(51) Ruling Class Distorted Consumer Prices

By Yang Sung-jin

Strolling in a bookstore is a fun. Scanning latest titles and leafing through a couple of passages on whatever subject can be enjoyable. The most gratifying experience, no doubt, is purchasing a book one wants to read.

Today’s readers are relatively privileged since the introduction of mass production has long lowered the price of books to an affordable level. However, during the reign of King Songjong of Choson Kingdom, books were far from affordable.

In 1478, the king issued an order to the Ministry of Rites: “The prices of books are so expensive these days, agonizing students and scholars. This goes against what the government has done to benefit them by providing a variety of books. More support will be channeled to the printing agency so that any one can buy a book at a cheaper price.”

The underlying economic principle — prices measure the value of goods at a specific point of time — should be applied to understanding what happened to consumer products traded by Choson people.

Take pigskin for example. In the earlier Choson period, the military armor was made of iron and paper. In the late 1450s, pigskin was adopted as a basic material for the armor. Thanks to the change, the price of pigskins surged to 10 rolls of cotton cloth.

The boom of pigs took another twist in 1481 when the Chinese diplomatic delegation made a visit to Choson. At the time the government decided to offer pigs as main dish for the Chinese diplomats, a measure which resulted in the dizzy inflation of the price of pigs to 20 rolls of cotton cloth. Given that a cow cost 10 rolls of cotton, the price of pigs indeed flew.

But pigs are not essential for a living, especially compared with housing. The prices of houses in metropolitan Seoul is now so expensive that some salaried workers are inclined to give up on their sole “dream” of buying their home sweet home.

Home Sweet Home

The harsh reality has not changed much. Back in 1442, a government agency reported to King Sejong on the chronically expensive prices of houses: “The city is highly crowded. Worse, extra land for new house constructions is so small, a reason for the increasing lawsuits involving the land and houses.”

The report put forward a proposal of distributing government-owned land near the East Gate free of charge to those who sought to buy houses with little success.

Meanwhile, in 1446, Prince Horyong, second son of King Taejong, was under fire because he purchased ten upscale houses in his neighborhood in order to build a huge, extravagant mansion.

Other members of the royal family, Prince Pyongwon and Pirnce Yongung, also invited sharp public criticism with their reckless construction projects of luxury mansions.

According to the article of 1450, official Yun Pong’s house was worth 343 rolls of cotton cloth while the court painter Chong Son’s house was priced at 603 rolls of cotton.

Roughly 40 years later, the prices of houses in the capital rose to an astounding level. Official Chong Sok-kyon reported to King Songjong: “In the past, the houses for princes and princesses were not that expensive as today. A house for a prince is now measured at 5,000 rolls of cotton cloth.”

However expensive, the Choson government had to purchase residential houses for the royal family and relatives. In 1504, King Yonsangun bought a house worth 5,500 rolls of cotton cloth for Prince Chean. Next year, 9,000 rolls of cotton cloth from the government coffers were spent on a new house for Shin Sung-son.

King Yonsangun spent a huge amount of public money buying a number of upscale houses of ranking officials. But why did he need more houses?

The reason is illustrated in an article of 1505: “The king ordered to buy a house worth 4,000 rolls of cotton cloth for his mistress. Whenever the mistress, named Hungchong, occupied a house first and reported to the king, the related ministry paid the money. As a result, Hungchong came to own all the high-class houses in the city.”

Monopoly of Houses

In 1533, a critical report on the monopoly of the wealthy and the powerful in home-ownship was filed to King Chungjong: “Ordinary people find it hard to find land for farming. Only the wealthy merchants and high-class yangban have their own land.”

In the early 18th century, royal family members traded their houses at an exceedingly high price. In 1708, a house was bought and sold at 3,000 silver nyang (a currency unit) between royal princes.

Official Cho Tae-gu did not lose any time to attack the deplorable practice: “If our people on the verge of starvation know about this extremely expensive houses bought for the royal family, they would certainly criticize the government. And then the pride of the nation will be seriously undermined.”

Sometimes, other factors contributed to the runaway inflation. In 1525, prolonged political instability in tandem with class stratification resulted in a chain of price hikes.

With most land controlled by a few wealthy landowners and prices spiraling out of control, people increasingly deserted their homes and wandered around the nation.

In an effort to stop the unwieldy situation, the government implemented a number of new economic policies that would restrict monopoly and curb inflation.

Unfortunately, the measures failed to reform the battered economy, which in turned produced a group of people deeply displeased and disillusioned by the incompetence of the government.

On March 19 of 1522, official Yun Sok reported a scandalous incident to King Chungjong: “When I visited Kim Maeng-gang’s house in February, Lee Chun-mu uttered unutterable things about the king.”

It turned out that Lee Chun-mu complained about the outrageous price of cotton cloth in front of Yun, saying the rigged price system would be normalized only after the king was beheaded.

Needless to say, Lee was beheaded right away for his razor-sharp criticism.