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8.5: Silla Villagers and their Farms

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    However narrow the Tang superelite, Silla’s was yet more restricted. Silla conquered much of the peninsula. But it never truly incorporated, with equal opportunities, the old aristocrats of Paekche or Koguryŏ, or any chiefly families from outside the core capital area with its six division.16 Real unification, according to some scholars, awaited Koryŏ times.17

    We have few written records of ordinary people’s lives. Recent excavations have turned up a few records of village people and property from Silla. These two fragments, on paper, date to 695, according to Yoon Seon Tao, but other scholars date them to 755 or 815. Part of Yoon’s argument for his date is that the term “first month” 一月 is used instead of “starting month” 初月, a change made by Wu Zetian for her Zhou dynasty, which lasted only from 690-705.18

    The village documents were found when conservators were repairing a thread-bound book stored in Japan, in the Shōsōin or great storehouse of the Japanese imperial household, built around 756 in Nara. The Silla village documents had been re-used to cover the other book, which was a Buddhist text.19 How do you think the Silla documents might have come to the Japanese court?

    Figure 8.9. Photograph of Silla village register from about 695. Even if you cannot read the characters, can you figure out the different parts of the text? Heading, item, number? Source: Yoon Sea Tae, “Village Society and the System of Local Governance,” p. 60. Held in the Korean National Museum. Fair Use.

    The records cover four villages and report on their holdings in a way that is unique to Silla, according to Yoon Seon Tae: the old official documents of mainland and Japan do not have this village-centered format, although many of the items are the same as the Japanese household registers and supplements (households, horses and cattle, taxable agricultural land, productive trees). As you read the report, see if the math works out. What is the reporting cycle? What do you think each category means (“helping son,” “additional daughter,” etc.): what do you guess is the basis for categorization and why? Does the report capture all productive resources?

    Here is the text describing Village B:

    The village Sarhiji of the same districts has an area of tree-covered hills that is 12,830 paces in circumference. This includes an original area of 8, 770 paces and a newlycultivated area of 4,060 paces around, in Hamokchang valley. It has a total of 15 households (“hearths”) equaling 4 ⅓ tax-quota households. These include 1 middlelower household with an able-bodied man, 2 upper-lower households with an ablebodied man, 5 lower-middle households with an able-bodied man, and 6 lower households, 5 with an able-bodied man and one with 1 (later changed to 2) pŏpsa. There is one new household that moved in during the past 3 years.

    The total population is 125. The number of people originally here plus the number of new births over the past three years is 118 (117). The males are as follows: 31 (30) able-bodied adults, including 4 slaves; 5 helping sons; 2 additional sons, 2 small sons plus 3 other small sons born during the past three years; and 1 elder. The females are as follows: 45 able-bodied adults, including 3 slaves; 4 helping daughters; 13 additional daughters; 6 small daughters; 3 small daughters born in the past three years; 1 exempt mother; and 1 elderly mother. There are 7 persons who moved in during the past three years; they include 3 who have not formed a household (1 ablebodied male adult, 1 additional daughter, and 1 small daughter) and 4 who belong to the sujwanae hearth (1 helping son, 1 elder, and 2 able-bodied female adults).

    There are 18 horses, including 16 from three years ago and 2 added since then. There are 12 cattle, including 11 from three years ago and 1 added since then. Paddies [i.e. wet rice fields] total 63 kyŏl, 5 pu, and 9 sok. This includes 3 kyŏl, and 66 pu of kwanmo paddy and 59 kyŏl and 98 pu of yŏnsuyu paddies. There are 119 kyŏl, 5 pu, and 8 sok of dry fields, all owned by village households. Hemp fields total 1 kyŏl. There are 1,280 mulberry trees, including an original 1,091 and 189 newly planted in the past three years. There are 69 pine-nut trees, including an original 59 and 10 planted in the past 3 years. There are 71 walnut trees, with no new walnut trees planted in the past three years.

    In the year ŭlmi, as reported to Your Excellencies, there was one upper hearth household that fled, made up of three persons: 1 able-bodied male adult and 2 ablebodied female adults.20

    Village A’s similar description ends:

    The total number of people who died is 9 (10): 1 able-bodied male and 3 small sons, including 1 male slave; 1 able-bodied female, 1 small daughter (1 exempt mother), and 3 elderly mothers. It is also reported that one kwan’gap [slave?] was sold. There was a decrease of 2 horses and 4 cattle, all reported as having died.

    These village people were categorized for tax and legal purposes, labelled with terms borrowed from the Tuoba Wei via Tang: respectable commoners and base people. But we know very little about them.

    Silla Aristocratic Clans

    Most written sources focus on the ranked aristocrats. The ranks were called different kinds of “bone” and “head” because descent, and human quality, were understood as physical. The highest ranked families were the holy-bone (sŏnggol 聖骨), then true-bone, then head-ranks six, five, four, three, two and one. Aristocratic clans took surnames on the mainland model: first Kim and Pak for the holy-bone clans, then with surnames invented or adopted after the Silla unification for the descent groups of the six major parts of the capital area.*

    Silla law strictly forbade intermarriage across ranks. Lovers broke the law: General Kim Yusin, who defeated Tang, had a holy-bone mother descended from Kaya royalty and a true-bone father; they had fallen in love at first sight and run away together. Two and a half centuries later, another former-Kaya Kim, named Kangsu, of head-rank six, went so far as to fall in love and elope with the daughter of a blacksmith. Monk Wŏnhyo (617-686, surnamed Sŏl) was only from head-rank six, but he married a widowed princess descended from the first true-bone king, Muyŏl. Their son was Sŏl Chong (c. 660-730), who is considered the first great Korean Confucian thinker.21

    But when couples did marry across ranks contrary to the law, or when a man took as a secondary wife a woman of lower status, the children inherited the lower rank, whatever it was. For to an even greater degree than in Tang and Japan at the time, rank was understood as something physical and real.

    The holy bone supposedly all descended from King Chijŭng (r. 500-514). Only people descended on both sides from holy bone families could be monarchs. The holy-bone line died out with Queen Chindŏk (r. 647-654) just before the Tang-Silla alliance conquered Paekche – hardly surprising with all those close relatives marrying. As the New History of Tang explained to its surprised readers, the Silla king could only marry a wife who was also from “his family” so that “daughters of brothers, paternal and maternal aunts, and female cousins are all married as wives and spouses.” This practice ran completely contrary to mainland patrilineal norms, which permitted marriage with matrilineal cousins, but forbade marriage among people with the same surname (patrilineal cousins). In Tang, the father’s family determined rank, so a woman of beauty, education, or wealth could marry up the social ladder, and her children would have their father’s higher rank. But a lower-ranking Silla mother would pull her children down with her. Silla was well aware of the mainland practice, and mendaciously identified many Kim wives and mothers of Silla kings in the ninth century as Paks to avoid offending the Tang court.22 Tang layered aristocratic thinking over its Han legacy of meritocracy and patrilinealism; Silla felt more deeply the pollution of mixed rank.

    The irony is that that very valorization of blood purity in theory undermined it in practice. The holy-bone died out just as the bone-rank system was being finalized. Recall that the Zhou ranks of duke, marquis, and earl were formalized when the fiefs were becoming warring states. Perhaps something similar happened here: as long as the holy-bone could provide an unquestioned top leader the other distinctions mattered less. But with Queen Chindŏk’s childless death, the rest of the Kims and other aristocrats had to establish rules for a stable succession. Some managed to snag a designation as true-bone, others were relegated to head-rank six or below.

    Far from practicing blood-line purity, head-rank six, right below the true-bone clans, became a very mixed elite group. When Silla conquered Paekche and Koguryŏ, it incorporated their former royal families and aristocrats as head-rank six. Head-rank six also included the Ch’oe 崔 clan, whose members won more government positions from the late eighth century by studying in Tang. Some famous Ch’oe monks claimed to be descended from mainland immigrants – not just any immigrants, but the famous Boling Cui clan, as a way of adding luster to their otherwise lowly ancestry. As Jeon explains, “Because the bone-rank system was in use by the time of Queen Chindŏk, those with no surname and those outside of the bone-rank system often picked desirable Chinese surnames to link their ancestry to China.”23 Head-rank six, therefore mingled chiefly clans from outside the capital area, the offspring of Kim and Paks who had married lower-ranking spouses, immigrants from the mainland, people pretending to have immigrated from the mainland, and former aristocrats of Koguryŏ and Paekche.

    Figure 8.10. Chosŏn period (1392-1910) wood-block for printing map of the Silla royal tombs and a royal palace. How do you think the block was made and how was it used? What makes this a practical printing technology? Source: National Museum of Korea Used by permission.

    This invented and mixed system naturally required a long (fabricated) pedigree that traced different lineages back to monarchs and princes who supposedly wielded great power in a time when, as the archaeological record shows, there were only small chiefs. The stories were new at one time, but quickly achieved acceptance as a set of myths that upheld status distinctions, which in turn minimized elite in-group violence. The system and its myths also legitimated (at least to the elite themselves) their domination of everyone else.

    From among the aristocracy, Silla recruited officials through different routes over time. In the sixth century, elite boys joined a group called the “Flower Youths” (Hwarang 花郞 화랑) that groomed them for power. From 682, a National University on the Tang model educated elite boys in the Classics. Officials could also recommend men for office. From the 660s until almost 800, good archers were selected. (True-bone aristocrats also played kickball and other sports like those at the Tang court, inherited from the steppe.) From about 800, lower-elite men won appointment by studying in Tang. At the same time a three-level course of study was set up as another route into office: men aged 15-30, probably (as in Tang and later Koryŏ) only descendants of officials, studied for up to 9 years and could then be appointed to lower offices like county magistrate. A few head-rank six Tang clans that had immigrated to Silla had members win office for their skill in composition and calligraphy. Two of them, surnamed Yo (Ch. Yao) and probably descended from Yo Tan, who moved to Silla in about 770, are known because they wrote records celebrating Buddhist objects: the Nine-Story Stupa and a large bell.24

    But Kims dominated government. True-bone Kims held the throne and most high offices. High-ranking Kims recommended and hired their half-brothers and cousins by headrank six mothers for lower posts. Of 594 Silla officials named in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean sources, almost 400 were true-bone Kims, and most of the rest were Paks. 178 Silla men who went to Tang or Yamato as envoys, or served as junior officials, 79% were Kims.25 The surname was coveted even overseas; fifty-three Silla immigrants to near today’s Tokyo in 733 requested the Japanese court to grant them the surname Kim.26

    * Ch’oe, Sŏl, Pae, Yi, Chŏng, and Son.

    This page titled 8.5: Silla Villagers and their Farms is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sarah Schneewind (eScholarship) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.