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Virtuous Slaves: Gendered Imaginations of Loyalty in Late Chosŏn Korea

Joy Kim (Princeton University)

Hereditary slavery (nobi-je) was an integral part of Chosŏn Korea (1392-1910), fully sanctioned by the Neo-Confucian state.  Slaves provided the chief productive labor, including agricultural and domestic, and they functioned as crucial and irreplaceable symbolic capital for the slave owners. They added socially recognized forms of legitimation to their owner’s socioeconomic position, enabling the elites to live a more ‘civilized’ life.  For the Chosŏnelites, a life without slaves would have been unthinkable.  The looming presence of slaves, who witnessed their owners’ most unguarded moments, was the object of both elite curiosity and anxiety, so much so that much of the late Chosŏn literature was permeated by the category of the slave.  This paper examines the gendered images of slaves in anthologies of popular stories (yadam) from the late Chosŏn period.  In these tales, for the first time in Korea’s long history of slavery, the slaves are rendered prominent and they become “visible” in the written texts as proactive agents of history, albeit as literary characters. There was a pervasive set of oppositions—between the trope of loyal slaves (good) and that of treacherous ones (evil)—in these tales that functioned to legitimize the owner’s domination over the slaves.  Such use of binary tropes was particularly gendered, rendering female slave compliant and available, both physically and emotionally, to the owner’s desires while representing male slave as a figure to suppress and fear.  In the elite imagination, male slave was a trickster, ready to take advantage of his owner, but the female slave was simply a sexualized body to possess and relish.  By comparing the ways in which the Chosŏn elites imagined the male and female slaves, this paper explores how they expressed, exploited and managed their lives with slavery, an experience that was inherently rife with contradictions, ambiguities and ironies.