Ties of Labour and Ties of Commerce: Corvée among Seoul Merchants in the Late 19th Century
The wealthiest guilds of the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910) capital, Seoul, formed part of the government's provisioning system, providing mainly luxury goods for royal palaces, government offices and tribute gifts to China and Japan. The guild merchants were also expected to provide corvée labour to the government on a regular basis, although by the late nineteenth century much of this labour was commuted to cash payments. Using a collection of surviving documents from the guildhall of the Myonjujon (Guild of Domestic Silk Merchants), this paper looks in detail at the burden of corvée labour, particularly during the politically and economically tumultuous years between 1884 and 1894. It finds that the merchants' corvée reflected the close relationship between guilds and government and also the two-sided nature of this relationship for the merchants. Thus, while they received certain protections and privileges from the government, the guild merchants were also particularly vulnerable to official corruption, which found a damaging outlet in the corvée system.