By Yang Sung-jin
One of the most visible changes in people’s lives since the current economic crisis hit the nation last year is the public’s keener attention to the “Korean economy.” The proportion of financial news in the mass media has increased, reflecting the change in the public’s taste for “business.”
Back in the Choson Kingdom, doing business was a lowly occupation and not much more. In an agrarian society, farmers duly took center stage while merchants were denigrated as a vulgar if not greedy lot.
The Choson government’s unwavering suppression of commerce was, in fact, more than mere prejudice against merchants. People bound to the land through farming were easy for pre-modern rulers to control. In contrast, increased commerce was feared to lead to a greater movement of people and products, a change viewed as anathema to strict government control.
Small wonder then that the Choson government made it official policy to encourage farming and discourage commerce from the very founding of the nation. Yet there was a dilemma. As agriculture advanced under the aegis of government, commerce was all but guaranteed to expand accordingly.
For instance, a host of permanent marketplaces sprouted up across the nation in the mid-16th century, a reflection of substantial growth in local commercial activity.
But these marketplaces were not what the Choson government hoped to see. In an article dated 1410, the government designated five areas near Chongno as an exclusive commercial zone known as “sijon.” Except for this government-approved area, commerce and trade was strictly regulated.
Later, the government allowed major local cities to establish marketplaces, but kept a firm grip on other regions. It seemed the vigilant regulation did not do much to prevent commerce, however.
Invisible Market Hand
On July 27, 1472, Cholla-do governor Kim Ji-kyong submitted a report to King Songjong on illegal marketplaces: “In a number of towns in our province, people get together on the street twice a month in a meeting called ‘changmun,’ Though they claim that they only exchange goods with each other, they are feared to undermine principles. Since they hike the prices and do much more harm than good, I have banned these gatherings altogether.”
But a record from 1487 suggests that the ban on private commerce was not that effective: “The high rate of cow theft in Cholla-do is due to changmun where thieves sell stolen articles in the illegal market, avoiding the supervision of the government.”
The writer of the report said that allowing such private markets could alleviate the burdens of starving people when the harvest is forecast to be poor, but that changmun should be otherwise shut down.
Yet changmun continued to develop as the hub of commerce and it eventually became a standing venue for local business activities called ‘changsi.’ In 1770, there was a total of 1,064 changsi across the country, a figure translated into, on average, three marketplaces per county.
In 1409, the government took the unprecedented measure of trying to tame merchants. At the time, local merchants based in Kaesong, once the key players in the Koryo Kingdom which antedated Choson, shut down the markets and manipulated prices. In an effort to correct these unjust practices, the central government ordered the Kaesong merchants to move to Seoul while reopening the Kaesong markets.
Meanwhile, sijon or exclusive markets in Seoul were expanding at a faster rate than government officials predicted. As years went by, the land initially allocated for economic activity turned out to be too small to accommodate all the merchants seeking to do business in the special district.
In 1472, officials submitted a report to King Songjong on the issue: “The land for marketplaces in Seoul is too small and thus very crowded. As a result, people deceive and pillage each other in the small area, which often results in accidents. Therefore, the designated area should be expanded.”
Among the hot items in the Choson marketplace were horses, not as a means of transportation but as food. Horsemeat was traded only if the merchant secured permission from the government. The reason for the sale of what some people consider unsuitable for consumption was that chicken and pork were scarce.
On April 20, 1425, the Ministry of Rites appealed to King Sejong to do something about the shortage of meat: “In our nation, the available chicken and pork is not sufficient to serve the elders and perform due rites for our ancestors. That is why some people are buying some certain `unorthodox’ meats in the marketplaces, which goes against our traditions. Please sell 200 state-owned pigs to the public so that they can breed them for proper rituals.”
Given that an oversupply of pigs resulted in crop damage in some areas in 1472, the proposal by the Ministry of Rites seems to have been accepted.
Among other items secretly traded in local marketplaces were military weapons.
An official report to King Sejong in 1438 states, “After inspecting military weapons in various regions, we discovered that some blacksmiths have sold weapons at steep prices to ordinary people in the markets, a despicable act that should be banned immediately.”
More troublesome for government inspectors was the trade of stolen goods by criminal mobs and thieves. On Jan. 1, 1472, an official called on King Songjong to address the issue: “Thieves are selling stolen goods at much cheaper prices after erasing the name of its former owner. These traders should be punished and arrested.”
When the Japanese Hideyoshi Invasion devastated the nation in the late 16th century, the Choson government “borrowed” certain goods from merchants and did not pay them back, causing social unrest.
“Since the state savings have been depleted in the wake of the war, the government bought goods from merchants without paying them fair prices. Now, many people in the markets are living miserable lives, some of them tearfully coming out into the streets to beg for help.”
The article added that officials felt deep sorrow and sympathy for the suffering populace.
It remains to be seen whether the government officials whose mismanagement plunged the country into the IMF era feel the same.