Background – Cheju in the twilight of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1862-1901)

Anthropologist Chŏn Kyŏngsu’s (2010) and local historian Yi Yŏngkwŏn’s (2005) observations that the Seoul-based Chosŏn Dynasty 조선왕조 (1392-1910) rule over Cheju was essentially colonial is both true and exaggerated at the same time. Chosŏn-led mainland rule over Cheju is described as having been a mix of paternalistic mismanagement and outright oppression. This view is not limited in Cheju and Korean scholarship, but also in American scholarship notably in Michael Pettid’s interpretations of Cheju mythology and David Nemeth’s assessment of Chosŏn impact on Cheju cultural practices.

Describing Chosŏn Cheju in modern terms seems problematic, especially considering that Cheju functioned as a subordinate district rather than a subjugated and Other-ed entity. Whether there was a concerted deliberate effort on the part of mainland to make Cheju “Korean” when the concept of a “Korean” nation would have been unusual even in late Chosŏn times is hard to say. Some governors and exiles may have sought to make Cheju “Confucian” – or at least in terms of their own brand of Confuicanism – but the oddities of Cheju’s “Confucian” practices today indicate that the process was never complete. To be sure, Chosŏn rule over Cheju was not a truly benign enterprise as mainland-appointed officials belittled Cheju practices or even went as far as to attempt to suppress them (as in the most infamous case of Yi Hyŏngsang 이형상 in his 1701-1702 stint as governor). In contrast to the first two centuries of the Koryŏ Dynasty 고려왕조 (918-1392), which came to power through cautiously-crafted alliances and coalitions, mainland rule over Cheju under Chosŏn was stronger as special privileges for native leaders were abolished and governors were more involved in managing local affairs. In Chosŏn times, Cheju Islanders’ movements to and from the island were more stringently controlled and more clear indications of T’amna people engaging in trade with the Korean mainland (and even China and Japan) no longer appear in Korean, Chinese, or Japanese histories. Stories of Cheju castaways in regions as far as Vietnam abound in regional histories and literature, but none indicate active maritime travel to and from Cheju. Mercantile shipping activity throughout most of the Chosŏn Dynasty was only with the mainland (and primarily the Chŏlla 전라 region). From as far back as the Korean Three Kingdoms Period (1st century BCE-668 CE), Cheju’s primary role for mainland Korean states to provide tribute, but tribute was mostly tribute from the late Koryŏ times and all of the Chosŏn period whereas tribute served as a means for trade relations in previous eras. It was from the mid-to-late Chosŏn also that citrus products became one of Cheju’s chief products to the mainland alongside horses and marine products. Cheju’s women divers’ are immortalized as timeless in today’s imaginations of Cheju’s past, but diving work in Chosŏn times was considered an extremely lowly position to the point that women divers and anyone related to women divers was by default an outcaste. Divers’ products were also tribute to the mainland; the free spirit of women divers who remain today is perhaps more due to radical changes in the twentieth century. Governors’ own accounts – including Yi Hyŏngsang’s record of his brief time as Cheju governor in the Namhwan Pangmul 남환박물 – of attempting to alleviate the suffering of Cheju people from their allegedly perverse practices ought to be assessed with mild skepticism but one should also consider that some did attempt to practice idealized forms of Confucian statecraft, however misguided they may have been.Cheju traditional practices, particularly its oral tradition, does indeed conspicuously feature rebellious aspects such as the Kwaenaegit-tang ponpuri  괘내깃당 protagonist’s transformation from an exile into a conquering superhero or Kamŭnjang’agi’s 가믄장아기 sassy response to her parents when asked about who she owes her existence. Yet a sense of a single Cheju identity is not easily discernible in oral tradition, especially as many deities that appear in the island’s various ponpuri 본풀이 are said to have foreign origins. A Adding to the problem of assessing pre-twentieth century Cheju in rather contemporary terms is that one cannot be certain if a lingering sense of quasi-T’amna nationalism somehow drove the various rebellions that erupted at the end of the 19th century. Even in the 18th century T’amna Mun’gyŏllok 탐라문견록 Cheju castaways tended to identify themselves as subjects to the kingdom of Chosŏn. A decaying Chosŏn Dynasty and clash with Western and Japanese imperialism, however, did force Cheju people to confront a radically changed geopolitical reality.

While Chosŏn Korea saw a bit of a period of fluorescence during the 18th century, the 19th century was the beginning of the end. Political infighting, unresolved corruption issues, and deteriorating economic conditions on the mainland further entrenched core elites at the expense of the kingdom. Neighboring Qing Dynasty China’s and Tokugawa Japan’s decay did little to alleviate the situation across East Asia as their vulnerabilities also meant the lack of viable reform alternatives and an inability to fend off increasing Western imperialist penetration. Cheju had already been beset by a series of catastrophic natural disasters at various times in the 18th century, but the deteriorating conditions of 19th century Chosŏn meant further mismanagement and more oppressive taxes. As Chosŏn was gripped in economic and political crisis, Western gunboat diplomacy and the forced unequal treaties on neighboring Qing China and Tokugawa Japan set off alarm bells. Though the late 19th century Chosŏn leaders such as King Kojong and his father the Taewŏn’gun were earnest in their attempt to reverse their dynasty’s fortunes, the protracted period of mismanagement meant a lack of funds necessary for any serious reform attempt. As Chosŏn leaders sought to reform their declining state, new taxes and controls were imposed upon an already-impoverished Cheju. Rebellions broke out in 1862 and then in 1898. A reformed Meiji Japan (1868-1912), which also sought to participate in the game of imperialism in turning upon its immediate neighbors, intensified an already-tense situation. But a combination of resentment toward imperialist encroachment, a growing foreign presence, mainland mismanagement, and oppressive taxation contributed to the incendiary situation that ultimately exploded as the Yi Chaesu rebellion of 1901.

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