Two Empires, Two Imperialisms: Land Surveys and Taxation Mechanisms in the Korean Empire (1897-1910) and the Colonial Period (1910-1945)

Sora Kim, PhD Candidate
Seoul National University

In 1897, the last king of the Chosŏn dynasty inaugurated a new era. The country was renamed the Korean Empire (Taehan cheguk), and King Kojong assumed the title of emperor. At the same time, several reforms were enacted to realign Korean society. The Kwangmu Land Survey (1898-1904), which assessed the country’s agrarian tax base, was one of these reforms. Although national codes set the interval of national land survey to be once every twenty-years, these rules were not followed. The dynasty had relied on the Kyŏngja Land Survey (1720) until the late of nineteenth century. The Kwangmu Survey, therefore, was the first of its kind in 180 years.

Most research treats the Kwangmu Survey as a “progressive project,” and have tried to identify its “modern” features. When compared to the colonial land survey (1910-1918), however, indigenous aspects of the Kwangmu project stand out. This paper compares the two land surveys to reveal differences in taxation mechanism and their underlying political ideologies.

The differences between the two surveys are visible in surveying processes, measurement methods, and how they are linked with household registers. Even information about area and grade, the most important variables for determining tax rate, could vary for the same plot of land between the two surveys. Although both surveys were conducted by “empires,” their different methodologies reflected the distinct political ideologies of the two regimes. The Korean Empire took over indigenous characteristics in taxation system of the dynasty. The Japanese colonial regimes, on the other hand, tried to implement a modern, Western model into Korea. Whereas ideals of benevolent Confucian rulership during the Korean Empire accommodated regional, the colonial government, however, believed a unified, procrustean order could flatten regional variation. The two regimes had distinct notions of imperial rule for Korea.

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