Going South: Cheju Islanders in Vietnam

When Cheju went to the World…in the 18th Century, Part II

Whether people anywhere in the world ever concieved of themselves in concepts analogous to the “nation state” prior to the nineteenth century remains ambiguous but it is clear that different cultures had a particular awareness of an Other. The Other, however, was not always viewed in necessarily negative terms and the exoticism afforded to cultural Others sometimes served to inspire a sense of novelty. While many, including scholars, consider (with varied degrees) much of East Asia as being a part of a larger sinosphere, early travel accounts such as Song Dynasty Chinese emissary Xu Jing’s account of Koryŏ Koreans demonstrate that these cultures were very much aware of and were sometimes ambivalent about their differences. Accounts of the accidental adventurer, the castaway, even if there may have been later embellishments after the fact of the journey, also provide interesting insights on how people viewed themselves in the reflection of the Other. Cheju islander castaways were no exception.

Going South: Cheju Islanders in Vietnam

The account of Choch’ŏn (Jocheon) resident Ko Sang’yŏng and his shipmates becoming castaways on the shores of Vietnam is one of the more extreme examples of the hundreds (if not thousands as extant records in Tokugawa Japan alone counted 404 Korean castaways) of accidental adventurers during the Chosŏn Dynasty. Chŏng Min, who edited the 2008 re-compilation of Chŏng Un’gyŏng’s important yet long-forgotten text, notes that several different versions of Ko’s account exist in other texts, but the T’amna mun’gyŏllok contains one of the more complete story. Though South Korea’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the current global economic situation, and social issues such as foreign brides in particular have made Vietnam a striking presence in Korea in the past six decades, contact between the two lands go back farther than one would think.

The linkages between Vietnam and the Korean Peninsula and its environs in premodern history are not immediately apparent, but curious events between the two have appeared on the pages of scholar-officials’ grand narratives. One of the earliest known recorded incidents of contact between the Korean Peninsula and Vietnam is the beginning of what became the Hwasan Yi and Chŏngson Yi clans. Following the collapse of the Vietnamese Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), royal family member Yi Yongsang 李龍祥 (Vt: Lý Long Tường) and relatives escaped Vietnam and found themselves castaways on the shores of Hwanghae Province (a western region currently within the territory of North Korea). Yi Yongsang passed the Koryŏ exam, was granted official title in the Koryŏ court, and became the ancestor of the Hwasan Yi clan. Yi Yongsang’s arrival at Ongjin is even commemorated in local folklore.

As far as Jeju is concerned in the chance encounters with Southeast Asia, two accounts stand out – that of Ko Sang’yŏng in the T’amna mun’gyŏllok and Kim T’aehwang in the Sukjong sillok in the 15th year of King Sukjong (1689). Both castaways were aboard the same boat that was blown off course to the shores of Vietnam. In the Sukjong sillok, Kim T’aehwang (who is identified in Ko’s account in the T’amna mun’gyŏllok as the chief communicator) is said to have raised tribute horses for the Chosŏn court and boarded a ship for the mainland on behalf of then-governor Yi Sangjŏn. The Sukjong sillok gives a summary of the crew running into stormy weather and being blown off course for 31 days until they reached the Vietnamese city of Hoi An where they were granted provisions by the Vietnamese king as well as permission for passage aboard a trade vessel bound for Zhejiang, China.

The T’amna mun’gyŏllok, being a work of a literatus’s personal interest rather than a royal court-sanctioned historical narrative, provides many more details. When Ko’s and Kim’s boat was blown off course to islands off the coast of Vietnam, they initially thought that they had reached the shores of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was when they attempted to communicate with local people using body language and classical Chinese script that they realized just how far they had drifted from Cheju. The castaways were met with initial suspicion by Vietnamese officials as an incident in which Chosŏn officials executed a Vietnamese royal castaway lingered in their memory, but after being taken to Hoi An they were treated with benign neglect rather than outright hostility. Eventually taking to begging for provisions, the castaways began to learn about the local language and customs and it is in this section of Ko’s account noted the relative prosperity of Vietnam as well as the variety of local tropical fauna and flora. Of particular interest to them were water buffalo native to Southeast Asia and used as draft animals for agriculture. Despite the language barrier and the fact that they were castaways, they were treated with much food and goods, reflecting the stability of the kingdom at that time. Even despite the aforementioned incident, they were called to have an audience with the king, who granted passage back to Chosŏn via a trade ship. Ko’s description of Vietnamese society notes that women outnumbered men and that they appeared to hold higher actual status, an interesting observation (for us in the present) given that a similar thing could be said about Cheju in that time.



Chosŏn Wangjo Sillok

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

Kang Ŭnhae. 2011. “Han’guk kwihwa Pet’ŭnam wangja-ŭi yŏksa-wa chŏnsŏl: Koryŏ Ongjin-hyŏn-ŭi Yi Yongsang wangja,” Tongbuk’a Munhwa Yŏn’gu, 26: 223-240.


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.

Remnants of the Japanese Colonial Era; Part II

Remnants of the Japanese Colonial Era; Part II: Buddhist Resistance and Accommodation

Perhaps one of the earliest most overt act of outright rebellion against the Japanese in Cheju Island was the Mu-o Pŏpjŏngsa 무오법정사 event on October 7, 1918, an armed insurrection led by Buddhist monks Kim Yŏnil 김연일, Pang Tonghwa 방동화, and Kang Ch’anggyu 강창규 five months before the famed 1919 March First Demonstrations (Samil Undong 삼일운동). For a few days, a rebel movement that began with a group of few dozen Buddhist monks plotting to drive out Japan’s colonial domination of the island through force of arms at the mountainside temple of Pŏpjŏngsa ballooned to a 400-strong rebel force as the group descended upon Chungmun 중문. Though the event is known as “Mu-o Pŏpjŏngsa,” the first actual outbreak of violence was at the colonial police station in Chungmun where rebels assaulted colonial gendarmes and freed prisoners. Whether it was truly a “nationalistic” rebellion or instead an explosion of anger directed at colonial policies (and not any notion of a ‘nation-state’ per se) that threatened local livelihoods, it is nonetheless telling that the rebels marched across the Cheju countryside unchallenged in the beginning and that the Japanese officials were unaware of the rebellion until the first outbreak of violence. Cheju residents, highly resentful of colonial authorities’ interference with local lives, chose not to inform officials or even joined the ranks of the rebel force.

Armed with mostly bamboo spears and a handful of antiquated matchlock rifles, the rebellion was crushed in only a matter of days. Many rebels were arrested and a few died in prison. Leaders Kim Yŏnil, Pang Tonghwa, and Kang Ch’anggyu were imprisoned for a time and released, but were under close colonial surveillance for the next two and a half decades of Japanese rule. After the brutal suppression of the uprising and the eventual March First uprising a half year later, as had been the case with most Cheju Islanders in the course of the colonial period, how Cheju Buddhists responded to increased Japanese colonial interference is unclear. A small number continued to support resistance activities. Most gave up on openly resisting and decided to adjust to their reality under Japanese rule and it is known that Cheju Islanders were among the most active in traveling to the burgeoning city of Osaka, Japan for work.

People may have engaged in their own forms of passive resistance by maintaining their own Cheju traditions or simply ignoring colonial programs aimed at integration into the rising Japanese Empire. The role of nun visionary An Pongnyŏgwan, who is regarded somewhat as a local saint and credited as a key figure in the success of Cheju’s Buddhist revival, is unclear as the information we possess today is largely through word of mouth. These rumors regarding her activities reflect the ambivalent nature of Cheju Buddhists’ relationship with their colonial rulers. Japanese colonial authorities, anxious to bring common Koreans under their control, supported Japanese Buddhists’ missionary activities; Hyangsadang shrine, once a Confucian shrine for the island’s ancestral forbears, was converted to a branch temple of Higashi Honganji temple during the colonial period. An Pongnyŏgwan did not appear to support the 1918 rebellion and was perhaps more concerned with pursuing her spiritual mission (somewhat in disagreement with the more millenarian Pang Tonghwa and Kang Ch’anggyu) and the very real threat of Japanese retaliation, but anecdotal evidence suggests that she secretly raised funds to support the rebels and even continued to do so for the March First Movement. On the other hand, the fact that she openly avoided politics and attempted to maintain an autonomous Cheju Buddhist sphere from the rising influence of Japanese sects is rather telling about the cautious attitude many Cheju people maintained. Unlike the Korean mainland, while the Japanese colonial policymakers’ requirement for many Buddhist clergy to marry (a longstanding tradition in Japanese Buddhism, but there were a few known cases of married clergy in Korea even before the colonial period) remained a controversy and embarrassment until the separation of the Chogye Order resolved the matter some decades later, it was not so much an issue in Cheju due to the islanders’ preference for family-based religious practice. The question of simple accommodation to present realities versus the matter of outright collaboration did not leave an open wound in Cheju’s Buddhist community as it did in the mainland. As had long been the case in Cheju’s history, the need to survive ultimately trumped any sort of idealistic ideological fervor.

The nature of Mu-o Pŏpjŏngsa has been a topic of debate for some time – some scholars such as Yi Yŏnggwŏn (2004) argued that the rebellion cannot be considered “Buddhist” because although the leaders identified themselves as devout Buddhists most of the followers were of a syncretic religion known as “Poch’ŏn’gyo,” but others such as Kim Kwangsik (2005) note that the lines between “Buddhism” and other religious movements in Cheju in the early 20th century are very blurred and that even the leading members of such movements had some affiliation with one Buddhist community or another. The second line of thought has some considerable support to it as the Pang Tonghwa and Kang Ch’anggyu, both Cheju locals and perhaps the actual leaders of the event (Japanese records instead credit mainlander Kim Yŏnil as the rebel leader), were known to follow a highly inclusive form of millenarian Buddhism that incorporated existing beliefs in Cheju. Both leaders sought to realize utopian visions of a this-world Buddha land in Cheju through the elimination of colonial exploitation. Some decades later, a number of Buddhist clergy did take up arms against the militant ultra-right wing Northwest Youth League’s slaughter of Cheju islanders during the fallout of the April Third Incident from 1948 to 1950, an echo of the community’s strong localist identity that first sounded in the 1918 rebellion. Regardless of where one stands on the debates and regardless of the short-lived nature, Mu-o Pŏpjŏngsa remains a strong source of pride for many local clergy and Buddhists as proof not only of Buddhists’ contributions to Cheju history but also the stalwart determination of their forebears.


Site of Pŏpjŏngsa near Yŏngsil Trail. The temple was first built in the early 20th century, among the first major Buddhist temples established during Cheju’s Buddhist revival from the late 19th century to early 20th century. It was destroyed completely during the turmoil from the April Third Incident in the period from 1948 to 1950. The site today is a local heritage site and a memorial honoring the rebellion was recently constructed nearby.


Remains of a Buddhist altar. According to the granddaughter of Pang Tonghwa, rebels used a clever combinations of Buddhist chanting to convey secret messages to one another during their meetings for plotting rebellion.




Hyejŏn. 2007. “Pongnyŏgwan Sŭnim-kwa Cheju Pulgyo-ŭi chunghŭng,” in Han’guk piguni-ŭi suhaeng-kwa sam, Vol.1, edited by Son Hyeyŏng, 343-366.
Kim, Kwangsik. 2005. “Pŏpjŏngsa hang’il undong chaeinsik,” Han’guk tongnip undongsa yŏn’gu, 25: 141-176.
O Sŏng, et al. 2006. Cheju ŭi sach al kwa Pulgyo munhwa. Sŏul T ŭkpyŏlsi: Sach al Munhwa Yŏn guwŏn.
Yi Hyangsun. August 2011. “Pongnyŏgwan yŏn’gu-ŭi hyŏnhwang-kwa kwaje.” Paper presented at Pongnyŏgwan sŏnyanghoe, Cheju City, Cheju, South Korea.
Yi Yŏnggwŏn. 2004. Cheju Yŏksa Kihaeng. Sŏul-si: Han’gyŏre Sinmunsa.

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

Part II: “The Island Country”


The 2012 T’amna Taejŏn (T’amna Grand Festival) opened to much fanfare in September, or so it was reported. Despite the onslaughts of typhoons from July to August, September turned out to be a month of festivity. Although the T’amna Taejŏn is an annual event held to celebrate Cheju’s “folk” culture and the memory of the ancient civilization of T’amna, the 2012 festival in particular had a special significance, not the least of which was its temporal proximity to another grand spectacle – the 2012 World Conservation Congress (WCC) held at Chungmun’s International Convention Center. It was no surprise that the internationally-renowned WCC event, coming a short time after the government and tourism industry’s zealous endorsement of the “New Seven Wonders” title (regardless of the rather controversial issues surrounding the amount of money spent and the other intentions of organizers), would generate such a maelstrom on the island for the hosting of this grand conference was in essence a crowning achievement of Cheju’s official push for world recognition of its “green” and “sustainable” credentials. In the presses, the T’amna Taejŏn was easily overshadowed by the mammoth WCC event, but it was by no means a mere afterthought. Just as the WCC offered the opportunity of grandiose advertising for Cheju’s future, the T’amna Taejŏn offered the opportunity to advertise Cheju’s past.

What is striking about these two is not simply the dialogic relationship between them but also the striking similarity of the manner in which both events were premised. As if a realization of the painfully-wrought official slogan “The World comes to Jeju, Jeju Comes to the World,” both the WCC and the T’amna Taejŏn presented the image of a Cheju Island engaging the world on its own volition rather than through the mediation of the peninsular mainland. The WCC did not necessarily come to Korea, but to Cheju and it was thus Cheju that became the center of attention. Even more conspicuous were the featured lectures given at Cheju National University during the T’amna Taejŏn; much of the programming was focused on discussing the nature of “island cultures” and island civilization. Whether or not the intellectual, artistic, and cultural climate has changed along with Cheju’s very material heightened degree of direct engagement with the outside world without mainland mediation, it is nonetheless very striking that in recent years (especially in the works of Cheju cultural and historical studies), conceptualizations of Cheju Island have appeared to have been increasingly de-centering the Korean Peninsula and re-centering Cheju Island within the larger neighborhood of Northeast Asia as well as the greater Pacific Rim. There has been a greater interest in the possibility that Cheju Island as T’amna may had been more connected to the outside world as had been assumed. Cheju is hence being re-born – at least in cultural productions – as “the Island Country.”

An important question remains – are the conceptualizations of ancient T’amna as a maritime kingdom simply the result of resurgent local pride and wishful thinking or are there very real grounds for us to consider that the ancient peoples of Cheju Island were much more aware of the world than we had previously thought?

In the next section, I shall look at T’amna’s engagement with the Koryŏ court in the 10th century, possible evidence of ancient maritime activity, the Mongols integration of the island into the Yuan Empire, and legends and mythology that have recurrent themes of travel from beyond the seas (such as Samsŏng sinhwa, Yŏngdŭnggut, and the legend of Songguksŏng).

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