Culture and Society in Traditional Korea

Key information

Start date
End date
Year of study
Year 2, Year 3 of 3 or Year 4
Term 1
Module code
FHEQ Level

Module overview

This module focuses on Choson (1392-1910), the last dynasty of traditional Korea, and covers in depth aspects of society and culture that are of crucial importance for our understanding of not only traditional Korea but also developments on the Korean peninsula in the 20th and 21st centuries.It situates Korean culture and society in the context of the larger East Asian region and highlights aspects of traditional culture that are frequently discussed issues in contemporary South Korea, such as gender norms, environmental notions, and the importance of education.


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:

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


Total taught hours: 20 hours. 2 hours of lectures per week for 10 weeks.

Independent study: 130 hours

Total hours for module: 150 hours

Scope and syllabus

1. Historical background 

2. The Confucian Worldview 

3. Geography and People 

4. Traditional Society 

5. Scholarship, Education and Examination 

6. Gender 

7. Elite and Popular Culture 

8. Crime and Punishment 

9. State Power and Dissent 

10. Everyday Life in Chosŏn 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