Scene: Scholars Rule…Hard
The dominance of radical Neo- Confucianism, while screwed up the country a lot in the long term, does make the Joseon dynasty rather unique. It is society not ruled by warriors nor merchants. Even though the economy was based on agriculture, it was not even ruled by farmers. This does separate Joseon from other slave based societies such as the pre-civil war American south. It was ruled by scholars of philosophy. And yes, most of the ruling class should be classified as pseudo- scholars based on the lack of any meaningful scholarly work done over the long term. The fact still stands that the Joseon dynasty is unique. Even in China, where Confucianism and Neo- Confucianism originated, Neo- Confucianism never had as strong a foothold simply by the fact that the requirements of reality would have never allowed it. One cannot rule an empire by totally ruining one’s economy and basically gutting one’s military. That is what Joseon’s ruling class did. The Joseon dynasty was only able to do what they did because the Korean region was a stable backwater dependent on China in many-many ways.
☺ “Koreans like to complain about us being invaded a lot but that is us just whining. We do that a lot!”
The Joseon dynasty, for a country with a population between 8 and 12 million depending on the period, could never muster a standing army more than 5 thousand and did not really feel the need to. First, while China was stable, they could get away with just a few forces on the boarders it shared with nomadic tribes. Second, the scholars now ruling over the warrior class did not want to create a political rival who could challenge their control over the population by investing in the military. They deliberately marginalized the military throughout its existence as its core political policy. Most of the peasant/surf and slave population was ruled via ridged/brutal social control on the local level by the local ruling classes and not by military power. This is also one of the reasons why Korea did not have many big cities through most of the Joseon dynasty.
In many ways, the Joseon dynasty dominated by Neo- Confucianism could even be viewed as a Theocracy in the vein of the Catholic Church and the Holly Sea. Well... that may not be giving the Papacy its dues. Unlike the Popes who sometimes actually commanded armies, except for the first 3 kings of the dynasty, no Joseon King ever commanded an army in the field as that would not be tolerated by the ruling scholarly class.
☺ “You don’t want to let the king get ideas beyond his station”
So why is this relevant to Korean movies? First just think about what this does to society. In terms of the lower classes, the ridged class system meant there was almost no upward mobility but a lot of chances for a downward slip. Once you became a slave, there was practically no chance that you nor your descendants would be released from bondage. This created a sense of impotent rage and simmering resentment without a method of release that continuously festered within the consciousness of the lower classes. In Korean culture, we use the term called “Han” to represent this concept. The fact that, after the middle period of the dynasty, it was normal for 10s of thousands to starve every year did not help matters.
☺ “Well, it did help the upper classes rule as many of the people who might have caused problems were killed off. There is an upside to environmental devastation!”
While the mindset of the lower classes still reverberate till this day, ironically, the mindset and culture of the upper classes became the foundation of the modern Korean psyche. But if you think about it, it is not THAT contradictory to the trends of history. The Samurai ethos became the basis for the Japanese identity around the turn of the 20th century. Seeing commoners trying to act like Samurai, who were the upper class, would have made the long dead warrior elites turn in their graves.
Now, let’s look at the Neo- Confucianist philosophy scholar class or “Yangban” class in Korean. The term “Yangban” basically refers to government bureaucrats.
☺ “Why do I always spell that bureaucrats wrong the first time around? Always”
The intellectual life of the Yangban elite class was centered around the very abstract and metaphysical philosophy that is Neo- Confucianism. Mastery of that philosophy and upholding the class based morality system were viewed as the ideals for men born into the Yangban class. Women were, like many places in the world at the time, horribly treated as family property. Nothing pertaining to the real world had much value or place in the thought process of the Yangbans. Reality was more of an irritating nuisance than anything else. There is a reason why “Rationalism” was a huge revelation when it was introduced to the Korean upper classes primarily through Catholic literature. This may be a surprise to some modern folk but, in its own way, post-medieval Christianity embraced a lot of what came out of the enlightenment.
People talk about young celebrity losing touch of reality. What would you say about a whole ruling class based on the pure metaphysical and on abstract moralizing? A lot of these traits remain within the modern Korean psyche such as our tendency for cheap moralizing and blatant irrationality. We also like
fetishize intellectualism as a society which makes everyone a superficial pseudo-intellectual tossing around big words and concepts without any deep understanding.
☺ “Just look at me!
☺ “I know I should not be one of them but it is so difficult”
☺ “Hello everyone. I am professor AKIA and I’m a snooty pseudo-intellectual. Just look at my blogging handle”
Coming down to earth, which is a rather ironic use of words in this case, the actual purpose of the Yangban elite class was not the enhancement of scholarly works. They were imitators of knowledge rather than creators as, most of the time, they just ended up consuming the scholarly works imported from China and producing nothing of substance. The Yangban class was in fact born and bred for the sole purpose of becoming high ranking government bureaucrats. In theory, this was determined by government exams based on one’s mastery of Neo- Confucianism. In practice, there were a lot of underhanded stuff going on. It seems that having many upper-class elites, whose sole purpose in life is obtaining high office, compete for the few open positions every year via an academic test judged by other upper-class elites may lead to massive amount of corruption especially when the government actually couldn’t pay their officials much.
☺ “Who knew?”
This world view of government bureaucrats being the center of the world and using academics just as a tool for social advancement still goes on here in Korea. At least in the Joseon dynasty, it was really the only way to advance. You either passed the test properly or passed it underhandedly. There were no other way to better one’s position. In modern Korea, this is not so. But we are still addicted to this thought process.
In terms of actual political governess, what do you think will happen when you put a bunch of abstract and metaphysical philosophy scholars, who are from a rigid hierarchical class society and are hungry for social advancement, in a room and toss in a real problem for them to solve? Not only will there be no solution but there will be blood. Lots of it.
☺ “It will be like the scene of Kill Bill Vol 1 with the Yakuza!”
Since you cannot solve a real problem with metaphysical philosophy, the whole thing turns into a very dirty and underhanded pissing contest judged by the summation of one’s personal and affiliated social pack’s political power within society. How do you gain political power within a society focused on metaphysical philosophy, moralizing, and class oppression? It is not like any practical accomplishments matter much. Winning a war, creating a nice poem, and even coming from a good family only gets you so much. Political power comes from status or at least perceived status in this case. Thus, to obtain these statuses and continue to do so, you basically have to be as ruthless and dirty as possible in addition to getting used to lying through your teeth.
☺ “What is metaphysical philosophy but rather creative lying based on unprovable assumptions?”
Not only do you have to lie to yourself about the blatant hypocrisy between all the moralizing you do and your actual actions but also have to consistently lie with conviction as this has the weird MAGICAL power of creating political power out of thin air. The boy who cried wolf was not wrong. He just did not do it right. If he just lied about seeing GOD, he would have become a prophet.
☺ “Always lie with conviction and about stuff that you can have metaphysical arguments over. The louder and more determined voice always wins.”
As a result, modern Koreans are rather cozy with blatant hypocrisy unlike folks from the US who seem to be have an allergic reaction to it in comparison. We do not even see it most of the time and we definitely don’t mention it unless we are going to use it as a weapon of negative noise. It doesn’t really matter what it is actually about. It is the amount of negative noise we can throw at an opponent that matters.
☺ “You know, it is like how the internet works now!”
The infighting lasted centuries basically immobilized the central government for most of the lifespan of the dynasty. It got so bad that you were not a big cheese if you haven’t been exiled for a few years during your career. As a result, political infighting and not baseball became the great Korean pastime. We are so addicted to it that everything has to be turned into a political soap opera. This does explain why all Korean historical dramas turn into cheesy political melodramas.
The Joseon dynasty limped along until 1910AD with the Japanese coming in and rather “politely” asking to hand over the keys to the kingdom. And yes, there was the Great Han Empire period from 1897 to 1910 but that was basically an awkward rebranding effort. The dynasty ruled for a little over 500 years without much to show for it other than the “Korean” alphabet and us the modern Koreans.
☺ “The END… I wish”