Going South: Cheju Islanders in Vietnam

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

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

Going South: Cheju Islanders in Vietnam

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

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

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

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



Chosŏn Wangjo Sillok

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

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