Smoking and Social Stratification – Part 1

Old School Cool

“A Korean man in a traditional robe and boots, wearing a horse hair and bamboo hat”; Source: National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, United Kingdom. 1885.

Several months ago, I came across a reddit post on r/OldSchoolCool. It was a photograph of a Korean man from 1885 wearing traditional robe and boots called han-bok (한복), wearing a horse hair and bamboo hat called gat (갓), holding a staff and smoking a pipe (image above).

One curious user asked, “Stupid question time! Why is his pipe so long?”

Growing up in Korea, I always knew that this is how the old or traditional Korean smoking pipes looked like, but I never realized how peculiar they might appear to others who are unfamiliar.

I thought that it was a great question and provided a short answer for that curious reddit user. It made me very happy that lots of people found the subject interesting.

Another reddit user u/seouled-out suggested the idea of starting a Korean history blog. Fast forward about nine months, here I am writing about how it all began!

Although my original comment, which inspired me to start this blog, was not too long, I thought it would be nice to revisit such an interesting topic and discover much more about this period of Korean history. I decided to make it into a two-part series because there is so much to talk about.

Without further ado, let us explore Joseon Korea in the 17th to 18th century:

The Tobacco has Landed

According to historians, tobacco first came to Korea (then called Joseon 조선; Not to be confused with Go-Joseon 고조선), from Japan after the Japanese Invasions of Korea (1592 – 1598). During this violent and turbulent period of time, known as Im-jin-weh-ran (임진왜란) in Korean, other produces such as chili peppers, squash, and sweet potatoes were also introduced.

The earliest record of tobacco plants in Joseon dates back to 1619, in Nong-ga-wolyung-ga (농가월령가) which was a series of lyrics about farming and agriculture.

In 1635, the second vice-premier Jang Yu (장유) published a literature called Gae-gok-man-pil (계곡만필) which states that tobacco came to Joseon from Japan.

Tobacco had many names, including nam-lyung-cho (남령초), yun-dah (연다), yun-joo (연주), and nam-cho (남초). Now, it is called dam-beh (담배).

Extreme Popularity – But Why?

I Smoke, You Smoke, We All Smoke!

Tobacco and smoking soon became extremely popular because, ironically, it was known as the miraculous panacea. Without proper medical knowledge, people believed that it could cure all sorts of illnesses.

Its immense popularity can also be found in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (Joseon-wang-jo-sillok 조선왕조실록: Annual records of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea from 1413 to 1865). Here is an excerpt from the logs written during the reign of King In-jo (인조):


“… 피우지 않는 사람이 없어 손님을 대하면 번번이 차[茶]와 술을 담배로 대신하기 때문에 …심지어는 종자를 받아서 서로 교역(交易)까지 하였다.”
— 인조실록 37권, 인조 16년 8월 4일


“… there was no one who did not smoke [tobacco] and people offered tobacco to their guests instead of tea and alcohol… they even took the seeds and traded with one another.”
— 4 August 1638.

Cheong-geum-sang-ryun (청금상련) by Shin Yun-bok (신윤복). A Nobleman is smoking with a nurse and a Korean giseng (기생; Similar to geishas). Source: Gansong Art Museum, Korea.
Yeon-so-dap-chung (연소답청) by Shin Yun-bok (신윤복). Three couples are out on a date. Source: Gansong Art Museum, Korea.
Boo-hwa-rang-guh (부화랑거) in Gi-san Poong-sok-do (기산 풍속도), a collection of cultural landscapes painted by Kim Jung-gun (김준군). A man is carrying a woman on his back. Showing that smoking is popular even among young women during this time period. Source: Sungsil University Museum, Korea.
Soo-gae-do-gwon (수계도권) by Yu Suk (유숙). Shows how common smoking was during social meetings.

According to Prof. Ahn Dae Hweh, a professor of Chinese Classics at Sung-gyun-gwan University, he predicts/calculates that at least 25% of the population smoked tobacco.

In Hamel-Pyeo-ryu-gi* (하멜표류기), or known as The Journal of Hendrick Hamel, Hamel notes that:

“The people of Joseon smoke a lot and children as young as 4 – 5 take up smoking; And regardless of sex or age, almost everybody smokes.”
— Hendrick Hamel, 1668.

* More about Hamel Pyeo-ryu-gi (하멜표류기):
Also known as The Journal of Hendrick Hamel.
Written by a dutch sailor named Hendrick Hamel who was the first westerner to provide first hand account of Joseon Korea.
Portrait of King Jungjo. Source: Yi Gil-bum, 1989.

Even King Jungjo (정조) was an avid fan of smoking. He was a well known tobacco lover and his passion for the plant can be found in Il-seongnok: Records of Daily Reflections (일성록), a diary written by King Jungjo himself since he was a small child. He wrote that smoking:


“더위를 씻어주[고]… 추위를 막아주[고]… 음식을 소화하고, 자고 싶으나 잠이 오지 않을 때… 시를 짓거나… 다른 사람들과 얘기할 때, 그리고 고요히 정좌할 때 등…”
— 정조, 일성록


“Rids of the heat and blocks the cold; good for: digestion, insomnia, writing a poem, conversing with others, and sitting down in silence.”
— King Jungjo, Il-seongnok: Records of Daily Reflections

The original copy of King Jungjo’s Nam-lyung-cho Chekmun (남령초 책문). Size: 420 cm x 110 cm. Source: Kyujanggak, Seoul National University.

He went so far as to assign this question on the national civil servant examination:


“모든 백성이 담배를 피우도록 할 방안을 제시해 보라.”
— 정조, 남령초 책문, 1796년 11월 18일


“Suggest a plan which will allow all the people to smoke.”
— King Jungjo, Nam-lyung-cho Chekmun (official exam question about tobacco), 18 November 1796.

Professor An Dae-hweh of Sung-kyun-kwan University said that there were many rulers who prohibited smoking throughout the history but no one wanted to find ways to establish a universal smoking plan like King Jungjo.

During gi-woo-jeh (기우제; Rain calling ritual) after his coronation, which calls for a strict “purification” process before praying, King Jungjo prohibited alcohol but still allowed smoking. His excuse was that his mind could not be pure if he stopped smoking suddenly so it is better just to allow it. He even grew tobacco plants in the Chang-duk (창덕궁) Palace backyard and gave them away as gifts.

King Jungjo was also the only king who loved wearing glasses, but more on that later. Fun fact: Jungjo’s son, King Soonjo, hated smoking.

Everybody smoked. Kids smoked in front of their parents and grandparents, servants smoked in front of their masters, kings smoked with the members of his loyal court, school teachers smoked with his students, etc.

High Demand and High Value

Another reason why tobacco was so popular was due to its high value and demand.
Approximately 1 geun (근) of tobacco was equivalent to 1 nyang (냥) of silver. To put that into modern-day context, we need to convert some units.

Here is the brief conversion of units for those who are unfamiliar:

Geun () or widely known as catty or kati is a unit of mass.
1 geun () = 600 g or about 21 oz.

Nyang () was a monetary unit but also a unit of mass.

According to Heng-jeon-jeol-mok (행전절목), the official reference book about the currency units, published under King Sook-Jong (숙종) in 1678, the government decided the exchange rate between currency ($) and goods/commodities, such as rice and silver. It is written:

“1 nyang of silver is equal to 400 mun. 1 dweh of rice is equal to 4 mun.”
Heng-jeon-jeol-mok, 1678

400 mun (; Also known as nip , which was a monetary unit)
nyang (; Monetary unit and also unit of mass. 1 nyang = 37.5 g)

1 nyang of silver divided by 400 mun = 0.09375 g.
∴ 1 mun = 0.09375 g of silver.

1 dweh of rice (되; Unit of volume. 1 dweh = approx. 1630 g of rice)
4 mun (; Monetary unit)

1 dweh of rice divided by 4 mun = 1630 g / 4 = 407.5 g.
∴ 1 mun = 407.5 g of rice.

1 mun = 0.09375 g of silver = 407.5 g of rice.

Silver 0.09375 g : Rice 407.5 g = Silver 1 g : X g
407.5 = X * 0.09375
X = 4346
∴ 1 g of silver = 4,346 g of rice

On 31 December 2013, the Agriculture, Food, Rural Affairs, Oceans, and fisheries Committee of Korea published a report which said 80 kg of rice is approximately worth ₩188,000 (Korean Won) which is about $168 (US Dollar).

80 kg of rice = 80,000 g of rice
80,000 g divided by $168 = 476.2 g/$
1 g of rice = $0.0021

1 g of silver = 4,346 g of rice = 4,346 g of rice * $0.0021
= $9.13 per 1 g of silver

Since 1 nyang of silver = 37.5 g of silver,
$9.13 per 1 g of silver * 37.5 g = $342.38
∴ 1 nyang of silver = $342.38

tl;dr: 600 g of tobacco = worth about $342 today

Soon, as a high value product, tobacco dominated the 17th to 18th century Joseon economy. Furthermore, tobacco plants were easy to grow in difficult mountainous regions (compared to rice) so more farmers began to plant them for profit. Tobacco was so highly valued that during the Qing Invasion of Joseon of 1636, known as Byung-ja-ho-ran (병자호란), it was even used to pay the captives’ ransom, who were taken as slaves and prisoners to Qing China.


At first, there were no set “rules” or strict etiquettes about “how to smoke tobacco” so it was very common for everyone to smoke.

However, smoking in front of elders was prohibited during the reign of Gwanghae* (광해), who was an extreme anti-smoker. Since then, it became a custom to not smoke in front of the elders or in front of those who were higher on the social status ladder of Joseon dynasty.

* More about Gwanghae (광해):
He was coronated and reigned as the 15th king of Joseon (조선) from 1608 – 1623 but was deposed, dishonorably demoted to a status of prince, and was never given an official myeo-ho (묘호 – temple name) after his death. Thus, he is only referred by his prince name, Gwanghae (광해) or Gwanghaegun (광해군; “gun” means “prince” so literally means, “Prince Gwanghae”), unlike other kings who received their myeo-ho (묘호) after their death.
For example, Prince Yi-Do (이 도) reigned as the 4th king and was given the myeo-ho (묘호) of King Se-jong (세종).
I plan to write more about Gwanghae (광해) in the future. He definitely lived such an interesting, dynamic, and tragic life. But I digress.

That’s all for part 1 for now. See you next time with Part 2!




  1. “Coins, Silver Coins, and Paper Money” by Prof. Ki-Ho Song of Department of Korean History at Seoul National University.
  2. “Tobacco, a White Fog that Covered Joseon” produced by EBS History Channel e.
  3. Sungsil University Museum archives.
  4. Gansong Art Museum collections.
  5. The Annals of Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조실록), 4 August 1638.
  6. The Journal of Hendrick Hamel (하멜 표류기), 1668.
  7. Heng-jeon-jeol-mok (행전절목), 1678.
  8. Il-seongnok: Records of Daily Reflections, 1752 – 1910 (일성록), Kyujanggak, Seoul National University.
  9. Nam-lyung-cho Chekmun (남령초 책문), 18 November 1796. Kyujanggak, Seoul National University.
  10. Nong-ga-wolyung-ga (농가월령가), 1619
  11. Gae-gok-man-pil (계곡만필), Jang Yu, 1635.

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