What was Ch’ilsŏngdae 칠성대 and why is it controversial?

I am still investigating this myself, but this turns up every now and then and I think I ought to clarify my view on the matter. Ch’ilsŏngdae is controversial in academic discussions as hard evidence is no longer extant. Despite the fact that its actual location is still debated, one can find seven stylized memorials scattered around the old city. I should note that these current signs that mark the alleged location of Ch’ilsŏngdae are likely incorrect (and of course a terrible waste of Cheju taxpayer money!) and that we actually do not know what the complex looked like exactly.

What was Ch’ilsŏngdae 칠성대 (The Seven Stars ritual complex)?

First off, “Ch’ilsŏngdae” seems to ahve been a complex of 7 altars arranged in the form of the Big Dipper asterism in which Samsŏnghyŏl 삼성혈 served as the North Star Polaris 북극성. While its primary function was likely ritual, if one were to look at a map of old Cheju City from 1914, one would notice that settlement concentrations seemed to follow the pattern of the Big Dipper. While Ch’ilsŏngt’ong 칠성통 street was the handle, the more densely populated area south of Kwandŏkjŏng 관덕정 was the scoop (see Nemeth David 1984 and Kim T’aeil 2012). It may seem far-fetched that a civilization as tiny as T’amna could conceive of something so complex, but not a few small island cultures had highly sophisticated geographical and astronomical knowledge (consider, for example, the remarkably accurate stick charts of Marshall Islands peoples). That being said, one should also be cautious in assuming the precise location of the “handle” altars in Ch’ilsŏngt’ong because Ch’ilsŏngt’ong street was in fact modified during the Japanese colonial period.

Mun Mubyŏng’s (2012) reading of the Ch’ilsŏng Ponp’uri demonstrates that the myth of the Ch’ilsŏng snake deities correspond to seven sites within Cheju City as well as seven sites within a Cheju traditional house. The Ch’ilsŏng Ponp’uri appears to recall a time when Ch’ilsŏngdae existed. Although Mun Mubyŏng hypothesizes that the Ch’ilsŏngje was originally a major ritual festival for T’amna as a whole, there is no clear description of such in what few classical records survive today.

The significance of the Big Dipper asterism is hardly unique to Cheju though the island’s tradition of associating it with snake deities certainly is. Seven Stars deities feature in Chinese Buddhist-Daoist tradition. On the Korean mainland, one can find a Ch’ilsŏng altar in Buddhist temples as well as particular prayer ceremonies to the Seven Stars deities. David Nemeth (1984, 1987) observes that the geomantic alignment with the Seven Stars was considered a source of power for the ancient Chinese Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE) emperors. Ch’ilsŏng worship in Korea was the result of a dynamic synthesis of local adaptations and Chinese Buddhist-Daoist elements. The fact that one can easily find Polaris with the aid of the Big Dipper asterism is also what makes it such a significant group of stars all across the world. All things considered, one can understand why some intellectuals in Cheju find it baffling that development planners choose to emphasize (if not outright exaggerate) this one aspect – shared commonly amongst Cheju’s neighboring cultures – out of many other aspects that are actually unique to Cheju.

Did Ch’ilsŏngdae exist?

We do have some documentary evidence that Ch’ilsŏngdae existed somewhere within Cheju Ŭpsŏng 제주읍성 (the original Cheju City). Scholars researching the matter cite the 15th century Tongguk Yŏji Sŭngnam 동국여지승람, Yi Wŏnjin’s 1653 T’amnaji 탐라지, the Chŭngbo T’amnaji 증보 탐라지 written in the 19th century, and Kim Sŏgik’s 1924 P’ahallok 파한록. Kim Sŏgik’s work and the Chŭngbo T’amnaji are of particular importance to us because these two records are some of the last glimpses we have of Ch’ilsŏngdae. Both works indicate a complex of seven sites within Cheju’s city walls. A 1926 newspaper article and photograph (also posted on those problematic Ch’ilsŏngdae signs) shows that rituals were still performed at Ch’ilsŏngdae in the first quarter of the 20th century. The complex disappeared perhaps sometime in the 1930s.

But this is where things get complicated. Although we do have documentary evidence and even a newspaper photograph, the locations of all seven sites is difficult to confirm. The different sources, even the work of Kim Sŏgik, who saw the actual Ch’ilsŏngdae, is vague. Given the lack of other supporting documentary sources on Cheju City’s layout, tracking the seven places listed in the extant record makes pinpointing their sites easier said than done. A recent attempt to use advanced GIS techniques to find a possible location for Ch’ilsŏngdae in relation to Samsŏnghyŏl has indicated that the current seven signposts seem to be far off the mark. On the other hand, these seven new points in recent research also show that interpretations of the extant documentary sources may need to be reexamined as they appear to contradict what has been written.

What of the Ch’ilsŏngdae restoration project?

In this matter, I have to express my agreement with the opinion that the attempt to rehabilitate and reconstruct Ch’ilsŏngdae is very problematic. We can say that there was a “Ch’ilsŏngdae” and that it was in old Cheju City but we cannot say for certain the exact positions of the seven altars. Until the matter can be resolved with more solid evidence – such as additional documentary sources, personal testimonies from the colonial period, and archeological finds – attempting to reconstruct Ch’ilsŏngdae based on speculation seems to be a wasteful endeavor.

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