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Ties of Labour and Ties of Commerce: Corvée among Seoul Merchants in the Late 19th Century

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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. Les guildes les plus riches de la dynastie de Chosaon (1392-1910) Séoul ont fait partie du système de l'approvisionnement du gouvernement, fournissant principalement des marchandises de luxe pour les palais royaux, les bureaux du gouvernement et les cadeaux d'hommage pour la Chine et le Japon. Les guildes était aussi obligés à fournir au gouvernement la corvée régulière, bien que par la fin du dix-neuvième siècle beaucoup de ce travail ait été commuté aux paiements en espèces. En utilisant une collection de documents extant dansla maison de la guilde des marchands en soie domestiques (Myaonjujaon), cet article regarde en détail le fardeau de la corvée, en particulier pendant des années tumultueuses, politiquement et économiquement, entre 1884 et 1894. Il constate que la corvée des marchands reflétait la relation étroite entre les guildes et le gouvernement et également le caractère double de cette relation pour les marchands. Ainsi, alors qu'ils recevaient de certains protections et privilèges du gouvernement, les marchands de guilde étaient particulièrement vulnérables à la corruption officielle qui menait à l'abus du système de la corvée.

Affiliations: 1: Department of Japan and Korea, School of Oriental & African Studies, Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square, London WC1H 0XG, United Kingdom


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