Korean caste system
Class Hangul Hanja Meaning
Yangban 양반 兩班 aristocrats
Jung-in 중인 中人 middle people
Sangmin 상민 常民 commoners
Cheonmin 천민 賤民 vulgar commoners
 • Baekjeong 백정 白丁 untouchables
 • Nobi 노비 奴婢 slaves or serfs

Nobi were members of the slave class during the Korean dynasties of Goryeo and Joseon. Legally, they held the lowest rank in medieval Korean society. Like the slaves, serfs, and indentured servants of the Western Hemisphere, nobi were considered property or chattel, and could be bought, sold, or gifted.

Revised RomanizationNobi


The nobi were socially indistinct from freemen other than the ruling yangban class, and some possessed property rights, legal entities and civil rights. Hence, some scholars argue that it's inappropriate to call them "slaves",[1] while some scholars describe them as serfs.[2][3] Furthermore, the Korean word for an actual slave, in the European and American meaning, is noye, not nobi.[3] Some nobi owned their own nobi.[4]


Some people became nobi as legal punishment for committing a crime or failing to pay a debt. However, some people voluntarily became nobi in order to escape crushing poverty during poor harvests and famines.[1]

Household nobi served as personal retainers and domestic servants, and most received a monthly salary that could be supplemented by earnings gained outside regular working hours.[5][6] Out-resident nobi resided at a distance and were little different than tenant farmers or commoners.[5] They were registered officially as independent family units and possessed their own houses, families, land, and fortunes.[6] Out-resident nobi were far more numerous than household nobi.[7]

The hierarchical relationship between yangban master and nobi was believed to be equivalent to the Confucian hierarchical relationship between ruler and subject, or father and son.[8] Nobi were considered an extension of the master's own body, and an ideology based on patronage and mutual obligation developed. The Annals of King Taejong stated: "The nobi is also a human being like us; therefore, it is reasonable to treat him generously" and "In our country, we love our nobis like a part of our body."[9]

In the chakkae system, nobi were assigned two pieces of agricultural land, with the resulting produce from the first land paid to the master, and the produce from the second land kept by the nobi to consume or sell. In order to gain freedom, nobi could purchase it, earn it through military service, or receive it as a favor from the government.[5]

In 1426, Sejong the Great enacted a law that granted government nobi women 100 days of maternity leave after childbirth, which, in 1430, was lengthened by one month before childbirth. In 1434, Sejong also granted the husbands 30 days of paternity leave.[10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Rhee, Young-hoon; Yang, Donghyu. "Korean Nobi in American Mirror: Yi Dynasty Coerced Labor in Comparison to the Slavery in the Antebellum Southern United States". Working Paper Series. Institute of Economic Research, Seoul National University.
  2. ^ Bok Rae Kim (23 November 2004). "Nobi: A Korean System of Slavery". In Gwyn Campbell (ed.). Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. pp. 153–157. ISBN 978-1-135-75917-9.
  3. ^ a b Palais, James B. Views on Korean social history. Institute for Modern Korean Studies, Yonsei University. p. 50. ISBN 9788971414415. Retrieved 15 February 2017. Another target of his critique is the insistence that slaves (nobi) in Korea, especially in Choson dynasty, were closer to serfs (nongno) than true slaves (noye) in Europe and America, enjoying more freedom and independence than what a slave would normally be allowed.
  4. ^ Bok Rae Kim (23 November 2004). "Nobi: A Korean System of Slavery". In Gwyn Campbell (ed.). Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. pp. 162–163. ISBN 978-1-135-75917-9.
  5. ^ a b c Seth, Michael J. A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 168. ISBN 9780742567177. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  6. ^ a b Campbell, Gwyn. Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. p. 155. ISBN 9781135759179. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  7. ^ Campbell, Gwyn. Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. p. 154. ISBN 9781135759179. Retrieved 16 February 2017. The serfdom thesis is based largely on the work of the North Korean scholar, Kim Sok-hyong, who divided nobis into 'resident' and 'non-resident' groups. The former lived under the same roof as their masters, for whom they performed domestic and the greater part of agricultural labour. The latter dwelt far from their masters' houses, cultivating land for which they paid rent to their masters, and possessed their own personal property. In reality, their situation was similar to that of tenant farmers. Kim therefore considered 'resident' nobis to be slaves, and 'non-resident' nobis to be serfs. As the latter group were far more numerous, he concluded that serfdom characterized Chosun society.
  8. ^ Kim, Youngmin; Pettid, Michael J. Women and Confucianism in Choson Korea: New Perspectives. SUNY Press. p. 140. ISBN 9781438437774. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  9. ^ Campbell, Gwyn. Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Routledge. p. 156. ISBN 9781135759179. Retrieved 16 February 2017.
  10. ^ Yi, Pae-yong (2008). Women in Korean History 한국 역사 속의 여성들. Ewha Womans University Press. p. 267. ISBN 9788973007721. Retrieved 18 August 2018.

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