practice of the cult of ancestors. The late periods witness the participation of local families in fractional fights and turbulent court politics and result in the creation of the typical image of the local yangban devoted to Confucian virtues who encounters numerous challenges in terms of the maintaining of his claim to status. The monograph can also be read with a less optimistic, but equally valid and useful perspective—as a narrative of the dark and brutal struggle of local elites to hang on to property and maintain their own social status, in which the local heroes, seen in this light, at first distance themselves from their own origins among petty local officials, subsequently excluding their own daughters from inheritance; this was followed by the estrangement of secondary sons and other siblings as well. The portrayal of both sides of these issues allows us to see all aspects of these local elites: their enslavement of the local commoners occurred in parallel with the creation of memorial gates for virtuous widows; we also witness the great thinker T’oegye Yi Hwang exhibit a prodigious ability to enlarge his own land holdings while fighting over the proper [End Page 339] management of the ancestral cult. The overall picture presented in the book illustrates one key recurrent motif: “the primacy of socially manipulated and legitimized pattern of hierarchy and dominance” (p. 2) over the political structures of the Korean state. The Korean elites (unlike their Chinese counterparts) were more likely to base their hegemonic status on kinship ideology and ancestry, as opposed to their political or economic societal roles. Indeed, the sections of the book describing how the Andong elites were able to survive despite their exclusion, for hundreds of years, from the state bureaucracy, and with only limited access to state examinations, truly redefine our understanding of the relationship between state and local elites in premodern Korea. The landed elites, in the two cases under review, were able to defend their privileges and status, both in respect to the state and the potential challenges to power from the lower classes for many centuries, without, seemingly, much change (at least until the partial breakdown of the order at the end of the dynasty). The maintenance of elite status was an ongoing process, fuelled by the unending display of power and capacities via costly rituals, the preservation of local alliances, and the mobilization of political ties during the turbulent events in Korean political life. The narrative focus, in this monograph, on these two groups of local descent elites is greatly enhanced by the author’s emphasis on the relation between micro-history—for example, inheritance disputes, or the establishment of a family graveyard—and the crucial events of Korean history: see, for example, the description of the impact of the Imjin War or the dethronement of King Kwanghaegun on local society and the protagonist of this monograph. The reader wishing to explore the complicated world of the Andong elites in the light of major historical events in even more detail could read, in parallel with Martina Deuchler’s monograph, a recent publication by Andrew Jackson on the 1728 Musin Rebellion: one of the seminal events which shook the Andong elite to its core, drawing it into a whirlpool of violent politics beyond the borders of the region.

To fully enjoy Under the Ancestors’ Eyes one must keep in mind certain provisions, the main being that the book fulfils only what it really promises: to provide a description of elite descent groups through the centuries in two localities. The author discusses almost every facet of premodern Korean society, ranging from slavery, court politics, and the economic situation, to Confucian philosophy or legal disputes, but only to the extent relevant to the main topic—the status and locality of the Namwŏn and Andong elites. The reader interested in the question of slavery in pre-modern Korea might feel there is not enough description of the plight of the nobi as the prevalent focus is placed on their masters, whereas aficionados of T’oegye and Confucian philosophy will certainly feel that there is too much stress on T’oegye’s family ties and not on his thought. Yet, when one [End Page 340] accepts that the book is about the sajok 士族 elites, the proportion of these variegated topics makes sense as a whole.

The second problem concerning the publication (which has also been pointed out in previous reviews) is rather a question for the future: how can Deuchler’s analysis be used and applied for further studies of premodern elites and society? “Do the Andong and Namwŏn sajok represent typical cases, models for emulation, or simply locale-specific strategies?”8 or “Is it necessary to see a comparison of Chosŏn’s northern and southern regions”?9 The answer to both these questions could be both affirmative and negative: it will be useful and even necessary to have precise descriptions of other regions elites at our disposal, and in this sense we may regret that the present monograph discusses only the Andong and Namwŏn descent groups. On the other hand, from a structural point of view, the analysis of the situation in other regions (including the capital city) will no doubt follow the methodological groundwork laid by Deuchler. Other Korean regions will certainly show a different proportion of Confucian academies, a higher or lower dependency on tenant work, or different political orientations, but the general categories that need to be filled out with precise data will largely remain the same. It is also true that the Andong example is to a certain degree unique, thanks to the unusual number of the documents extant (even in comparison to the case of Namwŏn), as well as the fact that Andong descent groups were able recently to make these documents accessible via electronic databases and research institutes (indeed, an ultimate proof of their still considerable social elite status and exclusivity). With the northern provinces effectively lost to any research endeavours, and many documents in the South remaining in private hands, the challenges for future studies in this direction remain, sadly, rather formidable, and we can only hope that research of similar depth and scale will soon be applied to the other regions of Korea.

It is in fact difficult to find anything to criticize in this outstanding monograph. The only problem that bears mentioning is that the language—one could even say jargon—of the book is perhaps too specific to the specialty of Korean studies: frequently used terms like sajok, chokpo, kolp’um, hyangni or munjung are automatically understood by Korea specialists, but the reader from outside the field will almost certainly—if only temporarily—be perplexed. The close affinity to the perspective of Korean studies is at times highlighted by rendering Chinese terms in Korean pronunciation: for example, the ancient Chinese states Teng 滕 [End Page 341] and Xue 薛 are written as Tŭng and Sŏl (p. 260), or the Ming Dynasty era Chongzhen 崇禎 is presented as sungjŏng (p. 247). The price for the copious indexes and notes is indicated by the weight of the book: a tome of no less than 1.3 kilos is perhaps better read while comfortably seated, not standing with the volume casually balanced in one hand. Worthy of mention are the well-chosen figures and unique photographs, often provided by the author herself.

Under the Ancestors’ Eyes is a fantastic contribution to Korean studies and certainly one of those publications which both scholars and students will use as a reference book on premodern Korea for years to come. And finally, there are two pieces of welcome news: it seems that a paperback edition is in preparation, and the monograph will soon be published in Korean. [End Page 342]

Vladimir Glomb
Free University of Berlin


8. Wang Sixiang, “Review of Under the Ancestors' Eyes: Kinship, Status, and Locality in Premodern Korea,” Journal of Asian Studies 75/3 (2016):853.

9. Javier Cha, “The Dynamics of Elite Domination in Early Modern Korea (Review Essay),” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies 17/1 (2017):101.