“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.

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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.

——

Sources:

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

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

Koryŏsa.

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.

“Paths of the Lost Kingdom” Walking Tour: Part 2

5. Old city light tower replica 옛 등대 복원지

The two replica light towers that sit atop the hill overlooking the lowland river valley where the old city is situated are based on those that existed at Hallim’s Kosan 한림 고산 and Sŏgwip’o’s Taep’o 서귀포 대포 harbors. Light towers of the like were built at other harbors around Cheju and they were all of varied forms. One existed at the harbor of Yongdam-dong 용담동 where a village emerged around a coastal spring some 400 years ago. During the medieval and Chosŏn Dynasty periods, a small harbor existed at the mouth of Sanjich’ŏn 산지천, but the more important harbor that served the old city was actually at Hwabuk 화북. Cheju lacks significant major natural harbors and it actually was not until the twentieth century that any truly major port existed here. Even when the Chosŏn Dynasty, during its last-ditch attempt at self-strengthening, commissioned its first steamship to sail to Cheju at the end of the 19th century, the ship had no suitable place to anchor at Cheju. Cheju was likely never a major maritime power as some might imagine (with exaggeration), and yet at the same time Cheju was not completely isolated.

Cheju depended much on the sea and hence major ancient settlements such as Samyang 삼양 and Yongdam 용담 tended to be close to the coast. Although historical records on ancient T’amna activities are very scarce, the “Accounts of the Eastern Barbarians” 東夷傳 section of the Chinese Sanguozhi 三國志 completed sometime after 280, notes the existence of an island south of Mahan 마한 called “Zhouhu” 洲胡 (Kr: Chuho 주호). Mahan refers to the precursor of the Korean Paekche 백제 kingdom, which was concentrated in the Ch’ungch’ŏng 충청 and Chŏlla 전라 regions, and so Chuho theoretically refers to ancient Cheju. From this record, one can conclude that as early as the Han Dynasty, Cheju islanders had engaged in trade with mainland Korea as well as Han Dynasty China. These early contacts have also further been confirmed with the 1928 discovery of Han coins at the old port of Sanjich’ŏn. From the Japanese Nihon Shoki 日本書紀 and the Chinese Jiu Tangshu 舊唐書, we also know that T’amna dispatched representatives to the Japanese Asuka 飛鳥 and Chinese Tang 唐朝 courts in 645 and 662. American geographer David J. Nemeth, who wrote his dissertation on Cheju’s geomancy culture in 1984, also noted that Cheju Island’s geographical features make it a strong candidate for the mythical island of immortality in ancient Chinese folklore and indeed one of Cheju’s many names include “Yingzhou” 瀛洲 (Yŏngju 영주), the blessed land. While many historical records have been lost to us, the numerous instances of castaways, historical attestations of T’amna’s visits to other lands, and archeological evidence of a relatively active ancient maritime trade suggest that there Cheju’s myths and legends may reflect more about Cheju’s history than at first glance.

The theme of deities coming from beyond the seas recurs in Cheju’s complex mythology. Two major myths featuring this theme are the Three Clans Myth (Samsŏng Sinhwa 삼성신화) and the epic narrative of Paekchu Halmang 백주 할망. In both myths, goddesses represent agriculture, sophistication, and civilization in contrast to their hunter-gatherer male counterparts. In Samsŏng Sinhwa, the king of Pyŏngnang 병랑, which is often interpreted to be Japan, sent his three daughters along with livestock and grain seeds westward over to the land of T’amna after seeing shafts of light flash over the horizon. The story of a foreign-origin agricultural goddess is more defined in the epic myth of Paekchu Halmang, the high patron goddess of Songdang’s 송당 main shrine and ancestress to many of Cheju’s deities. Paekchu Halmang is known to her worshipers as a great goddess of purity and prosperity. She married the hunter-gather Soch’ŏn’guk, but divorced him after he ate not only their oxen but also the oxen of neighbors. The story of Paekchu Halmang’s and Soch’ŏn’guk’s son Songgoksŏng, which literary scholar Cho Tong’il (1997) suggests may actually be the myth of T’amna’s first king, relates a grand epic adventure in which he becomes a conquering hero while in exile abroad. T’amna in prehistoric times likely consisted of different groups that entered the island in different waves of migration via the sea or via a land bridge that once connected Cheju to continental Asia. In the Ch’ilsŏng Ponp’uri, the seven snake spirits born from the foreign goddess Ch’ilsŏng’agi can bring disaster if not attended to but can also bring great wealth. Common features in all these narratives are that foreign deities, often goddesses, not only bestow prosperity but also bring the means to make it possible. Considering the difficulties that Cheju people had to endure in order to successfully farm, the matter that agricultural goddesses are given such high esteem comes as no surprise. Another feature of these myths are the similarities they share with the spread of beliefs via maritime trade in East Asia – the goddess Ma Tsu 媽祖 in Taiwan, for example, is worshipped as a deity of protection for seafarers but appears to have been a popularization of Guan Yin 觀音菩薩 (Kwan Ŭm; Sanskrit: Avalokitesvara – bodhisattva of compassion and protection) worship carried by sailors. That many of Cheju’s deities have a backstory of being from abroad seems to follow this pattern.

6. Sanjich’ŏn 산지천

Sanjich’ŏn was once a stream that flowed from Hallasan. It brought water to ancient Jeju City and served as a communal laundry place. It was mostly dry and little more than a creek for much of the year as water often seeped through quickly in Cheju’s rocky and volcanic earth. Like Seoul’s Ch’ŏnggyech’ŏn 청계천, Sanjich’ŏn became heavily polluted as Cheju City grew and was actually covered up for development some decades ago. It was restored recently and now again is subject to redevelopment, which could become a flood hazard as the stream is now perpetually full of water. Though this stream is hardly impressive, its importance to early Cheju City cannot be overstated. The mouth of Sanjich’ŏn served as a port and, along with Pyŏngmunch’ŏn 병문천 on the west side of the old walls, a water source.

Until as late as the twentieth century, fresh water was a scare resource and so Cheju people depended heavily on what they could get from freshwater creeks and springs. Though Cheju is infamous for its fickle weather and its frequent rains, its soil does not retain water very well – most of the rainwater is lost as runoff. Dry half for half of the year, Cheju’s streams tend to be natural flood control channels rather than actual rivers. Though freshwater springs can be found in inland areas such as Hoech’ŏn 회천, the Goldilocks zone for early settlements had to fit three requirements: 1) a freshwater source; 2) land suitable for basic horticulture; and 3) access to the sea. For these reasons, from the 6th century to the Chosŏn Dynasty, settlement patterns in Cheju were consistent. Because of Cheju’s geographical constraints, even today’s Cheju City had remained consistent throughout much of its history. The district names of Ildo 일도, Ido 이도, and Samdo 삼도 all refer to three domains of the Tamna’s three founders and these three domains were noted in Chosŏn Dynasty records.

In 1211, T’amna had two counties – T’amna-hyŏn 탐라현 and Kwidŏk-hyŏn 귀덕현. These were further subdivided as subordinate counties (sokhyŏn 속현) into the many of the village and town names we now recognize in Cheju – Kwiil 귀일 (today’s Hagwi 하귀 and Sanggwi 상귀), Gonae 고내, Aewol 애월, Kwakji 곽지, Myŏngwŏl 명월, Sinchon 신촌, Hamdŏk 함덕, Kimnyŏng 김녕, Ch’agwi 차귀 (today’s Kosan 고산), Hoch’on 호촌 (today’s Sillye 신례 and Harye 하례), Hongno 홍로 (today’s Tonghong-tong 동홍동), T’osan 토산, Yerae 예래, and Sanbang 산방 (Kim 2004:12). Depending on size, each village had one to four managing officials. Aside from T’amnasŏng and Kwidŏk, T’amna’s residents – roughly up to 30,000 during medieval times – were largely concentrated within these villages. Some of these villages, however, had their beginnings far earlier than medieval times as archeological remains can attest. By the 6th to 10th century, Cheju’s settlements tended to concentrate closer to the coastal lowlands and by estuaries where streams open into the sea. Until agriculture was better developed in the Chosŏn Dynasty, medieval Cheju settlements were typically concentrated in the north and in the vicinity of today’s Cheju City, facing the peninsular mainland and the Northeast Asian trade routes.

While Cheju is nowadays known for its abundant mandarin orange orchards and barley fields, in antiquity and during the medieval period, most of the island was unsuitable for farming. To get an idea of how rocky and difficult Cheju’s terrain was (and still is), one can take into consideration that it literally took centuries for walled fields to appear across the island – the earliest detailed accounts of what we take for granted as Cheju-style farming comes only from the Chosŏn Dynasty and yet from as early as the Koryŏ period Cheju Island is noted for its oceanic products. Even today, rice only grows in specific parts of the island such as Hanon 하논 Crater. For most of its history, Cheju was a very tough environment and hence we see this reflected in Cheju’s traditionally strong shamanistic culture and recurrent themes of struggle and abject poverty in its oral literature.

7. Ko Family House 고 씨 가옥

This house was a residence of a branch of the larger Ko clan. Though this particular house actually dates from the twentieth century, it is nonetheless an important part of old Cheju City’s history. This house, first constructed in 1922, perfectly fuses both Japanese and Korean architectural elements. While the layout of the house follows that of a typical Korean home – absent of a central corridor more typical in Japanese homes – it used shoji-style sliding doors and once had tatami mat coverings over its Korean ondol flooring. The building material was all imported from Japan and thus the house is made of hinoki 檜 (Japanese cypress) rather than wood native to Cheju or the Korean peninsula. Thanks to JICEA’s (Jeju International Culture Exchange Association 제주국제교류협회) grassroots citizen activism, this house, as well as four other structures significant to modern historical memory in the immediate area, was spared destruction in the current “T’amna Culture Plaza” project. While one explores old Cheju City and sees the ceaseless content-less redevelopment in the area, it is pertinent to ask what exactly “T’amna” and “Culture” means.

Cheju “culture” has to be explained in the legacy of “T’amna” and that legacy is still present with us today so long as there are people seeking to keep it alive. It also has to be considered in terms of contemporary memory and how people have experienced the island’s tumultuous history. In the flesh, the Ko clan exists here and now but their story is also an indelible part of the greater story of T’amna. Descendants of the Ko clan have maintained prominence not only from the colonial period but from as far back as the T’amna period. The surnames Ko 고, Yang 양, and Pu 부 are particularly important to ancient Cheju Island. As noted in the “Samsŏng Sinhwa,” these three clans were the island’s traditional elites.

During the Koryŏ dynasty, two figures of the Ko clan earned their place in the official royal histories: Ko Yu 고유 and his son Ko Chogi 고조기. The stories of Ko Yu 高維 and Ko Chogi 高兆基 are examples of T’amna’s ambiguous relationship with the Koryŏ kingdom. Ko Yu was the first T’amna person to take the Koryŏ civil service examination and receive an official court position, but his ascent into the inner circles of Kaegyŏng was via an exam specifically for foreigners and it took some time before he managed to attain a high rank (Ko 2007: 58). Ko Chogi, following his father’s success, however, took an exam that was reserved for Koryŏ subjects. Ko Chogi’s story in the 98th volume of the Koryŏsa 고려사 is as follows:

“Ko Chogi, whose first name was “Tang’yu,” was a person of T’amna. His father was (Ko) Yu, a man of Ubok rank in the Sangsŏsŏng, (Department of State Affairs 尙書省).[1] Chogi had a generous nature, was widely read in literature and histories, and he especially labored over five-character style verse poetry. At the beginning of the time of King Yejong, he succeeded in the examinations, and went out as the magistrate (守) of Namju to serve with integrity. During King Injong’s reign, he was appointed as Censor (侍御史). While Yi Chagyŏm 李資謙 repaired Honggyŏngwŏn temple 弘慶院, Chief Rectifier of Monks 僧正 Cha Pu and the Chisujusa 知水州事 Pong U were entrusted with the task and had able-bodied young men of the provinces and prefectures forcibly conscripted for the task, causing much disruption. After Yi Chagyŏm was defeated following his failed insurrection[2], Cha Pu was found complicit in the conspiracy and exiled to an island. But Pong U, thanks to his collusion with common palace eunuchs, was spared and able to be reinstated. Chogi thrice spoke up. Having aroused the anger of the king for acting insubordinate, he was demoted to the office of Wŏnwirang (Supernumerary Senior Recorder) but afterwards again became a Censor official. At the time of Yi Chagyŏm’s rebellion, all officials were threatened with danger and while in pursuit they lost their integrity and there were many, even the prime minister, of those who depended upon their connections to avoid punishment. Chogi, intending to defeat them, again and again raised his pen in protest, saying, ‘Even if their faults are covered over because of the generosity of those higher up, with what face do they stand in court when they look upon the sun and moon ?” Though the king considered Chogi’s words correct, he could not bear to do away with the great ministers. Chogi was appointed and selected as the Yebunangjung (Director of the Bureau of Rites), but in reality the high offices were usurped. As soon as King Ŭijong 毅宗 ascended the throne, he was appointed a Chŏngdangmunhak of the Chancellery 拜政堂文學 and as he was moved up to the rank of Chamjijŏngsa he achieved the rank of the Chungsŏsirang Pyeongjangsa 中書侍郞平章事 (Manager of Affairs with the Secretariat and Chancellery). When Kim Chonjung abused his authority, Chogi was criticized for bending over to him. He was impeached by the Kan’gwan (Remonstrance Official) and then was demoted to a Sangsŏjwabogya 降爲尙書左僕射. He turned to Kim Chonjung’s help and not many months later he again returned to office. He served for some time and finally died in the 11th year (1157) without heirs. Meetings at the court were suspended for three days and the concerned authorities ordered mourning rites and the granting of a posthumous title.”

Ko Chogi’s tomb today is located near Jeju Girls’ Middle School in Ara-dong.

[1] “Ubokya” was not an actual office position even while it was a title of second rank, but seemed to be reserved for those who earned their merit but could not find an appropriate office.

[2] Yi Chagyŏm is notorious in Koryŏ history for his excesses and having led an insurrection to usurp Koryŏ court power in 1126.

“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.

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.

——

Sources:

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

Introduction

“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.

Sources:

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.

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