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

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

Although most recent discussions of Cheju Island during the T’amna (4th/5th centuries-1105?) and Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392) periods note that Cheju Islanders established contact and some forms of exchange via oceanic trade routes (Kim Iru 2001; O Sŏng, et al. 2006; Hyŏn Yongjun 2009; Song Hwasŏp 2011) by virtue of being an island and one positioned near the Kuroshio Current that flows from the near the east coast of Taiwan to the Japanese island of Kyushu, but little is actually known of the nature of these exchanges other than the apparent fact that they occurred. That many people from as far as Southeast Asia (not to mention a few Dutch sailors such as Hendrik Hamel) wound up as castaways on Cheju Island as late as the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910) is well documented as the Chŏng Un’gyŏng’s 18th century T’amna mun’gyŏllok reveals. But accounts of isitations from T’amna to other lands remains murky in large part because of the absence of extant records. The general hypotheses among Cheju studies scholars and historians of pre-modern Korean history posit Cheju Island range from conjecturing that Cheju Island was an important early trade center in Northeast Asia until as late as the mid-Koryŏ Dynasty to simply suggesting that Cheju Island was a stopover point for cargo vessels traveling between continental China, the Korean peninsular mainland, and the Japanese archipelago. In any case there is a curious apparent contradiction between the relatively simple material culture of early T’amna itself and the archeological discoveries of imported metalwork goods in the former Sanjich’ŏn harbor. Were T’amna people active mariners or was Cheju Island little more than a chance encounter for mariners en route to more lucrative destinations?

Historian No Myŏngho noted that the Koryŏsa records give the impression that T’amna sent tribute missions to the Koryŏ royal court approximately once every 20 years or so, although it is possible that the historical record compilers may have omitted many other instances due to their routine nature. But in considering a particular line in the early Chosŏn document the Sŏngju Ko-ssi kajŏn (biographical records of the Ko clan, the “Sŏngju” lords of Cheju Island), it is also very possible that the indigenous rulers of Cheju Island – the Sŏngju, Wangja, and Donae – dispatched a tribute mission right at the time when a new Sŏngju would come to power and that the visitations to the Koryŏ court at Kaegyŏng served as a means to acquire recognition. During the first century of the Koryŏ Dynasty, arguing against Kim Iru’s assumption that T’amna was simply yet another district of Koryŏ right from the beginning, No Myŏngho suggests that T’amna functioned as a vassal state that was a dependency of the Koryŏ kingdom, which domestically considered itself a miniature empire (a “soch’ŏnha”) equal to that of Song China and the Khitan Liao, and maintained a significant degree of autonomy that set it apart from other peripheral regions affiliated with Koryŏ. Speckled throughout the Koryŏsa, we can find brief passages that simply say “the country of T’amna presented tribute,” but what is more interesting about these records as that at some instances they also note that representatives from T’amna attended royal functions such as state-sponsored festivals or the religious P’algwanhoe ceremony as foreign dignitaries.

Given the frequency of T’amna representatives visiting Kaegyŏng, one can easily guess that maritime exchanges between Koryŏ and T’amna was constant and continued even after the island’s official incorporation into the Koryŏ state. The tribute goods of T’amna remained fairly consistent throughout Koryŏ – sea salt, sea products such as shellfish, and later horses. T’amna meanwhile imported valuable metal crafts. It was also during this time that the Koryŏ state – and later the Mongol Yuan empire in the 13th century – sponsored major Buddhist monasteries such as Wŏndangsa, Sujŏngsa, Pŏphwasa, etc. During the hegemony of the Mongol Yuan empire, Hyŏn Yongjun theorizes that it was due to exchanges with Mongols that Mongol forms of Buddhism merged with Cheju’s local religion, that the form of shamanism that we now consider “Cheju shamanism” took shape, and the now-iconic pangsat’ap stone mounds were developed. Song Hwasŏp also considers the maritime exchanges during the Koryŏ Dynasty period as the period in which the current form of Yŏngdŭng Halmang / Yŏngdŭng Harŭbang began to appear via importation of foreign merchant sailors’ devotional worship of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s incarnations. While discussions of cultural importations and adaptations remain for the most part theoretical given the dearth of actual historical records, instances of visits or dispatches of goods to the Korean peninsular mainland from T’amna are conspicuous in the Koryŏsa.

The roughly 100-year period of Mongol domination is unanimously considered a period of heavy repressive measures on the islanders as Cheju Island peoples were required to rear tribute horses for the Mongol Yuan imperial court while also continuing their own obligations to the Koryŏ court, but as noted above, Mongol rule also had a profound influence on Cheju culture and society. During the first years of Mongol rule following the bloody suppression of the Sambyŏlch’o rebels – the elite “Three Patrol Units” of Koryŏ that refused to accept the court’s capitulation to Mongol demands – the Mongol Yuan empire considered Cheju Island as a staging point for invasions of Japan. The establishment of horse ranches or “mokjang” for rearing and maintaining potential warhorses is well-known, but according to Hyŏn Yongjun, Cheju islanders were also tasked with building ships strong enough to transport these horses to as far as the shores of the island of Tsushima (Hyŏn, 2009: 129). In other words, Cheju islanders not only reared horses to supply the Mongol invasion force but also were conscripted to build some of the warships for the fleet. These ships called “tŏkp’anbae” were constructed by islander hands from the timbers of Hallasan. Although the Mongols ultimately gave up their ambitious to conquer Japan following two disastrous typhoons that sunk the majority of the Mongol expeditionary fleets, Cheju Island continued to produce and dispatch tribute horses for the Yuan imperial court.

For the most part it would seem that Cheju Island’s maritime exchanges were mostly limited to the Korean peninsular mainland and later the Mongol empire from the mid-Koryŏ Dynasty due to the changed nature of the geopolitical environment, but what of speculations about much earlier periods? Volume 30 of the “Wei shu” (the Book of the Cao-Wei kingdom) in the 3rd century Chinese Sanguozhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms) briefly notes of an island called “Zhouhu” 州胡 (“Chuho” in Korean) inhabited by people who reared livestock and traded with Mahan, which was considered the precursor of what would become the Paekche kingdom situated in the southwest portion of the Korean peninsula. The Korean Samguk sagi also suggest that T’amna (written as “Sŏmna” in the “Paekche pon’gi”) entered tributary relations with Paekche in 476 and then later turned its allegiance to the Silla kingdom; whether or not T’amna contacted Paekche or Silla first is not exactly established as other histories such as the T’amnaji (Records of T’amna) compiled in the 17th century claims that the first time the titles of the three rulers of T’amna – Sŏngju, Wangja, and Donae – appear was when T’amna representatives had an audience with the Silla court. Given the closer geographic proximity, T’amna’s initial official relations were likely with Mahan and then Paekche. The extent of trade relations with the peninsula in the Three Kingdoms and the Silla period are unclear given the sparse accounts, but T’amna is said to have paid tribute to Paekche’s King Munju in 476 – an instance in which King Munju reciprocated with the high Paekche titles of ŭnsol and chwap’yŏng – and then to Koguryŏ and Silla in the 7th century. According to the Cheju Buddhist History Research Association, T’amna representatives also visited Asuka Japan (538-710) in 661 and attended a state ceremony of the Chinese Tang empire (618-907) in 665. Buddhist legends on Cheju also suggest other instances of contact, with some claiming that Buddhists visited Cheju Island from as far back as the first years of Buddhism itself (the legend of Chonja’am temple and the Arhat Bhadra) or with the famed Silla mariner Chang Pogo in the 9th century. Although Cheju’s legends and epics likely have changed significantly over time, it is interesting to note that they also prominently feature themes of visitors from abroad (such as in the Samsŏng sinhwa and myths of the origin of Yongdŭng-kut) or heroes who venture to far off lands (such as the myth of Chach’ŏngbi and the myths of Songdang shrine). The nature of T’amna’s early oceanic exchanges remain ambiguous, but it is nonetheless possible that further archeological examinations and reassessments of both the Chinese and Japanese classical records could hold additional clues that have yet to be decoded.



Hyŏn Yongchun. Chejudo saramdŭl ŭi sam. Sŏul T’ŭkbyŏlsi: Minsogwŏn, 2009.

Kim Iru. Koryŏ sidae T’amnasa yŏn’gu, Sŏul Tʻŭkpyŏlsi: Sin Sŏwŏn, 2000.

No Myŏngho, “10-12 segi T’amna wa Koryŏ kukka,” Chejudo yŏn’gu Vol.28 (December 2005), pp.173-214.

O Sŏng, et al. Cheju ŭi sachʻal kwa Pulgyo munhwa. Sŏul Tʻŭkpyŏlsi: Sachʻal Munhwa Yŏnʼguwŏn, 2006.

Pak Chongki. Ssaero ssŭnŭn obaengnyŏn Koryŏsa, Sŏul-si: Pʻurŭn Yŏksa, 2008.

Song Hwasŏp. “Tong Asia haeyang sinang gwa Chejudo ŭi Yŏngdŭng Halmang-Sŏlmundae Halmang,” T’amna munhwa, 37, August 2010, 183-222.