Self-sufficiency, Sustainability, and Interpreting Premodern Jeju [Part 2]

Part II: “The Island Country”


The 2012 T’amna Taejŏn (T’amna Grand Festival) opened to much fanfare in September, or so it was reported. Despite the onslaughts of typhoons from July to August, September turned out to be a month of festivity. Although the T’amna Taejŏn is an annual event held to celebrate Cheju’s “folk” culture and the memory of the ancient civilization of T’amna, the 2012 festival in particular had a special significance, not the least of which was its temporal proximity to another grand spectacle – the 2012 World Conservation Congress (WCC) held at Chungmun’s International Convention Center. It was no surprise that the internationally-renowned WCC event, coming a short time after the government and tourism industry’s zealous endorsement of the “New Seven Wonders” title (regardless of the rather controversial issues surrounding the amount of money spent and the other intentions of organizers), would generate such a maelstrom on the island for the hosting of this grand conference was in essence a crowning achievement of Cheju’s official push for world recognition of its “green” and “sustainable” credentials. In the presses, the T’amna Taejŏn was easily overshadowed by the mammoth WCC event, but it was by no means a mere afterthought. Just as the WCC offered the opportunity of grandiose advertising for Cheju’s future, the T’amna Taejŏn offered the opportunity to advertise Cheju’s past.

What is striking about these two is not simply the dialogic relationship between them but also the striking similarity of the manner in which both events were premised. As if a realization of the painfully-wrought official slogan “The World comes to Jeju, Jeju Comes to the World,” both the WCC and the T’amna Taejŏn presented the image of a Cheju Island engaging the world on its own volition rather than through the mediation of the peninsular mainland. The WCC did not necessarily come to Korea, but to Cheju and it was thus Cheju that became the center of attention. Even more conspicuous were the featured lectures given at Cheju National University during the T’amna Taejŏn; much of the programming was focused on discussing the nature of “island cultures” and island civilization. Whether or not the intellectual, artistic, and cultural climate has changed along with Cheju’s very material heightened degree of direct engagement with the outside world without mainland mediation, it is nonetheless very striking that in recent years (especially in the works of Cheju cultural and historical studies), conceptualizations of Cheju Island have appeared to have been increasingly de-centering the Korean Peninsula and re-centering Cheju Island within the larger neighborhood of Northeast Asia as well as the greater Pacific Rim. There has been a greater interest in the possibility that Cheju Island as T’amna may had been more connected to the outside world as had been assumed. Cheju is hence being re-born – at least in cultural productions – as “the Island Country.”

An important question remains – are the conceptualizations of ancient T’amna as a maritime kingdom simply the result of resurgent local pride and wishful thinking or are there very real grounds for us to consider that the ancient peoples of Cheju Island were much more aware of the world than we had previously thought?

In the next section, I shall look at T’amna’s engagement with the Koryŏ court in the 10th century, possible evidence of ancient maritime activity, the Mongols integration of the island into the Yuan Empire, and legends and mythology that have recurrent themes of travel from beyond the seas (such as Samsŏng sinhwa, Yŏngdŭnggut, and the legend of Songguksŏng).