Old Korea, Part 6

Old Korea, Part 6

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To learn more about the complete work, its place in Korean historiography, and its current unpublished state, please read this previous post: 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 6 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.

VI. Public Examinations -- Degrees and Offices -- Special Schools

Everyone knows that in China there is legally no aristocracy other than that of the literati.  In no other country country does one profess such a great admiration for knowledge, and hold in such high esteem the men who possess it.  Study is the only road to office, and study is accessible to all.  Under the present dynasty, it is true, the Manchu alone occupy nearly all the military offices of the empire, and the military mandarinates of the highest order are reserved to those of that line who have a hereditary title of nobility.  The Manchu emperors wanted thus to counter balance the influence of the Chinese office holders.  However, it is the only exception.  To have access to the highest offices of the civil service, to obtain positions, places, and favours, it is necessary and sufficient to have passed the public examinations.  Neither the origins nor the fortune of one who has thus given proof of his learning are enquired after.  Only those who have exercised a profession considered ignominious are excluded.  In theory, any individual, as poor and humble as he may be, can, if he has scaled the heights of the highest literary degrees, become the first mandarin of the empire; however, he who fails the examinations, whether he be the son of a minister or a merchant who is a millionaire ten times over, is legally incapable of exercising any public function.  No doubt this fundamental law is very often evaded in practice, but all espouse it, and is the basis of the administrative organization of the Celestial Empire. 

Korea having been for several centuries the humble vassal of China, and having never had relations with any other people, it is easily understood what a powerful influence the Chinese religion, civilization, ideas and morals exercise there.  We also find in Korea the same respect for knowledge, the same enthusiastic veneration of the great philosophers, and, at least in theory, the same system of literary examinations for positions and offices.  First-rate scholars are considered the tutors of the entire people, and are consulted on all the most difficult matters.  The highest offices are at their disposal, and if they renounce them, their credit is only greater, and their influence with the king and the ministers the more real.  When Christianity was introduced into Korea, the majority of the converts were famous scholars, and King Tsieng-tsong had such a high opinion of them that despite all the intrigues of their political and religious enemies, he could never bring himself to sacrifice them.  It was only after his death in 1800, and during the subsequent minority of his successor, that they could be condemned to death.  It is not uncommon even now to meet pagans led to the faith by the literary and scientific renown of those early converts. 

Nevertheless, there are two notable differences between China and Korea on the subject of literary studies and the public examinations.  The first is that in Korea these studies have nothing national about them.  The books that are read are Chinese; the language that is studied is not Korean, but Chinese; the history that is learned is that of China, to the exclusion of Korean history; the philosophical systems that find adherents are Chinese, and it follows naturally that, a copy being always inferior to the original, Korean scholars are far from being the equals of Chinese scholars.           

Another much more important difference is that while China is an egalitarian democracy under an absolute ruler, there is in Korea a numerous nobility, excessively jealous of its privilege and well-placed to preserve it, between the king and the people.  The examination system in China arises naturally from the social conditions; in Korea, on the other hand, it is repugnant to them.  In addition, in its implementation, we see what always happens in such cases, namely a kind of compromise between contrary influences.  In principle, and according to the letter of the law, any Korean can compete in the examinations, and, if he obtains the requisite literary degrees, be promoted to the public service.  In fact, hardly anyone outside the nobility presents himself, and he whose licentiate or doctorate is not coupled with a noble title will only with difficulty obtain some insignificant post without any hope of advancement.  It is unheard of that a Korean, even a noble, should be named to an important mandarinate without having received a diploma of higher education, but it is even more unheard of that a non-noble Korean with every possible diploma should be honored with any high military or administrative office.

The examinations that take place in each of the provinces are of no use except to obtain minor prefectural posts.  Those who aim to rise higher must, after having passed this first test, come to take another examination in the capital.  No academic certification is required; everyone studies where he wishes, as he wishes, under whichever master he pleases.  The examinations are held in the government's name, and the examiners are appointed by the minister, whether for the literary examinations proper which open the door to the civil service, or for the military examinations. 

This is how things usually transpire.  Once a year, at a fixed time, all the provincial students take the road for the capital.  Those from the same city or district travel together, almost always on foot, in larger or smaller bands.  As they are ostensibly convoked by the king, their insolence knows no bounds.  They commit every kind of excess with impunity, and treat the innkeepers of the villages as subject peoples, to the point that their passage is dreaded as much as that of the mandarins and bailiffs.  Once arrived in the capital, they disperse and each finds lodging where he can.

When the day of the contest comes, the first priority is to install oneself in the designated cell, which is as narrow and badly laid out as possible.  As a result, from the previous evening, each candidate makes some provisions, takes with him one or two servants if he has some, and hurries to take his place.  The frightful tumult that results during the night, with several thousand young men in that tight and unclean space, can be imagined.  A few dedicated workers, it is said, continue to study and to prepare their answers; others try to sleep; the greater number eat, drink, smoke, sing, shout, gesticulate, rough house, and make an abominable racket.  

The examination over, those who obtained degrees put on the uniform corresponding to their new title, then, on horseback, accompanied by musicians, they call on the principal officers of the state, their sponsors, the examiners, etc.  Once this first ceremony is finished, there is another that, without being prescribed by law, is nevertheless absolutely necessary if one wishes to be recognized by the nobility, and later to hold public office.  It is a kind of ridiculous initiation that recalls the grotesque scenes of the ceremony of ducking in crossing the line at sea, of which one still finds the analogue in the most famous schools and universities of Europe. One of the relatives or friends of the new graduate, himself a doctor, and belonging to the same political party, serves as godfather and presides over the ceremony.  On the designated day, the young bachelor or doctor presents himself before his godfather, greets him, takes a few steps backwards, and sits down.  The godfather, with all the requisite gravity, paints his face, first with ink, then with flour.  Each of the attendees takes a turn performing the same operation.  All the graduate's friends and acquaintances have the right to attend, and none would miss such an occasion.  The crux of the joke is to let the victim believe several times that there is no one else to torture him, and when he has washed, scraped and cleaned himself for the tenth or fifteenth time, to usher in new personages to begin his torture again.  During all this time, those who come and go eat, drink and enjoy themselves at the expense of their victim, and if he does not comport himself generously, he is tied up, hit and even hung upside down in order to force him to loosen his purse strings.  It is only after this vulgar farce that his literary title is validated in society. 

The 17th century Bicheondang (비천당), or State Examination Hall, on the grounds of Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, 2015.

The degrees that are obtained in the public competitions are three in number: tcho-si, tsin-sa, and keup-tchiei, which might be compared to our bachelor's, master's and doctor's university degrees, with the difference that they are not sequential and one may earn the highest without first passing through the others.  There are doctors (keup-tchiei) who do not have the master's degree (tsin-sa), and a master's degree holder has no advantage over another individual in obtaining the doctoral diploma.  As everywhere else, the examination includes a written composition and oral responses.  The diplomas are awarded in the king's name, that of the tsin-sa on white paper, and that of keup-tchiei on red paper ornamented with floral garlands.   

The tsin-sa, according to law and custom, are destined first and foremost to fill administrative posts in the provinces.  A few years after their selection, they are made ordinary district mandarins, royal tomb guardians, etc., but they cannot aspire to the highest offices of the state.  The keup-tchiei have a position apart.  They are tied to the state, and immediately begin to fulfill, step by step and in turn, responsibilities in the palace and in the higher administrative functions of the capital.  They are frequently sent to the provinces as governors or mandarins of the big cities, but only temporarily for a few years.  Their place is in the capital, in the ministries and about the king.

The military examinations are very different from the literary examinations properly speaking.  Nobles of illustrious family never present themselves, and if by chance one among them wishes to take up a military career, he finds a way to obtain a diploma without going through the formality of the public competitions.  Poor nobles and commoners are the only aspirants.  The examination has mainly to do with archery and other martial arts; an insignificant literary composition is added to it.  There is only one degree, called keup-tchiei.  He who obtains it can, if he is noble and if he also has sponsors, aspire to all the ranks of the army; if he is not noble, he is usually left with just the one title.  At most, a measly, low-ranking officer's commission will be offered to him after years of waiting. 

For the rest, whatever may have been the value of the examinations and the public competitions in earlier times, it is certain that today the institution is in a state of full decadence.  Diplomas are now awarded not to the most learned and capable, but to the richest and those who are supported by the most powerful sponsors.  King Ken-tsong began the sale of literary degrees, as well as offices and titles, and since then the ministers have continued this trafficking to their profit.  This practice was once protested and resisted, but today it prevails and no one objects.  With everyone's knowledge, young men who take part in the annual contest buy ready-made compositions from mercenary literati, and it is not unheard of that the list of future master's and doctoral degree laureates is known even before the examinations have started.  Literary studies are abandoned, most of the mandarins hardly know how to read and write Chinese, which still remains the official language, and the truly learned are falling into a more and more profound state of discouragement.  The study of the exact sciences, linguistics, the fine arts, etc., is far from being as prestigious as the study of literature and philosophy.  Few of the learned nobles turn their hand to it, and when they do it is purely out of curiosity.  This type of study is the almost exclusive purview of a certain number of families who make up a separate class in Korea, which, being in the service of the king and the ministers, has special privileges and enjoys a good deal of consideration in the country.  It is frequently called the middle class, given its intermediate position between the nobility and the common people.  The individuals of this class ordinarily marry amongst themselves, and pass their jobs to their offspring from generation to generation.  Like the nobles, they can be demoted or promoted.  They are exempt from the poll tax and military service; they have the right to wear the cap of the nobles, and the latter treat them with a semblance of equality.  They are expected to pursue a certain course of study, and undergo special examinations to obtain various qualifications as interpreters, physicians, astronomers, etc., and once they are received into a particular field, they cannot change to any other.  Before their qualifications are conferred, inquiries are made, as for the nobles, into their background and family history.  Their appointments are decided by the relevant minister, assisted by two other dignitaries.  Like all other Koreans, they have the right to compete in the public examinations, both civil and military, and if they succeed, they can be appointed to mandarinates up to the rank of mok-sa and pou-sa inclusively, but not higher.  Most of the piel-tsang (minor military mandarins or sub-lieutenants), tsiem-sa (maritime sub-prefects), and pi-tsiang (secretaries of governors and other high-ranking mandarins) belong to the middle class.  

The functions exclusively filled by the members of this class are attached to eight establishments or departments. 
    1.  The corps of interpreters.  This is the first and most important, and the most sought after.  Their studies focus on four languages: Chinese (Tsieng-hak), Manchu (Hon-hak), Mongolian (Mong-hak) and Japanese (Oai-hak); when they have received their diploma in one of these languages, they cannot attempt another.  There is always a certain number of interpreters with the embassy to China.  For the Japanese embassy, which has long since lost any importance, it is an interpreter who himself fills the office of ambassador.  In addition, another interpreter, who has the title of houn-to, resides continuously in Tong-nai, in the vicinity of the Japanese concession of Fousan-kai, for the sake of the habitual relations between the two peoples. 
    2.  The Koan-sang-kam, or School of Sciences, subdivided into three branches, where astronomy, geomancy and the art of determining auspicious dates are studied separately.  This school is only for the service of the king.
    3.  The Ei-sa or School of Medicine.  There are two subdivisions depending on whether the students are destined to serve the palace or the public.  In fact, however, physicians from either division are admitted to the palace equally and appointed to official positions. 
    4.  The Sa-tsa-koan or School of Records, of which the students are employed in the keeping of the archives, and the preparation of the official reports that the government sends to Peking. 
    5.  The To-hoa-se or School of Graphic Arts, for maps and especially for royal portraiture. 
    6.  The Nioul-hak or School of Law.  This establishment is annexed to the criminal court.  The penal code is studied above all, and its graduates serve on certain tribunals advising judges on the precise penalties required by the law in this or that case, according to the conclusions of the trial. 
    7.  The Kiei-sa or School of Accounting, from which come the clerks of the Ministry of Finance.  Other than the usual accounting of receipts and expenses, they are charged with evaluating the costs of the various public works, and sometimes even with presiding over their execution. 
    8.  The Hem-nou-koan or School of the Clock.  It is there that the directors and supervisors of the government's clock, the only one in Corea, are trained.  This clock is a hydraulic machine that measures time by letting drops of water fall at regular intervals. 

The palace musicians are also often counted among the middle class, but barely so.  These musicians make up a group apart, and of a slightly inferior status.

This concludes Part 6.  Part 7 will appear sometime during the week of 27-31 March, 2017.

Posted on 22/03/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Home 0

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