Thoughts on Marginality And Subversion In Korea

I’m taking a Professor Michael Kim’s Seminar in Korean History course at Yonsei GSIS this semester, and the first book we’re reading is Marginality and Subversion in Korea by Sun Joo Kim.  The book deals with the Hong Kyeongnae Rebellion of 1812, and its central thesis is that the rebellion was primarily carried out by marginalized local elites in Pyeongan Province rather than by peasants, as has frequently been argued.  I’m sad to say that the volume of reading for Professor Kim’s class will likely put on hold my planned series of posts about Plato’s Republic, tentatively (and cloyingly) titled ‘Plato’s Republic of Korea’.

I find the author’s argument compelling, in large part because it approaches the Rebellion from a vantage point that I am familiar with.  Ms. Kim’s central thesis, as I read it, is this: the yangban of Pyeongan Province experienced more than typical levels of discrimination and in particular were limited in the level of office in the Chosun government that they were able to attain.  Against the background of this feeling of institutional unfairness there were intense struggles for power and access to resources within the elites of Pyeongan which created resentments that predisposed certain members of the elite to an insurrection that would be justified by Confucian teachings about the Mandate of Heaven.

My first observation takes me immediately back to Plato of course, because I’ve spent the last two weeks riding the bus with him.  Socrates states that a state necessarily be founded on a noble lie that will bind ruler to subject.  He suggests that a state be founded on the lie that its citizens were nurtured in the earth and sprang from it fully formed, and that further when they were created, the creator mixed in them gold, silver, iron and bronze.  Each citizen has one or a mix of these metals in them, which predisposes them to a certain vocation.  One of the key skills of the ruler would be to determine who is made of what metal and to properly assign each person to their appropriate lot in life.

The key to this concept is not that there are four kinds of people or that people are so strongly predisposed to one or another occupation.  It is rather that each person feels that they are placed in the position that they belong in.  Someone with a heart of bronze working in a menial position can take some solace in the fact that they belong there.

The Korean preoccupation with testing to me seems to serve one function first and foremost, before even its stated function of enabling meritocracy.  The test serves as a (theoretically) objective measuring stick by which people can gauge one another’s worth.  The system must necessarily be open.  Rather than discussing the Chosun era mungwa I will talk about the modern day suneung exam, because I just learned the word mungwa for the first time yesterday.  Korean students spend the bulk of their educational career through high school studying for the suneung.  The test is designed in such a way that its fairness is as unquestionable as possible.  Needless to say that expensive private lessons are necessary to make top scores on the exam, although there is the potential for anyone, even the poorest student, to perform as well as their talent and studies permit them.  Thus the exam is accepted as ‘fair’ on some level by the bulk of society.

After the suneung is over the grades come out.  Some are disappointed, a few are surprised to find they’ve done better than they expected, but the vast majority of students score what they expected to score.  These scores determine what universities the students will be accepted to, which determines much of the rest of their lives.  Most of these students, even those who are disappointed with their scores, will admit that they are primarily to blame for their scores.  They didn’t study enough, or well enough, or the right things.  Maybe they’ll blame their family’s financial circumstances to a certain degree, but there will always be some fishing village boy with a widowed mother who ends up at Seoul National because of his outstanding suneung score to prove that the test is not the problem, you are.

The test, in this way, becomes at least in part a noble lie.  What happened in late Chosun-era Pyeongan Province, according to my reading of Ms. Kim, is that the disparity between performance on the civil service exams and the career achievements of the men who passed the exams became so disparate that the exam system ceased to serve its function as a noble lie.  Presumably it also failed to serve its stated function, because highly qualified scholars from Pyeongan were not finding their way into the positions where they would be of the most good to the state.

I’m actually not done with the book, so I can’t tell if that is the direction that the author is going to explicitly go or not, but I am repeatedly reminded throughout the book that the founding noble lie need not be perfect, but it needs to at least be credible in order to function.


Here is a quote from p65:

The discrepancy between members of the local elite’s aspirations, arising from their accumulated cultural capabilities, and the unfailing political and social discrimination they faced, fueled frustration among them.

I like Kim’s use of the word ‘frustration’ here, because it implies unmet expectations.  The elite of Pyeongan were performing better on average than the other provinces and yet they were still kept out of the upper reaches of the political sphere due to discrimination.  They had the system dead to rights, they had done everything right, jumped through every hoop, and still they weren’t getting what the system promised.  They could not accept themselves as the authors of their own failure, and when traditional methods of protest within the system failed, some among them resorted to an attempt to overthrow the system.  That overthrow itself was justified by the teachings of the system (the Mandate of Heaven).


~ by Joshing on March 12, 2010.

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