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Two Years of Encounters in Namwŏn, 1736-1737: Conflict Negotiation and the Configurations of Chosŏn Village Society


This dissertation engages two separate lines of inquiry simultaneously. The first of these involves a series of close readings of a text from the Namwŏn region in 1730s Chosŏn Korea (1392-1910) called the Collected Volume of Administrative Reports and Inter-agency Communications of Namwŏn County [K. Namwŏn-hyŏn ch’ŏppo imun sŏngch’aek]. Each of these close readings asks how specific aspects of society, politics, law, and culture in Chosŏn might be re-thought in light of the content of the cases—specifically, in light of the processes of negotiation that drove the unfolding of those cases. Each body chapter presents a stand-alone argument. Chapter 1 re-examines established understandings of the relationship between the state’s ritual and legal codes. Previously, law was considered to play a supplementary or complementary role to ritual. In this case, however, an argument emerged concerning the possibility that legal codes might occasionally frustrate the execution of ritual. Chapter 2 examines the position of slaves in late-Chosŏn law. The analysis focuses on the Namwŏn magistrate’s strategic use of rhetoric to resolve a lawsuit concerning a brutal assault on a slave. His intricate rhetorical strategy (one that contained many contradictory messages) reveals the complicated position of slaves in the legal system, which in turn allowed magistrates to develop such creative strategies if necessary. Chapter 3 argues for a re-evaluation of the position of Buddhist temple communities in the state corv�e system. Though the state undoubtedly extracted from the Buddhists, at the same time the system itself created an interdependent relationship between the state and the temples, thus providing the Buddhists an opportunity to articulate their interests and problems. Chapter 4 examines a local conspiracy by several men to install a friend and distant relative as the head of the Local Elite Bureau and concludes that the group grossly miscalculated the degree to which local elite interests guarded that appointment process. Finally, Chapter 5 examines the nature of inter-magistrate relationships through the lens of the illicit movement of people. It concludes that disparities in rank played little role in determining negotiations between magistrates, that rank seems to have been “empty,” merely a reflection of the scope of duties within local boundaries.

The second investigation concerns the scope of the power of magistrates in local society. Previous scholarship often portrays the 18th- and 19th-century magistrates as strongly empowered and exploitative—for these reasons, the misrule of magistrates formed a core grievance of Korea’s noted 19th-century rebellions. However, the cases above show that the Namwŏn magistrate actually operated with variable levels of power. The degree to which the magistrate influenced local actors depended heavily on the institutions and interests implicated in his negotiations. None of this is to deny the reality that magistrates mistreated local populations during this period; however, the dissertation does argue that, when one moves from moments of dramatic action and resistance to moments of everyday life and negotiation, the power of magistrates seems much more variable and contingent, a fact that local populations recognized and knew how to exploit. In short, the dissertation proposes a gradated understanding of magistrate power.

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