I began this study intending to tell the story of the nobi in their own words, but I quickly discovered no narrative of nobi life written by a nobi has yet been unearthed. It may be that no such narrative exists despite the fact that the nobi system was part of Korean society from the time of its earliest recorded history, and the nobi made up 30 percent to 40 percent of the total population during times of the nobi system's greatest expansion.
beings: human beings whose services were indispensable to maintaining their privileged way of life, but also property that could be bought and sold, inherited, given as gifts, and punished at will. Unless we understand this seemingly contradictory nature of the nobi-master relationship, we cannot begin to understand its complex reality. A part of this dehumanization of the nobi in the mind of the yangban owners can be seen in the names given to them. Commonly, a nobi had no family name but only a two-character name that looks more like a nickname than a common Korean given name, as for example, Makchong (male), Songno (male), Pun'gae (female), Ch'un'gae (female), and so forth. In most of these, one of the two hanmun characters in these names appears to represent not its original hanmun sense but what its sound might mean in Korean. Thus, for example, the gae of Pun'gae and Ch'un'gae appears to point to the Korean word gae meaning a dog. Similarly in the case of Makchong, the mak suggests, not its hanmun sense, but what its sound might mean in Korean, something like any/all. Thus, combined with the hanmun character chong denoting a male laborer between the ages of sixteen and sixty, the two-character name, Makchong, would mean something like an all-purpose male servant/worker. In the names of male nobi such as Songno and Dongno, the second character, no, simply denotes he is a nobi: thus the names mean literally Song-nobi, Dong-nobi, and so on.
Broadly speaking, there were two categories of nobi: the kongnobi (or kwannobi), that is, state-owned nobi, and the sanobi, privately owned nobi. During the Choson dynasty most of the nobi were sanobi. (7) Whether they were state-owned or privately owned, depending on their service obligations they were either ibyok nobi (service nobi) or napgong nobi (tribute-paying nobi). The ibyok nobi were those who were in service in person (whether to a public agency or private master), while the napgong nobi were those who were obligated to make an annual tribute payment in lieu of their personal service. In the case of the sanobi (privately owned nobi) most of the napgong nobi were also called oego nobi (outside-resident nobi) because they lived some distance away from the owner, whereas most of the ibyok nobi were also called solgo nobi (service nobi) because they lived in the household of or in the vicinity of the owner's household. The oego nobi (outside-resident nobi), however, could be summoned by the owner to serve as a solgo nobi (service nobi) whenever the owner required the nobi's service either in his own household or that of his children or kin. The oego nobi's outside-resident status thus appears to have been a privilege granted or revoked at the pleasure of the owner.
More of the oego nobi (outside-resident nobi), both male and female, were married and lived as a family unit, whereas more of the solgo nobi (service nobi) were unmarried single men and women, who lived as dependents of the owner. A minority of the solgo nobi who were married and had a family would ordinarily live on their own either in the same village as the owner or in the vicinity and would be in service in person to the owner either full-time or part-time. If in service part-time, they would also be working on their own in spinning and weaving, sericulture, handicrafts, agriculture, and the like or hiring out their services to another master. (8) Although precise figures are hard to come by, it is estimated by most students of the nobi that at its peak from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century, the nobi, both public and private together, constituted 30 percent to 40 percent of the country's total population. (9) A gradual decline of the nobi system began in the middle of the seventeenth century and accelerated after the 1730s. The system all but disappeared by the second half of the nineteenth century. The nobi system as a legal institution was not abolished until the Kabo Reform of 1894-95. (10)
The nobi's indispensability in the daily life of the yangban household is perhaps best illustrated by the way the yangban saw the role of the nobi in their own lives. They thought of them as their sujok, meaning hands and feet. (16) But in fact, the nobi were much more than their sujok, for they were, as one scholar put it:
... not only the yangban's hands and feet but also acted as their ears, eyes, and nose. They provided the food for the yangban and his family by planting and harvesting the crops; cut the firewood and cooked their meals and warmed their rooms; not only prepared fodder for their horse but also had the horse ready when their masters rode out, hence they were the yangban's hands and feet. [And] whenever there was any news, happy or sad, they carried the news to their master's friends living far away and also reported back whatever they heard and saw on their errands, and thus, they were [also] the yangban scholars' and scholar-officials' eyes, ears, and mouth. (17)Unheard voices: the life of the nobi in O Hwi-mun's Swaemirok.
Source: Korean Studies
Publication Date: 01-JAN-03
Author: Kim, Kichung