Noblesse Oblige of the Choe Family, Once the Richest Family in Korea
This is a story of one of the most respected families in Korea, the Choe family. The “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” adage exists for a reason, showing that retaining wealth can be even more difficult than creating it. However, the Choe family managed to pass the family legacies down through generations for over 300 years. The Choe family was based in Gyeongju located in the Southeastern region of the Korean peninsular, which was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla, thus earning the epithet of the Gyeongju’s richest family. Even with their great wealth, the Choe family was not a target of jealousy, but rather a figure respected by many.
The Choe family’s prosperity was evident in their 99-bedroom house and over 100 servants working in it. The 99-bedroom house was an ultimate symbol of one’s financial status, for in the Joseon period, only the royal palace was allowed to be bigger than that. The Choe family was one of the most affluent families at the time, but they lived a frugal and humble life and were generous to the people around them to a fault. Especially, when there were crop failures, the Choes dedicated themselves to aiding those in need.
They had several family mottos, but the particular motto they lived by was ‘Let no one ever starve to death within a 25-mile radius of the Choe family home.’ When there was a famine, their largesse extended to tens of thousands of people, at one point feeding almost 10% of the entire population of the province until their coppers were almost empty. They also installed a huge pot in their yard and cooked porridge to be ladled to the starving people everyday. ‘What is the point of being rich when everyone around us is starving to death?’ they said.
The Choe family lent money and crops to a lot of people. People offered their lands and houses as a guarantee or signed a contract. But whenever they had a bad harvest, the Choe family returned those lands and houses and burned all the contracts. “If someone is capable of paying us back, then they would, even without the contract. If someone’s too poor, then they wouldn’t be able to even with the contract. So I don’t want anyone’s heart to be troubled over these documents.”, said Choe Gook Seon, who first started that tradition of releasing people from their debt.
During the Japanese colonial period, the Choe family didn’t hesitate to put themselves at risk by providing funds and shelters for the freedom figher and established a university to educate future generations.
The Choe family is no longer considered wealthy by Korean society. However, the site of their house remains in Gyeongju, along with the beautiful story of a noble family.