From Round to Square (and back)

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Asian Ethnicities (12)—Dynamics of Ethnicity (h)

Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series Asian Ethnicities
A year ago on Round and Square (26 July 2012)—The Accidental Ethnographer: Meeting Geil
Two years ago on Round and Square (26 July 2011)—Longevity Mountain: The Road to South Peak
[a] Rocky RF
In the next dozen entries, I will be posting an initial draft of a book introduction on Asian ethnic groups. It is meant for the blog, and does not represent anything like what will eventually be published. I do so especially because this represents a compilation of my thoughts after a full year of intensive teaching and research on Asian ethnicity. The introduction to this series shows some of my thoughts from last year—before I taught my advanced seminar by the same title as this series. This is something of a culmination of the process, even though I will be now moving in many new directions in the teaching and study of Asian ethnic groups.

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
East Asia (d)
 Korea, Class, and Ethnicity
Korea is a mountainous peninsula that has been the continual home for a remarkably distinct and largely endogamous ethnic group. Only twenty percent of the land is suitable for cultivation, and the geographic dividers have played a far more prominent role in Korea’s history than ethnic conflicts. The Korean people came from the north—as far away as Siberia—and have distant roots in Manchuria and Altaic-speaking tribes that were, in turn, linked to Mongolian, Turkic, and other north Asian peoples. For two millennia, Korea served as a cultural conduit between China and Japan, and has played a significant role in its own right in the historical growth of both of those civilizations. The peninsula was divided into a number of political units during its early history, but it was in the early-modern era that the greatest contrast with our usual conception of ethnicity can be seen.
[c] Hereditary RF

Profound social and economic changes shaped life on the Korean peninsula during the five centuries of the Yi, or Choson, Dynasty (1392-1910). Not the least of these was the structuring of economic success and prestige—for individuals and families—according to the rules of an examination system that was borrowed from China and adapted to Korean social and economic conditions. Although the wholesale adoption of the examination system made Choson Korea seem like the Chinese empires of its time, one fundamental difference with China still remained.

There were not just educational, and therefore economic, limitations to those who could hope to succeed; there were also class barriers. Successful candidates in the examinations were limited for the most part to the hereditary ruling class, which came to be known as the yangban, a term meaning literally “the two groups”—that is, the civil and military branches of government. By dominating the exams, the yangban families were able to monopolize political leadership and high government office. They also came to own most of the land. As a result, social status, land ownership, and political leadership were concentrated in the hands of the yangban class. Again, with ethnic similarity, class distinctions were exacerbated.
[d] DMZ RF

Below the yangban was a relatively small and legally undefined class that has been called the chungin or “middle people.”  These served as petty government functionaries and performed various specialized roles in government. Although absolutely essential in the whole operation of government, they had little opportunity to rise to high policy posts. This essentially hereditary group received new “recruits” from among the large numbers of “illegitimate” offspring of the yangban. It is telling that this dynamic—aristocratic “extras” being relegated to a lower status—took place as a class, and not ethnic, process.

The vast bulk of the population was made up of commoners, or yangmin, who were for the most part tax-paying, corvée-serving occupiers of government lands or semi-serfs on yangban holdings. The lowest class was called ch’onmin, or “base people.”  These were government or private slaves, workers in industries, and professional categories, such as butchers (originally despised because of the Buddhist prohibition against the taking of animal life), actors, and kisaeng female entertainers comparable to the Japanese geisha of a later date. The ch’onmin came the closest to being treated as though they were ethnically separate from other Koreans. This was not, of course, the case, and it represented rather a particularly severe form of class differentiation based on occupation rather than ethnicity. 

Click below for other items in this essay:
Dynamics 1          Dynamics 2          Dynamics 3          Dynamics 4          Dynamics 5 
Dynamics 6          Dynamics 7          Dynamics 8          Dynamics 9          Dynamics 10
[e] Flowering RF

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