“Mountain Gods” and “Lord Hallasan”

A common deity encountered across the various forms of spirituality practiced in Cheju and mainland Korea is the ubiquitous worship of an ambiguously-defined deity referred to as “sansin” (mountain god) 산신. Should one visit a temple or a private shrine in mainland Korea, one might notice a detached altar (or an entire prayer room) featuring the image of an elderly bearded sage accompanied with a tiger. Images may vary depending on the era of the painting or specific region in Korea, but the features are consistent all across the peninsula. As nearly three quarters of the Korean peninsula is mountainous, the mountain deity is among the most indispensable figures that appears in multiple forms of Korean spirituality from local variants of shamanic worship to Buddhism and from Confucian ritual to new religious movements. Not merely the refuge of shamans and Daoists, religious mystics of a variety of faiths, including early Protestant converts in the early 20th century, took to mountains in troubled times in hope of gaining spiritual insight directly from the divine. Aside from the aesthetic and spiritual import of mountains as the geographic point of contact between heaven and earth, mountains were also key refuge points during invasions; the multitude of fortifications on them such as Namhansansŏng, in which King Injo himself sought refuge during the early 17th century Manchu invasions, in the Greater Seoul area attests to their strategic value. In all cases, the presence of sansin is widely felt. In shamanic and Buddhist ritual, ritual practitioners perform specific devotional chants to the Sansin such as the Sansin’gyŏng for the deity’s protection as well as permission to build or maintain sacred spaces on mountain domains. To whom or what sansin refers is seldom explicit. The title tends to refer to an enigmatic caretaker deity of Korea’s wilderness. Some new religious movements in the Korean mainland associate sansin with Tan’gun, the purported ancestor of Korean civilization, as the tiger image is interpreted to represent the same tiger who failed to change to a human in the myth of ancient Chosŏn. Though often regarded as a particularly “Korean” feature, the mountain god is not unique to Korea per se. Many different spiritual traditions around the world identify mountains as points of access between this world and the supernatural realm such as Mount Olympus in ancient Greece or Mount Sumeru in South Asia. What sets apart Korean expressions of mountain veneration from neighboring traditions is the ubiquitous esteem given to the enigmatic guardians of these sacred geographies.

What of the sansin of Cheju Island where there is but one main mountain of reference, Hallasan? One may be surprised that the moniker can be equally vague in Cheju. If one were to follow popularized re-representations of island culture too closely, one may also be surprised that the mountain deity in Cheju is not actually related to the legendary titan-goddess Sŏlmundae, who, according to legend, crafted the mountain with her bare hands.  Even in the Cheju pantheon where deities are very much location-specific, the mountain deity’s identity is paradoxically defined yet also can be unclear. When Cheju islanders perform rites to sansin at Sanch’ŏndan 산천단 shrine in Ara-tong, the ponhyangdang 본향당 at Wahŭl 와흘, or the various Buddhist altars around the ruins of Pŏpjŏngsa 법정사 temple in upland Sŏgwip’o 서귀포, are people venerating a specific deity, a group of deities, or the abstract concept of nature guardian deity? Short answer: all of the above. An important characteristic of Cheju spirituality to keep in mind is that while it overlaps with the “universal” traditions (such as Confucianism and Buddhism) many practices are still very region-specific. Religion in Cheju has long related to immediate community or personal needs rather than abstract concepts. In forms of Buddhism in Cheju, how sansin are venerated are specific to particular congregations as local-born clergy may sometimes refer to an indigenous rather than generalized form. The “Confucian” Sanch’ŏndan rites likewise are directed at Hallasan as the original shrine itself was located further up the mountain side.

Across Cheju, one may find deities with the vague title sansin or the particular title “Harosantto” 하로산또 (“Hallasannim” 한라산님 in Standard Korean), or Lord Hallasan. Not to be mistaken with the smaller tree of the grandmother goddess Sŏjŏngsŭng Ttanim 서정승 따님, the main sinmok 신목 (god tree) at Wahŭl’s famed photogenic shrine, Han’gŏri Harosandang 한거리 하로산당, is a deity with the title of “Harosantto.” A deity with the same title also appears in other parts of Cheju such as Hogŭn-tong 호근동 and Sŏho-tong 서호동 in the Sŏgwip’o area. What differs in Cheju from the Korean mainland in the portrayal of Sansin and especially “Harosantto” is that instead of a wizened Daoist-like sage accompanied with a tiger, the mountain deities literally have a far more down-to-earth form. Cheju’s mountain deities tend to be represented as a fur-clad hunter-gatherers with a bow or rifle. The Sansin nori 산신 놀이(Mountain Deity’s Skit) portion of the May 1, 2015 Puldodang 불도당 ritual in Wasan 와산, which culminates in a chicken sacrifice, features shamans and somi 소미 (attendant shamans) playing the role of rifle-armed hunters who meander around the shrine grounds before the final sacrifice ritual. Their calls of “Mŏru mŏru mŏru, wŏri wŏri wŏri” 머루머루머루 월이월이월이 to one another mimic that of a hunter calling to a dog. In this case, one can observe that the animal that attends the mountain deity is not a tiger but perhaps a hunter’s dog. If sansin in the Korean mainland parallels Tan’gun, then sansin and Harosantto in Cheju likewise seem to parallel the ancestor demigods of T’amna: Ko, Yang, Pu were depicted as hunter-gatherers who sprung from the earth. The deity Soch’ŏn’guk 소천국, the consort to Songdang’s chief agricultural patron goddess Paekchu 백주, also is depicted as a hunter-gatherer. Not coincidentally, some of these “Harosantto” are related to the family of deities based at Songdang; Wahŭl’s Harosantto, for example, is the 11th son of Paekchu.

  • Fieldwork conducted on May 1, 2015 in Wasan; May 4, 2015 at Pŏpjŏngsa temple site; and February 21, 2016 in Wahŭl

An Introduction to Cheju Island’s Shrine Shamanism

Cheju Island’s particular form of shamanism, which should be considered distinct from forms of mainland Korean shamanism, is focused on its hundreds of shrines scattered across the island. Shrines are usually built into the natural environment. Although some shrines in recent years have been moved, I would contend that this is not a normal practice in Cheju shamanism. On the contrary, that many of Cheju’s shrines were positioned deliberately at grottoes, promontories, or near natural springs or access to running water is evidence that some forms of geomantic thought had influenced their placement. A departure that I make from Cheju Studies in general is to clarify ‘Cheju shamanism’ in terms of a more communally-oriented village ‘shrine shamanism.’ Whereas private kuttang 굿당(shamanic ritual halls) have come to characterize mainland shamanism have been making headway in Cheju due to their advantages in urbanizing life, most of Cheju’s ‘shamanic’ activity is still anchored to specific shrines and communities. Community worship and shrines do exist in the mainland, but sacred geography maintains far stronger importance in Cheju Island. A clear example would be the fact that Nŭng 능당 and Tonomi 도노미당 Shrines in Cheju City or Sŏgwi Ponhyang 서귀본향당 Shrine in Sŏgwip’o are actively maintained despite the absence of a tang maen simbang 당맨심방 (shrine shaman) indicate that the notion of senjari 센지리 (sacred seat of power) remains crucial even in urban Cheju.

Cheju’s 346 shrines can be categorized as follows: ponhyangdang (village main shrines), ilrwedang (seventh-day shrines), yŏdŭredang (eighth-day shrines), and haesindang (sea deity shrines) (Yi YK: 2005: 236-237). Ponhyangdang 본향당 are of prime ritual importance for most communities while the haesindang 해신당 service seaside communities. Ilrwedang 일뤠당, visited on days with the number 7, are for individual worship, are among the most common types of shrines, do not require a full ritual, and are usually for women who pray for to Samsŭng Halmang 삼승할망 (Kr.: Samsin Halmŏni 삼신할머니) for childbirth, the health of children, or curing of children’s skin diseases. Even to the present ilrwedang remain important. Women typically leave hardboiled egg offerings with the intention of hoping that children’s skin would become as pure as the egg white, but prayers nowadays are for more general family welfare concerns. The yŏdŭredang 여드레당 are similar to ilrwedang in that they are for personal prayer, but as their name suggests they are visited on days with the number 8.

Ponhyangdang are the loci of community ritual and possess specific ponp’uri (origin epic myth) for the tutelary gods. Since each shrine historically had a ponp’uri, shrine origin myths historically numbered in the hundreds, but few remain in their totality, except for the most prominent shrines such as Songdang. Only the twelve ilban ponp’uri (general origin epic myths) of Cheju’s most important deities are known to all Cheju shamans. The Yŏngdŭng 영등 myth, the myth of the wind deity who visits Cheju every year in the Lunar 2/1 to 2/14, is a de facto must-know myth though several different versions exist in both oral and written literature (Mun MB 1996: 242-243). Probably due to a combination of pure accident and a passing curiosity, visiting mainland officials documented instances of the Yŏngdŭng-kut 영등굿 ritual during the early Chosŏn Dynasty. Samsŏnghyŏl 삼성혈, the ancestral shrine of Cheju’s three demigod ancestors, was said to have been a shamanic shrine until as late as the 15th century and the Samsŏng myth was probably related to Songdang’s and Kwaenaegit Shrine’s ponp’uri. The ilban ponp’uri, notably Segyŏng ponp’uri, the epic tale of the cross-dressing warrior goddess of agriculture Chŏch’ŏngbi 저청비 (Kr.: Chach’ŏngbi 자청비) and her lover Mun Toryŏng 문도령, became popularized stories as local and mainland émigré artists reproduce the story in musicals, manhwa (Jp.: manga), and various other performing and visual arts.

Some caveats come with defining ‘Cheju shamanism’ and it is necessary to note that overlaps with Confucianism and Buddhism are common. Where Buddhism, Confucianism, and shamanism begin and end can be ambiguous. A Buddhist monk in rural Hado noted that “when one goes to a temple, one goes to a shrine” (“신당도 가고 절도 가고”) a sentiment also echoed in the now-urban neighborhood of Chŏngsil 정실 in Cheju City where the people who pray at Tonomi Shrine are the same people who attend Wŏlchŏngsa 월정사 temple’s services. Annual male-led ‘Confucian’ maŭlje (village-wide ritual) sometimes take place not at a ‘Confucian’ altar, but rather at the village shrine to greet the tutelary shamanic gods, whom the local tang maein simbang later serenade in a kut.

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

This is a summary of the historical events and sites mentioned in the April 26th “Paths of the Lost Kingdom” tour, the first English-language tour of Jeju International Culture Exchange Association’s (JICEA) Wŏndosim Yet’gil T’amhŏm (Jeju City Old Town Survey Excursion). “Paths of the Lost Kingdom” was a tour of Cheju Island under the ancient T’amna civilization and encompassed history – with a few digressions – from the 3rd century to 1404. This course focuses on Jeju’s mythological and historical past of the T’amna civilization in the space of modern Cheju City. Participants will be invited to envision ancient Cheju’s past while they explore the legacy of its millennia-old history. A chronological presentation is impossible as sites are scattered all around the city. The purpose is instead to show the continued presence of Cheju tradition. For this course, the “T’amna Kingdom” and “T’amna civilization” are differentiated – the former refers to the autonomous T’amna state, which lasted from sometime in the 3rd century until it’s official 1105 annexation, while the latter refers to Cheju’s native culture, which was not fully absorbed until the first few decades of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910).

Each section below is divided in accord to the April 26 itinerary noted in parentheses next to the associated theme. As the content is as long as the course (the entire course took 3 hours!), the itinerary and the information will be posted in three parts. Following standard American academic conventions, all Korean names are Romanized in the McCune-Reischauer system. I include the Korean script beside names.

What was the Tamna civilization?

Due to the absence and loss of historical records, Tamna’s past remains shrouded in mystery. There is no definite agreement on when T’amna began. In the Korean Samguksagi, “T’amnaguk” appears in the year 476 in the records of King Munju of the Paekche kingdom. While the earliest possible references to Tamna appear in the Chinese Sanguozhi, which was compiled sometime after 280, and the legend of Qin Shi Huang’s (r.220-210 BCE) emissary Xu Fu, little is certain. T’amna’s annexation to the Korean mainland kingdom is also a topic of debate as there are three main suggested possibilities: at the beginning of the Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392), in the year 1105 when it was officially designated a Koryŏ prefecture, or even in the 4th year of King T’aejong (1404) of Chosŏn when Cheju’s native titles were abolished. In any case, when we speak of “civilization” we also have to take into account that contrary to the recent tendency to exaggerate T’amna’s clout in Northeast Asia as an alleged “maritime” kingdom or excessively grandiose presentations of its pantheon, Cheju Island’s T’amna culture was never a major regional power and frequently found itself at the mercy of the peninsular kingdoms. On the other hand, Cheju truly does have unique traditions and historical experiences that are worth examining. As local folklorist Mun Mubyŏng (2012) observed, Cheju historically was at the intersection between cultural flows from the northern Altaic regions via continental Northeast Asia and the southern Southeast Asian and Buddhist regions via the oceanic southwest-to-northeast Kuroshio Current. Despite its semi-colonial relationship with the Korean mainland, Cheju managed to maintain a distinctive culture and worldview that still remains relevant to the present.

Although Cheju was considered a desolate island of exile during the Chosŏn Dynasty, many followers of the island’s native spiritual practices saw themselves as being an indelible part of a vast universe of some thousands of deities. Cheju possesses a complete epic myth of creation, connecting the human world as experienced in Cheju with the universe beyond. What we call “shamanism” is deeply embedded in Cheju’s culture and worldviews even to the present. Though Cheju City’s urbanization has been drastically transforming the landscape and lifestyles of the island, some traditions continue to survive and have become representative of Cheju Island’s heritage. Narratives are inscribed into Cheju’s landscapes and cityscapes. What has now become “Cheju shamanism” perhaps served as the guiding principles for people of the ancient indigenous T’amna civilization. Given the lack or loss of historical records, however, the “beginning” of T’amna is told only in mythology.

1. Cheju Cosmology (Chilmeoridang 칠머리당 / Sarabong 사라봉)

Understanding Cheju’s traditional cosmology is a first step in attempting to acquire an understanding of the island’s ancient civilization. Cheju mythology begins with Ch’ŏnjiwang Ponp’uri 천지왕 본풀이(the “Origin Epic of the King of Heaven and Earth”), which is the creation myth recited at the opening Ch’ogamje rite in all shrines across Cheju Island including Ch’ilmŏridang. Connecting the human world with that of the celestial, shamans begin the genealogy of the local gods with the beginning of time itself. “Ponp’uri” literally means “unravelling the origins.” It brings together the other world of the gods and this world so that people can situate themselves as part of a greater universe.

Ch’ŏnjiwang Ponp’uri narrates the creation of the universe as we know it. Several variations of the same myth exists all across Jeju and so the version used here is a summary provided in Hyŏn Yongjun’s Cheju Sinhwa (1996). In the beginning, there was pure Chaos. The cosmos opened its head at the direction of the Ox and Time began. From this Chaos emerged Ch’ŏnjiwang, the King of Heaven and Earth.  Ch’ŏnjiwang sought to bring Order out of Chaos and so he went down to Earth to propose a marriage with the Lady of the Earth, Ch’ongmaeng Puin 총맹부인. Ch’ongmaeng Puin was unfortunately so impoverished that she had nothing proper to offer and so she went to her neighbor Sumyŏngjangja 수명장자 for a loan of rice. Sumyŏngjangja was notoriously greedy and cheated Ch’ongmaeng Puin by secretly mixing the rice with sand. When Ch’ŏnjiwang discovered Sumyŏngjangja’s deed, he became furious and unleashed the wrath of all the heavens upon Sumyŏngjangja’s household. But because Ch’ŏnjiwang unleashed such furious power, he had to bring some semblance of peace by performing the universe’s first kut 굿, a shamanic ritual. Ch’ŏnjiwang and Ch’ongmaeng Puin consummated their marriage and had two sons, Taebyŏl 대별 (“Great Star”) and Sobyŏl 소별 (“Little Star”). His part of the story done, Ch’ŏnjiwang returned to heaven while Ch’ongmaeng Puin raised their sons.

While Ch’ŏnjiwang Ponp’uri shares much with Abrahamic traditions, a particular feature of Cheju’s story of creation is that it gives a humanistic view of cosmology in which the universe is not only imperfect from the beginning but the gods themselves are also flawed characters. The universe in the beginning was truly chaos – there were two suns and two moons, there was no real distinction between the living and the dead, and animals could speak. Even though Ch’ŏnjiwang fulfilled his cosmic obligation to join Ch’ongmaeng Puin in marriage, the universe did not achieve a perfect order. This task was left to Taebyŏl and Sobyŏl. Taebyŏl was tasked with managing this world 이승 while Sobyŏl was tasked with managing the underworld 저승. Sobyŏl, however, was jealous of his older brother and so challenged him to a flower-raising contest. Sobyŏl cheated but Taebyŏl nonetheless accepted the result and took up stewardship of the underworld. But Sobyŏl was unable to manage this world and so he called his older brother to help. Taebyŏl shot down one of the suns and one of the moons, hardened the tongues of animals so that they would not speak, and firmly separated the worlds of the living and the underworld. But because Taebyŏl had to return to the underworld and because Sobyŏl was incompetent, the underworld became a paradise while this world experiences suffering. As people of an island that was historically plagued with extreme hardship, mythology appears to reflect Cheju inhabitants’ traditional attitude of perseverance with uncertainty.

Cosmology is also reflected in the name of Cheju’s most important geological feature – Hallasan. The three Classical Chinese characters that comprise “Hallasan” translate to “the peak (山) that pulls (拏) the Milky Way galaxy (漢).” In many cultures and civilizations around the world, the Milky Way galaxy is the central axis from around which the universe turns. Astral symbolism repeats also in deity names such as Taebyŏl and Sobyŏl, Ch’ilsŏng (Seven Stars) worship in household ritual, and even the form of ancient Cheju City around the Ch’ilsŏngdae complex of seven altars.

Sarabong 沙羅, too, figures into the narrative of T’amna’s history. In “Tamna Yŏlchŏn” section of the late 18th century Tongsa written by Yi Chonghwi (1731-1797), Sarabong is mentioned to be the hill from which Ko, Yang, and Pu shot their arrows to determine their respective domains. Sarabong’s name refers to the glow of the sunset over its ridge, which appears like yellow silk (sa 沙 – sand, light silk) wrapped (ra 羅) over the hill (pong 峰).

One should be aware that the original site of Ch’ilmŏridang was actually closer to the harbor. Due to development, the shrine was twice moved. The present shrine is the third site. In 2009 at the Abu Dhabi convention, Ch’ilmŏridang Yŏngdŭng-kut was awarded UNESCO World Heritage designation. Though originally a rural tradition, Ch’ilmŏridang Yŏngdŭng-kut has become a part of Cheju City’s urban heritage and remains relevant as a crucial part of the city’s cultural identity.

2. Yŏngdŭng-kut 영등굿 (former Ch’ilmŏridang site 옛 칠머리당 터)

The original Ch’ilmŏridang was at a position much closer to the sea since the shrine rituals here were important to fishermen and women divers. Ch’ilmŏridang being moved more than once is not an unusual event as coastal development has either demolished shrines or forced their relocation. The construction of the coastal roads that people now take for granted was particularly devastating for heritage sites. Yet Yŏngdŭng-kut has managed to persist to the present. How long this will remain an actual practice of spiritual significance rather than simply preserved “heritage,” however, is the question.

“Yŏngdŭng” is the deity of the wind. Yŏngdŭng in the Ch’ilmŏridang tradition is female, but Yŏngdŭng is also sometimes considered male in parts of eastern Cheju (particularly Chongdal 종달, Sinch’ang 신창, Sinyang 신양, and Sinch’ŏn 신천). This deity is said to reside far beyond Cheju across the seas and comes in the second lunar month of every year to be entertained by inhabitants of seaside villages all across the island for two weeks. During this festival-like period, women divers and fishermen traditionally abstained from work. Weather conditions on the day of Yŏngdŭng Maji 영등 맞이, which is the first day of the second lunar month when Yŏngdŭng arrives, also have a particular interpretation – should the day of Yŏngdŭng Maji be foggy or rainy it means that Yŏngdŭng came with his or her daughter-in-law and that the two are quarrelling but should the weather be fine it means that his or her daughter has come on a pleasure visit. Yŏngdŭng departs from Cheju after making a full clockwise circuit and stops by the island of Udo 우도 before returning to the land beyond on the fourteenth day of the second lunar month.

Cheju people are all too aware of the potential dangers of the sea, even as they had traditionally depended upon it. While often regarded as “superstition,” traditional practices such as the two-week Yŏngdŭng-kut cycle reflects actual natural phenomena that Cheju islanders have noticed for centuries. In interviews with women divers regarding this cycle, which is tied to both the lunar and seasonal phases in the second lunar month, waters around Cheju tend to become rough and weather makes aquatic activity difficult. The Yŏngdŭng-kut period is also observed in rural Cheju Buddhist tradition in the form of the Dragon King Rite 용왕제. Though Cheju Buddhists emphasize the Dragon King, the sovereign god of the sea and another deity celebrated in Yŏngdŭng-kut, in some cases Yŏngdŭng is acknowledged.

3. T’amna Buddhism (Tongjabok 동자복 / Mansusa temple site 만수사)

Tongjabok’s precise age is unknown, but scholars generally agree that it is a product of the Koryŏ Dynasty 고려왕조 (918-1392) period of medieval Korea. Tongjabok presided at a temple at the eastern side of ancient Cheju City, serving as the counterpart of Sŏjabok 서자복, was situated in the west. Chosŏn Dynasty 조선왕조 governor Yi Wŏnjin’s 이원진 T’amnaji 탐라지 composed in 1653 noted the existence of a temple at Tongjabok’s site. Tongjabok is a representation of Mirŭk 미륵, the Maitreya Buddha. Conceptions of Maitreya Buddha as a quasi-deity of abundance and protection is widespread across East Asia in the form of the Chinese and Japanese “laughing Buddhas” that adorn shops and practices of Mirŭk worship in rural Korea. While its purpose is contrary to scholastic Buddhism even for the Koryŏ Dynasty, Tongjabok nonetheless is a clear indicator of Buddhism’s presence on Cheju Island during medieval times.

Most scholarship agree that Buddhism entered Cheju during the Koryŏ Dynasty. This is attested in archeological findings of known temple sites. Some insist, however, that Buddhism may have been introduced as early as seventh and eighth centuries via T’amna’s contacts with Tang China, Asuka Japan, and the Korean Three Kingdoms; even though T’amna was a tiny country (its population was possibly somewhere around 30,000 during the Koryŏ period) both the Japanese Nihon Shoki and the Chinese Jiu Tangshu nonetheless attest to T’amna representatives’ visit to their respective courts. One legend in the south side of the island even claims that one of Gautama Buddha’s disciples, the Arhat Bhadra 발타라 나한, came to T’amna with a host of followers some 2,500 years ago! If one were to visit Bŏphwasa, one would also find a statue representing the Silla 신라 mariner Chang Pogo 장보고 (787-846) as some also posit that he may have also brought the religion over to T’amna during his maritime exploits. In any case, there are no extant records or artifacts to prove a significant Buddhist presence on the island before the Koryŏ Dynasty period. As the Koryŏ Dynasty declined, since Cheju lacked significant natural resources, monastic Buddhism’s fortunes on the island depended on the Koryŏ kingdom and so once Koryŏ court support diminished, so did Cheju’s major monasteries.

A brief description of the Koryŏ kingdom is necessary. While our understanding of Korean culture today is shaped largely by our perceptions of Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910) Korea, Koryŏ Dynasty Korea was significantly different. Koryŏ was an aristocratic dynasty, but it also was far less centralized than the succeeding Chosŏn. Koryŏ tolerated a greater degree of autonomy among local officials known as “hyangni” 향리 and appeared to have regarded other peoples in its sphere of influence as vassals or dependencies. Historian John Duncan (2000) suggested that because Koryŏ was established via an allied coalition in which its founder Wang Kŏn was at best a first among equals, Koryŏ had to carefully balance power among the various local chieftains and warlords within the Korean peninsula. Koryŏ also tended to favor Buddhism to the point that it sponsored exchanges and cultural activities to promote Buddhist propagation such as its elaborate P’algwanhoe 팔관회 state rituals, to which foreign dignitaries including T’amna representatives were invited.

Buddhism was officially suppressed in Cheju during the mid-Chosŏn Dynasty from 1701 until the end of the 19th century. Mansusa temple was one of the many shrines and temples deliberately destroyed by Governor Yi Hyŏngsang 이형상 as he described to his satisfaction in his account Namhwan Pangmul 남환박물. Aspects of Buddhism merged with local Cheju shamanic practices such as the worship of Mirŭk, the Maitreya Buddha, for protection and fertility.

4. The Story of Kim Mandŏk (Kim Mandŏk’s tavern 김만덕 객주터)

Kim Mandŏk’s was reconstructed earlier this year and is still in the process of being finished though the project had been proposed for some years. As part of the so-called “T’amna Culture Plaza” 탐라문화관장 project, the reconstructed tavern of Kim Mandŏk is probably the only thing vaguely “cultural” in the redevelopment scheme. On the other hand, while Kim Mandŏk is no doubt a figure worthy of remembrance and top honors, there are many problems with the current reconstruction and the hideously pretentious “Kim Mandŏk Memorial Hall” 만덕기념관 built at the side of Sanjich’ŏn 산지천. The architecture used for the reconstructed tavern is reminiscent of an exaggerated folk village style – and hence is not true to a Cheju-style ch’ogajip 초가집 – and the actual location of Kim Mandŏk’s tavern is a matter of debate as she may have based herself at the historically larger port of Hwabuk 화북. The “Tamna Culture Plaza” utterly fails to do appropriate honors to the memory of Kim Mandŏk and so it is important for people not only to have a critical perspective of things now done in her name but also to know the value of her story.

Kim Mandŏk (1739-1812) actually lived some centuries after the scope of this excursion, but her story is worth contemplating, especially as she remains a relevant figure. In official state record, merchant-philanthropist Kim Mandŏk appears only in a single statement during the history of King Chŏngjo. Yet even this one statement demonstrates how remarkable a character she was to have merited the reward she was given. For Kim Mandŏk’s virtuous work in spending her fortune to save Cheju people from famine, the Chosŏn court granted her an official title as well as her wish of bypassing official travel restrictions to visit the Diamond Mountains 금강산.

In a semi-caste and rigidly stratified society where women were seldom expected (and often discouraged) to act outside their proscribed social roles, Kim Mandŏk was in every way an exceptional figure in the Chosŏn Dynasty. Kim Mandŏk was born in 1739 and is a descendant of the Kimhae Kim clan. Her parents died when she and her siblings were young. Her brothers became livestock herders while Mandŏk became a kisaeng 기생. As a kisaeng, Kim Mandŏk was known for her exceptional artistic talent. She sought to regain her yangban 양반 status, but was initially rebuffed by the governor. She ultimately did persuade the governor by insisting that she would use her status to help people. Kim Mandŏk was approached by many suitors, but she refused all offers. She instead set up her own business based in her tavern, performing a variety of functions from dealing in goods brought in via mainland mercantile activity, warehousing products, providing finance services, as well as lodging merchants. Although she acquired significant wealth, she lived a very simple life and avoided luxury. Cheju was hit with terribly lean years from 1790 to 1794 and during 1794, the worst of those years, Kim Mandŏk expended her life’s fortune to purchase rice to save Cheju from starvation. Out of recognition for her philanthropy, King Chŏngjo granted her the title of Ŭnyŏbansu (醫女班首), the Head Lady Doctor, in 1796 and she was granted special permission to tour the Chosŏn capital of Hanyang (Seoul) as well as the fabled Diamond Mountains 금강산.

Kim Mandŏk’s story also reflects certain aspects about women in Cheju society. Historically Cheju women were expected to have a greater degree of economic independence, even though this did not necessarily translate to social clout. Due the particular geographic conditions on Cheju, all community members were expected to contribute to the shared survival of not only the family but also the village as a whole. Even during the eighteenth century, because of the high mortality rate of men and the greater economic value of women, it was commonly known in Cheju that to have a daughter was a treasured thing while having a son was simply to have “food for the whales.” Cheju having such a harsh environment curiously also meant that community security depended as much upon women as it did upon the labors of its men. As one can notice in women diver households, because of the volatile nature of Cheju’s geography towards agriculture, a family can manage to survive and eke out a living with a woman diver’s catch. Kim Mandŏk as an economically independent woman was exceptional for a masculine-centered Chosŏn Korea, but she also was very much a Cheju woman.

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

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

Although most recent discussions of Cheju Island during the T’amna (4th/5th centuries-1105?) and Koryŏ Dynasty (918-1392) periods note that Cheju Islanders established contact and some forms of exchange via oceanic trade routes (Kim Iru 2001; O Sŏng, et al. 2006; Hyŏn Yongjun 2009; Song Hwasŏp 2011) by virtue of being an island and one positioned near the Kuroshio Current that flows from the near the east coast of Taiwan to the Japanese island of Kyushu, but little is actually known of the nature of these exchanges other than the apparent fact that they occurred. That many people from as far as Southeast Asia (not to mention a few Dutch sailors such as Hendrik Hamel) wound up as castaways on Cheju Island as late as the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1910) is well documented as the Chŏng Un’gyŏng’s 18th century T’amna mun’gyŏllok reveals. But accounts of isitations from T’amna to other lands remains murky in large part because of the absence of extant records. The general hypotheses among Cheju studies scholars and historians of pre-modern Korean history posit Cheju Island range from conjecturing that Cheju Island was an important early trade center in Northeast Asia until as late as the mid-Koryŏ Dynasty to simply suggesting that Cheju Island was a stopover point for cargo vessels traveling between continental China, the Korean peninsular mainland, and the Japanese archipelago. In any case there is a curious apparent contradiction between the relatively simple material culture of early T’amna itself and the archeological discoveries of imported metalwork goods in the former Sanjich’ŏn harbor. Were T’amna people active mariners or was Cheju Island little more than a chance encounter for mariners en route to more lucrative destinations?

Historian No Myŏngho noted that the Koryŏsa records give the impression that T’amna sent tribute missions to the Koryŏ royal court approximately once every 20 years or so, although it is possible that the historical record compilers may have omitted many other instances due to their routine nature. But in considering a particular line in the early Chosŏn document the Sŏngju Ko-ssi kajŏn (biographical records of the Ko clan, the “Sŏngju” lords of Cheju Island), it is also very possible that the indigenous rulers of Cheju Island – the Sŏngju, Wangja, and Donae – dispatched a tribute mission right at the time when a new Sŏngju would come to power and that the visitations to the Koryŏ court at Kaegyŏng served as a means to acquire recognition. During the first century of the Koryŏ Dynasty, arguing against Kim Iru’s assumption that T’amna was simply yet another district of Koryŏ right from the beginning, No Myŏngho suggests that T’amna functioned as a vassal state that was a dependency of the Koryŏ kingdom, which domestically considered itself a miniature empire (a “soch’ŏnha”) equal to that of Song China and the Khitan Liao, and maintained a significant degree of autonomy that set it apart from other peripheral regions affiliated with Koryŏ. Speckled throughout the Koryŏsa, we can find brief passages that simply say “the country of T’amna presented tribute,” but what is more interesting about these records as that at some instances they also note that representatives from T’amna attended royal functions such as state-sponsored festivals or the religious P’algwanhoe ceremony as foreign dignitaries.

Given the frequency of T’amna representatives visiting Kaegyŏng, one can easily guess that maritime exchanges between Koryŏ and T’amna was constant and continued even after the island’s official incorporation into the Koryŏ state. The tribute goods of T’amna remained fairly consistent throughout Koryŏ – sea salt, sea products such as shellfish, and later horses. T’amna meanwhile imported valuable metal crafts. It was also during this time that the Koryŏ state – and later the Mongol Yuan empire in the 13th century – sponsored major Buddhist monasteries such as Wŏndangsa, Sujŏngsa, Pŏphwasa, etc. During the hegemony of the Mongol Yuan empire, Hyŏn Yongjun theorizes that it was due to exchanges with Mongols that Mongol forms of Buddhism merged with Cheju’s local religion, that the form of shamanism that we now consider “Cheju shamanism” took shape, and the now-iconic pangsat’ap stone mounds were developed. Song Hwasŏp also considers the maritime exchanges during the Koryŏ Dynasty period as the period in which the current form of Yŏngdŭng Halmang / Yŏngdŭng Harŭbang began to appear via importation of foreign merchant sailors’ devotional worship of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara’s incarnations. While discussions of cultural importations and adaptations remain for the most part theoretical given the dearth of actual historical records, instances of visits or dispatches of goods to the Korean peninsular mainland from T’amna are conspicuous in the Koryŏsa.

The roughly 100-year period of Mongol domination is unanimously considered a period of heavy repressive measures on the islanders as Cheju Island peoples were required to rear tribute horses for the Mongol Yuan imperial court while also continuing their own obligations to the Koryŏ court, but as noted above, Mongol rule also had a profound influence on Cheju culture and society. During the first years of Mongol rule following the bloody suppression of the Sambyŏlch’o rebels – the elite “Three Patrol Units” of Koryŏ that refused to accept the court’s capitulation to Mongol demands – the Mongol Yuan empire considered Cheju Island as a staging point for invasions of Japan. The establishment of horse ranches or “mokjang” for rearing and maintaining potential warhorses is well-known, but according to Hyŏn Yongjun, Cheju islanders were also tasked with building ships strong enough to transport these horses to as far as the shores of the island of Tsushima (Hyŏn, 2009: 129). In other words, Cheju islanders not only reared horses to supply the Mongol invasion force but also were conscripted to build some of the warships for the fleet. These ships called “tŏkp’anbae” were constructed by islander hands from the timbers of Hallasan. Although the Mongols ultimately gave up their ambitious to conquer Japan following two disastrous typhoons that sunk the majority of the Mongol expeditionary fleets, Cheju Island continued to produce and dispatch tribute horses for the Yuan imperial court.

For the most part it would seem that Cheju Island’s maritime exchanges were mostly limited to the Korean peninsular mainland and later the Mongol empire from the mid-Koryŏ Dynasty due to the changed nature of the geopolitical environment, but what of speculations about much earlier periods? Volume 30 of the “Wei shu” (the Book of the Cao-Wei kingdom) in the 3rd century Chinese Sanguozhi (Records of the Three Kingdoms) briefly notes of an island called “Zhouhu” 州胡 (“Chuho” in Korean) inhabited by people who reared livestock and traded with Mahan, which was considered the precursor of what would become the Paekche kingdom situated in the southwest portion of the Korean peninsula. The Korean Samguk sagi also suggest that T’amna (written as “Sŏmna” in the “Paekche pon’gi”) entered tributary relations with Paekche in 476 and then later turned its allegiance to the Silla kingdom; whether or not T’amna contacted Paekche or Silla first is not exactly established as other histories such as the T’amnaji (Records of T’amna) compiled in the 17th century claims that the first time the titles of the three rulers of T’amna – Sŏngju, Wangja, and Donae – appear was when T’amna representatives had an audience with the Silla court. Given the closer geographic proximity, T’amna’s initial official relations were likely with Mahan and then Paekche. The extent of trade relations with the peninsula in the Three Kingdoms and the Silla period are unclear given the sparse accounts, but T’amna is said to have paid tribute to Paekche’s King Munju in 476 – an instance in which King Munju reciprocated with the high Paekche titles of ŭnsol and chwap’yŏng – and then to Koguryŏ and Silla in the 7th century. According to the Cheju Buddhist History Research Association, T’amna representatives also visited Asuka Japan (538-710) in 661 and attended a state ceremony of the Chinese Tang empire (618-907) in 665. Buddhist legends on Cheju also suggest other instances of contact, with some claiming that Buddhists visited Cheju Island from as far back as the first years of Buddhism itself (the legend of Chonja’am temple and the Arhat Bhadra) or with the famed Silla mariner Chang Pogo in the 9th century. Although Cheju’s legends and epics likely have changed significantly over time, it is interesting to note that they also prominently feature themes of visitors from abroad (such as in the Samsŏng sinhwa and myths of the origin of Yongdŭng-kut) or heroes who venture to far off lands (such as the myth of Chach’ŏngbi and the myths of Songdang shrine). The nature of T’amna’s early oceanic exchanges remain ambiguous, but it is nonetheless possible that further archeological examinations and reassessments of both the Chinese and Japanese classical records could hold additional clues that have yet to be decoded.



Hyŏn Yongchun. Chejudo saramdŭl ŭi sam. Sŏul T’ŭkbyŏlsi: Minsogwŏn, 2009.

Kim Iru. Koryŏ sidae T’amnasa yŏn’gu, Sŏul Tʻŭkpyŏlsi: Sin Sŏwŏn, 2000.

No Myŏngho, “10-12 segi T’amna wa Koryŏ kukka,” Chejudo yŏn’gu Vol.28 (December 2005), pp.173-214.

O Sŏng, et al. Cheju ŭi sachʻal kwa Pulgyo munhwa. Sŏul Tʻŭkpyŏlsi: Sachʻal Munhwa Yŏnʼguwŏn, 2006.

Pak Chongki. Ssaero ssŭnŭn obaengnyŏn Koryŏsa, Sŏul-si: Pʻurŭn Yŏksa, 2008.

Song Hwasŏp. “Tong Asia haeyang sinang gwa Chejudo ŭi Yŏngdŭng Halmang-Sŏlmundae Halmang,” T’amna munhwa, 37, August 2010, 183-222.

Self-sufficiency, Sustainability, and Interpreting Premodern Jeju [Part 1]

Part 1: T’amna Agriculture – “Traditional” Productive Technologies and Local Innovation

With the global crises of environmental degradation, sky-rocketing food prices, exacerbating problems of inequality of distribution, it should come as no surprise that sustainable economic activity and organic agriculture have become an integral part of not only the “green” activism, but also local movements whose goals are self-sufficiency coupled with re-assertion of local subjectivities through the revival or re-interpretation of allegedly traditional forms of production. While such trends have been gaining traction in peninsular Korea in the past few years, the question of sustainability has become a crucial issue in Cheju Island where the surge of interest in Cheju’s local-ness combined with the past few years of economic uncertainty has also brought an accompanying anxiety about the island’s complete dependency on an unstable global world system. So far, “green growth” has ranged from the superficial “greening” of developmental schemes in which urban development would simply be kept a certain distance from biosphere reserves to the more ambitious projects of “zero carbon emissions.” Beneath grandiose projects, however, are more modest yet no less significant re-examinations of Cheju’s past economic traditions. While on the one hand they are on the surface nostalgic yearnings for an idealized Tamna past, they also call to question contemporary development schemes and assert the possibility that perhaps the island’s ancestors had managed to survive in such an unforgiving environment because they truly had done something right. Popular attention – in this case, media spotlighting and commonly circulated discourse – has given much attention the haenyŏ women divers for good reason, but re-examinations of Cheju’s pre-industrial agricultural production systems have also acquired a following in the form of new community-based gardening such as Uri tŏtpat Cheju kongdongch’e u-yŏng 우리 텃밭 제주공동체 우영, an initiative of Cheju women community farmers. Modern revitalization movements and reinterpretations of the traditional may be loaded with primarily contemporary sensitivities and concerns, but they nonetheless highlight the need to re-examine the ways in which previous economic activity served the needs of earlier peoples as our own forms of industrial agriculture are in the midst of crisis and breakdown.

T’amna / Koryŏ Period Agricultural Practices

The dearth of written records before the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392-1912) makes any assessment of preceding periods such as Koryŏ (918-1392) or Silla (4th century – 935) extremely difficult, but what has been gleaned from the Koryŏsa and analysis of archeological finds provides some clues on how T’amna people may have made a living. Even as late as the 1960s, Cheju’s volcanic geography has been considered as an extremely difficult environment for major agricultural production. There are two seemingly contradictory yet prevalent issues that have come up time and again on Cheju’s productive capacities until the 20th century – frequent hardship on the one hand and relative independence on the other hand. How would one reconcile these two oppositional factors?

From the late Koryŏ and entirety of the  Chosŏn eras at least, there have been numerous documented famines and disasters that brought much hardship to the island populace. Though this situation is of course not the least due to the oppressively heavy exactions demanded by peninsular royal courts or Japanese incursions, it is also known that Cheju’s rocky and volcanic soil and historically very limited access to fresh water sources had presented immense challenges to island inhabitants. The fierce winds and high frequency of typhoons have also made it difficult for any mass production of grain crops. Even as late as the 1970s, not even 2 percent of Cheju’s arable land was utilized for wet paddy rice farming (Hyŏn, 2011: 416) given the sheer impracticality of such agricultural activity. One resolution for Cheju people, it has been noted, is the dependence on sea resources as an alternative source of food. Certain sea products such as abalone were sent as tribute goods to the metropoles of either Kaesŏng or Seoul up in the peninsula, but the rich biodiversity of Cheju’s seas during the pre-industrial periods allowed for fishing communities a wide variety of possible food sources. In addition, certain agricultural practices among inland inhabitants also allowed for some measure, however limited, of self-sufficiency. Necessity, it is sometimes said, is the mother of innovation, and this certainly was true for Cheju.

Agriculture began to be developed in earnest perhaps some time around the Kwakji 2-type pottery Period (around the 6th-7th centuries) though indications of some forms of horticulture appeared as early as the Kwakji 1-type pottery Period (1st century BCE – 5th century CE). The increase of oceanic trade from the Kwakji 2-type pottery Period brought about an influx of iron tools, which allowed for increased productivity. This was hardly enough to produce a significant surplus and so settlement patterns in which village centers were typically located within reach of fresh water sources and oceanic trade routes indicated that agriculture was merely supplementary. Agricultural production was barely at the subsistence level, but T’amna people nonetheless developed various creative means to maximize land use without needlessly exhausting soil fertility. A record from 1652 notes a particular practice in which Cheju farmers let farm animals loose so that they would trample and roam freely on soil within fields surrounded by rock walls (Kim, 2000: 104); such a practice was used for millet farming on Cheju as late as the 20th century. Although this was written quite some time after the end of the T’amna and Koryŏ periods, it is suggested that this practice had long been in use among islanders. In addition, Cheju farmers were also noted to have cycled between plots of land, allowing one plot to lie fallow for up to 2 or 3 years as a means of avoiding early soil exhaustion.

Domestic pig-rearing served not one but three purposes and had been one of the most conspicuous practices of Cheju Island farmers as a means of maximizing productive capacities. Pigs could easily serve as a source of meat, but they also were an important aspect in dispensing waste and maintaining soil fertility. In order to fertilize soil, Cheju farmers were known to have utilized the manure of domestic pigs. Domestic pigs would consume and processes food scraps and human fecal matter into nutrient-rich droppings that Cheju farmers would collect to revitalize fallow fields. The process of agricultural production and natural recycling of waste material was used both in larger-scale agriculture as well as small-scale domestic and community farms called “u-yŏng.”

Self-sustainability and the U-yŏng

Some have insisted that Cheju’s traditional forms of production were perhaps more efficient – if not superior – than modern modes as they were very specific to Cheju’s environment and maximized use of not only local natural resources but also existing social structures. Such assessments may be too idealistic and gloss over the history of immense challenges that islanders had to endure. There is a certain truth to these claims, however. In many ways, modern mechanized agriculture utilizing chemical fertilizers and machinery has decreased Cheju’s self-sufficiency even as it enabled a greater participation in the world economy. While modern modes of production and agricultural methods have enabled farming peoples to turn out a significant surplus, the overemphasis on cash crops has brought about a number of consequences. With more more attention to cash crops, the reallocation of land and labor from food production has ironically made Cheju islanders much more dependent on imports and contemporary chemical fertilizers are not only not as efficient as traditional organic fertilizers but also far more environmentally damaging. On the one hand it is certainly a stretch to argue that Cheju previously was economically independent, but on the other hand the practices and innovations that Cheju islanders developed in response to their challenging situation cannot be overlooked in any study of the island’s past or prospects for its future. Regardless of whether or not certain methods of agricultural production now characterized as Cheju’s traditional practices were byproducts of the Chosŏn period or derivations of T’amna’s economic culture, it is clear that they were devised to make as much use of limited resources as possible.

A simple case in point is the number of material traditionally used among islanders as food sources. The Chŏlla region of Korea prides itself as being the nation’s agricultural heartland, but according to researcher Oh Yŏngju, while the Chŏlla region has at least 250 varieties of edible material, Cheju has an amazing 450 (Oh cited in Hyŏn, 2011: 417). This is certainly due to the fact of Cheju’s diverse marine life and varied ecosystems, but the vast variety was also in large part due to islanders need to maintain as secure a means of food procurement as possible and thus the dependency on multiple sources as opposed to limited staples. At the macro-level, Cheju islanders coupled agricultural production with fishing activity. At the micro-level, individual households maintained their own vegetable plots called “u-yŏng” that also were collectively shared among neighboring households or extended family relations and within these “u-yŏng,” families could raise a variety of vegetable and fruit crops throughout the entirety of the year.

“U-yŏng” are similar to the mainland “tŏtpat” and at a glance may as well be indistinguishable from mainland counterparts. The key differences are the innovations that the U-yŏng utilize that are particular to Cheju Island, not the least of which is their symbiotic relationship with domestic pig-rearing mentioned in the preceding section. For the most part, u-yŏng are very small patches cultivated between the stone walls of the main structures of a compound and the surrounding walls that defined the household’s space. They made immediately available, however, an additional and supplementary means of production and livelihood as family members would only need to step outside their doors to tend to them, thus maximizing as much space possible. Just as larger fields were periodically left fallow and fertilized, u-yŏng likewise were given similar treatment and so they were a part of a tripartite food procurement structure involving primary fields and domestic pigs – while main farm fields produced important staple crops such as millet or grains or cash crops (or tribute crops in earlier periods) such as tangerines, the u-yŏng provided nutritional sustenance through vegetables, and the chaff and human waste from the consumption of both (in the form of human fecal matter) would be recycled by domestic pigs for readily-available natural fertilizers. The practices of recycling and leaving plots fallow allowed for u-yŏng to produce vegetables throughout an entire year. The cultivation of a wide variety of types of vegetables – cucumbers, kabocha squash, lettuce, leeks, green onions, taro, carrots, daikon radish, sweet potatoes, potatoes, etc. – as opposed to a handful of staple crops allowed for the possibility of at least two or more harvests per year.

Maintenance of u-yŏng also made full use of local social structures. Although u-yŏng plots are located within walled farmstead compounds, households would share their produce with neighbors or have relations from both a husband’s and wife’s families take part in cultivation and harvesting. Shared production would in turn be reciprocated and so even as u-yŏng were often within the walls of one family, they still took on a communal nature and served as a social safety net (Hyŏn, 2011). The u-yŏng were not absolute guarantees against famines or even abject poverty, especially considering the fact that taxation and exactions were in the form specific types of produce, but they were nonetheless Cheju islanders’ innovative responses to the challenges of their realities that can provide contemporary peoples crucial lessons.


Hyŏn Hyegyŏng. “Cheju chiyŏk ‘U-yŏng’-ŭi chŏntonggwa hyŏnjejŏk chipyŏng-e taehan yŏn’gu.” T’amna munhwa, 39. Yun Yongt’aek, ed. Cheju: T’amna munhwa yŏnguso. 2011.

Kim Il-u. Goryeo sidae Tamnasa yeongu. Seoul: Sinseowon. 2000.

Nemeth, David J. “The walking tractor: Trojan Horse in the Cheju Island landscape.” Korean Studies, 12. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 1988

“Uri tŏtpat Cheju kongdongch’e u-yŏng.” http://cafe.daum.net/wpwndndud