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Nobi: Fettered for Life

by Shin Sang-Phil October 04, 2021

Nobi Ownership Paper
A sale record from the fourth month of the Year of the Rat (1780 or 1840) showing that a woman named Park Sahae, who was in dire straits after the death of her husband, sold her daughter, Ssangrye, as a nobi. Image © Woori Hangul Museum


1. Lasting Notions and Impressions of Nobi in Korean Society

The word nobi is a combination of two sinographs: no meaning a male servant and bi meaning a female servant. Nobi were people who were owned by and lived in servitude to other people. This system of slavery continued in Korea from the Three Kingdoms Period to Unified Silla to Goreyo all the way to the Joseon period. Historical studies estimate that the nobi accounted for 30 percent of the Joseon population, which is no small number. This suggests that the nobi were an indispensable element in maintaining premodern Korean society. Slavery was officially abolished during the Gabo Reform (1894), which proclaimed the modernization of Joseon, but it continued to exist, in rare cases, even up to the Korean War (1950–1953).

The nobi are similar to slaves, one can say, as both were subordinate to their master. But given that the nobi were allowed to have their own families and personal property, they differ from slaves of the ancient Roman Empire. Also, the nobi are often considered equivalent to the serfs of medieval Europe in that both were mostly engaged in farming. Strictly speaking, however, they are different as the nobi were not entitled to land ownership. Nobi were similar or different to slaves or serfs depending on the situation of the period in which they existed. And here we have another category to consider: meoseum (farmhand), who were often mistaken for nobi as they, too, served their master providing labor. Called gohan, or gogong (paid worker), they were, in fact, a kind of employed worker who received annual payment called saegyeong. Unlike the nobi, they were able to choose their masters and enjoyed more freedom than nobi. After the nobi system was abolished in the late Joseon, some of them became meoseum in the early modern period.


2. Institutional Origin of the Nobi and Related Regulations

As the nobi class was basically hereditary, there were economic disputes among their masters over the status of offspring between nobi and commoners. There was no problem with offspring whose parents were both nobi, but when either of them was a commoner, the offspring’s status could be different depending on which side they followed. For this type of circumstance, a law was created which favored the mother’s status as, in many cases, it was much easier to identify the mother  than the father; the law resulted in an increase in their masters’ wealth when their privately-owned female nobi had children. Thus, marriage between nobi and commoners was in principle prohibited but this was not observed practically. Later, with the social class system in disarray, the owners even encouraged marriage between male commoners and female nobi. To curb the resultant increase in the nobi population, the Joseon government enforced a law requiring offspring between male commoners and female nobi to follow their father’s status. Later, a law was enacted which returned nobi who had been freed by paying a ransom or for other reasons to their former class. In the late Joseon period, the nobi laws were supported or rejected by officials belonging to different political factions. For example, when the Westerners (seoin) prevailed, nobi whose fathers were commoners obtained commoner status; on the other hand, when the Southerners (namin) gained power, the nobi-turned-commoners were forced back to their previous class status.


3. Social History of the Nobi in Korean Literature and Cinema

As seen above, in premodern Korea various members of society ranging from the government to private households and individuals had an interest in the nobi. The law requiring that nobi offspring follow their mother’s class status not only had economic implications, but raised complicated questions concerning the married life of yangban who rose to high positions at the court. This is beautifully illustrated in one of the best known premodern Korean novels, Hong Gildong jeon (The Story of Hong Gildong) by Heo Gyun (1569–1618), a reformist, mid-Joseon official.


Hong Gildong: The Illegitimate Son

The following is a conversation between the protagonist, Gildong, and his father, Minister Hong, who rose to the position of Minister of Personnel:


“All my life I have had to bear profound sorrow. Even though I was born a sturdy man inheriting Your Lordship’s abundant spirit and strength and am deeply grateful for you bringing me into this world and raising me till this day, I am not allowed to even address my father as ‘Father’ and my older brother as ‘Brother.’ How can a man in such a situation be considered a true human?” Seeing Gildong shed tears, which wet his lapel as he spoke, the minister felt pity for him, yet fearing that expressing sympathy for his plight would aggravate his discontent, he admonished him loudly. “You are hardly the only lowborn child in a high minister’s family. How can such a young boy harbor such a great resentment? If you ever speak of this matter again you will be severely punished.”


At first glance, it is hard to understand why Minister Hong rebukes his son instead of consoling him even as he feels sorry for him. At that time, the ruling yangban took as their legal wives women from families of the same noble class as themselves, yet they could take concubines from among women of lower, commoner status or nobi. The difference in status between their wives and concubines raised household problems. Hong Gildong suffered discriminatory treatment in his house because his stepbrother Inhyeong was born of the legal wife, Lady Yu, while his own mother was a servant girl named Chunseom.

Offspring born of concubines followed their mother’s class status: those born of commoner concubines were called seoja and those of nobi concubines, eolja; both were collectively called seoeol. Being called differently based on the social class of one’s mother was in itself an act of discrimination. Thus, the existence of nobi created various relationship issues, causing conflicts even within the family, which was the foundation of society. This discrimination against them extended out into society where, no matter how talented a low-born man was, he was denied any chance to make a name for himself. In the novel, Hong Gildong was a man of heroic character, but he was also an illegitimate son born of a female slave, so he was treated with low regard even by the household servants. Unable to endure this contempt, he eventually left home and established an ideal kingdom on an island called Yuldo. Once Yi Ik lamented the pitiful fate of lowly people, saying, “If a person becomes nobi, he is never allowed to join the commoner status again even though he is gifted with the talents of sages and worthies. How lamentable!”


Jang Yeongsil: Engineer, Scientist, and Inventor

Along similar lines, there was an extraordinary case in early Joseon. Jang Yeongsil (1390–1450) was a great scientist who served under the patronage of King Sejong (r. 1397–1450), known for creating the Korean alphabet, hangeul. Jang invented astronomical instruments, including armillary spheres (honseonui), a simplified type of the former (ganui), clepsydras (jagyeongnu), and sundials (angbu ilgu). Though he was a government official in royal favor, Jang was from the public nobi class as he was born to a government courtesan belonging to Dongnae Prefecture (in present-day Busan).

Despite his humble origins, he was freed from his lowly status and rose to become Third Deputy Commander (daehogun) thanks to his extraordinary talents in science and a fateful encounter with a king who recognized his abilities. But cases like his were rare and his life was not fully recorded. His last appearance in history can be found in a record of his interrogation concerning his role in making a royal palanquin which accidently broke. It is not certain that such poor treatment was due to his lowly status. But what is clear is that a man of a humble origin with outstanding talent received recognition from the king; this created a delicate relationship between them worthy of public attention. This became the basis of the 2019 film Forbidden Dream (Cheonmun), directed by Hur Jin-ho and featuring veteran actors Han Suk-kyu as King Sejong and Choi Min-sik as Jang Yeongsil.


Bangja: The Saucy Servant

Meanwhile, private nobi were divided into two groups based on where they served: household nobi (solgeo) and outside (out-of-residence) nobi (oegeo). The former lived with their masters, providing labor, while the latter lived far away, farming their masters’ fields and usually enjoyed more freedom than solgeo. Public nobi also fell into two types: those who were selected to serve at government offices and those who paid tribute tax in cotton cloth or money instead of serving at the government offices.

Whether private or public nobi, their lives were hard and they must have complained much about their masters. The following scene is from Chunhyang jeon (The Tale of Chunhyang), a classic Korean novel hailed as a masterpiece, in which the master-servant relationship is portrayed in a humorous way through a character named Bangja, a public nobi.


Bangja, turning around, said, “Dear young lord, listen to me. Before going to the concubine’s house, call me by my [actual] name instead of Bangja as you and I are both in braided hair, and therefore, unmarried men.” [. . .] The young lord Yi, impatient at any delay, gave it a try but found it inappropriate; however, he could not go to Chunhyang’s house [without Bangja’s help]. Yi suggested, “Hey, Bangja, how about changing your name just for tonight?” Bangja replied, “That makes no sense. Though I am lowly, how can my name possibly be changed? If you want to go, go alone. I will see you tomorrow at the bookstore.”


In this scene the young lord argues with his servant Bangja while on their way to the house of Chunhyang, whom Yi has fallen in love with after first seeing her in Namwon. Earlier, in Gwanghan Pavilion, Bangja teases his young master, saying he should be treated as an older brother as he is senior in age and now, in this scene, insists that his master call him by his actual name, “A Beoji” (meaning “father”): “A” as his surname and “Beoji” his given name. Unable to call him by this ridiculous name, his master suggests changing the name but the servant rejects that alternative, protesting that even though he is a lowly person, his name should not be changed on another’s whim. Then he leaves, telling his master that he will see him the following day. Chunhyang’s house is just around the corner but the only person who can show him the way has disappeared. The young lord Yi, has no choice but to call him “A Beoji” before arriving at Chunhyang’s house.

Though a short scene, it humorously captures a rebellious aspect of the lowly class, bringing vitality and literary brilliance to the work. It also touches upon a taboo at the time, namely a servant having the upper hand over the master on account of seniority in age and going so far as to defy the authority of the ruling class. But his boldness does not lead to disciplinary action since the young lord’s desire to see his beloved is much stronger than any desire to punish his servant for hurting his dignity. Namely, the ethics of the ruling class yields to a desire for beauty, which vividly reflects the faltering social class system of late Joseon.


4. Capitalism and the New Class System

Today the nobi system has disappeared as human equality has been firmly established as a basic human right in the social system, along with the existence of various institutions guaranteeing individual liberty. Despite this, such discrimination seems to remain in the public psyche. Korean people refer to the social classes according to types of spoons. Gold, silver, bronze, and earthen spoons correspond to royalty, nobility, commoners, and slaves, and they are decided not by one’s talent but by one’s parents’ wealth. Such a classification based on economic standing can be found not just in Korea but around the world, a ubiquitous phenomenon resulting from the deepening of capitalism.

In this respect, a look into various aspects of the nobi system of Joseon can be a starting point for exploring premodern Korean society and can also serve as a gateway to understanding Koreans in the present and future.



Translated by Jakyung Lee


Shin Sang-Phil
Pusan National University

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