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

Self-sufficiency, Sustainability, and Interpreting Premodern Jeju [Part 2, Section 1]

A: Assessing T’amna’s Place in the Early Koryŏ Period – 918-1105

Historians Kim Iru (2000) and Yi Yŏnggwŏn (2004) argued against scholarship that suggested that T’amna enjoyed considerable autonomy if not independence at least up to 1105 when the island was officially designated a “kun,” or prefecture, of Koryŏ. The basis of their arguments refers to the entry for Musul of the 21st year of T’aejo (938) in the 2nd volume of the “T’aejo sega” of the Koryŏsa: “冬十二月 耽羅國太子末老來朝賜星主王子爵” (translation: “In winter, in the 12th month, Crown Prince Mallo of the country of T’amna came to have an audience with the Koryŏ court and was given the ranks of Sŏngju and Wangja.”)

This suggests, Kim Iru argued, that T’amna had already submitted to the authority of King T’aejo (Wang Kŏn) of Koryŏ and since the titles were granted to the native rulers of T’amna, the country operated in the same manner – and hence considered in the same manner – as other regions of the Koryŏ polity. Since Koryŏ’s system of provincial rule depended on recognition of local elites, these elites, by virtue of being cooperative with Wang Kŏn, were thus incorporated into the larger ruling class of the Koryŏ polity. Thus in this argument, even if local rule and a semblance of local autonomy persisted throughout the Koryŏ period, they nonetheless were operating under the auspices of the central command of the Koryŏ system.

There nonetheless are two fundamental problems with this interpretation.

First, is the contradictions within the argument of incorporation. Koryŏ’s organization at least in the first two centuries appears to have been far less centralized as assumed. The first sections of the Koryŏsa note that the founding ruler Wang Kŏn ascended not purely by means of conquest but largely through political alliances with local rulers, whose local autonomy was consistently recognized throughout the early Koryŏ period. As Wang Kŏn fought his rivals in the Later Three Kingdoms period that followed the dissolution of Silla, one of his primary means of consolidating his position was as much through being a first among equals than a conqueror. To ensure the loyalty of his allies, Wang Kŏn granted titles and recognition of local sovereignty to local strongmen (hojok seryŏk) in return for their cooperation. Following the consolidation of his rule, rather than antagonize his allies, Wang Kŏn appeared to have continued to allow these local strongmen power and influence over their own respective domains. This practice was conspicuous in his multiple marriages to women of local chiefs all across the Korean Peninsula. In other words, Koryŏ cannot be interpreted as a genuine nation-state in which all domains identified absolutely with a singular idea of shared nationhood. Much unlike the Chosŏn Dynasty, the Koryŏ Dynasty tolerated a considerable degree of plurality and local autonomy.

Second, while the Koryŏsa entries are referred to in arguing for the incorporation of T’amna as simply one of other regions within Koryŏ “nation,” at least until the 12th century, there also exists evidence to the contrary. For example, the entry of Kimi in the 10th year of King Hyŏnjong (1019) mentions that representatives from T’amna along with people of the Chinese Song Empire and the Hŭksu peoples attended the festival of Chungyang. And a few decades later in Ŭlmi of the 9th year of King Munjong (1055), “chieftains of the country of T’amna” attended a feast along with ambassadors from the Chinese Song Empire. In both examples, why would representatives T’amna, which both Yi and Kim argued was the same as any other provincial area of Koryŏ, be regarded as ambassadors from a foreign state?

This is, however, not to say that we can consider T’amna in the Koryŏ period as being a truly “independent” country in the way we typically understand the concept of “national sovereignty” today. Speckled throughout the Koryŏsa, entries regarding T’amna typically note that its people paid tribute to the Koryŏ court. Exaction of tribute and local specialty goods was common practice in Koryŏ, but the more peripheral territories more often than not paid heavier prices. As a very peripheral region T’amna likely was treated as such even as there is little indication that the Koryŏ court had any particular interest in changing local culture and customs. In this case, we can perhaps consider T’amna has having been considered something akin to a vassal state (pŏn’guk) up to the beginning of the 12th century attempts on the part of the Koryŏ state to redefine the relationship.

Curiously, in parts of both Kim Iru’s and Yi Yŏnggwŏn’s works, their discussion of the activities of T’amna people during these time periods contradict their own point, especially in the area of maritime activity. From the beginning of the Koryŏsa in the accounts of Wang Kŏn himself, the historical records note that Wang Kŏn’s family, based in Song’ak (Kaegyŏng; today’s Kaesŏng) had not only emerged from the peripheries of the then-defunct Silla state but also accumulated their wealth and power through maritime trade. Part of Wang Kŏn’s successes against his rival Kyŏn Hwŏn of Later Paekche was due to his mastery of the seas, which enabled him to effectively blockade maritime trade to the Later Paekche state. One should also take into account that in the later part of the Silla period, the maritime warlord Chang Pogo dominated the seas of Northeast Asia to the extent that Japanese monks traveling to and from the Japanese archipelago rode on Silla vessels . Thus we can conclude that in the transition from Silla to the early part of the Koryŏ period, there already was active ocean-based trade and communication. Amidst this activity, settlements on Cheju Island became more heavily concentrated in areas that were in close proximity to both fresh water sources and access to ocean routes. T’amna’s dispatch of embassies to the Koryŏ capital at Kaegyŏng perhaps were not so much simply to offer tribute and elevate the prestige of both Koryŏ’s and T’amna’s rulers, but also for the exchange of goods. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as Kaegyŏng became a nexus of Northeast Asian trade serving as a stopping point for Khitan, Song Chinese, Japanese, Sushen, and even Arab merchants, the opportunity to participate in burgeoning cross-border and overseas exchange may have served as part of the motivation for T’amna ambassadors’ attendance of state functions and rituals of the Koryŏ court.



Kim Iru, Koryŏ sidae T’amnasa yŏn’gu. Sŏul: Sinsŏwon, 2000.


Pettid, Michael J, “Vengeful gods and shrewd men: responses to the loss of sovereignty on Cheju Island.” Geremie R. Barme, ed., East Asian History, 22 (December), 2001, p.171-186.

Yi Yŏnggwŏn, Saero ssŭnŭn Chejusa : chibangsa, yŏksa ilki ŭi saeroun sido. Sŏul: Hyumŏnisŭtʻŭ, 2005.