“Customs” in the Record of T’amna (1653)

Though titled “Customs” (風俗), this section in the T’amnaji is far from an ethnographic study of Cheju Island in the Chosŏn Dynasty. As is the case of most of the world until at least the later 18th century, details of non-elite and non-literate life was for the most part kept at the margins, if at all. Where commoners – or one might in this case say indigenous people – appear in past record tended to more often than not be either in incidental observations, legal decisions, economic exchanges, or related to wider moralistic concerns. “Customs” and similar sections in records compiled elsewhere in Chosŏn Korea were likely never intended to give a clear description other than highlight things the official class found peculiar. Such writings give a partial – and often filtered – glimpse and hints of life for people far outside the walls of Seoul and the small circles of the literati world. In form, the “Customs” section is simply a collection of mainland officials’ observations, hearsay, and descriptions from previous exiles (notably Kim Chŏng who was exiled there in the 16th century) organized under simple aphorisms made about Cheju in that era. Whether or not they accurately represent Cheju life is difficult to assess and some claims may be exaggerations (such as a claim that a single enlightened magistrate taught Cheju people how to build the stone walls that characterize the island countryside), but ironically thanks to these observers’ tendency to exoticize Cheju islanders these terse accounts nevertheless do offer some insights on life outside the walls of the governing compound. They also reveal, particularly in their language choice and what they considered remarkable about Cheju islanders, as much about elite mainland Koreans’ ambivalence toward Cheju as they do about the people they governed.

At a glance, the “Customs” section is a striking reverse echo of Japanese (and Korean) colonial accounts nearly three centuries later. From the outset, Cheju islanders’ practices are at once praised for being “frugal” (儉) while also denigrated as “silly” (癡) or even “perverse” (淫). European and North American missionaries and Japanese colonial officials would later use similar descriptions for rural Koreans at the beginning of the twentieth century. An additional irony here is that mainland Koreans would continue to use similar exoticizing language for Cheju islanders even after colonial annexation in 1910 and arguably into the present. A mainland and elitist bias directed toward Cheju Islanders is overt. Aside from mentioning notable distinct features of Cheju island culture, the “Customs” section emphasizes the island as an exotic locale. The degree to which such differences are highlighted gives some hints that even by the middle of the 17th century, more than two hundred years after Cheju’s official reorganization in the Chosŏn Dynasty system and six hundred years after the island’s annexation into the Korean kingdom, elite mainland Koreans still appeared to almost consider Cheju islanders as a distinct people.

Customs 風俗

Their customs are silly and frugal, but they maintain rites and deference 俗癡儉有禮讓:

The customs [of Cheju islanders] are silly and frugal. Many houses are thatched and men and women like to wear straw shoes. They have no tread mill and women only pound grains with a wooden pestle by hand in a mortar. They carry their wooden water containers on their backs. No one carries things on the head [as in the mainland[. When men and women encounter an official on the road, the [women] flee and hide while men must lie prostrate on the road.

The local language is difficult to understand 俚語艱澁:

The local peoples’ language is difficult to understand. When they speak, they have a high [intonation] first and then after that, a low one. Kim Chŏng said in the P’ungt’orok, “The sound of natives’ speech is fine and high-pitched, thus it is piercing as a needle and cuts [as a knife]. There is much that one cannot clearly hear.”

In the Chugi, it is said, “The language has many sounds that differ: the capital Seoul is called Sŏna, forest is called kotcha, hill is called orŭm, fingernail is called kup, mouth is called kulle, horse bridle is called noktae, and the iron bit for a horse is called kadal. Their language is like this.”

Tombs rise at the head of fields 田頭起墳:

[The people] hold funerary rites for a hundred days and then they take off their mourning garb to go plow and dig out part of the head of their field for a tomb. Sometimes there are occasions where they have funerary rites for three years. Their customs do not use geomantic divination nor do they use Buddhist burial methods.

They revere perverse rituals 尙淫祀:

By custom, they reveir perverse rituals. Hence they [enshrine] deities in mountains, forests, rivers, ponds, hills, hillsides, trees, and rocks.

Every year, from the new year to the middle of the month, they gather at female and male shamans to get their divinations, host exorcisms, and put on merrymaking as they play the gong and barrel drum while they line up at the front of the road to the village entrance. They compete with one another over putting up ritual offerings and grain. Also, up into the first day of the second month, in Kwidŏk, Kimyŏng, etc., they set up twelve wood poles to welcome the gods and perform rituals.

People who live in Aewŏl gather wood, make them into a horse’s head shape, and decorate it with silk to put on the “Yangmahŭi” [literally “galloping horse festival,” but this is a derivative of an older Cheju term that refers to sending offerings off in miniature boats] to entertain the gods. These rituals go up to the middle of the month. It is called “Yŏngdŭng.” In this month people are forbidden to sail.

In spring and autumn, men and women all gather at Kwangyang Shrine and Ch’agwi Shrine to offer alcohol and meat to the gods. In this land there are many snakes, vipers, and centipedes. If one sees a grey snake, then that is the deity of Ch’agwi Shrine and one cannot kill it.

The P’ungt’orok says, “[The people] hold spirits and ghosts in extremely high regard. Male shamans are very many. Threatening people with disaster, they steal offerings like collecting dirt. Important holidays are on the first day of the month, the fiftenth day, and days with sevens (7th, 17th, 27th). On these days, they hunt animals and offer them at shrines.”

Many people live long 人多壽考:

Few natives are afflicted with disease and there are no people who die too early. There are many people who reach ages of 80 or 90.

Thinking about this now, in this region, even though it is called a warm place, at the north face of Hallasan, the mountain blocks the hot humid air of the southern ocean. Even if there is much strong wind coming from the north, it is also driven and scattered when it mixes and meets the hot air. This is what makes people live long. But this is not so much the case at the south side of the mountain than the north.

The weather is always warm 天氣常暖:

In the spring and summer it is cloudy [to the point that] it is dark. By the autumn and winter it is clear. The grass, trees, and insects pass through winter and do not die off.

There are no fierce predators on the mountain 山無惡獸:

There are no tigers, bears, wild dogs, wolves, or any beasts that may harm humans. Furthermore, there are no foxes, rabbits, eagle-owls, magpies, or such animals.

They do not use fowling or fishing nets 不用網罟:

The mountain and sea are rough and so they do not use fowling or fishing nets. They directly catch fish and shoot animals [with bows and arrows].

The Tug-of-War Festival 照里戱:

Every year on 8/15, men and women come together to sing and dance. They divide themselves into two teams and pull each end of a large tug-of-war rope to best the other side. If the rope breaks while it is being tugged, both teams fall to the ground and the audience gives out a great laugh. This day is also a festival for swinging contests and cockfights.

By the peculiarities of their customs, their soldiers are fierce but the commoners are foolish 風殊俗別卒悍民嚚:

In a preface sent to the Prefect Yi Wŏnhang, Kwŏn Kŭn wrote, “T’amna is in the middle of the sea. From the age when our country was Silla, they dispatched tributary as our dependents. This continued into Koryŏ times. It was established [at that time] as the [district of] Chejumok. When the state [of Chosŏn] came to be, they did likewise. [The state] had a need to choose among the assets of the court’s civil and military people one who had dignity and grace to make as a Prefect. But [as you are] sailing to a far off [place], going across an endless hundreds of li, [you will encounter] the danger of hazardous, unpredictable waves until you arrive there. Then [you shall see] that the customs are peculiar – their soldiers are fierce but their commoners are absurd. If happy, they are like humans. If in rage, they become beasts and keeping them at bay would be difficult.”

The land is barren and the people are poor 地瘠民貧:

The following was reported to the chancellor in the 12th year of King Munjong of Koryŏ [1058]: “The land of T’amna is barren and its people are poor. They can only carry on their lives by sailing.”

The Chugi says, “The soil quality is light and dry [and hence prone to erosion]. Reclaiming the fields require steering oxen or horses to trample [the soil]. They continuously plow for two to three years and should they not get even an ear of grain, they reclaim a new field. They double their efforts, but acquire a meager harvest. This is what causes many people to be poor.”

Their customs are barbaric and their land is remote 俗獠地遠:

Chŏng I-o sent to Pak Tŏkkong the following as a preface for Pak’s new post: “The customs are barbaric and the land is remote. Adding to this, the Sŏngju and Wangja as well as the native nobility and strongmen compete with one another to control their people, using them as corvee labor. They are abusive to their people and use them as they please. I have heard that they are difficult to control.”

They pile stones to make walls 石築垣:

The Tongmungam says, “The land is littered with many rocks. Originally there were no wet rice paddies. Only barely, beans, and millet could grow there. In the past, the fields were without defined boundaries. Strong and fierce families would encroach on them daily and eat off of them. The people were in distress. When Kim Ku was made Administrative Assistant [1234-1239], he inquired about the people’s pains and troubles. He had them gather stones and pile them to make walls as boundaries. This was of great convenience to the people.”

Women are many yet men are few 女多男少:

Those who seek marriage must prepare alcohol and meat. Presents for the wedding are likewise. On the wedding night, they prepare alcohol and meat and visit their wives’ parents. After getting drunk, they go into a room.

Women are many and men are few. Monks all make a house beside their temples for wives and children. Even beggars have wives and children.

Transport ships carrying tribute and private goods go and come endlessly. The oceanic routes are dangerous and long. It is often the case that sailors end up shipwrecked or drowned. Thus here in this district, people consider having daughters important.

The people do not prize royal posts from the capital 不貴京職:

The Chugi says, “As the capital is far off, obtaining titles and ranks is difficult. Natives with talent and favor of the people are honored only with the affairs of the administrative compound. They do not know how to prize royal ranks.”

The P’ungt’orok says, “From those below titled ranks to those with titles, people exchange favors with high officials appointed by the court. They are made local army commanders. This is so with the company commander, the district clerk, the official seal keeper, and the tribute student. Each and every one is involved in getting benefits for himself. Even the most trivial things have bribes involved. They know neither shame nor righteousness. In any matter they use the strong to oppress the weak with callousness and refuse to observe benevolence. They do not disseminate His Majesty’s teachings to the people. The officials lust for land like the disgraced Yukhan [Kim Ryul, who was Prefect for six months in 1506] yet people do not see this as unusual. If there is someone upright and righteous, the commoners regard his grace, but the corrupt groups mock him as a fool.”

They bind arundinella and eulalia grasses and do not cover roofs [with tile] 茅茨不編:

The P’ungt’orok says, “People all reside in houses that are thatched but not covered with tile. Or they live in hovels topped with long wood bound and pressed. Tile-roof houses are extremely few. Aside from titled officials, people are without ondol heating. They dig holes in the earth floor and cover them with stones. These are topped with dirt and mud. Once they dry, the people settle on them.”

The people use a lot of soju 多用燒酒:

The P’ungt’orok says, “Rice is extremely scarce. The local elite trades for it with the mainland to eat. But those without means eat coarse grains from the fields. Pure alcohol is extremely prized.”

The sound of songs sung while working the mortar is painful 杵歌聲苦:

In native custom, all labor is actually done by women. Two or three, or three or four people pound together on one mortar. They must sing a song to each other while pounding it. The pitch is extremely distressing. It is like the turning and grinding of the mortar itself.


The Significance of Yŏngdŭng-kut

In the second lunar month, which can be around February and March, one might notice in Old Town Cheju City banners celebrating a ritual called “Ch’ilmŏri-tang Yŏngdŭng-kut” 칠머리당 영등굿 (Chilmeori Shrine Yeongdeung-gut). This is the Cheju City version of an island-wide annual ritual sequence dedicated to the Yŏngdŭng 영등 deities and Yowang 요왕 (Kr.: Yongwang 용왕, the Dragon King of the Sea). Ch’ilmŏri Shrine 칠머리당, which is now on the city park of Sarabong 사라봉 hill after being thrice moved due to urban development, is the shrine of Kŏnip-tong 건입동, a historic part of the old city.

The ritual sequence referred to collectively as “Yŏngdŭng-kut” comprises are two major rituals – the yowang maji (sea god welcoming rite) by the harbor and the songbyŏlche (sendoff ceremony) at Ch’ilmŏri Shrine. According to tradition, the Yŏngdŭng deities arrive first at Cheju City on the lunar 2/1 and then villages across the island until they return to Cheju City on 2/13 and depart Cheju completely by way of Udo island on 2/14. The ritual coincides with specific weather phenomena that occur around the second lunar month in which the winds drastically change and hence the reason that Yŏngdŭng is considered a wind deity. Before the advent of motor boats, most women divers and fishermen observed prohibitions against diving or fishing work during this season. The weather conditions on the maji (welcoming) day also indicate who else accompanies Yŏngdŭng – pleasant weather indicates that the daughter has come while foggy or rainy conditions indicate that the daughter-in-law has come and that Yŏngdŭng is feeling rather irritated. The Yŏngdŭng deities and Yowang visit the island for two weeks and shamans and worshipers entertain them with the hope that they provide blessings and bounty for the year.

Until the drastic changes to Cheju’s demographics and environment in the past thirty years, most villages observed the Yŏngdŭng rituals. Though still performed in much of eastern and northeastern Cheju, what scholars consider the most complete form is ironically in Cheju City (though of course such an assertion is problematic given that traditions constantly change whether scholars like it or not). Shamanic practice faded rather early in western Cheju and Sŏgwip’o area due to a larger Christian and Confucian influence in the former and tourism development in the latter. Many villages that still hold strong belief in Yŏngdŭng and Yowang may no longer hold the full kut 굿(shamanic ritual) but may instead opt for a Yowangje 요왕제 (Kr.: Yongwangje 용왕제, the Dragon King Rites), a Buddhist-shamanic ritual, as is the case in Chongdal-ri 종달리 for practical reasons as many of the original village shamans have died out. In other cases, the ritual merged with Chamsu-kut 잠수굿, the women divers’ ritual. Due to the revived attention since 2010 and the organizing capacities of the Ch’ilmŏri Shrine Yŏngdŭng-kut Preservation Society, some attempts are being made to restore the practice to parts of western Cheju, though based on the Ch’ilmŏri Shrine version.

Who and what is “Yŏngdŭng” can be somewhat confusing if one has a look at the actual historical material and fieldwork research. The most commonly told version of Yŏngdŭng’s myth (and one that I collected in Sinch’ŏn-ri in southeast Cheju) is as follows in abridged form: a group of Cheju sailors found themselves suddenly blown far off course and arrive at a dangerous island of monsters. They encounter a deity called “Yŏngdŭng,” who instructs them to recite a chant to Kwanŭm Posal 관음 보살 (Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara) in order to leave the island’s waters and return to Cheju. When they are far out into sea and think they are safe, they stop their chanting and are blown back to the island. Yŏngdŭng, knowing that this would be the case, offers to directly assist them in returning, provided that Cheju islanders promise to throw an annual ritual feast.

Multiple versions of the myth exist and this is where things can get ambiguous. Although “Yŏngdŭng” is referred to specifically as “Yŏngdŭng Halmang” 영등할망 these days in public based on the Ch’ilmŏri Shrine version, different villages actually had different ways of addressing the deity. In some versions, as is the case in Sinch’ŏn 신천 and Chongdal 종달 where I conducted research as well as in Sinyang 신양 (Tangherlini and Park 1990), “Yŏngdŭng” is “Yŏngdŭng Harŭbang”  영등하르방 (Grandfather Yŏngdŭng). In other versions, Yŏngdŭng is a defied ancient Chinese figure from the Tang Dynasty, a grandmother-grandfather pair, or seven deities of seven divine imperial rankings (Mun MB 1996). Some versions also indicate Yŏngdŭng as being a deity of “Kangnam Ch’ŏnjaguk” (an old Cheju term referring to ancient China). What is consistent in all, however, is that Yŏngdŭng is a sort of wind deity and protector of sailors who comes from a foreign land. Taking into account the myth’s element’s one might notice striking parallels with the worship of Matsu (Mazu) in Fujian Province of China and Taiwan. And given that the old name for China in Cheju specifically refers to the Jiangnan region, which might reference Hangzhou, the capital of the Southern Song Dynasty, one might hypothesize that Yŏngdŭng has its origins during the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392), a contemporary of Song and a period in which T’amna Cheju had engaged in some form of maritime trade. In any case, “Yŏngdŭng-kut” has a long history and a diverse array of practices. That Yŏngdŭng was historically celebrated across the island also served as an informal means to ritually re-articulate Cheju Island solidarity.


Mun Mubŏng. 1996. “Chejudo-ŭi Yŏngdŭng-kut,” Pigyo minsokhak 13, pp.241-258.

_________. 2005. Param-ŭi ch’ukje Ch’ilmŏri-tang Yŏngdŭng-kut. Seoul: Golden Egg Publishing.

Tangherlini, Timothy R. and So Yŏng Park. 1990. “The comings and goings of a Korean grandfather: the Yŏngdŭng-kut sequence of a Cheju Island village,” Korean studies 14: 84-97.

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.

Storm from the East: Japanese Influence and Colonial Rule (1901-1945)

This multi-part series is in observation of Samilchŏl 삼일절, which commemorates the March 1st 1919 demonstrations (the “Samil Undong” or “March First Movement”) against Japanese rule. On March 1st 1919, due to the combination of peninsula-wide discontent over colonial repression and the coordinated efforts of pro-independence activists from all walks of life, tens of thousands of Koreans took to the streets to call for independence. Colonial police responded with extreme brutality. Many, including bystanders witnessing the events, were arrested, tortured, and killed. The movement did not succeed in its ultimate goal of liberation, but the massive expression of discontent came as a major shock to Japanese policy makers to the point that they instituted so-called cultural rule to allow some cultural space and economic opportunities for Koreans from the 1920s to the pre-Pacific War years. As it remains a strong component of identity in Korea today, one would be mistaken to call it simply a failure. The true effects of movements, after all, are never understood until much time after the fact.

Few are aware, however, that anticolonial resistance burst into open rebellion in Cheju on October 1918 as a group of populist Buddhist monks, followers of the syncretic Poch’ŏn’gyo religious movement, and their allies led by Pang Tonghwa, Kang Ch’ang’gyu, and Kim Yŏnil attacked the colonial police station in Chungmun. Cheju also saw a remarkable women-led act of resistance in the women divers’ protest (the “Haenyeo Hang’il Undong” 해녀항일운동) as the changes brought with colonial rule threatened local fishing communities’ traditional autonomy and economic interests. Toward the end of colonial rule, as the Empire of Japan grew desperate in its attempt to fend off Allied forces, Cheju Island was militarized with large airbases, bunkers, artillery placements, and coastal fortifications in anticipation that it would become a possible invasion target. Ruins of fortifications such as Alttŭrŭ Airbase 알뜨르 비행장 in present-day Taejŏng-ŭp 대정읍 are still some of the most complete examples of Japanese wartime military installations. Despite the lack of attention given to Cheju in major publications of colonial era history in Korea, the island was anything but quiet during the colonial period.

At the same time, Japanese rule brought a great many changes to Cheju lifestyles and practices for better or for worse. Although Cheju Island was for the most part as peripheral to the Empire of Japan as it was to the preceding Korean states, there were also varied responses to colonial rule ranging from outright rebellion to cautious adaptation. For example, Cheju’s women divers (“jŏmnyŏ” 점녀 in Cheju language, commonly called “haenyŏ” 해녀 in standard Korean), originally an outcaste group whose products were ultimately used for tribute to the Korean mainland, became involved in market transactions as they were able to work for wages and sell their products to a Japanese market hungry for fresh abalone. The peak of Cheju’s women diver population was actually recorded during the colonial period as 1 in 1o Cheju women became involved in diving in and outside of the island. Japanese steamship lines of the Mokpo-Cheju-Osaka route enabled unprecedented ease of movement for many Cheju people and the legacy of this oceanic traffic remains today in Osaka’s large Cheju community. What we take for granted as Cheju’s major roads such as Chungang-ro 중앙로 (formerly Wŏnjŏng-t’ong 원정통 or Honmachidoori 本町通 in Japanese) in old Cheju City and the Iljudo-ro 일주도로 road that circumnavigates the island also had their beginnings in the colonial period. On the other hand, colonial penetration also was a threat to community autonomy and economic interests as commercial Japanese fishing ships illegally exploited Cheju’s waters at the expense of coastal communities from as early as 1901. In any case, Cheju was irreversibly transformed as the proponents of the Empire of Japan’s ambitions sought to force their visions of modernity all across East Asia.

While I have given some brief overviews of aspects of Cheju’s colonial history and the legacies of the Empire of Japan in previous postings, this multi-part series will give a closer look at how colonial rule transformed Cheju Island. No aspect of Cheju life was untouched, however much the notion of a timeless Cheju rural past is romanticized today. Colonial rule officially lasted in the short span of 35 years, but the changes that came with Cheju’s forced encounter with Imperial Japan’s vision of modernity still lingers today.



Gwon Gwi-sook. 2005. “Changing labor processes of women’s work: the haenyŏ of Jeju Island,” Korean Studies (29): 114-136.

Kang Tongsik, Kang Yŏnghun, and Hwang Kyŏngsu. 2000. Ilche kamjŏnggi Cheju chibang haengjangsa. Cheju: Cheju palchŏn yŏn’guwŏn.

Kim Kwangsik. 2005. “Pŏpjŏngsa hang’il undong-ŭi chaeinsik,” Han’guk tongnip undongsa yŏn’gu (25): 141-176.

Yi Kiuk. Cheju nongchʻon kyŏngje-ŭi pyŏnhwa. Sŏul Tʻŭkpyŏlsi: Chinmundang, 2003.


“Seongan: The Hidden City” Walking Tour

The third English-language Wondosim exploration walk (and 16th Wondosim Tamheom event under Jeju International Culture Exchange Association [JICEA]) on December 20, 2015, “Seongan: the Hidden City,” explored the hidden features of old Jeju City. Before the term “wondosim” 원도심 became prominent in the past 15-20 years, old Jeju City (comprising parts of Ildo-dong, Ido-dong, Samdo-dong, and Geonip-dong) was known more commonly as either “seongnae” or “seongan.” They are not native Jeju terms as both words mean “within the city walls,” a designation also used on the Korean mainland to distinguish walled settlements from the surrounding countryside. Nevertheless, many elderly rural people still recognize old Jeju City as “seongan” or “seongnae.” The wondosim has the unique quality of possessing the vast experience of Jeju’s long and turbulent history all within one place. Even as more people are now aware of the wondosim’s historical and cultural value, its many deep layers continue to yield more stories and secrets. The places that were included on the walk included sites clearly visible in plain view and significant to local memory yet rarely ever included on history walks.

Dongmun Rotary 동문 로타리: The area around Dongmun Rotary was once an important central commercial neighborhood with Dongmun Market, the city’s previous central bus terminal, motels for ferry passengers, and Jeju’s first department store. While one might see more tourists than locals in this area nowadays, only a few decades ago this was once one of the liveliest parts of the city. Many motels were established in this neighborhood during the 1960s boom of domestic ferry passenger tourism. Eventually this also brought in sex tourism. As the neighborhood fell into decline with Sinjeju’s construction – and its more upscale sex tourism – the area around Sanjicheon became denigrated as a red light district. The obelisk in the center of Dongmun Rotary commemorates Jeju marines, who were recognized for their remarkable bravery in the Korean War despite the extreme oppression of April Third. As Jeju was branded as a “red” island, many Jeju people – some as young as middle school age – enlisted in the marines and joined in Douglas MacArthur’s Incheon Landing as a means to demonstrate their loyalty. The memorial is a tragic reminder of Jeju’s violent past and extreme paradoxes.

Mudeungsan Motel 무등산모텔: The name “Mudeungsan” 무등산 actually refers to a mountain in the Jeolla region. Just as the owners of this motel are from Jeolla, many business people in this part of Jeju City are also from the Jeolla region to the point that some Jeju locals call the east part of the old city “Jeolla Dongsan” 전라동산. The motel and restaurant are relatively recent but the building itself is actually an important piece of architecture. The building was originally the factory and warehouse of Pyeongan Mokje 평안 목제, a construction material company during the 1950s and 1960s. “Pyeongan” refers to a province in what is now North Korea; the original owners of the building were from this building. The building was sold to the current Mudeungsan Motel. During the 1960s, when owners of Pyeongan Mokje became prosperous, they built their home on the third floor. A unique feature of this house is that it is a Korean adaptation of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1935 Falling Water, which many consider a masterpiece of American Modernism.

Remains of the east walls 읍성 터/ Meteorological Administration 기상청: Most of Jeju City’s walls were destroyed during the Japanese colonial period as the city expanded. The stones of those walls were used to construct Jeju Harbor. This portion of the east wall where the Meteorological Administration building now sits was the wall’s highest point and was thus an important observation area for security purposes. The location became important for weather forecasting as the first weather station, Cheukhuso 측후소, was built here in 1926. Near the Cheukhuso (later renamed Gisangcheong) was the site of the Jungang Methodist Church (Jungang Gamni Gyohoe 중앙감리교회), which was first established in 1928 and a unique building of Jeju stone construction. Unfortunately, the Jungang Methodist Church was destroyed recently as the Meteorological Office expanded to update its facilities.

Gongdeok Dongsan 공덕 동산: At the end of the Joseon Dynasty, the neighborhood of Geonippo was tucked between a steep cliff and Sanjicheon. Geonnippo was historically a tiny port village at the edge of the city. As it lacked a road out of the city walls, neighborhood youths climbed over dangerous rocks and precipices in order to go out of the city. Because this caused injuries and deaths, a local man named Go Seoheung 髙瑞興 (1823-1899) worked for a full year and donated his accumulated 300 seok worth of rice for road construction. His philanthropy was honored here in 1877 with the memorial epitaph by these steps. This historic pathway became the center of a farcical controversy and public relations debacle when the local district government – without notifying the Jeju City government – painted the steps and street completely red out for a so-called “storytelling street” project. The street was shortly completely covered in green paint, but it is not clear whether this was because of the fallout and furor.

Dongmun site 동문 터 / Neighborhood market 골목시장: “Dongmun” literally means “East Gate.” Socially and economically, this was the most important gate in Jeju City. During the Joseon Dynasty officials and merchants arriving via the mainland came not through the tiny harbor of Geonippo but the historically larger port of Hwabuk. As they came to conduct their business in Jeju City, they entered through the east gate. The gate and the walls were destroyed during the Japanese colonial period, but a trace of one the east gate’s eight guardian dolhareubang figures still is visible and some of the roads through these neighborhoods are directly over the former walls. Tucked in this area is a genuine traditional neighborhood market used primarily by local residents. All vendors at the market are Jeju natives though came to Jeju City from different parts of the island from as far as Hangyeong at different phases of the city’s development. The market has been in existence for some 60 years, but was reduced in size due to the city’s construction of a new street that cut off a part of it.

Former Dongyang Theater (Cinehouse) 동양 극장 (시네하우스): Dongyang Theater was first opened in 1965 and was one of several major theaters in the old city. It was the product of the first attempts at urban redevelopment in the 1960s. A commemorative plaque at the front of the theater still exists with the name of Rear Admiral Kim Yeonggwan 해군소장 김영관, who was appointed Jeju’s governor during President Park Chung Hee’s military rule from 1961 to 1979. Though it has since been converted into a building for Dongmun Market’s fabrics vendors, the building still retains the structure of the old theater. Here was also Jeju’s first major department store. The Dongyang Theater building itself has a dramatic roof in the shape of a tidal wave. The theater’s shape was conspicuous for any who looked at the city from the sea and so it was for a time a signature building of the city to any who arrived via Jeju Harbor. It was designed Hwabuk native Kim Hanseop 김한섭, who was among the first generation of Jeju’s Modernist architects.

Sinseon Moru 신선모루: Sinseon Moru is a low-income neighborhood on the east side of Sanjicheon and directly south of Dongmun Market. Prior to Jeju City’s rapid urban expansion starting in the 1960s, Sinseon Moru – and its neighbor Sinsan Moru (after which Sinsan Park is named) – was largely open fields and graves. As it was left out of Jeju City’s rapid urban development for some time, it still retains the characteristic features of Jeju’s older settlement patterns with tight neighborhoods built into the landscape. Even as late as the 1980s, the neighborhood lacked plumbing facilities and depended on a village water pump. Due to its location, Sinseon Moru was the home to many of Dongmun Market’s vendors. Sinseon Moru is representative of Jeju’s earlier phase of modernization in the twentieth century. A collection of memorial tablets commemorating exiles once existed here, but they have been moved some decades ago. Though many people in this neighborhood moved in at different times, the majority are locals who migrated to the city in the midst of its varied stages of expansion. Because its layout and form has changed little over the past few decades, it is a window into Jeju City of the 1970s and 1980s.

Namsugak site 남수각 / Jeju Fortress 제주성: A stone arched structure once existed over a part of Sanjicheon where Garakcheon 가락천 flowed at the southern part of Jeju City’s walls. This structure was known as Namsugu 남수구 or Namsugak 남수각. Garakcheon 가락천 was known for having provided water even in times of drought. This stream had clean pure water until the early 1970s but as soon as large-scale construction began, the waters stopped flowing. Aside from the arched bridges over Sanjicheon and three primary city gates, old Jeju City was completely surrounded by a ring of walls. Parts of the southern walls still exist here today and have since been under various phases of restoration. The restoration may not be accurate, which may account for why they do not appear to match the existing wall remains near Nam Elementary School. Jeigak 제이각, which sits atop the wall tower, has also recently been restored.

Former Jeju National University Hospital: When Jeju National University Hospital moved to Ara-dong in 2009, the hospital building in the old city was included as part of a larger urban regeneration 도시재생 plan. Part of the building was first renovated and reopened as the Entrepreneurial Support Center 창업보육센터, a startup center for new entrepreneurs, and in October 2015 the other half became the Jeju General Cultural Arts Center 제주종합문화예술센터. Although this building is not very old, the history of this site is indeed long. This neighborhood was known as Iatgol 이앗골 貳衙洞 in reference to a much earlier administrative center that existed from the Goryeo (918-1392) to Joseon Dynasties (1392-1910). In 1910, the building became a “jahyewon” 자혜원 慈惠院, a charity hospital and welfare center. It later became the Jeju Provincial Hospital and then the Jeju National University Hospital.

Tamna Yeogwan 탐라 여관 and Dongyang Yeogwan 동영 여관: Tamna Yeogwan was one of the first tourist-oriented inns built when the first national tourism development plans were made. The Republic of Korea’s first Department of Tourism was established in 1954, but actual work commenced only toward the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. Tamna Yeogwan, a modest 30-room hotel, and the Seogwipo Tourist Hotel in 1959 were the first two tourist hotels. Tamna Yeogwan is also known among locals as the accommodations where the Republic of Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee (Yi Seungman 이승만), stayed in his visit to Jeju. The adjacent Dongyang Yeogwan predates it by some two or three decades. Dongyang Yeogwan is one of the last colonial era buildings in Jeju City to have Japanese ryokan-style architecture. During the colonial period when transportation around the island was still very inconvenient, it was a favored lodging place for officials. Dongyang Yeogwan originally had a Japanese-style front entryway, but it was destroyed in the late summer of this year for road expansion.

Mugeunseong 무근성: The name “Mugeunseong” can be translated to “old city” or “old fortress” and refers to the previous Tamna capital. Due to its proximity to Jeju’s previous administrative centers from the Goryeo Dynasty to the early years of the Republic of Korea, Mugeunseong was an important residence area for officials, businesspeople, and elites until the completion of Sinjeju in the 1980s. Mugeunseong’s fortunes declined as people moved to newer parts of Jeju City, but the neighborhood still features architecture representative of upper class residences. Housing during the 1970s and 1980s have the distinctive qualities of being largely of redbrick construction (with the occasional use of local Jeju stone) and incorporating Korean-style roofs and residential compound walls with gates. Parts of Mugeunseong also have tightly-clustered neighborhoods with narrow olle 올레. Before the land reclamation project for Tapdong in the 1990s, the northern edge of Mugeunseong once touched a broad rocky shore. A few buildings also feature distinctive patterns such as zigzags, shells, and flowers carved into the cement facades. Such decorations were more commonplace during the 1960s-1970s before construction became a thoroughly professionalized occupation and served as a mix of household adornment and the builder’s signature.

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.

“Paths of the Lost Kingdom” Walking Tour: Part 3

8. Ch’ilsŏngt’ong 칠성통:
Ch’ilsŏngt’ong is as old as it is new. What we see in this area today is the result of gentrification for the purposes of Cheju’s ever-expanding tourism. Ch’ilsŏngt’ong has seen the vicissitudes of Cheju City’s changes. From the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) to the early 1980s, it was the city’s commercial downtown and once comparable to the bustling City Hall area of today. During both the period of Japanese rule and military dictator Park Chung Hee’s 박정희 reign (1960-1979), Ch’ilsŏngt’ong’s formerly winding olle-like pathways were straightened and widened to reflect the modernist city planning of Tokyo and Seoul. Straightened city streets also can serve a symbolic purpose in that they serve to remind local residents not only their dependency on economic systems tied to metropolitan centers but also the power and capability of ruling elites. Japanese shops and housing once were concentrated around here during the colonial period. Two of Cheju’s earlier theaters were also built along this road. Some of Ch’ilsŏngt’ong’s oldest shops that have survived the changes are the jewelry shops. This area experienced a serious downturn with Cheju City’s haphazard development in the 1980s, especially with the centers of activity moved toward Sin-Cheju and a continued failure to maintain infrastructure, but has since experienced a major commercial revival. Results of Ch’ilsŏngt’ong’s revival are mixed – on the one hand, commerce has returned to the area but on the other hand Cheju’s brand of gentrification in which unique locales are effaced to attract corporate (and nowadays Chinese) investment for short-term returns is posing a serious problem.

In ancient times, there was a complex of seven altar or shrine-like sites called “Ch’ilsŏngdae.” This is noted in several Chosŏn Dynasty and early twentieth century texts including the 1530 Sinjŭng Tongguk Yŏji Sŭngnam 신증동국여지승람, the 1653 T’amnaji 탐라지, and the 1924 P’ahallok 파한록. From a 1926 colonial photograph, one can see that rituals for Ch’ilsŏngdae were performed even to the beginning of the twentieth century. The sites associated with Ch’ilsŏngdae were arranged in the form of the Puktu Ch’ilsŏng 북두칠성 asterism, literally “the Seven Stars of the Northern Ladle” or what is known to us in the West as “the Big Dipper,” a group of stars part of the larger Ursa Major (Big Bear) constellation. The Big Dipper asterism has worldwide prominence due to its traditional usefulness for navigation – from the Big Dipper one can locate Polaris, the North Star. In East Asian astrology, the Big Dipper’s cosmological importance is also due to its unusual consistency in its apparent orbit around Polaris throughout the year (Nemeth, 1987: 164). At the height of each season, the ladle of the dipper seems to point a cardinal direction vis-à-vis its position in relation to Polaris. “Ch’ilsŏng” also has a special microcosmic significance in Cheju traditional spiritual practices in the worship of snake and household deities associated with these seven stars.

The Ch’ilsŏng Ponp’uri 칠성본풀이 narrates the strange story of Ch’ilsŏng’agi 칠성아기. According to the myth, an aging couple prayed at a temple for a child and the goddess Ch’ilsŏng’agi was the result. When both of her parents had to return to heaven to serve in the celestial government, they left her in the care of their maidservant. Ch’ilsŏng’agi, curious about the outside world, pestered her maidservant to allow her to go out. She got lost while venturing out and in the fields a spiritual master seized her seven times. Her body became like silk though she retained her face and she was placed under the horse-mounting block of her house. When her parents came back and discovered what had transpired, they put Ch’ilsŏng’agi inside a crate and cast it into the sea. The box reached the town of Hamdŏk 함덕 where seven women divers discovered it and found seven snakes within. Terrified of what they had found, the seven women divers contracted spirit sickness and had a ritual exorcism performed. But because they appeased the snake spirits, they eventually became very prosperous. The story also continues to say that some generations later, when the descendants of these women divers failed to perform a ritual at the appropriate time, they were forced to flee Hamdŏk and into Cheju City. But because Cheju City’s gates were locked, they had to sneak in via small holes. They emerged from the holes as snakes and these snake deities took up seven positions within the walled city. Hence the seven snakes became guardians of seven points of the house and seven points of Cheju City.

Folklorist Mun Mubyŏng 문무병 (2012) suggested that the now mostly domestic “Ch’ilsŏngje” 칠성제 rites are survivals of T’amna’s ancient state ritual. As hinted in the Ch’ilsŏng mythology, while Ch’ilsŏng deities, children of the goddess Ch’ilsŏng’agi, took up positions around domestic space as protectors they also took up positions around ancient Cheju City. Within the space of a traditional Cheju house, one Ch’ilsŏng deity takes the position between the kitchen and main elevated-floor room (sangbang 상방), one presides over the rear door of the main house (ankŏri 안거리) as the Patch’ilsŏng 밭칠성, one protects the storage room (kop’ang 고팡) as the Anch’ilsŏng 안칠성, and the other four are scattered around the corners of the house. As the domestic Ch’ilsŏng deities are protectors of the household, they traditionally were entreated whenever people performed ancestral rites. Ch’ilsŏngdae’s rituals were perhaps done with a similar intent but at a much larger scale for protecting the community. Aside from the spiritual purposes, Cheju’s shamanic rituals also doubled as festival-like events.

The actual locations of the “Ch’ilsŏngdae” sites are unknown and continue to remain a matter of debate to this date. Although historical records all appear to agree that such a complex existed and the two T’amnaji texts appear to give almost identical locations (Kim, 2012: 157), the exact locations are not consistent. Kim Sŏgik, who directly witnessed Ch’ilsŏngdae’s eventual destruction by the Japanese colonizers, offers convincing testimony on the locations, but even his 1924 record is vague. The clearest description we have is that of the position behind Kwandŏkjŏng 관덕정. More recently architecture professor Kim T’aeil 김태일, using descriptions of Ch’ilsŏngdae in Chosŏn Dynasty records such as the Chŭngbo T’amnaji 증보 탐라지 and Kim Sŏgik’s 김석익 1924 P’ahallok and GIS analysis proposed a possible arrangement in which the asterism’s ladle extends into the Ch’ilsŏngt’ong area while the scoop opens southeast below Kwandŏkjŏng. Following this proposition, from the point of the ladle’s tip, one could trace a line to Samsŏnghyŏl 삼성혈, which would represent Polaris. In 1984, American geographer David J. Nemeth at Toledo University suggests that the present Cheju Mokgwanaji 제주목관아지, the former provincial government complex, is possibly within the dipper portion where the concentration of geomantic-astrological energy is strongest. Nemeth noted the prevalence of Ch’ilsŏng-based geomancy in East Asia as far back as the Chinese Han Dynasty period. Nemeth’s proposition would also allow for one to trace the tip of the ladle to Samsŏnghyŏl, but his earlier estimations are possibly innacurate given that the locations noted in the P’ahallok are not near the present Mokgwanaji site. Archeological discoveries from civilizations all over the world from Stonehenge to the pyramids of Giza have demonstrated that ancient peoples were very well aware of astral positions out of necessity (and the convenient fact that their night sky view was far clearer than it is today), thus T’amna people were likely no less competent in astral observations. On the other hand, because of the multiple possibilities for configurations and the vague nature of extant records, Ch’ilsŏngdae will continue to puzzle scholars.

9. Mugŭnsŏng 무근성:
Mugŭnsŏng is one of the possible locations of the old T’amna fortress, T’amnasŏng 탐라성, as mentioned in the Chosŏn Dynasty Chŭngbo T’amnaji record where it is also called “Kojusŏng” 고주성 and “Chinsŏng-tong” 진성통. One way to interpret its name is that it refers literally to the “old fortress,” which would indicate an older prior settlement. If the T’amnaji’s estimations are correct, then that would mean that the previous Tamna capital formed around Pyŏngmunch’ŏn 병문천 stream (the Chosŏn Dynasty walled town of Cheju-ŭpsŏng 제주읍성 formed by Sanjich’ŏn 산지천 to the east). Place names are not always accurate means to determine historical locations as there are several places around Cheju that have a name meaning “old fortress,” but the vicinity of Mugŭnsŏng nonetheless has a long history. In both the Chosŏn Dynasty and Japanese colonial period, officials and more well-to-do people resided in Mugŭnsŏng. Near Kwandŏkjŏng on a small alleyway street is a small Japanese-style ryokan where officials once stayed during the colonial period. Even today, Mugŭnsŏng retains some of the older-style of winding narrow alleyways that once characterized much of Cheju City as well as a handful of surviving thatched-roof structures. Narrow streets and packed clustered neighborhoods called “kol” 골 were features of old Cheju City. The streets were widened during the Japanese period and in the 1960s-1970s, but with the exception of the major roads of Kwandŏk-ro 관덕로, Chung’ang-ro 중앙로, Puksŏng-ro 북성로, and T’apdong-ro 탑동로, street patterns in Cheju seem to perpetuate much older antecedents – the majority of the streets in a 1914 map of old Cheju City are still consistent today.

Cheju’s particular style of settlements and housing developed over the course of millennia of experience with the island’s geographical particularities. The traditional use of mud for thatched homes were intended to serve as a form of interior climate control – in the winter earthen walls could better retain heat while in the summer they remained relatively cool. Cheju’s style of thatched roof and rock walls were also made specifically with the dangers of fierce winds in mind. The center of Cheju City itself was a short distance away from the sea. Settlements moved further inland during the early Chosŏn Dynasty because of the constant threat from pirate raids, but even during the medieval period they kept some distance from the shoreline. The issue of T’apdong Plaza, which is ravaged whenever the island is hit with a substantial typhoon, illustrates one major reason why this is the case. Islanders were perfectly aware of what a typhoon was capable of doing, especially when it came to storm surges, something that artificially reclaimed land and breakwaters are ill-equipped to resist. Prior to T’apdong Plaza’s construction in the 1990s, the coastline of old Cheju City consisted of basalt rock formations that served as a natural barrier against waves and storm surges.

At least until the 12th century, T’amna had an unusually ambiguous relationship with the Koryŏ Dynasty. T’amna was considered subordinate to the Koryŏ kingdom but nevertheless developed in a different manner. While some suggest that T’amna was already subsumed into Koryŏ by the beginning of the dynasty, others claim that T’amna persisted until the Chosŏn court under King T’aejong 태종왕 finally abolished T’amna native titles in the early fifteenth century. Historian Roh Myoung-ho 노명호 (2005), however, suggests that Tamna instead appears to have served as a kind of vassal state and became fully a district of the larger Koryŏ kingdom only following its 1105 designation as T’amna Prefecture. In a recorded event in the 2nd year of King Hyŏnjong 현종왕 (1011), T’amna is said to have requested that the Koryŏ king regard T’amna in the same manner of other higher-level districts of the Koryŏ kingdom – chu 주 (provinces) and hyŏn 현(counties). At the same time T’amna operated as a foreign country. In the Koryŏsa and Koryŏsa Chŏllyo records, one can note that historians appear to have continued to regard T’amna as a foreign state until the 12th century. In any case, T’amna was subordinate to Koryŏ as it periodically dispatched tribute goods and sent requests for royal investiture. In the year 1044 in the Koryŏsa, T’amna’s Sŏngju (king of T’amna) sent a request to the Koryŏ court to select the future ruler when it was apparent that the prince would have no heirs. Other hints that T’amna was a vassal state were records of Koryŏ dispatching its own officials known as “Kudangsa” 구당사 to observe T’amna affairs. What did come to T’amna via this relationship were access to both the land and maritime trade networks in which the Koryŏ capital Kaegyŏng 개경 (today’s Kaesŏng 개성) was connected, some measure of prestige for T’amna rulers, and cultural imports such as Buddhism. While T’amna sent representatives to attend Koryŏ’s P’algwanhoe event, Buddhism in T’amna was directly sponsored by the Koryŏ court in the form of significant temples such as Mansusa 만수사 and Haeryunsa 해륜사, which flanked Jeju City’s old center. This trend continued also during the period of Mongol rule from the late 13th to late 14th century.

10. Pak Family Thatched House 박 씨 초가

At around three hundred years of age, the Pak family thatched house is one of the oldest buildings in Cheju City. The person living here is currently the eighth generation caretaker. The chief reason for this house to have such remarkable longevity despite all the change occurring around it is because of the family’s deep religious faith in geomancy. The house is said to be at a perfectly auspicious site. While the interior has undergone modernization, the general shape, form, and layout of the house retains Cheju traditional elements.

Unlike the Korean mainland, in Cheju tradition the “front gate” is not actually the front gate of the house but the front door of the Ankŏri, the main house (Kim HJ, 2007: 182). The most important ritual date for Munjŏnje, the door god rite, is the 15th day of the first lunar month, but the Munjŏn deity 문전 is often acknowledged in domestic rituals. Whenever any ritual is performed, offerings are given to Munjŏn. Another unique feature of Cheju’s mythology is that the kitchen god “Chowang” 조왕 is identified as female. As a daily practice, women of Jeju households once made daily offerings to Chowang by placing a bowl by the kitchen stove.

The story of Munjŏn and his mother Chowang is elaborated in the Munjŏn Ponp’uri 문전본풀이. Multiple versions exist, but the following is one in which the deities correspond to the order of the traditional Cheju house. Two deities, Nam Sŏnbi 남선비 and Yŏsan Puin 여산부인 had seven sons. Because the family was deeply impoverished, Nam Sŏnbi engaged in rice trade abroad. Nam Sŏnbi was seduced by Noiljedegwi’il’s 노일제데괴일 daughter, who bamboozled him into squandering his earnings. Yŏsan Puin searched for her husband and dispelled the enchantment put upon him by feeding him rice. Kwi’il’s daughter, unwilling to relinquish control over Nam Sŏnbi, drowned Yŏsan Puin when she pretended to treat her to a bath. She used her powers to assume the form of Yŏsan Puin and returned with Nam Sŏnbi. All save for the youngest of the seven sons were deceived by Kwi’il’s daughter. The youngest son exposed Kwi’il’s daughter’s plot to kill them. In shame, Kwi’il’s daughter hung herself in the toilet and she became the toilet goddess. The disgraced Nam Sŏnbi committed suicide at the chŏngnang of the house compound and became the Chŏngjumok-chŏngsalji 정주목정살지 deity. To revive their slain mother, the seven sons traveled to the Flower Fields of the Western Heaven to retrieve the flower of reincarnation. The mother Yŏsan Puin was reincarnated as the hearth goddess Chowang. The youngest son who exposed Kw’il’s daughter became the Munjŏn deity while the five elder sons became the Obang T’osin 오방토신 (Earth Deities of the Five Directions) and the sixth son became the protector deity of the rear gate.

11. Kwandŏkjŏng 관덕정 / Cheju Mokgwanaji (Government Complex) 제주목관아지:
Kwandŏkjŏng is said to be the oldest extant structure in Cheju City. Although other structures of a similar function existed at the site of Cheju Mokgwanaji during the Koryŏ Dynasty and T’amna Period. In 1416, the Chosŏn court under King T’aejong, reorganized Cheju Island’s administrative districts into Chejumok 제주목, Taejŏng-hyŏn 대정현, and Chŏngŭi-hyŏn 정의현. Kwandŏkjŏng, which literally means “the Pavilion of Observing Virtue,” was first built in 1448 during the reign of King Sejong 세종왕 with the intention of serving as a command post for drilling military forces. The two words “observing virtue” related to archery and the Confucian philosophy of archery – in order for an archer to perfectly strike a target the archer must have perfect discipline, a concept that also translates into conceptions of proper conduct. The presence of Kwandŏkjŏng and the adjoining government complex called “Mokgwanaji” were manifestations of the Seoul government’s power in – and power over – Cheju.

T’amna’s decline under the combined pressures of outside forces and possible mismanagement by its own native elites was long and slow in coming. Whether or not this began as early as the beginning of Koryŏ is debatable, but by the mid-Koryŏ Dynasty the status of T’amna vis-à-vis the mainland had fallen far indeed. In 1229, the name “Cheju” appears in historical records when the Koryŏsa mentions Chinese merchant castaways reaching the shores of Cheju. But this name seemed to have been interchangeable with T’amna and it is actually not until more than six decades later that the name appears more frequent. The nature of things changed in 1295 when both the Koryŏ and Mongol Yuan courts wrangled over direct control of the island.

The exact time of T’amna’s demise as an autonomous kingdom remains unknown but there is no doubt that by the time of the Chosŏn Dynasty 조선왕조 (1392-1910) Cheju Island was a de facto colony. In 1404, during the reign of King T’aejong, following the request of Cheju’s native elites in 1402, the Chosŏn court changed the former Sŏngju and Wangja titles into Chwadojigwan (左都知管) and Udojigwan (右都知管), the Provincial Managing Officer of the Left and the Provincial Managing Officer of the Right. In the early part of the Chosŏn Dynasty, Cheju appeared to have maintained much of the old T’amna structures and it did not seem that native elites cared particularly much for Seoul court titles while they were more interested in maintaining their local clout (Go 2007: 165). Chosŏn records note that local elites abused their power over commoners, but this could also be a pretext for the central authority’s intent to eventually break their power and establish some semblance of centralized rule. Since the founding of the Chosŏn Dynasty, central authorities had sought to break the influence of local elites known as “hyangni” 향리. In 1445, during the reign of King Sejong, Cheju’s native titles were finally abolished.

The vicissitudes of T’amna can serve as crucial lessons for Cheju today. Cheju’s complicated and troubled relationship with the Korean mainland has been long in the making as the island was at first a tributary vassal state and eventually became a quasi-colony. While we cannot be certain if mainlander accounts of the misdeeds of Cheju’s local elites can be trusted (as people of the Korean elite yangban class had it in their interest to denigrate local leaders and hyangni), their twilight years in the early Chosŏn Dynasty could serve as a crucial warning to Cheju’s current elites. T’amna remains relevant to us today as its traditions and history allow us to make sense of how Cheju as a culture and society came to be.



Duncan, John. 2000. The origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Ko Changsŏk. 2007. T’amnaguk sidaesa. Seoul: Seoul Munhwasa.


Hyŏn Yongchun. 1996. Chejudo sinhwa. Seoul: Sŏmundang.

Jiu Tangshu.

Cho Tongil. 1997. Tong Asia kubi sŏsasi-ŭi yangsang-kwa pyŏnch’ŏn. Seoul: Munhwagwajisŏngsa.

Chosŏn wangjo sillok.

Kim Iru. 2004. “Koryŏ sidae T’amna jumindŭl-ŭi kŏju jiyŏk-kwa haesang hwaldong,” Hanguksa hakbo, 18: 9-35.

Kim T’aeil, Kang Mun’gyu, Kim T’aehwan, et al. 2012. Chŏnhwan’gi-ŭi Cheju tosi kŏnch’uk. Seoul: Tosŏ ch’ulp’an pogosa.

Mun Mubyŏng. 2012. “T’amna komunhwa-wa Ch’ilsŏng sinang,” Minjok mihak, 11(2): 15-50.

Nemeth, David J. 1987. Architecture of ideology: Neo-Confucian imprinting on Cheju Island, Korea, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pettid, Michael J. 2001. “Vengeful gods and shrewd men: response to the loss of sovereignty on Cheju Island,” East Asian history, 22: 171-186.

Yi Wŏnjin. 2002. Yŏkju T’amnaji. Kim Chanhŭp, et al, editors. Seoul: Purŭn Yŏksa.

Previous Older Entries