Book Review: Everyday Life in Joseon-Era Korea

Everyday Life in Joseon-Era Korea: Economy and Society, edited by Michael D. Shin. I would rate this collection of essays by the Organization of Korean Historians as a solid 4.5 of 5 stars. With the caveat that if you’re not interested in this specific time period, this may not have anything of note for you. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued at the idea of seeing the entire schedule of a premodern agricultural year laid out, or takes on salt-making, trade guilds, and tax evasion, this will have interesting nuggets of info even if you couldn’t care less about Joseon or fantasy/historical dramas set there.

I specifically recc’ the salt chapter if you’ve read up on how salt was made in premodern Europe, China, or Japan. The Korean method has some intriguing differences. You’ve heard of sowing the ground with salt to destroy enemy territory? Korean salt-making also involves plowing ground to get salt. After you’ve concentrated some brine and then spread it over the low ground by the sea to dry some more….

Which is to say that this book has details. Lots of details, by people doing their best to do a deep dive into a place, time, or subject and give you an idea what was happening and why. These are my favorite kinds of nonfiction books. See Barry Cunliffe’s On the Ocean, or Rattlesnake: Portrait of a Predator by Manny Rubio. Books that give me enough information, enough details, that I can picture the place, process, or creatures – especially books that point toward sources to learn even more – are very good books.

Also books that show that, no matter the time, place, or culture, humans are gonna human. Yangban can avoid military conscription? I’m going to make sure someone in the family passes the official exams – and failing that, I’m going to fake me a genealogy. Translators are the only people who get to trade with China and Japan? Gee, what job am I going to try to get into? Ban drinking liquor? It’s medicinal, see all the herbs?

(This last did not always work. King Sejong refused even those when he needed medicine, because there was a ban. They ended up treating him with saltwater instead. No details on the effect.)

If you like the costumes and splendor of Korean historical dramas, this book gives you some idea of what was going behind the scenes, and what you could use to build on to make a story in this setting as plausible as possible. No folklore, no magic – those you’ll need to look up other places. But if you want to know, for example, where a character banished into exile would go, and how, and how injured they’d be before they even start the journey (exile was a legal punishment that involved a severe beating first), this book will give you solid ground to stand on.

All in all, if you loved Iljimae or The Scholar Who Walks the Night, and you want to know more – check it out. It’s not cheap, but if you’ve got a library with good interlibrary loan programs, look for it!


9 thoughts on “Book Review: Everyday Life in Joseon-Era Korea

    1. You can also look up salterns and South Korea on internet search to find some current historical sites – at least two saltmaking areas were proposed for UNESCO as cultural preservation sites. Note, some of those may be using “newer” techniques imported from 1800s Japan.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Ohhhh. Well, if translator/trader was a job that was popular and numerous, that explains a lot about those Korean guys who went to China and brought back a lot of Chinese-language Bibles and Catholic books. (Yup, Korea, the land so stubborn that they evangelized themselves — twice.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, it gets even better.

      See, there wasn’t enough actual work on a general basis for the translators to do, several of them usually ended up taking any one position part-time. But the government encouraged as many translators as possible so they had a big enough group of people to prevent losing languages through “only 10 guys spoke it and then”, 1) a plague hit, 2) a war broke out and guess which guys got killed/went down with the ship, 3) oh bleep “divine wind” hit early on that trip to Japan.

      Or something else. Lots of something elses….

      (Including tiger attacks in the outskirts of the capital itself. They happened!)

      Edit: Also found a book sample you might like – Catholics and Anti-Catholicism in Choson Korea.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. But if you want to know, for example, where a character banished into exile would go, and how, and how injured they’d be before they even start the journey (exile was a legal punishment that involved a severe beating first), this book will give you solid ground to stand on.

    Ah, plausibly deniable execution with extra steps!

    (Also awesome fodder for a backstory– they get saved by Good Samaritan and are now loyal to them.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be fair, many people did survive. But, yeah.

      Also! Ran across a book sample you and Suburbanshee might like to check out – Catholics and Anti-Catholicism in Choson Korea.

      I’ve only read half the sample, but that already outlines how some people came to conversion by recognizing that – contrary to a lot of Confucian thought – acting morally can actually be very hard, and needs help. One writer by the scholarly name of Tasan in particular covered the problem in his writings; mind, he was an apostate who survived, so he was circumspect in what he wrote, but it’s interesting to read his outline of why there has to be a God Above (Sangje) if we are to have any hope of consistent moral behavior.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, yeah, the guy who revolutionized Korean philosophy with what were definitely not Christian or Western ideas. Definitely. (And fair’s fair, everybody plunders everybody with philosophy.)

        Obviously there’s still a lot of controversy with Catholic/Protestant/animist/Confucian stripes of belief in Korea, because there are about five zillion K-dramas worth of Korean martyr/saint/apostate/persecutor material.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. And if you’re ever really curious, Hagiography Circle has a ton of stuff on martyrdom causes from the Korean War. Because a lot of the North Korean Communists actually had planned ahead to imprison or kill everybody Korean who was prominently Christian or Catholic, or do various other things. A lot of heartbreak, a lot of gutsy people.

        Liked by 2 people

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