The yangban were part of the traditional ruling class or nobles of Korea during the Joseon Dynasty. It consisted of both civilian officials and military officials. The term yangban originated in the Goryo dynasty (935–1392), when civil service examinations were held under the two categories of civilian and military. By the Yi dynasty, the term came to designate the entire landholding class.They comprised the Korean Confucian idea of a “scholarly official.”
Unlike the European and Japanese aristocracy where noble titles were conferred on a hereditary basis, the yangban title was given to those individuals who passed state-sponsored civil service exams called gwageo (과거, 科擧). Upon passing such exams several times, which tested one’s knowledge of the Confucian classics and history, a person was usually assigned to a government post. The yangban family that did not succeed to produce a government official for more than three generations could lose its yangban status and become a commoner. In theory any member of any social class except indentured servants, baekjeongs, and children of concubines could take the government exams and become a yangban. In reality, only the upper classes, i.e., the children of yangban, possessed the financial resources and the wherewithal to pass the exams as years of studying were required to support successful candidates.
As an elite class, the yangban enjoyed many privileges and actively sought to preserve the purity and exclusivity of their group—for instance, through marriage only among members of the yangban class. . Yangbans dominated the Royal Court and military of pre-Modern Korea and often were exempt from various laws including those relating to taxes and military duties.They were permitted to have their slaves serve their own terms of punishment.
In the later years people could even purchase yangban status by paying to procure either lower government posts or jokbo, the noble pedigree. During the twentieth century yangbans suddenly lost their ancient political, social and economic power. The legality of yangban was abolished in 1894 and subsequently their political and administrative role was replaced by Japanese colonial government and its administrators. When South Korea began its new government after the Korean War, yangban were mostly extinct and powerless.
In modern-day Korea, the yangban, as a social class with legal status and landed wealth, no longer exists. Nevertheless, those who are well-connected in Korean society are sometimes said to have “yangban” connections. The word itself is also used, at least in South Korea, as a common reference (sometimes with distinctly negative connotations) to an older, sometimes cantankerous/stubborn man.