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A high government official or yangban in his formal attire, taken in 1863.
The yangban were part of the traditional ruling class or nobles of dynastic Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. The yangban were either landed or unlanded aristocracy who comprised the Korean Confucian idea of a "scholarly official." Basically, they were administrators and bureaucrats who oversaw ancient Korea's traditional agrarian bureaucracy until the ancient regime of Joseon Dynasty ended in 1894. In a broader sense, office holder's family and descendents as well as country families who claimed such descendence were also socially accepted as yangban.
Unlike the European and Japanese aristocracy where noble titles were conferred on a hereditary basis, the yangban title was de jure conferred to those individuals who passed state-sponsored civil service exams called gwageo (과거, 科擧). Upon passing such exams several times, which tested one's knowledge of the Confucian classics and history, a person was usually assigned to a government post. The yangban family that did not succeed to produce a government official for more than three generations could lose its yangban status and become a commoner. In theory any member of any social class except indentured servants, baekjeongs, and children of concubines could take the government exams and become a yangban with appointment to a government post. In reality, only the upper classes, i.e., the children of yangban, possessed the financial resources and the wherewithal to pass the exams as years of studying were required to support successful candidates. These barriers and financial constraints effectively excluded most non-yangban families and the lower classes from competing for yangban status.
Yangban status on provincial level was de facto hereditary for it was usual to include all descendents of the office holders in the hyangan (향안, 鄕案), a document that lists the name and lineage of local yangban families. Hyangan was maintained on blood basis and one could risk being cut off from it when the family married into its social inferiors, such as tradesmen. Although hyangan was not legally supported by government acts or statutes, the families listed in the hyangan were socially respected as yangban and their householders had the customary right to participate in the hyangso (향소, 鄕所), a local council from which they could exercise influence on local politics and administration. By reserving and demanding socio-political power through local instruments such as hyangan and hyangso, the yangban status automatically passed down to posterity within local magnate families, with or without holding central offices. These provincial families of gentility were often termed as jaejisajok(재지사족, 在地士族) which literally means "the country families". In conclusion, yangban had dual meanings: legally it meant high-ranking officials; however, in reality it included almost all descendents of the former and increasingly lost its legal exactitude.
Throughout Joseon history, the monarchy and the yangban existed on the slave labor of the lower classes—particularly the sangmin—whose bondage to the land as indentured servants enabled the upper classes to enjoy a perpetual life of leisure, i.e., the life of a "scholarly" gentleman. These practices, in toto, effectively ended in 1894 during the Korean empire of Gwangmu Reform. In modern Korea today, the yangban or sajok legacy of patronage based on common educational experiences, teachers, family backgrounds and hometowns, continues in some forms, both officially and unofficially. While the practice exists in the South among Korea's upper class and power elite, where patronage among the conglomerates tends to predictably follow blood, school and hometown ties, in the North, a de facto yangban class exists that is based mostly on military and party alliances.
Yangban literally means "two branches" of administration: munban (문반, 文班) which comprises civil administrators, and muban (무반, 武班) which comprises martial office holders. The term yangban first appeared sometime during the late Goryeo dynasty, but only gained wider usage during the Joseon dynasty. However, from the sixteenth century onward yangban increasingly came to denote local wealthy families who were mostly believed to be the descendants of once high-ranking officials. As more and more part of the population aspired to become yangban and gradually succeeded in doing so during the late Joseon period by purchasing the yangban status the privileges and splendor the term had inspired slowly vanished and it even gained a diminutive connotation.
Yangban were the Joseon Dynasty equivalent of the former Goryeo nobles who had been educated in both Buddhist and Confucian studies. With the succession of the Yi generals within the Joseon dynasty, prior feuds and factions were quelled through a decisive attempt to instill administrative organization throughout Korea, and create a new class of agrarian bureaucrats. The individual yangban included members of this new class of bureaucrats and former Goryeo nobility. While ostensibly open to all, the "civil service exams" ("과거") catered to the lifestyle and habits of the yangban, which created a semi-hereditary meritocracy, as yangban families overwhelmingly possessed the minimum education, uninterrupted study time and immense financial resources to pass such exams. The yangban, like the Mandarins before them, dominated the Royal Court and military of pre-Modern Korea and often were exempt from various laws including those relating to taxes.
Sadly, the fact that there were at most only 100 positions open with thousands of candidates taking the exams, competition which was originally supposed to bring out the best in each candidate gave way to the importance of familial relationships. Luckily because the Joseon Court was constantly divided between the Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western faction members,--the eccentric geographical naming derived from the location of each leader's house in Seoul—which they themselves were divided into subsections, resulted in a weird divided system of where corruption was very difficult. With each faction constantly probing for an excuse to kill off the other faction, if one faction was proven to be corrupt then the other factions would immediately jump on the chance to purge them. The attempt to receive or give bribes on a massive scale was suicide. It wasn't until the reign of King Sunjo that the Kim clan of Andong in cooperation with few other blood related grandee clans finally obtained full control over the court after purging not only their rival factions but other rival clans within their own political faction that the Joseon bureaucracy degenerated into corruption. At this level the exceptionally powerful families could be more properly referred to as saedoga(세도가, 勢道家) instead of mere yangban, which by then came to include various shades of classes other than the grandees.
From the sixteenth century and increasingly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, high ranking offices were monopolized by a few grandee families based in Seoul or Han River Valley, therefore blocking any chance of gaining high ranking posts by many provincial families of pedigree. However, provincial magnates began to refer themselves as yangban whether they did or did not hold government offices. As more and more local families claimed to be yangban, and exercised provincial influences through various local institutitions, such as local council, pedigree acknowledgement and Confucius school (seowon), the term lost its original meaning and became a sort of social status which had a confusing legal standing. Its economic and cultural domain was rather clear though. A landlord who studied classics at seowon(서원, 書院)could be easily looked upon as yangban by the local populace. People could now even purchase yangban status by paying to procure either lower government posts or jokbo, the noble pedigree.
The yangban of various status from the upper high ranking grandees to lower ranking provincial landlords almost all suddenly lost their ancient political, social and economic power during the twentieth century. The legality of yangban was abolished in 1894 and subsequently their political and administrative role was replaced by Japanese colonial government and its administrators, although some yangban could maintain their wealth and power by cooperating with the Japanese. However, the erosion of an idea of complete and exclusive power was irreversible. Many yangban families lost possession of their estates as land became a marketable commodity and this economic debasement ganied a tremendous force during the Korean War when ownership of land was disturbed in an unprecedented scale. When South Korea began its new government after the Korean War, yangban were mostly extinct and powerless, which is one reason why South Korean government was relatively free from landed interests. President Singman Rhee had "rehired" the yangban to hold positions in the new government during the late 1940s. He made this decision to bring them back in order to start the government off on a good footing, by using those who were already familiar with lawmaking and such. However, his effort came to none when the war broke out in 1950. After this decade the country was to be dominated by the military and industrial magnates.
In modern-day Korea, the yangban, as a social class with legal status and landed wealth, no longer exists, in the north or the south. Nevertheless, those who are well-connected in Korean society are sometimes said to have "yangban" connections, and though these claims may have some merit, such references are not usually intended to suggest any real yangban lineage or ancestry (though given the fact that many descendants of those in the yangban class live today, and that the changing fortunes of those in that class rendered so many individuals of "former" yangban status, it is not a stretch to assume that many, if not most, Koreans today have at least some connection to the yangban class, if not any direct descent; in addition, the acquisition/outright theft of clan lineage records or jokbo during tumultuous times in Korea's history has thrown some doubt on to the veracity of some claims of yangban descent). Today, the yangban have been replaced by the Korean ruling class, i.e., an elite class of business and governmental elites, who dominate the country through their wealth, power and influence channeled through their familial and social networks (this applies to both North and South Korea, though the North's elite class is largely military-based). The word itself is also used, at least in South Korea, as a common reference (sometimes with distinctly negative connotations, reflecting the negative impression the class system and its unintentional but nonetheless heinous abuses left on Koreans as a whole) to an older, sometimes cantankerous/stubborn man.
Ranks and titles
State Council of Joseon
- Yeonguijeong, Chief State Councillor
- Jwauijeong, Second State Councillor
- Uuijeong, Third State Councillor
- Gat (hat)
- History of Korea
- Korean Confucianism
- Korean culture
- Korean ruling class
- 규장각한국학연구원. 《조선 양반의 일생》. 파주 : 글항아리, 2009.