In Search of “Tamna,” the Island Country

The early development of civilization on Jeju Island is for the most part still unknown. Archeological finds confirm that humans had been present for more than 10,000 years, but records of the island were extremely fragmentary until the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). The possible – though as yet unconfirmed – earliest mentioning of Jeju Island as a distinct culture is found in the Sanguozhi, a 3rd century Chinese historical record, in which a brief entry in the “Dongyizhuan” section describes a place called “Juho” inhabited by seafaring island people who dress in animal hides, wear their hair short, and raise pigs and cattle (Jeon 2010: 68-69). Other possible records of “Tamna” may be in Chinese references to the fabled Island of Immortality that Qin Shi Huang, the first unifier of Chinese civilization, ordered the envoy Xu Fu to find. The “Baekje Bongi” section of the Korean Samguksagi compiled in 1145 mentions an episode in 662 in which King Dongseong threatened to invade a place called “Seomna” if appropriate tribute was not paid; the Tamnaji written in 1594 apparently regards “Seomna” as another name for “Tamna” as it recounts the same event (Yi 2002: 13). The only most complete records of “Tamna” and later “Jeju” are from the historical records including the aforementioned Tamnaji, Tamnarok, and Tamna Sullyeokdo, all of which were productions of Seoul-appointed governors during the Joseon Dynasty. As many records have been lost through time and those that remain only happen to be the most official records, the only “histories” that we have of Jeju today are mostly from after the sixteenth century.

Aside from the Samseong Sinhwa 삼성신화, the “Three Clans Myth” that tells of the story of Tamna’s three demigod founders, little is known of Jeju Island’s transformation into a distinctive polity. From at least the short entry in the Sanguozhi, it can be interpreted that Jeju islanders were involved in the Northeast Asian sea trade between continental China, the Korean Peninsula, and the Japanese Archipelago. Indications of the beginning of social stratification in the form of prestige goods such as iron swords and monumental tombs such as dolmens appear sometime in the period of the 3rd to 7th centuries, but it is also possible that there was not a strongly-defined class structure and that the islanders were perhaps significantly more egalitarian than their mainland counterparts. The Tamnaji records that three leaders from Tamna had an audience with the king of the peninsular kingdom of Silla perhaps sometime in the early 5th century and the Silla king thus recognized them with the titles “Seongju” 성주, “Wangja” 왕자, and “Donae” 도내 (Ibid.). The center of the polity of early Tamna was likely at present-day Yongdam, Jeju City. In addition, it is also known that a large ancient administrative complex mimicking the form of the constellation Ursa Major was constructed in the current site of Jejumok Gwanaji and Gwandeokjeong; this was perhaps the “Seongjucheong” 성주청.

As the Chinese and Korean records indicate and as archeological finds confirm, Tamna was an active agent in regional maritime trade. Major village centers were concentrated at coastal areas closest to the major ocean trade routes, in particular, the following villages that are still inhabited to this day: Gwiil, Gonae, Aewol, Gwakji, Myeongwol, Sinchon, Hamdeok, Gimnyeong, Gosan, Hochon, Donghongdong, Tosan, Yerae, and Hwasun (Kim, 2000: 89-94). It comes as no surprise thus that these villages also were established as centers of local administration by 1300. While Tamna exported sea products such as abalone and pearls, the local elites imported ironware. Husbandry and hunting were practiced from as early as the 1st to 5th centuries, but agriculture was limited due to the fierce windy conditions and rockiness of Jeju’s soil; the prevalence of agricultural activity still visible today on Jeju is mostly a late development. At the height of Tamna’s maritime trade activities, Tamna mariners transported goods from as far as southeastern China to the far reaches of Japan and the island had a population of somewhere between roughly 15,000 to 30,000. Tribute missions were periodically sent up to the Goryeo Dynasty’s capital at Gaeseong, but these were taken as more or less opportunities for Tamna merchants to trade with other cultures involved in Goryeo’s larger trade networks including the Chinese, Central Asians, and even traveling Arab merchants.

Origins of name “Tamna” 탐라 / 耽羅 itself are also still speculated. In fact, “Tamna” is but one of several other names used for Jeju. Other names include “Tangna” 탁라, “Tamora” 탐모라, “Seomna” 섭라, and “Damna” 답라. It is theorized that Chinese character combinations of these names do not actually mean anything in Classical Chinese, but rather are transliterations for a Korean word meaning “Island Country” – “tam” 탐 is possibly another word for island or “seom” 섬 and “ra” 라 perhaps refers to the Korean word for country or “nara” 나라.

Jeju Island became “Jeju” as the island’s importance to the peninsular mainland grew; ironically, the more important Jeju became, the less independence it had and the tighter the grip of the royal court. The name “Jeju” 제주 / 濟州, which literally means “district across the water,” was given in 1216 when the Goryeo court established the island’s three subdivisions of Jejumok (present-day Jeju City), Daejeong, and Jeongeui (present-day Pyoseon) as part of an effort of elevating the island’s administrative status in order to strengthen central government control. “Tamna” was revived during the Mongol occupation period at the end of the 13th century to the 14th century, but only as a political maneuver to assert the Mongol Yuan empire’s rule over the island. Last vestiges of native rule were erased during the Joseon Dynasty in 1401 when King Taejong of Joseon accepted the local elites’ request to be incorporated into the Joseon kingdom’s social status system. The last holders of the titles “Seongju” and “Wangja” – Go Bongnye and Mun Chungse – were given the provisional offices of “Jwadojigwan” and “Udojigwan,” which also were abolished in 1445 (Ibid., 20). Regardless of Joseon’s tight hold onto the island and the metropole’s elite to transform its cultural landscape in accord to Neo-Confucian ideals (Nemeth 1987), characteristics unique to the island persisted. Even after governor Yi Hyeongsang’s infamous 1702 order to burn Jeju’s shaman shrines and Buddhist temples and persecute shamans in the vicinity of the island’s three administrative centers, cultural practices persisted perhaps out of resistance.

Although Jeju has been an undeniable part of the larger Korean Peninsula based civilization for more than 900 years, even as Korean Peninsula centered periodizations and classifications are used as references, one should be cautious to remember that for a significant portion of the existence of human cultures on Jeju Island, the island developed separately from the peninsular mainland. The archeological discoveries at ancient sites such as Gosan, once heralded as having examples of some of Korea‘s most ancient pottery, are not so much traces of an ancient “Korea” but an ancient Jeju that followed a different trajectory from the mainland civilizations (Yi, 2004: 13). Thus it would be rather absurd to hold tightly onto modern nation-state signifiers when speaking of the early period, especially considering the geological fact that much of East Asia from present-day Shandong, China to the southern edges of present-day Honshu, Japan was connected with land bridges that allowed for free movement between landmasses during prehistoric times. Even during later periods until the rule of the Joseon Dynasty became more entrenched, it is not clear whether islanders identified themselves with the peninsula as historical records are filled with various instances of rebellions and extant oral narratives reveal a marked degree of antipathy toward mainland-appointed governors.


Jeon Gyeong-su. Jeju/Tamna-eui munhwa illyuhak. Seoul: Minsogwon. 2010.

Kim Il-u. Goryeo sidae Tamnasa yeongu. Seoul: Sinseowon. 2000.

Nemeth, David J. The architecture of ideology: Neo-Confucian imprinting on Cheju Island. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1987.

Yi Wonjin. Yeokju Tamnaji. ed. Kim Chan-heup. Seoul: Pureun Yeoksa. 2002.

Yi Yeonggwon. Jeju yeoksa gihaeng. Seoul: Hangyeore Chulpan. 2004.