(50) Prices of Commodities Fluctuated in the 16th Century

By Yang Sung-jin

Blame everything on the faltering Korean economy. With questionable justifications, related authorities recently announced hikes of electricity charges and subway fares. Ominously, consumer prices seem poised to follow suit. Doubtless, it is ordinary citizens who will feel the teeth-grinding effect of the runaway prices.

Today, prices are given in won. In the Choson period, it was rice that people used as the medium of exchange. This practice was widely supported by Choson citizens since rice was undoubtedly the nation’s most important staple. So the value of rice as a currency was rock-solid.

The only problem was that the production of rice was never enough to meet the soaring demand. In general, the rice harvest was vulnerable to intermittent natural disasters. And a bad harvest posed a serious threat both to the national economy and to the livelihood of the populace.

So King Sejong was eager to release rice and wheat in 1421 when a poor harvest hit the nation hard. He ordered the government agency in charge of military provisions to sell the food to ordinary citizens at a low price. At the time, one chohwa (paper money of the earlier Choson period) could buy two does of rice (one doe is 0.47 U.S. gallon), and people received 15 does for one chohwa because of the emergency and the king’s generous rescue plan.

Another famine struck the country in February of 1445, when the price of cotton cloth stood at 3.7 mal of rice (one mal is 10 does). The following year, Hwanghae-do, Kangwon-do and Kyonggi-do suffered a severe drought, sending the price of cotton cloth in these regions to a record-breaking 30 mals.

From the 16th to the mid-17th century, the price of rice fluctuated wildly. For instance, one mal of rice was priced at 50 chon (a currency unit) in 1695. The following spring, the same amount of rice was traded at 200 chon.

Unstable Price of Rice

In 1755, an official named Ahn Pok-jun reported to King Yongjo on the surging price of rice: “This year’s poor harvest is partly due to floods and disease. Furrows in the rice paddies gave way, leaving the fields covered with sand. Almost half of the fields have been damaged beyond repair. Now, one mal of rice is being traded at 100 chon, which will result in massive starvation of young and old alike in the spring.”

As the price of rice was unstable, some people not infrequently cheated on the measurement or inserted extra materials to overbalance the scale.

An official report of 1437 addressed to King Sejong stated, “Rice traders are cheating people to secure greater profits. They use bigger bowls for purchasing rice and smaller ones for selling. Sometimes, they covertly mix sand and rocks in the rice bag, a malpractice which we have yet to eradicate.”

The creation of impure mixtures of rice and extra materials was also reported on Sept. 3 of 1481 during the reign of King Songjong. An official implored the king to pass a law punishing rice swindlers: “Although thugs in the streets are making a living by inaccurately measuring the amount of rice or mixing sand in the rice bag, it is now difficult to investigate and arrest them under current laws. Therefore, violators, if caught, should be banished to a remote area with their family members, and people who provide tips leading to arrests should be given a third of the violator’s wealth as a reward to strengthen the rule of law.”

Despite the heavy penalties, cheating did not disappear. In 1492, King Songjong attempted to improve the situation and increased the number of cudgel strokes for violators from 50 to 70.

In 1515, King Chungjong further notched up the punishment, slapping 100 cudgels on those who were caught and convicted on charges of manipulating or intentionally miscalculating the amount of rice. In addition, violators were exiled for three years at minimum.

Choson CPI

Rice was relatively accessible compared to fish, a rare and precious food among those offered by the citizenry as a tribute to the government. On Oct. 27, 1489, a dispute over fish flared up in the royal court. The incident was sparked by a report detailing the despicable acts of local governors who were arbitrarily forcing residents and fisherman to offer fish as a tribute more often than usual.

Kyonggi-do people were formerly required to offer fish twice a month but after Governor Sim Son was sworn in, he upped the requirement to once a week. The next governor, Yun Kye-kyom, shortened the period to five days, which was subsequently readjusted to a three-day interval. With the inauguration of Son Sun-hyo at the helm of the Kyonggi-do local administration, the fish offering became a daily ordeal for provincial residents.

The greedy acts of local governors in Kyonggi-do resulted in the unreasonable inflation of commodities prices. The standard of living in the region visibly worsened as a result, the report stated.

The overall price of fish steadily surged in the 16th century compared with the previous period. In 1493, one fish was traded for two rolls of cotton cloth. In 1530, the price of one fish was set at nine rolls of cotton. Eight years later, the price skyrocketed to 30 rolls of cotton.

Interestingly, Choson people thought horses more valuable than servants. In 1401, the Choson government set the general market price for horses before sending them to China as an offering. Accordingly, the value of a large horse was priced at 500 rolls of high-quality cotton cloth while a servant was traded at 150 rolls.

This dehumanizing situation was criticized in an article dated 1398: “While servants are traded for a mere 150 rolls of cotton cloth, horses are worth 400-500 rolls of cotton. This is nothing but a deplorable tendency to think poorly of humans compared with mere animals. From now on, servants aged 15-40 should be valued at 400 rolls of cotton cloth, while those who are younger or older should be traded at a minimum of 300 rolls.”

The value of horses saw a steep rise in the 16th century. According to an article by historian Lee Chong-su, the price of a horse soared in the mid-16th century to 100 times that set in the earlier Choson period. The explosive need for horses was partly due to Choson’s increased trade with neighboring nations. Moreover, the mountainous geographical conditions of Korea made it difficult to pull a cart around.

Unlike rice, however, there is no document in the Annals on cheating in the valuation of horses. After all, there’s not much you can add to a horse to make it more valuable.