Was Saint Andrew Kim, our first Korean priest and martyr, a member of the Yang-ban class or a commoner? Such is the way the Peace Weekly begins its review of a scholarly treatise by a university professor of Korean history. A matter of not much importance, but it will tell us much about our saint and his life and times.
Korea during the Joseon period was socially divided between the Yang-ban class and the commoners. The Yang-ban can be briefly described as comprising those who had passed the civil servant exams and held positions of authority in the government. All others would be considered commoners. Descendents of the Yang-ban were awarded the status of nobles during the Joseon Dynasty period (1392 to 1897).
St. Andrew Kim was generally thought to be of the Yang-ban class of Korean society. It has been recorded, following an incident when his boat was confiscated, that he had asked how can a Yang-ban's boat be confiscated? From these words, it has been accepted that he was of the Yang-ban social class by many who have studied and written about the issue.
The professor mentioned that there are several problems that arise from this understanding of the matter. The Paris Foreign missioners who lived at the time of the saint considered him a commoner. Bishop Ferreol wrote: "Andrew Kim and members of his family belonged to the lower social class; they were not members of the nobility." Bishop Dabeluy was of the same opinion.
The boat incident, the professor says, bears little relevance to the saint's place in society but was probably a way of evading the problems he was then facing. His statement can be understood as referring to a family background with a strong faith life and a history of martyrdom. There is little proof that his family belonged to the Yang-ban class.
The professor feels that the efforts of some scholars to make the saint a member of the Yang-ban social class are misguided. It adds nothing to his life and actually makes it more difficult to understand the saint's faith and life.