SOAS University of London

Japan & Korea Section, Department of East Asian Languages & Culture

State and Society in Traditional Korea

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 2, Year 3 of 3 or Year 4
Taught in:
Term 2

This module will focus on Choson (1388-1910), the last dynasty of traditional Korea, and will cover in depth aspects of society and culture that are of crucial importance for our understanding of developments on the Korean peninsula in the 20th and 21st centuries.


No pre-requisite needed.  Available as an open option.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  1. understand the main political, social, economic and cultural features of traditional Korea in the Choson period
  2. use this understanding in analysis of the longer developments in Korean history as well as the contemporary situation on the Korean peninsula
  3. critically assess the current state of scholarship on topcis covered in module through focussed in-depth reading
  4. synthesize information from the readings and critically discuss them in the context of essay writing


Total of 10 weeks teaching with a 2 hour lecture per week.

Scope and syllabus

  1. Territory and population
  2. Political structure and institutions
  3. The economy
  4. The Confucian worldview
  5. Social status and gender
  6. Education and examination
  7. Famine, disaster and relief
  8. Rural unrest and rebellion
  9. Crime and punishment
  10. Everyday life in late Choson Korea

Method of assessment

A source commentary of 700 words to be submitted on day 1, week 7, in the term of teaching (20%); an essay of 2,500 words to be submitted on day 1, week 1, in the term after teaching (80%).

Suggested reading

  • Seonmin Kim, Ginseng and Borderland: Territorial Boundaries and Political Relations between Qing China and Chosŏn Korea, 1636-1912 (University of California Press, 2017), Chapter 2: “Making the Borderland”.
  • Anders Karlsson, “Northern Territories and the Historical Understanding of Territory in Late Chosŏn,” in Andrew David Jackson ed., Key Papers on Korea: Essays Celebrating 25 Years of the Centre of Korean Studies,SOAS, University of London (Leiden: Global Oriental, 2014).
  • Michael C. Kalton, "The Writings of Kwon Kun: The Context and Shape of Early Yi Dynasty Neo-Confucianism." In Wm. Theodore de Bary and JaHyun Kim Haboush, eds. The Rise of Neo-Confucianism in Korea. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
  • James B. Palais, "Confucianism and the Aristocratic/Bureaucratic Balance in Korea." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 44:2 (December 1984).
  • Kyungran Kim, “Female Heads of Households Registered in Korea’s Census Registers Between the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Centuries and Their Historical Significance,” International Journal of Korean History 23:2 (2018).
  • Sun Joo Kim, “Fragmented: The T’ongch’ŏng Movement by Marginalized Groups in Late Chosŏn Korea,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 68:1 (2008).
  • Anders Karlsson, “Law and the Body in Joseon Korea: Statecraft and the Negotiation of Ideology”, The Review of Korean Studies 16:1 (2013).
  • Anders Karlsson, “Famine Relief, Social Order and State Performance in Late Chosŏn Korea”, Journal of Korean Studies vol. 12, no. 1 (Fall 2007).
  • Sun Joo Kim, “Taxes, the Local Elite, and the Rural Populace in the Chinju Uprising of 1862.” The Journal of Asian Studies 66:3 (November 2007).
  • Anders Karlsson, “Central Power, Local Society, and Rural Unrest in Nineteenth-Century Korea: An Attempt at Comparative Local History,” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 6, no. 2 (October 2006).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules