Observing how fast the world is evolving and how blurry the limits of the human thought and behaviour are becoming, one almost forgets that not long ago people were divided into classes according to their birth situation and had to live their entire lives according to a manual they had no say in making. Korea, or old Joseon, was one more country where the class system was strict to the point that class differences determined how ‘’human’’ an individual was.
Not straying from Silla’s bone system that divided people according to their genealogy and family tree, Taejong’s newly founded Joseon continued to classify its citizens according to their ancestry, position in society, knowledge and sex.
In a society where climbing the social ladder and changing one’s status was almost impossible, falling to the gutter was much easier. In the gutter lived the slaves, the lowest class in society, those who had no rights and no hope to ever gain any. The gap between the upper class, Yangban, and the lowest class, Cheonmin, was so huge that thinking of bridging it was beyond people’s perception. Korean historical dramas have always presented the social pyramid whether or not it lighted its issues. The following dramas, on the other hand, are centred around the issue of slavery and the state of the lowest class in the Joseon social structure.
Deep Rooted Tree
Deep Rooted Tree depicts King Sejong’s struggle to become a sage king in the midst of the conformists’ attempts at stopping him. In the rigid Joseon society, creating an easy language all classes of society could use was no easy mission. And just like the upper class opposed the king’s plans, the slaves lived believing King Sejong caused their miseries. The massacres caused by his father, King Taejong, against the commoners, especially slaves, were passed to King Sejong to take care of. In this drama, you see how slaves were treated less than animals. How being in the same category with a slave was the most humiliating thing a Yangban could go through. And how in that Joseon society, slaves were not considered humans and were expected to live thus. A heartbreaking and brilliant account of a slave’s journey towards revenge.
There is a quote that says, ‘’having something and losing it, it’s so much crueller than never having had it.’’ What’s worse than being a slave? Living as a noble then losing one’s status and having to live as a slave. The drama Maids presents us with different perspectives on one problem, slavery. The heroine loses her status as a noblewoman as her father is accused of treason and has to live as a slave. Some slaves try everything to escape their status with others are not left alone to endure their lot as slaves. In Maids, the female slaves go through double slavery. They are at the bottom of the lowest class. Being a woman was in itself a form of slavery. Women had no rights and no voice whatsoever according to Neo-Confucianism. So in addition to being born subaltern as a female, being a slave completed the total submissiveness of women.
No beautifying or romanticising, no matter how one becomes a slave, living as one is worse than dying, as per our drama characters. And being a female slave is the worst of all.
Chuno: Slave Hunters
So if one cannot live as a slave anymore, whether for himself or his loved ones, and one tries to escape? The Joseon system had a solution for that. It made sure no one escapes its authority. Even if a slave escapes, they release a hunter after him and make sure he never escapes again by branding him as a slave to be known wherever he goes. Chuno depicts the lives of slaves and their hunters in the most explicit way to the extent that it makes the audience question the validity of such a system in any given time or place.
On a positive note, such rigid class system and such form of slavery are abolished in most parts of the world now. On the other hand, other forms of slavery come to life with every new day, making one question if the human race will ever be truly free.
The Story of Korea by Joseph H. Longford is a good reference to the history of Korea despite its colonial undertones. It’s available in online archives.
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