When Cheju went to the World…in the 18th Century

Cheju’s Accidental Adventurers and Castaway Narratives of the T’amna Mun’gyŏllok 탐라문견록


“Cheju goes to the world, the world comes to Cheju.”

Many visitors and residents alike in Cheju likely have heard this or seen this slogan posted around the island, especially on tourist information boards and massive development projects (which both ironically efface if not outright destroy the very unique aspects upon which developers atempt to capitalize). The slogan is not only an uncreative derivative of an earlier “Korea goes to the world” catch phrase used by politicians to advertise national progress in spite of actual underlying contradictions, but also is a reflection of Cheju’s awkward reorientation to internationalism. Adding a futher paradox is that this reorientation appears in the very intellectual discussions that critique it.

In recent years, more and more scholars have become interested in Cheju’s maritime past. That such an interest comes amidst Cheju’s shift to a globalizing orientation (as well as the uncertainties that accompany such a change) is not coincidental. Around the same time that Cheju hosted the 2012 World Conservation Congress, the T’amna Culture Festival included special lectures on cultural exchange and contact in the Pacific Rim, a notable shift in discourse from emphasizing Cheju as a unique yet Korean locale to a Pacific island culture in its own right. Discussions about Cheju’s earlier “globalization” in the context of the East China Sea as Northeast Asia’s Mediterranean serve to promote Cheju’s turn to international tourism on the one hand but also critique the superficiality of its current commoditized manifestation. In any case, Cheju reinterpreted as a maritime entity marks a departure from earlier scholarship that emphasized (or perhaps overemphasized) the island as a remote and isolated place constantly at the mercy of more powerful and threatening forces from beyond. This is, however, not to say that current geopolitical and economic trends are necessarily creating fabrications in Cheju’s grand narratives. Rather, the conditions and situations of today’s Cheju have prompted reassessments and rediscoveries of things long overlooked due to previous exigencies.

The global present has, if anything, made us become more aware of a global past. Refocused attention on past globalizations have been an important trend in Northeast Asian studies and such works have brought valuable insights that challenge many prior assumptions that the cosmopolitanism that characterized the 7th to 14th centuries had long given way to an inward-facing conservatism in this region. While historians such as Pak Chonggi (2008) have refocused attention on the conspicuously cosmopolitan nature of the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392) and evidence that the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910) was hardly a total “Hermit Kingdom” that most have assumed (and still do so today). Maritime Northeast Asia, even as Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868), Qing Dynasty China (1644-1912), and Chosŏn Korea took more inward turns, was still active with international exchange. Regardless of tightening travel restrictions that culminated in pronounced reactionary turns by the 19th century, people still found themselves on stranger shores.

Great port cities of the Qing Empire such as Fuzhou and Quanzhou in China likewise were bustling centers of cosmopolitan activity as the Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong were generally open to outside influences. In Tokugawa Japan, despite Tokugawa Iemitsu’s 1639 isolationist Sakoku edict, trade still continued with Chosŏn Korea (not surprisingly in part to satiate aesthetic tastes among well-to-do samurai and merchants for the austere elegance of Korean pottery and painting), Qing China, Dutch merchants (though confined largely at the island of Dejima by Nagasaki), and even Southeast Asians and others due to a curious policy loophole that enabled Japanese of Satsuma domain to work with Ryukyu kingdom intermediaries. Trade among Northeast Asian states also extended to the Southeast Asian powers of Ayutthaya (in present-day Thailand) and Mataram (in present-day Java, Indonesia). 17th and 18th century Chinese and Japanese encyclopedias include notable – albeit terse and simplistic – descriptions of a great variety of ethnic groups from Hokkaido Ainu to peoples of Somalia, an indication that Northeast Asians were hardly in complete ignorance of the outside world. Maritime contact in Chosŏn Korea appears to have been relatively minor compared to its neighbors, perhaps a far cry from the Koryŏ days, but the Chosŏn Dynasty was nevertheless eager to maintain active relations with both Beijing and Edo; throughout the Chosŏn Dynasty, periodic embassies were dispatched to Japan with such pomp and circumstance that they became matsuri (festivals) unto themselves as Japanese locals watched parades of Korean officials and military escorts in exotic costume.

And what of Cheju Island under Chosŏn rule? Did Cheju go to the world?

Cheju Island, being a large island located not too far from the southwest-to-northeast Kuroshio Current, could easily figure itself into oceanic travel. Both literary scholars Hŏ Namch’un (2011) and Cho Tong’il (1997) observed a recurring theme of mythical figures coming to Cheju from abroad or finding themselves in distant lands in the stories of the Kwenaegit-tang 괴내깃당 ponp’uri, Songdang 송당 ponhyangdang ponp’uri, and Samsŏng sinhwa 삼성신화, which not only appear to attest to memories of ancient travels but remained important Cheju oral histories to the present. As an island, Cheju’s dependency on the sea would seem all too obvious, but what does complicate the matter is that following the Chosŏn Dynasty’s tightened grip on the island since the 15th century travel to and from Cheju was greatly limited. Though classical records indicate a few rare instances in which the T’amna kingdom dispatched emissaries to the Tang imperial Chinese and Asuka Japanese courts in the 7th centuries aside from the mainland Korean states, Cheju lost much of its autonomy by the 12th century and likely was not a major player in maritime trade given its lack of resources (although the island did export abalone, pearls, horses, and tangerines). Cheju’s status degraded further with Chosŏn rule and thus the age of Cheju islanders’ – confined with legal restrictions on maritime activity and miniscule t’e-u rafts or short-haul tribute vessels traveling to the Korean mainland – adventures beyond the seas had long ended. Or so it seemed.

Like the mythical Cheju hero Songgoksŏng 송곡성 of the Kwenaegit-tang ponp’uri, many Cheju Islanders found themselves accidentally on the shores of foreign lands. While none were forcibly locked in a chest and cast into the sea as in the ponp’uri, five to six centuries after T’amna’s annexation as a Korean territory, Cheju Islanders still inadvertently and literally reenacted the stories of these accidental adventurers. Part of the reason for the persistence of the seas of Northeast Asia as a mysterious and dangerous Bermuda Triangle-like entity in Cheju lore is because of the harsh conditions of waters around Cheju – prone to fierce storms and fickle winds – and it is this same feature that sent many adrift as far as Vietnam. While Hendrik Hamel and the Dutch crew of the Sparrowhawk found themselves on Cheju’s shores, Cheju Islanders found themselves on the shores of Japan, China, Taiwan, the Ryukyu Islands, and Vietnam. In some instances, Cheju Islanders even observed Dutch merchants in Japan, noting their curly hair and large noses. And of further interest is that Cheju Islander castaways also came upon descendants of Korean prisoners of war from the Imjin War (1592-1598) residing in Korean communities in southern Japan. These castaways came from a variety of backgrounds – some were official merchants, some were officials, some were government-owned slaves, some were commoners. Though the details of these castaways’ lives are lost to history, their accounts nonetheless contain pieces that reveal aspects of Northeast Asian societies not often described in more official records.

Hundreds of castaways have been documented in Qing, Tokugawa, and Chosŏn records, but a piece of literature of particular interest here is the 18th century book of Chŏng Un’gyŏng T’amna mun’gyŏllok. Records such as the P’yohaerok also give valuable information on castaway narratives, but a striking feature of Chŏng’s work, written while he accompanied his father during his magistracy appointment in Cheju, is the almost ethnographic nature of his writing and the remarkable level of detail that castaways provided of their misadventures beyond the seas. Though written in classical Chinese characters and written for a literate Korean audience, Chŏng’s retelling of these castaway’s stories include interesting observations on cultures of Chinese, Taiwanese aboriginals, Japanese, Ryukyuans, Vietnamese, and (to a lesser extent) the Dutch not only from Korean perspectives but Cheju Islanders’ impressions of the world beyond.


Cho Tong’il. 1997. Tong’asia kubisŏsasi-ŭi yangsang-kwa pyŏnch’ŏn. Sŏul: Munhakkwajisŏngsa.

Chŏng Un’gyŏng. 2008. T’amna mun’gyŏllok pada pak-ŭi nŏlbŭn sesang. Chŏng Min, editor. Sŏul-si: Hyumŏnisŭt’ŭ.

Jungmann, Burglind. 2004. Korean painters as envoys: Korean inspiration in eighteenth-century Japanese Nanga. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.