Old Korea, Part 4

Old Korea, Part 4

Charles Dallet's 2-volume History of the Korean Church, published in French in 1874, is preceded by a 192-page 'Introduction,' which is in fact a description/ethnography of Old Korea as the French missionaries observed it in the middle decades of the 19th century.  

To learn more about the complete work, its place in Korean historiography, and its current unpublished state, please read this previous post: 


The translation of the 'Introduction' has thus far been entirely my own.  As far as I know, it is the first translation since one that appeared in the 1950s in a now-defunct American scholarly journal that is nowadays impossible to find.  In an effort to stimulate interest in this important work of history, and perhaps to attract the interest of a publisher or some Maecenas who might feel moved to fund a proper scholarly edition of it, I have decided to serialize the 'Introduction' on this blog, one section at a time.  

Its full title is 'Introduction to the History, Institutions, Language, Morals, and Customs of Korea.' There are fifteen numbered sections, which I'll refer to as 'parts.'  Part 4 appears below.  The others will follow in due course.  I present the text without footnotes, other than the occasional one that Dallet himself used.  For a proper scholarly edition of this work, numerous footnotes would evidently have to be added.  Interested, benevolent scholars with a fluent reading knowledge of both Korean and Sino-Korean are invited to lend their talents in exchange for a warm pat on the back, and, potentially, the satisfaction of seeing their names on the cover of a publication.  

For visual interest, I will insert such relevant images as I can find on WikiCommons, or my own photos.   

Translation note: I have not altered Dallet's romanization of Korean names, which is of course based on French phonetics.  Non-English words that are not names are italicized.

IV Government – Civil and Military Organization

The King of Korea has three prime ministers, whose respective titles are sug-ei-tseng, or Admirable Councilor, tsoaei-tsieng, or Left State Councilor – in Korea, the left always takes precedence over the right – and ou-ei-tseng, or Right State Councilor.  

Below them are six other ministers called pan-tso, or judges, who are in charge of the six ministries or high courts.  Each pan-tso is assisted by a tsam-pan, or substitute, and by a tsam-ei, or adviser.  The pan-tso are ministers of the second grade, the tsam-pan third grade, and the tsam-ei fourth grade.  These twenty-one dignitaries are designated by the generic name of tsam-ei, or great ministers, and make up the King’s council.  In reality, however, all authority is in the hands of the supreme council of three members of the first grade, and the other eighteen only approve or confirm their decisions.  The ministers of the second grade or their assistants must present a detailed daily report to keep the king abreast of affairs in their department.  They take care of administrative details and handle minor matters themselves, but all matters of importance are referred to the supreme council of three.

The premiership is for life, but those who are called to it do not always exercise its duties.  Of the seven or eight great personages who reach this high rank, only three at a time are in office; they are shuffled and relieve each other fairly frequently.  

Here are the names, the order and the responsibilities of each of the six ministries, as found in the revised code published in 1785 by King Tseng-tsong.

1. Ni-tso, the ministry or board of Personnel. 

This minister is charged with selecting the most capable men among the scholars who have passed their examinations, filling positions, delivering letters patent to mandarins and other dignitaries, supervising their conduct, promoting them, demoting them, or shuffling them according to need.       

He examines and puts in order the quarterly notes that each provincial governor sends about all his subordinates, and brings officials who merit some special reward to the king’s attention.  The promotion or shuffling of posts of mandarins can happen at any time, but they most usually happen twice a year, at the six and twelfth moons.  Appointments to important appointments and high honors, such as the governorship of a province, are not made by this ministry, but by the king and the council of ministers.

2. Ho-tso, the ministry or board of Finance.  

This ministry must take the census of the population, assess the taxes or contributions of provinces and districts, monitor expenses and receipts, keep the registries of each province in order, prevent extortion, see to the laying in of provisions for lean years, etc.  It is also charged with the minting of coins, but this last was not mentioned in Tsieng-tsong’s code because the treaties with China do not accord the right to coin money to the Korean government.    

3. Niei-tso, the ministry or board of Rites.  

This ministry, instituted to preserve the usages and customs of the kingdom, must see to it that sacrifices, rites and ceremonies are carried out according to the rules without innovation or any change.  It is also responsible for the triennial examinations, public education, and the rules of etiquette for receptions, festivities and other official events.        

4. Pieng-tso, the ministry or board of War.  

This ministry chooses the military mandarins and the king’s guards.  It is responsible for everything concerning the troops, recruitment, arms and munitions, the security of the capital’s gates, and the sentinels of the royal palaces.  It is also responsible for the postal service of the whole kingdom.

5. Hieng-tso, the ministry or board of Justice.  

It is responsible for everything related to the observance of criminal law, the organization and supervision of courts of justice, etc.      

6. Hieng-tso, the ministry or board of Public Works.  

This ministry is charged with the maintenance of the palaces and public buildings, roads, and infrastructure of all kinds, whether public, private or commercial, as well as the king’s affairs, such as his marriage, coronation, etc.

Besides the twenty-one ministers named above, we must number the sug-tsi and the po-tsieng among the great dignitaries of the court.  The sug-tsi are chamberlains, who, in addition to the usual duties of this post, are charged with writing down day by day everything that the king says or does.  There are three of them: the to-sug-tsi or chamberlain-in-chief, and two assistants who are called pou-sug-tsi.  The po-tsieng are the commanders of the bailiffs, the servants and executioners of the tribunals.  There are also three of them.  The po-tsieng-in-chief has two lieutenants, called tsoa-po-tsieng and ou-po-tsieng, which is to say left and right.  It is these lieutenants who take charge of the bailiffs when an important arrest needs to be made.

The capital, where the court always resides, is called Han-iang.  This name, however, is hardly used, and it is usually called Seoul, which means great city or capital.  It is a city of considerable size situated in the middle of the mountains next to the Hangkang River, enclosed by high, thick walls, very populous, but badly built.  With the exception of a few wide streets, it is composed of twisting alleys where the air does not circulate, and which are full of rubbish.  The mostly tile-roofed houses are low and narrow.  The capital is divided into five districts, which are subdivided into forty-nine wards.  The enclosure wall was built by Tai-tso, the founder of the present dynasty.  Siei-tsong, the fourth king of this dynasty, added new fortifications.  The wall has a circumference of 9,975 feet, and an average height of 40 Korean feet, about 10 meters.  There are eight gates, four big ones and four small ones.  The big gates are beautiful enough, topped by pavilions in the Chinese manner.  In ancient records, this city is sometimes called Kin-ki-tao, which is inaccurate.  To ou tao means province, so Kin-ki-tao does not mean the capital but the province around the capital.  

Dondaemun, i.e. the Great East Gate, Seoul, in 2015.  

Since the accession of Tai-tso in 1392, Korea has been divided into eight provinces, which are known by the following names:

To the north: Ham-kieng-to; capital: Ham-heng; Pieng-an-to; captial: Pieng-iang

To the west: Hoang-haï-to; capital: Haï-tsiou; Kieng-keï-to; capital: Han-iang

To the East: Kang-ouen-to; capital: Ouen-tsiou

To the South: Kieng-sang-to; capital: Taï-koii; Tien-la-to; capital: Tsien-tsiou                   

The two provinces of the north are covered with forests and sparsely populated.  It is the provinces of the south and the west that are the richest and most fertile.

At the head of each province is a governor who reports directly to the council of ministers, and who possesses very wide-ranging powers.   An old Korean saying ranks the governorships thusly: the highest in rank is that of Ham-kieng-to; the most sought-after for luxury and pleasure, Pieng-an-to; the most lucrative, Kieng-sang-to; and the last in every respect, Kang-ouen-to.  

The eight provinces are subdivided into three hundred and thirty-two districts, and each district is administered by a mandarin of greater or lesser rank according to its importance.   It is claimed that there were at first three hundred and fifty-four, to correspond to the number of days in the lunar year, because each district is supposed to provide a day’s provisions to the king and his household.  Be that as it may, the present number is three hundred and thirty-two.  

Here is the hierarchical order or ranks of the various provincial mandarins, beginning with the highest: kam-sa, or governor, pou-ioun, sé-ioun, tai-pou-sa, mok-sa, pou-sa, koun-siou, hien-lieng, and hien-kam.  The governor resides in the provincial capital, but he has a mandarin, called pan-koan, under him to administer that city, and who is also his lieutenant or substitute.  

Here it is important to remark that is it is essential not to confuse ranks with posts or public offices.  A post requires a rank, but the reverse is not true.  Ranks are for life, but posts are temporary, sometimes even just for a few weeks or days.  There are a dozen different ranks, each having many holders, but they are only on active duty at intervals.

The first grade includes the principal ministers, the second, ordinary ministers, and so on.  The provincial governors must have attained at least the fourth grade, ordinary city prefects, the sixth.  All these dignitaries, without exception, have the privilege of being exempt from arrest by the bailiffs of the ordinary courts.  When they are accused of some crime, one of the lower-ranking mandarins of their own court comes to them in person with a request to follow him, but no one can put a hand on them.  Other privileges are particular to certain classes of officials.  Similarly, the four highest grades alone have the right to be carried in special palanquins, each according to his rank.

Outside of the regular hierarchy are the four niou-siou, or prefects of the four great fortresses in the neighborhood of the capital, namely, Kang-hoa, Sou-ouen, Koang-tsiou and Siong-to (Kaï-seng).  Niou-siou is a very elevated title, and the prime ministers themselves can hold it.  The niou-siou is not properly speaking the mandarin of the city where he resides.  A lower-ranking mandarin, who is called pan-koan or kieng-niek, fulfills that function.  The ieng or small forts established at different points on the frontiers are under the jurisdiction of the local military authorities.         

In theory, all the ranks of which we have spoken until now, except those higher than mok-sa, are available to any Korean who has received a doctorate in the state examinations;  in fact, however, these posts are occupied with very, very few exceptions by nobles.  There are, however, two lower posts in each the prefecture of each district that are given to men of the people.  The tsoa-siou and piel-kam are the assistants or secretaries of the mandarin.   They can even stand in for him in his absence, but only for very minor matters; in the case of a more important matter, recourse is made to the neighboring mandarin.  The families of the toa-siou and the piel-kam have a certain amount of local standing and enjoy certain privileges.   When one of these posts has often been filled by members of the same family, they become, after a certain amount of time, what in Korea are called provincial nobles.  Below the assistants, there is no else but praetorians, bailiffs and other servants of the court about the mandarin.  We will speak of them later.

In each province, there are several tsal-pang, or directors of the postal service.   The relay stations of the post-horses are called iek; they are arranged in graded lengths from place to place along all the major roads.  The horses that the government maintains there are only available to officials traveling on government business.  The tsal-pang, charged with supervising this service, have under them a certain number of employees organized in miniature along the same lines as the praetorians of the mandarins.  The grooms who take care of the horses belong to the government almost like slaves.  They are not free to leave at will, and remain chained to this job from generation to generation.

A provincial administrative building in 'Tsien-tsiou', i.e. Jeonju, capital of the former province of 'Tien-la-to', i.e. Jeolla-do, in 2015.

If we turn our attention from the civil organization of Korea to its military organization, the first thing that strikes one is the enormous size of the army.  The official statistics count more than one million two hundred thousand men on its rolls.  This arises from the fact that every able-bodied, non-noble man is a soldier; the law recognizes very few exceptions.  However, the vast majority of these supposed soldiers have never touched a rifle.  Their names are inscribed on public registries, and they have to pay an annual contribution.  These registries, too, do not inspire any confidence at all.  Very often they are filled with fictive names.  Names appear of family members who have been dead for one or two generations, and many of those who should be inscribed escape their obligation by giving little presents to the lower officials in charge of revising the lists.  

The only somewhat serious troops of the Korean government are the ten thousand soldiers distributed among the four big military establishments of the capital.  It is curious to note that even though there is a Ministry of War, the generals who command this elite corps report directly to the supreme council, which alone has the right to appoint or dismiss them.  Let us also bear in mind a few companies quartered in the four great royal fortresses, and the guards of the governors or other high-ranking officials in the provinces.  

Here are titles of the various military mandarins in hierarchical order.  A tai-tsieng is a general.  There are several grades of them, and they all live in the capital.  A pieng-sa is the commander of a province or a half-province.  A siou-sa is a maritime prefect.  A ieng-tsiang is a kind of colonel who has three ranks of officers below him: tsioungkoun, kam-mok-koan and piel-tsiang, titles which might be said to correspond to captain, lieutenant and sub-lieutenant.   

It is important to note here that the accumulation of civil and military posts is very common in Korea.  Frequently it is the governor of a province who is simultaneously the pieng-sa or military commander.  Ieng-tsiang are everywhere also criminal judges, and it is by this latter title that they are almost always called.  This fact, which seems strange at first glance, can be explained by the profound peace that Korea has enjoyed for more than two centuries.  The army having become useless, the management of it has dwindled almost to nothing, and the current of affairs led naturally to the transformation of its officers into magistrates.  

The military mandarins are only chosen from among the nobility, but no matter how high their rank, they have much less standing than the civil mandarins.  Compared to the latter, they are almost on a level with the common people.  Their manner and their language must demonstrate the most profound respect, and certain privileges, such as the right to use a wheeled chair, are never accorded to them, even if they are generals.   They deeply resent this inequality, and in times of trouble when authority passes into their hands, they take revenge on the civil mandarins by humiliating and disparaging them as much as possible.  This antagonism explains why, generally speaking, nobles in the civil service do not permit their offspring to seek military ranks, and why these ranks are practically the patrimony of the same families for generation after generation.  There are nevertheless some exceptions to this rule, and it is not unheard of for descendants of civil mandarins to trade the prestige of civil employment for military posts that they consider to be more lucrative.  

All civil and military posts are temporary.  A governor can only hold office for two years, but if he has some influence at court, he can arrange to be transferred without interruption to another province.  Generally, mandarins can only serve for two consecutive years, three at the most, after which they retire to private life until they obtain another post.  Those who have held an office once keep a few outward marks of their rank forever; they never go out on foot or without a cortege, and the custom is to add the title of the prefecture where they have served, or the office that they held, to their names.  

The pay of the various civil and military mandarins, above all that of the governors, is exorbitant in light of the country’s resources and the considerable value of money in a country where a few cents cover a man’s daily food needs.  A civil servant who wanted to could very easily set aside enough to live on for the rest of his days within one or two years.  However, it is rare for a mandarin to have a thrifty disposition.  As soon as he takes up his office, he assumes a princely way of life, making a display of luxurious extravagance, and since, as is the custom of the country, he has to support not only his family, but all of his relations, he leaves office as poor as before, and often with debts in addition.  

The dignitaries of the palace receive nothing.  It is claimed that their pay was stopped after the war with Japan when the government found itself without resources.  Today they get nothing but a few measures of peas for each month that they are in service.  This is the ration that was assigned to each one to feed his ass or his horse at the beginning of the present dynasty.  How then can they be prevented from pillaging the people and committing all kinds of injustices?   These court positions are nevertheless sought after because those who hold them can always, with a little cunning, soon obtain a lucrative provincial mandarinate.   

The system of civil and military administration that we just described is completed by an important component, the institution of the e-sa or anaik-sa: the royal inspectors.  These are the envoys extraordinary who visit the provinces at irregular intervals and always in secret to monitor the conduct of the mandarins and their subjects, and to examine the state of affairs with their own eyes.  Their authority is absolute; they have the power of life and death; they can demote and punish all officials but the governors of provinces, and it is almost always on their reports that the government makes the most important decisions.  

It is useless to add that all the offices and posts are not to the benefit of the people, except in the old books of morality in the past.  Offices are sold publicly, and naturally those who buy them work to recoup their money without even trying to hide it.  Every mandarin, from the governor down to the lowliest petty official, makes money as best he can on taxes, court cases, and everything else.  The royal inspectors themselves trade on their authority with the most flagrant shamelessness.  A missionary recounts that one day, in a district where he happened to be, a few individuals who were secretly alerted stopped two horses loaded with silver that an inspector was sending home, and, standing by the side of the road, distributed the largesse to all the passersby while loudly proclaiming the provenance of their windfall.  The inspector in question did not dare protest, and immediately left the city without saying a word to anyone about his adventure.

The ordinary taxes on property, certain professions and certain types of commerce are not excessive, but these legal taxes in reality represent only a small part of the sum that the greed of the mandarins and officials of all grades snatches from the people.  In any case, the census rolls on which taxation is based do not deserve any confidence.  A notorious fact, which the missionaries have often witnessed, is that the mandarin’s officials have the effrontery, when they come into the villages to draw up the official lists, to state publicly the sum that must be paid them by whoever does not want to be inscribed.  Normally, it is a matter of a hundred or a hundred and fifty sapèques (two or three francs).  If it is a question of inscription on the army rolls, it costs a bit more to get out of it, but with some money one can get through to safety.

The provisions of the public stores only exist in the account books.  In the immediate neighborhood of the capital the arsenals are poorly supplied.  A fort taken by the Americans in their expedition of June 1871 housed fifty or so breech-loading cannons of Chinese make.  There were also some cuirasses and some cotton canvas helmets of forty-weight thickness, impenetrable to sabers and bayonets, which only a pointed bullet could pierce.  The provincial arsenals, however, have neither items of clothing, nor munitions, nor a weapon in good condition.  Everything is sold by the officials of the prefectures, who substitute a few rags and useless old pieces of scrap iron.  If by chance an honest mandarin tries to alleviate these depredations, all the officials will unite against him, his initiative is paralyzed, and he is constrained to shut his eyes and let them carry on, or even to abandon his post.  He is fortunate if he is not sacrificed to calumnies that make him out at court to be a revolutionary and enemy of the dynasty.  

The following anecdote recounted by M. Pourthié shows that this universal corruption originates too high up for it to be rooted out.  

“Last winter (1860-61), the minister Kim Pion-ku-i  lost the top job to his cousin Kim Piong-kouk-I, a violent man quite hostile to our holy religion.  The latter came to power by a crime against the state which made him very unpopular and which sooner or later will cost him dearly.  Even though he is the king’s brother-in-law, he didn’t have enough money to buy the post of prime minister, for here that high position is bought and sold like all the other mandarinates.  The only difference is that the literati buy the ordinary mandarinates from a favored minister, while this one is bought from the eunuchs.  Our little Korean majesty is, as you know, in the same position that our idle kings were in the past.  

The minister in favor is the master of the palace of Korea, but he must in turn reckon with the other masters of the palace in the sense that he cannot rise to that station, nor keep it, except by the favor of the eunuchs of the court.  The latter, despised and despicable men, generally small of stature, rickety, and of very limited intelligence, live alone with the numerous royal concubines and palace serving women in the interior of the royal residence.  The ministers and mandarins who have business with the king enter an audience hall giving on to an outer court; the soldiers and other palace guards are posted outside.  The eunuchs alone serve near the king, where the king usually has no society but women and eunuchs.  

However, the Korean court is very poor, and the state treasury is even poorer; the eunuchs and their cronies the royal concubines and palace serving women would feel the pinch if they did not have the resource of being able to sell the post of prime minister, and even other honors from time to time.  It is necessary, therefore, for the personage in power to accumulate gift on gift, and satisfy all these avid leeches every day, but enormous sums are needed when it is a matter of gaining their favor for the first time.  If Kim Piong-kouk-I had not sold some mandarinates very dear, and laid claim to the ginseng monopoly, he could not have got enough money to buy all the individuals on whom the minister Kim Piong-ku-I was showering riches.  In the middle of the last winter, a man who owed all he was and all he had to this same Kim Piong-ku-I, came to see Kim Piong-kouk-I and asked him if he wanted to seize supreme power.  ‘I coud not ask for better,’ replied the king’s brother-in-law, ‘but only money could get it for me and I do not have enough.’  ‘If you put me in charge of collecting tax in the central region of the country, I will get you the required sum.’ ‘Gladly,’ said the minister.  Soon after, the man took action.  The taxes of the central region consist chiefly of rice, which is transported by sea to the capital.  Our man, having collected all the rice and loaded it on barges, sailed for China, where he sold it for quadruple the price it was worth in Korea.  On his return, he bought the quantity of rice needed to pay the tax.  The difference in the price was sufficient for the king’s brother-in-law to gain the favor of the herd of eunuchs and women that filled the palace.  He had his competitor dismissed and took all the power for himself.  The export of any kind of grain is a crime that carries the death penalty; even more so, the sale of rice paid in tax for the king’s maintenance is an enormous crime against the state.  In the end, this act of fraud caused a year of want to become, for several provinces, a year of veritable famine.  But what did it matter to him?  The richer and more powerful he is, the less anyone will dare to demand an account of his actions.”

The following table of the civil and military administrative divisions is taken from the most popular geographical treatise in Korea.  It was amended in about 1850 from official records published by the government.  The cities are classed by rank of importance according to the grade of the mandarin who governs them.  

“The kingdom is 1,280 li from east to west; from north to south, 2, 998.  It is divided into eight provinces named, Kieng-keï, Tsiong-tsieng, Tsien-la, Kieng-sang, Kang-ouen, Hoang-haï, Ham-kieng, and Pieng-an.  

“The city directly to the east of the capital is Nieng-haï, 745 li away, in the province of Kieng-sang.  The city directly to the west is Tsian-ien, 525 li away, in the province of Hoang-haï.  The city directly to the south is Haï-nam, 806 li away, in the province of Tsien-la.  The city directly to the north is On-seng, 2,102 li away, in the province of Ham-kieng.  (1. A glance at the map shows that these directions are approximate.)"

TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: I have omitted the 8-part table detailing the civil and military ranks and office holders in each province here, although I've translated it.  If the manuscript is ever published, the table will appear.    

This concludes Part 4.  Part 5 will appear some time next week (13-17 March, 2017).  

If you're enjoying this serialization of Dallet's seminal work, please share it widely on your social media channels!  

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Posted on 07/03/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Books, Asian History, Korea 0

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