Sell yourself

“Selling yourself” – one of those phrases we use in a somewhat metaphorical sense, but which nonetheless has a more literal meaning than we probably give it credit. In modern capitalist society, where pretty much anything can be commodified, we regularly sell our labour to others. To put this another way, we alienate part of ourselves in order to get the cash that we need to sustain ourselves. But in precapitalist societies such as Chosŏn, it was possible not just to sell part of oneself on a temporary basis but to sell oneself whole, to alienate one’s own body in perpetuity.

I recently came across some information about the Chosŏn practice of ‘self sale’ (chamae 自賣) in volume 3 of the brilliant Chosŏn sidae saenghwalsa (History of everyday life in the Chosŏn dynasty) series, in the section on ‘famine foods’ (구황식품, 굶주림을 해결하라, pp. 196-217):

During repeated famine years, when people’s livelihoods became uncertain, some starving peasants sold themselves and their wives and children as slaves in order to guarantee at least some level of subsistence. The document created for this purpose was called a chamae mun’gi (contract of self-sale).

Here is an example of such a document, dating from 1815, from Andong in Kyŏngsang Province:

Contract of self-sale
(Source: Donga Ilbo).

Interestingly, there is still a word used in everyday Korean which is clearly related to this practice and the more general Chosŏn practice of buying and selling slaves as commodities: momkap (몸값), literally ‘body-price’. Although nowadays it is used to mean the price of a prostitute or the cost of a ransom.

Actually, a project I’m currently working on has led me to think quite a bit about the question of slavery in Korean history. For anyone who is interested in a short and clear introduction to this topic, and the quite fierce debates that surround it, I would highly recommend reading the late James Palais’ essay ‘Slave society’ in the small booklet published in 1998 by Yonsei University under the title Views on Korean Social History. I seem to recall that there are one or two people in the US working on the subject of slavery in Chosŏn history for their PhD research, but I can’t remember who they are. Perhaps someone can enlighten me… And while I’m asking for enlightenment, perhaps our fellow mainland and archipelagan froggers would know whether similar practices of ‘self-sale’ can be found in Chinese and Japanese history.


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