Koreans Adopt the Tang Civil Service Model

The Korean kings Wang So and Wang Ch’i created a new governing structure modeled on that of the Chinese Tang Dynasty in order to achieve greater centralization and a stronger monarchy.

Summary of Event

Government reform in Koryŏ started with Kwangjong Kwangjong , the fourth king of the Koryŏ Dynasty Koryŏ Dynasty[Koryo Dynasty] (918-1392) and a son of the dynastic founder T’aejo (Wang Kŏn Wang Kŏn ). T’aejo’s reign (r. 918-943) had failed to establish a strong, centralized monarchy. Instead, the dynasty was more of a confederation of various strongmen with local power bases, who leaned heavily on the throne and meddled in the royal succession. As a result, a violent succession struggle erupted following the death of T’aejo’s chosen successor, King Hyejong Hyejong (r. 944-945), in 945. After another of T’aejo’s sons failed to consolidate the dynasty, Kwangjong took the throne. [kw]Koreans Adopt the Tang Civil Service Model (958-1076)
[kw]Tang Civil Service Model, Koreans Adopt the (958-1076)
[kw]Civil Service Model, Koreans Adopt the Tang (958-1076)
Examinations, Chinese civil service;Korean adoption of
Korea;958-1076: Koreans Adopt the Tang Civil Service Model[1220]
Government and politics;958-1076: Koreans Adopt the Tang Civil Service Model[1220]
Wang So
Wang Ch’i
Wang Hwi

Kwangjong was endowed with sufficient character and vision to leave an indelible imprint on the dynasty. One of his chief concerns was to strengthen royal authority and reduce the influence of the powerful families that had helped T’aejo ascend to the throne. Kwangjong looked to the Chinese bureaucratic system of government to replace the unstable coalition of warlords with people who would be loyal to the dynasty and state rather than to their vested regional or family interests. To some extent, he could draw on the experience of the Chinese Later Zhou Dynasty (Chou; 951-960), which at that time was also implementing a program of administrative reform aimed at overcoming the independent military governors who had wrestled power from the imperial bureaucracy in the second half of the Tang Dynasty Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907). In fact, Kwangjong hired an émigré from Later Zhou, Shuang Chi (Shuang Ch’ih), who had experience in implementing administrative reforms and who helped the king organize the first civil service examination in Koryŏ (958). China;influence on Korea

The examination was the cornerstone of the imperial bureaucracy as it had matured in Tang China. It tested people on their knowledge of Confucian classics and composition skills, thus providing objective criteria to use as a basis to recruit people for administrative and government work. In Koryŏ, the composition test was organized separately from the classics test and was the chief means of recruitment, suggesting that the examination was more functional and less ideologically slanted than its Chinese model. The Koryŏ examinations organized by Kwangjong selected only a few people. Although the examinations gave Kwangjong the opportunity to select people who did not have a strong power base and were thus dependent on their office for income, the small number of people who passed the examination indicates that the pace of reform was very slow.

Either to speed things up or to overcome resistance to his reforms, Kwangjong started to purge members of the old elite in 960. The purges were bloody and unsettling and led to the elimination of many merit subjects, people awarded government posts for their service in the founding of the dynasty. According to the Koryŏsa (1451; history of Koryŏ), the purges were conducted randomly, in a climate of terror in which subordinates were encouraged to accuse their superiors. Whether Kwangjong was forced to resort to such drastic measures or whether he willingly indulged in excessive cruelty is impossible to determine, but ultimately these measures had the desired effect in that the examination system became the main avenue toward reaching government posts.

The gradual pace of the reforms is perhaps a measure of the amount of resistance that had to be overcome and the enormity of the task, which was carried out step by step. The next stage was to create a remuneration system for officials. Kwangjong had already tried to attack the economic basis of the old elite through the Slave Investigation Act (956) Slave Investigation Act (956) , which forced them to manumit people who had been illegally enslaved. Slavery;Korea
Korea;slavery This had the effect of increasing the class of commoner peasants, who could then be taxed by the state. In 976, Kyŏngjong initiated the Stipend Land Law Stipend Land Law (976) , a law giving officials certain rights to land use as a reward for office. The land grant was not permanent and often no more than an entitlement to collect rent. It was intended both as an incentive to attract people and as a step toward asserting state control of the means of production. Laws and law codes;Korea

The administrative reforms were virtually completed by Sŏngjong Sŏngjong , who created the main government institutions. In 983, he instituted a structure that was almost identical to that of the Tang Dynasty, consisting of three departments and six ministries. The secretariat, chancellery, and executive departments respectively were responsible for drafting, reviewing, and implementing policy. The executive department also oversaw the six ministries, each of which had a different area of competence (personnel, military affairs, taxation, justice, rites, and public works). The only other organs that could rival the power of these institutions were the royal secretariat, responsible for transmitting royal commands and military emergencies, and the censorate, which had the power to investigate what went on at all the other institutions. Each of these institutions was headed by officials of the first or second grade in a system consisting of nine main grades.

Sŏngjong’s reforms put in place an administrative structure that, in theory, would help create a centralized state that was the sole arbiter of power and influence in the country. In effect, however, consensus building and compromise with regional elites remained part of the system. The central government never managed to achieve even nominal control over all its counties and prefectures. Even at the height of its power, it was able to centrally appoint magistrates only to roughly one-third of all counties and prefectures. Also, the taxation and remuneration system continued to undergo numerous revisions and was not finalized until 1076, when King Munjong Munjong established the final salary levels. However, despite his efforts to make the state control the distribution of wealth, in effect officials and gentry retained a considerable degree of control over land, both that held in private and that obtained through office holding.


The changes wrought by the implementation of the Tang civil service system were part of a process that profoundly changed the politics and society of the Korean peninsula. Previously, society and politics had been dominated by the Silla Dynasty (668-935) bone-rank system, in which office holding, status, and profession were all determined by one’s descent group. With the collapse of this societal system in the transition from the Silla to the Koryŏ Dynasty, there was an urgent need for a new system to integrate the various local and central elites on the peninsula. The examination system made it possible for local elites to gain entry to the capital aristocracy, initially dominated by a coalition around the dynastic founder. Although the examination never became the sole avenue to office holding, it did give talented individuals without a previous foothold in the administration the opportunity to help shape policy and govern.

However, the civil service examination was not open to everyone, but only to those with at least the status of village or town head. Thus a new status group formed in early Koryŏ, much broader than the Silla elite, consisting of those families who formed the gentry at the local level but who could also gain access to the central aristocracy. The examination became an important additional avenue to improve one’s status, but unlike in China, it was never the sole marker of qualification for office holding. Because classical Chinese was the language used for the examination, the examination system helped spread knowledge of Chinese language and culture. Previously, an indigenous writing system, based on Chinese but adapted to write Korean words and syntax, had coexisted with classical Chinese. Now this writing Writing;Korea
Korea;writing system, known as hyangch’al, gradually disappeared. Although the adoption of the Tang civil service model meant an increase in the impact of Chinese civilization, the institutions borrowed from China did not necessarily operate in the same way as they did in China. For instance, despite the checks and balances built into the three departments system, political decisions were usually made by a special council consisting of the top-ranking officials of all the departments.

Further Reading

  • Duncan, John B. “The Formation of the Central Aristocracy in Early Koryŏ.” Korean Studies 12 (1988): 39-61. Investigates the actual functioning of the new bureaucracy by looking at the social background of those in power.
  • Duncan, John B. The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000. The first chapter contains a good introduction to the Koryŏ political system.
  • Kang, H. W. “Institutional Borrowing: The Case of the Chinese Civil Service Examination System in Early Koryŏ.” Journal of Asian Studies 34, no. 1 (1974): 109-126. Still the only study of the introduction of the new examination system.
  • Palais, James. “Land Tenure in Korea: Tenth to Twelfth Centuries.” Journal of Korean Studies 4 (1982-1983): 75-205. An analysis of critical literature in Korean on the land reforms attempted in the first half of Koryŏ.
  • Palais, James. “Slavery and Slave Society in the Koryŏ Dynasty.” Journal of Korean Studies 5 (1984): 173-190. Examines the nature and economic importance of slavery in Koryŏ.