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Prestigious Families of Joseon Dynasty in the 17th Century

Prestigious Families of Joseon Dynasty in the 17th Century

Posted March. 04, 2005 22:44,   


A writer who has been investigating antique documents at the Academy of Korean Studies introduces family histories and customs of prestigious families whose base was in Seoul and the Gyeonggi province. The book includes families, including the Wolsa family, the Cheongeum Kim Sang-heon family from Andong, the Seogye Park Se-dang family from Bannam, and the Agye Yi San-hae family from Hansan.

In the 16th century, children were usually brought up in the mother’s family. There was no particular classification as to the father’s side, mother’s side, or the wife’s side. Whether children were of their daughter or their son did not matter. When there was no son in the family, parents depended on their daughter, so children of their daughter would hold jesa, a traditional Korean ceremony that honors ancestors. However, from the 17th century, as the Sarim (Confucian Scholars) dominated political power and the Neo-Confucianism by Zhu Xi widely spread, the sense of a patriarchal family became prevalent. Inheritance that was equally divided to sons and daughters, changed into the preference for sons. This was when publishing the first family pedigree became a trend.

In those days, the first condition to be a prestigious family was, of course, an official position. Not only scholarship base but also political stance had to be firm and clear. When combined with original family customs like Cheongbaek, meaning integrity, Hyoyeol, meaning filial duty and chastity, or Munhan, meaning literary arts, their prestige rose higher.

The Seogye family values the intellect without hesitating to speak of truth. Park Se-dang passed the examination to the official post top on the list, but he harshly criticized the king who enjoyed spa-going too frequently, and quit the post right away. His son, Park Tae-bo also won first place on the examination, but he was tortured and exiled after he made an admonition against the deposal of Queen Inhyeon. He died on his way to a penal settlement. Park Se-dang had an inscription on a tombstone, saying that he never bent himself against the world. This became the family custom.

Also, prestigious families often entered the rank of noble families through marriages. Kim Gye-gwon from the Cheongeum family married the daughter of Kwon Maeng-son, who was then Daejehak, a chief of the government office of which duties were primarily to record royal orders. It was one of the second highest ranks. By means of the marriage, Kim Gye-gwon laid the ladder of success for his descendants. In those days, officials above the third highest ranks enjoyed the benefit of placing their sons, grandsons, daughter-in-laws and even sons of his daughter on government posts. Kim Saeng-hae, grandson of Kim Gye-gwon later married the daughter of Lee Chim, son of King Seongjong. Thus, this was the beginning of a series of Kim family marriages with the royal family. Kim Geuk-hyo, father of Kim Sang-heon, married the daughter of then civil minister Jeong Yu-gil, making his family the mainstream of Sarim. However, such marriages were not enough to be called a prestigious family. Kim Sang-heon opposed the Qing dynasty’s request for Joseon’s military dispatch, and was sent away to Qing. He spent six years there in jail. As King Hyojong came to the throne, Kim Sang-heon became the symbol of the conquest of the northern areas.

This book is the result of laborious work, as the writer completed thorough analyses on antique documents and revealed their lives in detail. For example, Kim Sang-heon used to carve his own seals, and the number of carved seals is over 100. He even built a storage place for his seals. Through his acts of carving his seal, Kim probably swore that he would never disgrace the family name.

Ki-Tae Kwon kkt@donga.com