Official Register from the late Goryeo period


Essay by Lee Hyojong

Official Register, 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

Official Register, 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

As a ruler, it is vital to know how many citizens are living in your country, as well as what percentage of the populace are men (who can be drafted as soldiers), women, and children. To obtain such information, from ancient times, Korean states have been creating hojeok (戶籍), which are official registers or censuses. Intended to improve the efficacy of the ruling regime, the contents and characteristics of these registers varied over time. The term hojeok can refer to any public document intended to record the number of people living in a home or family, along with their personal information.

Produced in Hwaryeong, Hamgyeong Province

Portrait of King Taejo of Joseon (formerly known as Yi Seonggye),1872, reproduction of the original from the Joseon Dynasty, painting (Gyeonggijeon Shrine, Jeonju)

Portrait of King Taejo of Joseon (formerly known as Yi Seonggye),1872, reproduction of the original from the Joseon Dynasty, painting (Gyeonggijeon Shrine, Jeonju; photo: Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea)

This document (高麗末戶籍關聯文書) is the only known example of an official register that has survived from the Goryeo period (918–1392). It was produced in 1390 (second year of the reign of King Gongyang), just two years before the fall of Goryeo and the founding of the Joseon Dynasty. Notably, the register covers the region of Hwaryeong, Hamgyeong Province (present-day Yeongheung, South Hamgyeong Province, North Korea), which was the hometown of Yi Seonggye, the future founder of the Joseon Dynasty. As such, the register records the slaves of Yi Seonggye, along with information pertaining to forty households that may or may not have been related to Yi Seonggye.

Written in regular-script calligraphy, the register is in the form of a bound handscroll with eight attached pages. In 1731, King Yeongjo ordered the eight existing pages to be bound into the current scroll, to be stored in Junwonjeon Hall in Yeongheung. The scroll was then brought to Seoul during the Japanese colonial period. In addition to providing important details about the process and system for conducting the official register in the late Goryeo period, this document also offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people of the time.

Official Register, 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

Official Register, 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

Production background

The historical background of the Goryeo official register is well documented in “Household Census Section” (戶口條) in Volume 79 (食貨, Food and Property) of History of Goryeo (高麗史). According to that text, the “Law of the Official Register of the Goryeo Dynasty” mandated that members of the upper class were required to produce two copies of the official register every third year; one copy was submitted to the government, while the other was kept by the respective household. Due to the social turmoil of the late Goryeo period, however, the Law of the Official Register was no longer being properly enforced, leading to much confusion and inconsistency. As a result, many ordinary citizens were wrongly classified as slaves, which led to a number of litigations. In an attempt to restore social order, in 1390, Dopyeonguisasa (都評議使司) proposed to King Gongyang that the Law of the Official Register should be reestablished.

At the time, Dopyeonguisasa provided the new guidelines for the official register, requiring each household to provide the following information: details and family lineage of the leader of the household; number of members living in the household (including children, siblings, nephews, nieces, sons-in-law, etc.) and their lineage; the resident slaves and their original owners; names and ages of the slaves’ children; and the social class of a slave’s spouse. This register was produced according to these guidelines.

Goryeo people from the Official Register

As mentioned, the document contains eight pages. The first page lists Yi Seonggye’s slaves, and the second page states the guidelines for creating this official register. The third page contains the official registers of fifteen households of slaves, while the remaining pages contain the official registers of twenty-five households of average citizens.

First page, which documents the slaves of Yi Seonggye. Official Register (detail), 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

First page (highlighted), which documents the slaves of Yi Seonggye. Official Register (detail), 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

The first page records Yi Seonggye’s title as gongsin (功臣, “meritorious subject”), as well as his government position. These details have great importance, not only because they prove that this document was indeed issued by the Office of the Official Register of Hwaryeong, but also because they demonstrate Yi Seonggye’s power and political status prior to the founding of the Joseon Dynasty. To be specific, this document shows that Yi Seonggye was the most powerful resident of Hwaryeong at the time, having been designated as Sasimgwan (事審官, “Inspector-general”), a special post denoting him as the ruler of his hometown. His full gongsin title is bunchung jeongnan gwangbok seomni jwamyeong gongsin (奮忠定難匡復燮理佐命功臣), while his government post is byeoksang samhan samjung daegwang (壁上三韓三重大匡) munha sijung (門下侍中), denoting the highest rank. It is further documented that Yi Seonggye was nominally granted the right to collect taxes from up to 1000 houses, and that he actually collected from 300 houses.

On a day in the twelfth month of 1390 (twenty-third year of the reign of Emperor Hongwu; the Gyeong-o year), the hojeok daejang (official register) for the Hwaryeong region was created.

Deokheung, located to the east of Hwaryeong

The Sasimgwan (local inspector general) Yi Seonggye (李成桂) received the full gongsin (meritorious subject) title of bunchung jeongnan gwangbok seomni jwamyeong gongsin (奮忠定難匡復燮理佐命功臣, meritorious subject who is devoted to aiding the king in overcoming difficulties and ruling the country with the mandate of heaven) and the highest possible official rank byeoksang samhan samjung daegwang (壁上三韓三重大匡). He also served in several government posts, including munha sijung (門下侍中, Chancellor of the Secretariat Chancellery); senior official pansa (判事, second minister) of the Dopyeonguisasa (都評議使司, Supreme Council), Ijo (吏曹, Ministry of Personnel), and Sangseosi (尙瑞寺, Personnel Authority); yeongsa (領事, Director) of the Hyosagwan (孝思觀, the building for holding memorial services for Goryeo kings) and Gyeongyeon (經筵, royal lecture); and sanghogun (上護軍, deputy commander). Yi was given the honorary title gaeguk chunguibaek (開國忠義伯) of Hwaryeong. Yi was originally granted the right to collect taxes from 1,000 households. In actuality, however, he received taxes from 300 households.

The second page states the rules for producing the official register, including both the original guidelines proposed by Dopyeonguisasa and the king’s subsequent revision to those guidelines. The variations between the original guidelines and the king’s revisions are quite revealing, as the document indicates that the government official who revised the guidelines by the king’s order was none other than Yi Bangwon (李芳遠), Yi Seonggye’s son and the future King Taejong of the Joseon Dynasty. Thus, it would seem that Yi Bangwon played a crucial role in the process of reestablishing the official register.

1. (right) Third page, which contains the official register of Kim Sangjwa (slave). 2. (left) Fourth page, which contains the official register of Jang Deokbo (citizen). Official Register (detail), 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

1. (right) Third page, which contains the official register of Kim Sangjwa (slave). 2. (left) Fourth page, which contains the official register of Jang Deokbo (citizen). Official Register (detail), 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

The remaining pages contain the registers of forty houses that may or may not have been related to Yi Seonggye (fifteen households of slaves and twenty-five households of average citizens). These registers reveal many intriguing details about the lives of people at the time.

Household (戶, ho): Kim Sangjwa is a male servant of the household of Bak Chungyong, a former pansa (判事, second minister), and is forty-four years old. His wife Gam Muri (甘勿伊) is a female servant of the household of the chief councilor (宰臣, jaesin) Go Han (高閑), and she is forty-two years old.

Same Household (戶, ho): Kim Won, a male servant living in a separate household, is forty-two years old. His wife Ho Gi (好奇) is also forty-two years old and works as a female servant to the chief councilor (宰臣, jaesin) Kim Won (金元).

Same Household (戶, ho): Ga Yi (加伊), a male servant living in a separate household, is twenty-seven years old. His wife is twenty-year-old Nulgeuni (訥斤伊) who works as a female servant in the same household.

Household (戶, ho): Jang Deokbo, a former general titled bisunwi jeongyongjungrangjang (備巡衛精勇中郞將) is forty-five years old, and his family is originally from Uljin. His father is Jang Sim (張心) (deceased) who held the low-ranking honorary position yeongdongjeong (令同正); his grandfather is Jang Yeon (張延) who held the low-ranking honorary military position titled sanwondongjeong (散員同正); and his great-grandfather Jang Seonro (善老) also held the position of sanwondongjeong. The family clan of Itae (伊大) (deceased), Jang Deokbo’s mother’s family, comes from Ulsan. Jang’s maternal grandfather was the township headman (戶長, hojang) Yim Hwasang (林和尙).

Household (戶, ho): His wife Yeonji (延之) is forty-four years old, and her family originates in Tongju (通州). Her father Kim Yeongjwa held the low-ranking honorary position yeongdongjeong (令同正); her grandfather Kim Wi held an honorary position called geomgyohogun (檢校護軍) as a middle-grade commanding officer; and her great-grandfather Kim Gwangmun held a low-ranked honorary position titled yeongdongjeong. Her mother is Yanguibui (良衣夫伊), and her maternal grandfather is Yi Sinpyeong (李臣平), whose family comes from Seongju (城州). She had a ten-year-old first son Jangsong (張松), an eight-year-old first daughter Budeok (夫德), and a five-year-old second daughter Geonigai (件伊加伊).

Notably, the official registers of the slaves and those of the citizens show some key differences in terms of the points of emphases. For example, while the register of slaves focuses on clarifying the slave’s owner, the register of citizens emphasizes the details and family lineage of the head of the household.

For example, the official register of a slave named Kim Sangjwa (金上左) clearly articulates that he was a slave in the house of Bak Chungyong (朴忠用), a former minister. Furthermore, it is clearly written that Kim Sangjwa’s wife Gammuli (甘勿伊) was the slave of a different owner. On the other hand, the official register of a citizen named Jang Deokbo (張德寶) records personal details such as his age, occupation, place of family origin, the name of his mother, and the names and occupations of his father, maternal and paternal grandfathers, and paternal great-grandfather.

Official Register (detail), 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

Official Register (detail), 1390, Goryeo Dynasty, mulberry paper, 55.7 x 386 cm (The National Museum of Korea, National Treasure 131)

The practice of collecting different information from a person depending on his social status carried over from the official registers of the late Goryeo period to those of the Joseon period. However, this document features some details that are unique to the official registers of Goryeo. Here, for instance, the household is designated with the character “戶” (“household”) in a large font, and the register also records the name of a citizen’s wife, a detail that was omitted from Joseon registers. These subtle discrepancies reflect the differing social principles of Goryeo and Joseon, particularly in terms of how the government viewed its people and the overall perception of women.

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Additional resources

Read this essay and learn more on The National Museum of Korea’s website.

See all photos of the Official Register from the Cultural Heritage Association, Republic of Korea.

Cite this page as: The National Museum of Korea, "Official Register from the late Goryeo period," in Smarthistory, December 12, 2022, accessed February 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/official-register-from-the-late-goryeo-period/.