Self-sufficiency, Sustainability, and Interpreting Premodern Jeju [Part 1]

Part 1: T’amna Agriculture – “Traditional” Productive Technologies and Local Innovation

With the global crises of environmental degradation, sky-rocketing food prices, exacerbating problems of inequality of distribution, it should come as no surprise that sustainable economic activity and organic agriculture have become an integral part of not only the “green” activism, but also local movements whose goals are self-sufficiency coupled with re-assertion of local subjectivities through the revival or re-interpretation of allegedly traditional forms of production. While such trends have been gaining traction in peninsular Korea in the past few years, the question of sustainability has become a crucial issue in Cheju Island where the surge of interest in Cheju’s local-ness combined with the past few years of economic uncertainty has also brought an accompanying anxiety about the island’s complete dependency on an unstable global world system. So far, “green growth” has ranged from the superficial “greening” of developmental schemes in which urban development would simply be kept a certain distance from biosphere reserves to the more ambitious projects of “zero carbon emissions.” Beneath grandiose projects, however, are more modest yet no less significant re-examinations of Cheju’s past economic traditions. While on the one hand they are on the surface nostalgic yearnings for an idealized Tamna past, they also call to question contemporary development schemes and assert the possibility that perhaps the island’s ancestors had managed to survive in such an unforgiving environment because they truly had done something right. Popular attention – in this case, media spotlighting and commonly circulated discourse – has given much attention the haenyŏ women divers for good reason, but re-examinations of Cheju’s pre-industrial agricultural production systems have also acquired a following in the form of new community-based gardening such as Uri tŏtpat Cheju kongdongch’e u-yŏng 우리 텃밭 제주공동체 우영, an initiative of Cheju women community farmers. Modern revitalization movements and reinterpretations of the traditional may be loaded with primarily contemporary sensitivities and concerns, but they nonetheless highlight the need to re-examine the ways in which previous economic activity served the needs of earlier peoples as our own forms of industrial agriculture are in the midst of crisis and breakdown.

T’amna / Koryŏ Period Agricultural Practices

The dearth of written records before the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1912) makes any assessment of preceding periods such as Koryŏ (918-1392) or Silla (4th century – 935) extremely difficult, but what has been gleaned from the Koryŏsa and analysis of archeological finds provides some clues on how T’amna people may have made a living. Even as late as the 1960s, Cheju’s volcanic geography has been considered as an extremely difficult environment for major agricultural production. There are two seemingly contradictory yet prevalent issues that have come up time and again on Cheju’s productive capacities until the 20th century – frequent hardship on the one hand and relative independence on the other hand. How would one reconcile these two oppositional factors?

From the late Koryŏ and entirety of the  Chosŏn eras at least, there have been numerous documented famines and disasters that brought much hardship to the island populace. Though this situation is of course not the least due to the oppressively heavy exactions demanded by peninsular royal courts or Japanese incursions, it is also known that Cheju’s rocky and volcanic soil and historically very limited access to fresh water sources had presented immense challenges to island inhabitants. The fierce winds and high frequency of typhoons have also made it difficult for any mass production of grain crops. Even as late as the 1970s, not even 2 percent of Cheju’s arable land was utilized for wet paddy rice farming (Hyŏn, 2011: 416) given the sheer impracticality of such agricultural activity. One resolution for Cheju people, it has been noted, is the dependence on sea resources as an alternative source of food. Certain sea products such as abalone were sent as tribute goods to the metropoles of either Kaesŏng or Seoul up in the peninsula, but the rich biodiversity of Cheju’s seas during the pre-industrial periods allowed for fishing communities a wide variety of possible food sources. In addition, certain agricultural practices among inland inhabitants also allowed for some measure, however limited, of self-sufficiency. Necessity, it is sometimes said, is the mother of innovation, and this certainly was true for Cheju.

Agriculture began to be developed in earnest perhaps some time around the Kwakji 2-type pottery Period (around the 6th-7th centuries) though indications of some forms of horticulture appeared as early as the Kwakji 1-type pottery Period (1st century BCE – 5th century CE). The increase of oceanic trade from the Kwakji 2-type pottery Period brought about an influx of iron tools, which allowed for increased productivity. This was hardly enough to produce a significant surplus and so settlement patterns in which village centers were typically located within reach of fresh water sources and oceanic trade routes indicated that agriculture was merely supplementary. Agricultural production was barely at the subsistence level, but T’amna people nonetheless developed various creative means to maximize land use without needlessly exhausting soil fertility. A record from 1652 notes a particular practice in which Cheju farmers let farm animals loose so that they would trample and roam freely on soil within fields surrounded by rock walls (Kim, 2000: 104); such a practice was used for millet farming on Cheju as late as the 20th century. Although this was written quite some time after the end of the T’amna and Koryŏ periods, it is suggested that this practice had long been in use among islanders. In addition, Cheju farmers were also noted to have cycled between plots of land, allowing one plot to lie fallow for up to 2 or 3 years as a means of avoiding early soil exhaustion.

Domestic pig-rearing served not one but three purposes and had been one of the most conspicuous practices of Cheju Island farmers as a means of maximizing productive capacities. Pigs could easily serve as a source of meat, but they also were an important aspect in dispensing waste and maintaining soil fertility. In order to fertilize soil, Cheju farmers were known to have utilized the manure of domestic pigs. Domestic pigs would consume and processes food scraps and human fecal matter into nutrient-rich droppings that Cheju farmers would collect to revitalize fallow fields. The process of agricultural production and natural recycling of waste material was used both in larger-scale agriculture as well as small-scale domestic and community farms called “u-yŏng.”

Self-sustainability and the U-yŏng

Some have insisted that Cheju’s traditional forms of production were perhaps more efficient – if not superior – than modern modes as they were very specific to Cheju’s environment and maximized use of not only local natural resources but also existing social structures. Such assessments may be too idealistic and gloss over the history of immense challenges that islanders had to endure. There is a certain truth to these claims, however. In many ways, modern mechanized agriculture utilizing chemical fertilizers and machinery has decreased Cheju’s self-sufficiency even as it enabled a greater participation in the world economy. While modern modes of production and agricultural methods have enabled farming peoples to turn out a significant surplus, the overemphasis on cash crops has brought about a number of consequences. With more more attention to cash crops, the reallocation of land and labor from food production has ironically made Cheju islanders much more dependent on imports and contemporary chemical fertilizers are not only not as efficient as traditional organic fertilizers but also far more environmentally damaging. On the one hand it is certainly a stretch to argue that Cheju previously was economically independent, but on the other hand the practices and innovations that Cheju islanders developed in response to their challenging situation cannot be overlooked in any study of the island’s past or prospects for its future. Regardless of whether or not certain methods of agricultural production now characterized as Cheju’s traditional practices were byproducts of the Chosŏn period or derivations of T’amna’s economic culture, it is clear that they were devised to make as much use of limited resources as possible.

A simple case in point is the number of material traditionally used among islanders as food sources. The Chŏlla region of Korea prides itself as being the nation’s agricultural heartland, but according to researcher Oh Yŏngju, while the Chŏlla region has at least 250 varieties of edible material, Cheju has an amazing 450 (Oh cited in Hyŏn, 2011: 417). This is certainly due to the fact of Cheju’s diverse marine life and varied ecosystems, but the vast variety was also in large part due to islanders need to maintain as secure a means of food procurement as possible and thus the dependency on multiple sources as opposed to limited staples. At the macro-level, Cheju islanders coupled agricultural production with fishing activity. At the micro-level, individual households maintained their own vegetable plots called “u-yŏng” that also were collectively shared among neighboring households or extended family relations and within these “u-yŏng,” families could raise a variety of vegetable and fruit crops throughout the entirety of the year.

“U-yŏng” are similar to the mainland “tŏtpat” and at a glance may as well be indistinguishable from mainland counterparts. The key differences are the innovations that the U-yŏng utilize that are particular to Cheju Island, not the least of which is their symbiotic relationship with domestic pig-rearing mentioned in the preceding section. For the most part, u-yŏng are very small patches cultivated between the stone walls of the main structures of a compound and the surrounding walls that defined the household’s space. They made immediately available, however, an additional and supplementary means of production and livelihood as family members would only need to step outside their doors to tend to them, thus maximizing as much space possible. Just as larger fields were periodically left fallow and fertilized, u-yŏng likewise were given similar treatment and so they were a part of a tripartite food procurement structure involving primary fields and domestic pigs – while main farm fields produced important staple crops such as millet or grains or cash crops (or tribute crops in earlier periods) such as tangerines, the u-yŏng provided nutritional sustenance through vegetables, and the chaff and human waste from the consumption of both (in the form of human fecal matter) would be recycled by domestic pigs for readily-available natural fertilizers. The practices of recycling and leaving plots fallow allowed for u-yŏng to produce vegetables throughout an entire year. The cultivation of a wide variety of types of vegetables – cucumbers, kabocha squash, lettuce, leeks, green onions, taro, carrots, daikon radish, sweet potatoes, potatoes, etc. – as opposed to a handful of staple crops allowed for the possibility of at least two or more harvests per year.

Maintenance of u-yŏng also made full use of local social structures. Although u-yŏng plots are located within walled farmstead compounds, households would share their produce with neighbors or have relations from both a husband’s and wife’s families take part in cultivation and harvesting. Shared production would in turn be reciprocated and so even as u-yŏng were often within the walls of one family, they still took on a communal nature and served as a social safety net (Hyŏn, 2011). The u-yŏng were not absolute guarantees against famines or even abject poverty, especially considering the fact that taxation and exactions were in the form specific types of produce, but they were nonetheless Cheju islanders’ innovative responses to the challenges of their realities that can provide contemporary peoples crucial lessons.


Hyŏn Hyegyŏng. “Cheju chiyŏk ‘U-yŏng’-ŭi chŏntonggwa hyŏnjejŏk chipyŏng-e taehan yŏn’gu.” T’amna munhwa, 39. Yun Yongt’aek, ed. Cheju: T’amna munhwa yŏnguso. 2011.

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

Nemeth, David J. “The walking tractor: Trojan Horse in the Cheju Island landscape.” Korean Studies, 12. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 1988

“Uri tŏtpat Cheju kongdongch’e u-yŏng.”