Around about the time my wife was 11 years old, her mother acquired a set of what she referred to as “brass coasters.” There were five of them, but over the course of years since 1967, and through many moves, all but one was lost.
Each coaster had a different number of horses, from one to five. My wife told me that she’d really love to have the complete set again, and so I put it out there to my Facebook community, and as fortune would have it, one of my long-time friends – and one intimately acquainted with Korea – recognized it. He wrote to me:
“It’s called a Map’ae (馬牌); it was issued to undercover government inspectors during Korea’s Yi Dynasty. [Note: the Jeoseon dynasty was founded by Yi Seonggye]. These secret inspectors were charged with roaming the countryside to ferret out corrupt officials. The number of horses imprinted on the Map’ae equaled the number of horses the inspector was authorized to commandeer from state stables located throughout the country. A 5-horse inspector was a powerful man and could pronounce death sentences on high provincial officials (high government officials in the central government had to be tried by a specially convened tribunal).”
With this, I was able to find out that in English these are called “Horse Warrants,” and through a wonderful bit of synchronic serendipity, I located a single set for sale on eBay:
My wife was, as can be expected, surprised and delighted that I had been able to find something that for her had great sentimental value, and indeed, so quickly.
A bit of research gave me a lot more information about these curiosities. From Wikipedia:
The secret royal inspector, or Amhaeng-eosa (암행어사, 暗行御史, Ombudsman) was a temporary position unique to Joseon Dynasty, in which an undercover official directly appointed by the king was sent to local provinces to monitor government officials and look after the populace while traveling incognito. Unlike regular inspectors whose activities under Office of Inspector General were official and public, the appointment and activities of secret royal inspectors were kept strictly secret throughout the mission.
My friend outlined for me the structure of the script on the back:
The Chinese characters read, from right to left, the name of the ministry to which the secret inspectors were attached; the top two characters of the second column are the name of the holder, followed by the character for name. The next three characters specify that the medallion is a three horse medallion. The final column indicate that the medallion was struck in March of 1623 (note that the Koreans used the Ming reign date to designate the year–a common practice in Yi Dynasty Korea) To the far left, of course, is the royal seal.
The royal inspectors were sent out with letters of appointment (bongseo, 봉서), a description of their destination and mission (samok, 사목), and “horse requisition tablet” called mapae(마패), which they used to requisite horses and men from a local station run by the central government. The would carry out their inspection in secret, and then reveal themselves with bongseo or map’ae and perform an audit, the results of which were reported back to the king.
This was an extremely dangerous job, with – according to some historians – a survival rate of only around 30%. They often fell victim to assassins sent by corrupt officials, bandits, or wild animals – and they had to pay their own expenses before being reimbursed by the king. Young men were generally selected, along the lines of the apocryphal advertisement for the Pony Express: “Orphans preferred.”
Originals of these Map’ei are worth thousands of dollars and clearly belong in museums, but I’m pleased that through a happy confluence of circumstances I was able to restore one of my wife’s early memories, and learn an intriguing tidbit about Korean history at the same time.
The Old Wolf has spoken.