Seomin, Korea’s working class

Written by on March 7, 2012 in Special Report

Modern Korea is a society of unprecedented growth, rapid modernisation, and upward mobility. However, in all this excitement, sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of one’s roots.

Korea, like any society, was built on the backs of the lower classes. These people, known as the seomin, are the people who farmed the crops, who laboured for the state, who served in the military, and who paid the majority of the taxes.

Lately I’ve encountered several modern-day examples of Korea’s lower class, mainly while working on food tourism articles. In exploring Pimatgol, I traced the footsteps of Joseon-era commoners escaping the social pressures of encountering aristocrats. In more contemporary examples, I visited the cities famous for budae jjigae (created in the ashes of war) and dakgalbi (once called “seomin galbi”), both foods with humble origins, now considered fine examples of Korean cuisine.

Pimatgol is a sangmin shortcut through downtown Seoul’s Jongno District.

In cases like these, I’ve sometimes noticed a bit of apprehension on the part of many Koreans who may feel defensive of their country’s image, like these places might portray Korea as less than perfect. However, no one should feel this way; I want Koreans to have more pride in their seomin culture.

Sometimes more inflammatorily known as sangmin, the seomin accounted for 75% of the nation’s population. The seomin held a low position in Joseon society, somewhat akin to the European version of peasant or serf, but they weren’t the lowest of the castes. They were free to be peasants, labourers, fishermen, craftsmen, and merchants, but the most privileged among them were farmers. Some of them even owned their own farmland, and while they lived hard lives most of them couldn’t exactly be called serfs.

The seomin lived under the aristocratic yangban class and the joongin class, which consisted of bureaucrats and other skilled workers who enabled the domination of the yangban and the royal family. Like the peasants in Europe, the seomin represented the ever-present threat of uprising against the ruling classes, something that was known to happen from time to time.

The tension between the traditional sangmin and yangban classes can still be seen today, especially in Korea’s most celebrated traditional city, Andong. I was originally attracted to this charming city for its myriad folk traditions, but was surprised at how the emphasis was mainly placed on the yangban elements, especially signature foods such as salted mackerel and Andong Soju.

One of the most easily recognised symbols of the city may well be the yangban mask, which best demonstrates the relationship between the two classes. The yangban mask, along with nine other masks, was actually created by the sangmin for use in shamanistic rituals, ceremonial rites, and satirical plays. Created to look grotesque and horrifying, the yangban mask reflects how the seomin perceived the yangban. The plays, known as byeolshingut talnori, were satirical depictions of Joseon society and the hardships of seomin life under it.

The yangban mask offers us a twisted look at Joseon’s upper caste, as seen by the seomin.

This seomin thread runs through many other traditional artistic forms, such as pansori. Pansori is a genre of traditional Korean music performed by a caterwauling singer accompanied by a drummer playing a barrel drum called a buk. Lately, pansori has been promoted as a form of “Korean opera,” but many music experts opt to compare its impact to that of American blues.

The most famous (and the longest) of the pansoris is called Chunhyangga, which tells the tale of a gisaeng (the Korean version of a geisha, part of the cheonmin) who becomes the wife of an aristocrat, a taboo crossing of class lines in Joseon society. The pansori has a strong subtext of freedom and resistance to the yangban.

Of the five surviving pansoris, four are clearly sympathetic to the seomin, with humble protagonists who are rewarded for their goodness or who outwit their superiors. Heungbuga tells the story of Heungbu, a poor man with many children whose kindness to a swallow with a broken leg is repaid with treasure.

Simcheongga tells of Simcheong, who offers herself for sacrifice to the sea in exchange for rice for her blind father. However, the dragon king of the sea is moved by her act, and returns her to land where she becomes emperor. In the play’s final act, she holds a banquet for the blind men of the kingdom in order to reunite with her father.

Sugungga is a more fanciful tale about a rabbit who is lured into the palace of a king suffering from an ailment that can only be cured by the liver of a rabbit. The rabbit outwits the king and escapes. The king is portrayed as a predator with the rabbit as his prey, and seomin audiences root for the rabbit’s escape.

Ahn Sook-seon performs Chunhyangga (photo: Yonhap).

Pansori is one of many types of traditional musical performances created by the lower classes that gained acceptance in the upper echelons of society. Another such example is jultagi, a type of acrobatic tightrope performance that was inscribed in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity last year. However, many other forms of performance struggled to exist long enough to become treasures of traditional Korean culture.

Jultagi (Photo courtesy of the Cultural Heritage Administration).

One such example is nongak, a musical genre involving dancing, singing, and drumming. The name literally means “farmers’ music,” a term that many historians claim was coined to isolate it in the countryside, away from cities where it could be used to spread dissent. Many performers and scholars began favouring the term pungmul, which doesn’t have the negative connotation the authorities (some sources say Joseon, others Imperial Japan) intended. However, the name nongak has been preserved to distinguish it from the much younger genre of samul nori, an urbanised adaptation of nongak intended to be performed indoors in concert halls.

Nongak performances feature a lively combination of singing, drumming, and dancing (photo: Yonhap).

Perhaps a common thread to all these forms is their roots in oral tradition. The sangmin were mostly (if not entirely) illiterate prior to the introduction of Hangeul, so the only way to transmit knowledge from generation to generation was through oral literature. In fact, King Sejong introduced his new alphabet system specifically to benefit the seomin. It’s interesting to note that he had to work on it with few people in secret, because he anticipated that the yangban would oppose it. Part of this was because they were happy using Hanja, but also because they opposed seomin literacy. In those days, literacy was a free ticket to the upper class, and encouraging literacy threatened the entire caste system. By giving Hangeul to the masses, King Sejong allowed them greater participation in society.

Korea’s caste system was dismantled after liberation from Japan, when South Korea formed a new government. The yangban lost their status as a social class, but continued to inhabit positions in the new government. As well, the seomin class may have lost its official distinction, but Korea’s working class has continued to refine the culture and keep the society running. Today’s seomin can be found experimenting with Korean cuisine in restaurants, running a stand in the markets, in cafes working on Korea’s next bestseller novel.

While it’s natural to strive for upward mobility, let us also not ignore the achievements of the commoners. Most western countries have a sense of working class pride, and that’s something I’d like to see a lot more of over here.

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About the Author

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar is a former editor and staff writer for Korea.net. His first visit to Korea was in summer 1996 when he was a teenager, and he returned permanently in December 2003. He is involved in the Korean underground music scene and has supported local musicians through writing, photography, and occasionally planning events. He has been blogging for more than a decade, mainly on music, urban exploration, and his cats