The social structure of contemporary Korea contains strong echoes of the hierarchical principles and patterns governing stratification in the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910): namely, birth and one’s position in the bureaucracy. At the beginning of Korea’s modern era, the bureaucracy continued to exert great influence, but developments undermined, instead of reinforced, aristocratic dominance. Furthermore, these changes elevated the secondary status groups of the Chosŏn dynasty, those who had belonged to hereditary, endogamous tiers of government and society between the aristocracy and the commoners: specialists in foreign languages, law, medicine, and accounting; the clerks who ran local administrative districts; the children and descendants of concubines; the local elites of the northern provinces; and military officials. These groups had languished in subordinate positions in both the bureaucratic and social hierarchies for hundreds of years under an ethos and organization that, based predominantly on family lineage, consigned them to a permanent place below the Chosŏn aristocracy.
As the author shows, the political disruptions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, rewarded talent instead of birth. In turn, these groups’ newfound standing as part of the governing elite allowed them to break into, and often dominate, the cultural, literary, and artistic spheres as well as politics, education, and business.