Welcome to The History of Korea. I’m your host, Allen Lee. We just spent the last three episodes talking about the Choe Dynasty, so it’s understandable if you’re all Choe’d out for the moment. So In this episode we’re going to step away from the narrative a bit and speculate a bit on the origins of my favorite group of people from the Goryeo Era, the baekjeong (백정, 白丁). How can I describe who they were? Outcasts, nomads, beggars, gypsies.
Guys that new music clip I just played was the most appropriate thing I could find given my severely limited knowledge of traditional korean music. I picked it because that’s what came up when I searched for the
Folk songs of northwest Korea
Which is #29 on “Important Intangible Cultural Properties of Korea”. This is as close as I could get to finding something that might have some traces to the baekjeong, who originated from the north. If you want to listen to more of it I’ll put it at the end of this podcast. It’s so trippy, I’ve not heard anything like it before.
Today, “baekjeong” in South Korea commonly means butcher. In fact, there’s a hip Korean bbq restaurant chain, started by a famous comedian, called Kang Ho-dong Baekjeong. You may have been to one, because lots of foreigners go. They have locations in seoul, LA and New York now. There’s an hour wait, there’s dance music blaring and the young waitresses have piercings and blue hair.
What if i told you that the butchers in Korea can trace their ancestry back to the 10th century, when ethnic tribes from the north crossed the Yalu river to settle in the rich farmland of Korea?
People have no idea about the rich history of that word association. In the incredibly homogenous society that is South Korea today, people rarely think about race.
But if you were raised in American like me, this subject is like catnip. Let’s face it, Americans are obsessed with race and ethnicity. We’re diverse and we’re getting even more diverse. So it’s top of mind.
Which is why I am fascinated by the baekjeong. And full disclosure, I definitely have an American bias. Also, this podcast may be called the history of korea, but there’ll be a fair amount of speculation in this episode. I’ll do my best to note it when it occurs.
Once upon a time, Korea was multi-ethnic. The reason why we’re talking about the baekjeong now, while we’re discussing Goryeo, is that most historians believe that the root of the baekjeong goes as far back as the Goryeo period.
To understand the baekjeong, and their role in society, we first need to talk about the class structure in Korea.
Everything I’m about to say I got from one short essay called: “a Study of the Korean Cultural Minority: The Paekchong”, written by Dae Hong Chang in 1974. It was basically just a small chapter in a collection of historical studies collected by A. C. Nahm. Western Michigan University Center for Korean Studies. This was literally the only study that i found in english. If you’ve found any more recent studies please let me know.
It’s a short chapter but it is just packed with detail.
Another disclaimer, and it’s a huge one, is that I believe this essay is about the Joseon era. My friend Anthony, who’s Korean Korean, told me that term for the nobility, yangban, didn’t exist until the Joseon period. So that the correct term is 귀족(貴族). So we have to kind of extrapolate from these social classes to the Goryeo period, and assume that these classes must have had some provenance in the Goryeo era.
So we can divide Korean society into four main classes. The book doesn’t have an exact date that this society applies, but I believe this class system evolved in the Silla kingdom, solidified in the Goryeo kingdom, and persisted until the Japanese occupation in 1910.
At the top you have the royalty, or the wangjok. Pretty straightforward.
Next, you have the nobility, or the yangban. They made up 10% of the population. Now here’s where things get a bit more complicated. The nobility officially had two branches: the 동반(東班), or civilian, and the 서반(西班), or military. They were supposed to be equal in level, but gradually, the military became more of a subclass of the civilian, as according to Confucianism, which taught: “the subordination of arms to letters.”
In fact, there’s a famous saying in China that good iron is not used for nails, neither are good men used for soldiers. In other words, when you have good iron, you save it for more important purposes; and if you have a good man, you don’t waste him on the military, you presumably save him for the civil service or some other more worthy role.
Now here comes the truly tricky part: as part of the yangban, there is a subclass, below the dongban and seoban, or what this work called “chonmin”. I have to say, I haven’t found anything on this via google search or naver. Especially because there’s another class called cheonmin which we’ll be discussing in a second. Another way to refer to this subclass is as kwahak-kwan, or technicians.
These guys do all the petty official and technical administrative duties such as recording daily activities of the king’s court, accounting, interpreting foreign communications, ritual and ceremonial planning, art drawing. Also weather forecasting, medical work, road and highway surveying and construction, transportation, compilation of library materials.
The yangban were the leisure class and determined the manners and arts, basically the culture of Korea. They were wealthy landlords who determined the course of Korean history for many centuries. They were educated, principally in confucian classics. Women of the yangban class were educated, and spent a lot of time sewing, embroidering and arranging flowers. They also learned to play musical instruments. The greater a woman’s social standing, the greater her seclusion, and thus the more she studied the arts.
The yangban supplied the government officials. This was based on the Chinese model of examinations held by the king every year. You had to pass a grueling set of exams: first at the village level; then at the province level; then next at the capital, supervised by the king himself.
You can see a lot of this still in Korea. Entrance into the top universities is almost strictly based on entrance exams. Even today, as in many countries, government officials in South Korea are taken from the top schools, including Seoul National, Yonsei and Koryo. Graduates of Seoul National, the toughest university to get into, basically fill the ranks of the state judicial branches, foreign service, legislative, and so on.
Below the yangban were the commoners, or sangmin. These are the working class, or the peasants. They were basically the backbone of Korea. They were involved in productive occupations, including agriculture, fishing, mining. In times of war, they supplied the soldiers. And not only that, when there was a war, they supplied labor, transportation, food and whatever else they needed. They paid the most taxes, in some cases, 50% of their harvest went to the state granary.
But still they had little rights. They couldn’t wear silk. They couldn’t build houses bigger than five rooms. They couldn’t ride carriages. Sometimes theere were curfews. The couldn’t wear horse hair hats, or eyeglasses, at least in front of the yangban. Their kids couldn’t attend Confucian village schools, called seotang. They couldn’t even protest their grievances to higher government officials.
They had to refer to themselves in a deprecated manner when speaking with yangban. On the street, they had to yield the right of way to the yangban. They couldn’t carry traditional smoking pipes, or smile in front of yangban. During court, they were expected to remain kneeling the entire time.
Now, finally, we come to what I think is the most fascinating social class. The cheonmin. In a sense, this was kind of the catch all category for anyone who wasn’t royalty, nobility or working class. So if you were a foreigner; or if you were a criminal stripped of your citizenship; or if you were an orphan without identification, you were dumped into the cheonmin class.
If you thought the peasants had it bad, the cheonmin were even worse off.
The cheonmin class can get even more confusing, but i’ll try my best to describe it to you.
Ok, so according to Dae Hong Chang, there were two broad categories of cheonmin: the first was the slaves, or nobi. Within the slave class, there are two types of slaves:
The first type of slave was kongcheon 공천(公賤), or public slave. This means that you have slave status to the state. In other words, you have some sort of obligation to the state or to the public good. For example, you’re a criminal, serving out a sentence.
Or sometimes really destitute families would sell themselves into being a public slave for subsistence. Sometimes, a yangban, who had committed some heinous crime, would be demoted to this status. Isn’t that fascinating? Can you imagine a former aristocrat who maybe slept with the wrong woman, like some king’s concubine, and is then cast into slavery? Talk about a great movie idea.
It’s also notable that most of the kongcheon were ethnically Korean. Non-Koreans rarely became slaves.
The second type of slave is Sacheon 사천(私賤), or private slaves. These are owned by the yangban. These guys provide all types of services to their noble lords. All their house attendants, for example. Also tenant farmers. They would eventually be turned into a kind of serfdom in the 16th century.
So back to the top. We’re talking about the 4th class, the lowest class, the cheonmin. The cheonmin are divided into two broad categories. We just talked about the first one, which are slaves. The second category is occupational cheonmin. Now this gets even more complicated.
There are two subcategories of occupational cheonmin: public and private, just like the slaves.
Public occupational cheonmin include the following: kisaeng. This is probably the most well category. Kisaeng are female performers. They almost exclusively provide services to the yangban. They range from cultured women to prostitutes. They are women of no means or low status who have to work for a living. They occupy the tea houses, and the restaurants. They play instruments while you eat. They perform dances. They have sex with you. They keep you company when you’re not with your wife. I have a lot of theories on who these women actually are, which I’ll share when i talk about the baekjeong. But for now, just realize that, officially, kisaeng are registered to the state as a public cheonmin. Especially in the cities, all citizens are registered and known to the local authorities. So kisaeng is a legitimately recognized profession. Kisaeng play a prominent role because they have access to the most intimate places of very important noblemen. Even though they are lower than the working class, they have much better mobility across social lines.
Other people in this category include:
- Chong, naein – servants
iii. Yijok – govt service such as messengers, cleaners, keepers
- Yokchol – caretakers of travel stations and public restrooms
So the second subcategory of occupational cheonmin are the private category. These include:
- Sungyo – buddhist monks and nuns
- Ryongin – private messengers
iii. Hechang – shoemakers
- Kosa – criminal executioners
- Mutang – shaman ritual performers
- Sadang – graveyard and ancestral mountain keepers
vii. Jaein, kwangdae – traveling entertainers
And finally we get to the
Now even in a catch all category, baekjeong is even another catch all. It’s like the korean officials said, alright we’ve categorized everyone we can think of, even the guy that cleans out the shitter in travel stations. What do we do with all the other riff raff? Let’s just call them baekjeong.
So let’s really go deep into baekjeong. First of all what does the word mean? Of course it comes from China. It comes from the Chinese characters of Paek means blank, or white, or pure, or empty, or the absence of something; and Jeong means service, work, or obligation.
IN chinese it is pronounced pai-tsing. The japanese use the same characters, pronouncing it haku-cho or haku-tei.
So literally, baekjeong means a person who is not obligated to perform a service to the government. To our modern ears, that sounds pretty great. I don’t have any obligation to the state. I’m a free man! But not really. What it really means is that you aren’t a citizen. Because all citizens have an obligation to the state. As an example, in order to become naturalized as a citizen of the US, you have to recite the oath of allegiance.
I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure
all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or
sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen;
that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States
of America against all enemies foreign and domestic; that I will bear true
faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the
United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant
service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law;
and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or
purpose of evasion, so help me God.
These are deep, important, symbolic words, but they are also very practical words. As a baekjeong, you don’t have to promise any of that.
Great, you’re still saying. I don’t owe my country nothin. But it takes two to tango. Because if you have no obligation to the state, the state has no obligation to you. It doesn’t have to provide you emergency services, or military protection. You’re not entitled to the court system if someone wrongs you.
You have no duties to the state. And so you don’t belong to the state. And you have no recognized value to the state. That is an awful status to have. This is why so many immigrants in countries such as France find it so hard to adjust. There is no way for them to become citizens.
In China and Japan, the original meaning of the word, zero-obligation, gradually became another way to describe a commoner. In other words, someone without government obligation was just a peasant.
But in korea, it became something else entirely. Baekjeong became a designation applied to the worst in society: beggars and the homeless. It became not just a designation but an entire social class. Why was it different in korea than in china and japan?
I think the difference lies in the fact that Korea was truly a multi-ethnic place back in the last millennium. You may say that China was more ethnically diverse, which is true. Of course china had many more tribes and ethnicities to incorporate on an absolute basis. But on a per capita basis, china was still more homogeneous back then than korea. Think of the heart of china, the southeastern basin in which the han, and roughly 80% of the population still reside. It is absolutely densely packed with very homogenous people calling themselves the han.
Whereas korea is much smaller. So incursions along its border of the assorted nomadic tribes, including the malgal, jurchen, mongols, khitan, made a much bigger dent on the “native” population. And I use that term native very loosely, because according to archeology, “native” koreans originated from the north, from around the manchurian region. And because let’s face it, for even the millennia before then, there was a steady trickle of northerners crossing the yalu river to settle in the much more hospitable climate of the peninsula.
As for japan, of course we know that once the many different ethnicities, from the hokkaido to ryuku gradually merged into one, there was no danger of foreign invasion during that period.
Korea at the time had a much more serious race issue that it needed to deal with. Most historians, therefore, believe that the origins of the baekjeong originate in the goryeo area around the 11th century. This coincides with the massive invasions of the Khitan Liao empire at the time.
So, we’ll stop there for now. Tune in next time to find out who the baekjeong really were! See you next time.
Sadly, the Khitan, once a might empire, are one of the many nations that do not survive today. We can trace ethnicities, particularly near the north korean border, and also way west near the western frontier of modern day china, to the khitan, using language. But for the most part that culture only lives in the history books. Even their language is indecipherable. If you look at khitan writing, it is basically chinese characters, but they used it in a way that no one recognizes today.
It’s sad because I believe it was the Khitan that were the original baekjeong. In the 11th century, the Liao Empire was a fierce nation living just north of the korean border, spreading out across the steppes of manchuria and modern day russia. Before the mongols, there were the khitan. They most likely shared the same type of culture. They were expert horsemen. They lived a nomadic existence, following their grazing horse and sheep across the plain. They drank fermented mare’s milk. They had a shamanistic religion. As hunters, they ate lots of meat, including horsemeat, mutton, and on occasion, dog.
Does any of that sound familiar to you? The funny thing is that Koreans will often emphasize how much of their culture came from China. Buddhism, literature, art, music, etc. But existing alongside buddhism was shamanism. And for every ritualistic court instrumentation, there was folk music with bawdy lyrics and references to nature.
And you know, buddhism strictly enforces a vegetarian diet. And you’ll see plenty of vegetables in korean food today. There’s a cuisine that we call hanjeongshik, which basically means traditional korean food. If you go to that kind of restaurant in seoul, for example, it is modeled after what all the kings ate at court. Tons of elaborately prepared vegetables, bean pancakes, lovely rice cakes. It’s almost exclusively vegetarian.
Then how do we explain the proliferation of korean bbq? Why are koreans equally in love with huge chunks of pork, beef and chicken meat fired over a primal flame? How do we reconcile that with proper court food?
I believe baekjeong provide the best answer. Just like every country has classical music and folk music, so does every country have haute cuisine and peasant food. Korea’s haute cuisine comes from China.
In the same way, I believe Korea’s comfort food, it’s peasant food, comes from non-Chinese who crossed the border from the north. And I believe much of that influence comes from the baekjeong. In other words, the baekjeong are the Khitan as well as assorted northerners.
In the 10th century, the Liao empire attacked Korea, just like they attacked China. Their goal, however, was not to make China, or Korea, a colony. Their goal was to assimilate their people into korea and china.
It’s obvious why. As powerful as their military was, their way of life did not compare favorably to an agrarian society. Infant mortality, lifespan, technology–all of these things were worse in the steppes. Living season to season, depending on the health of your livestock. Having to uproot your family every few months. Not to mention, the brutality of all the fighting among the tribes.
This isn’t conjecture; the tribesmen of mongols and khitan and jurchens are on record saying that once they conquered china and korea, they would settle their wives and daughters in the capitals so that they too could learn how to read, and sew, and farm.
So, quick disclaimer, much of what I’m about to say is my own theory about what happened based on my readings. But i want to explain how I think the khitan were the first baekjeong, and how the term baekjeong came to be a derogatory term.
The Khitan called their empire the Liao Empire. And during that time, they invaded Goryeo three times. The histories say they sent 800,000 men the first time. This is most likely an exaggeration, but it was a huge army. Goryeo and Liao went head to head three times from 993 to 1022. That’s almost 30 years. 30 years of war. Each time ending in a treaty, since both sides suffered so many losses. At one point Goryeo, adopted the Liao calendar, which is basically like saying that you agree to become a tribute of that kingdom in exchange for peace.
But remember, the Liao Empire never conquered Korea. Being a tributary of a nation is not akin to being conquered. In fact, quite the opposite. If a people conquer you, then there is no tribute. There is a full on assimilation into their empire. Agreeing to be a tribute of Liao was obviously a concession by Goryeo that they were the smaller power. But it’s also a concession by Liao that they weren’t strong enough to conquer Goryeo. It’s a peace treaty that is a bit more weighed towards one side. So Goryeo respected Liao. But it didn’t adopt Liao. Which left the door open, which becomes important later.
I believe Korea has downplayed the Liao’s influence on Goryeo during that time because the Khitan are no longer around. But I believe the Khitan had much more influence than for which they are given credit. For example, the Liao gifted the Liao Tripitaka to Goryeo. The Tripitaka is basically the Buddhist scripture. At the time, it was a monumental undertaking for a small army of monks to write the Buddhist canon in any form. The job itself was considered holy, because it involved such painstaking, tenuous labor.
It was so big a task that only a kingdom could fund such an undertaking. Liao gifted this to Goryeo. This was before the Tripitaka Koreana, still considered one of the cultural pinnacles of Goryeo. Korean architecture was influenced by the Liao. So we know that these wars between Goryeo and Liao caused, or at least were associated with, lots of cultural inter mixing.
It’s clear that Korea had lots of respect for the Liao at the time, because it affected their Buddhism and their architecture. But guess what happened after 1022, when the final peace treaty was signed with Liao? Well Song China came knocking. As i talk about in my last podcast, what would follow would be one of the great transfers of enlightenment ever in Korean history: what we call, the Golden Age of Goryeo-Song Relations. Now, as great as the Liao are, they don’t hold a candle to the 4,000 years of Chinese history that the Songs brought with them. The Liao were young upstarts with a powerful military. But the Song represented the most advanced civilization in the world at the time.
So the Liao are out of fashion, and China is back in the mix, in a big way. Just to give you an idea, in 1114, and again in 1116, the famed Emperor Huizong of Song sent Goryeo a gift of over 428 court musical instruments, along with the detailed instructions on their use. Now that may not sound impressive until you realize what a massive undertaking that is. The cost alone would be comparable to the United States gifting Korea with a large part of the Library of Congress. I believe I read that several huge ships were built specifically for the purpose of transporting them. It was a massive project, and it was so big that the Emperor would take extensive criticism from the most famous Chinese politicians and thinkers of the day.
These instruments did not just represent music. They represented the height of China itself. At the time, China used court music as a symbol for the best of its culture. China considered its court music, its instruments, the arrangement, and all the ritual associated with it, as the pinnacle of its intellect, artistic prowess, craftsmanship, science, and statesmanship.
This gift deserves an episode of its own, so I won’t go on about it. But let’s just say it was very expensive, very precious, and hugely symbolic. And let’s also say that it wasn’t just because the Chinese liked Koreans. There was definitely an ulterior motive. At the time, the Song were trying to curry favor with the Goryeons so that they would side with them against the rising, and dangerous, Jin Empire. But that’s another episode.
I mention this for a reason: along with importing cultural treasures and scientific advancements from Song, Goryeo also imported that famous, haughty Chinese attitude. You know the one: What the chinese call the hwa-i dichotomy, which says that China is civilized, and the rest of the world is barbaric.
Goryeo must have picked up this attitude. How could you not after drinking from the firehose that is the Song Dynasty?
That’s why I believe the origins of the Baekjeong happened during the Golden age of Song Goryeo. This is speculation on my part, but here’s what we do know: By 1125, the Liao Empire was on the ropes. Just as quickly as it had risen to power, it was quickly losing it to the next bullies in the neighborhood: the Jin Empire, formed by the Jurchens. We also know that two distinct sects of Khitan split from the Liaoning Peninsula. One large group migrated westward, eventually forming the Qara Khitai Empire. Another group of refugees headed south into Goryeo seeking refuge.
The remaining Khitan are now subjugated by the Jurchens in the Jin Empire. And they are miserable. So in 1216, a massive group of 90,000 Khitan invade northwest Korea. They are driven back by a joint Mongol and Goryeo force. Many historians believe the remnants of this invading party formed the origins of the baekjeong.
My theory is that these poor refugees must have formed the basis of the modern day baekjeong. By then, Goryeo had quickly forgotten about the mighty Liao Empire and had adopted all the sophisticated stuff from Song. They must not have looked to fondly upon these refugees, who were the same people who had so brutally attacked them a century earlier.
So these semi-nomadic, warrior type people were tolerated into Goryeo society but were relegated as outsiders. Don’t get me wrong, the pretty, young women were probably accepted as gisaeng. But the others became the underclass of Goryeo.
Now back to meat eaters. We know that, in 1170, Xu Jing, an envoy from the Song, would visit Gaeseong and remark on how little meat the Koreans ate. He would remark on how clumsily the butchers would clean an animal carcass for consumption, as if they had not had lots of practice. I quote from Sem Vermeersch’s excellent translation of Xu Jing’s original account:
The barbarian government is very humane. Due to their fondness for Buddhism, there is an injunction against killing. Therefore, except for the king or high ministers, nobody eats mutton or pork. They are also not good at slaughtering. Ten days before the envoys came they gathered the live-stock, and when the time came to use them, they tied their four legs together and threw them into a blazing fire. After they had died and the fur burned off, they were doused in water. If they revived, they were beaten to death with a cudgel. After that they cut open the belly and pulled out the intestines and bowels, draining all the dung and offal. Even though the [carcasses] are made into a broth or the meat broiled, the foul stench does not disappear. This is how clumsy they are.
Vermeersch, Sem. A Chinese Traveler in Medieval Korea: Xu Jing’s Illustrated Account of the Xuanhe Embassy to Koryŏ (Korean Classics Library: Historical Materials) (Kindle Locations 3386-3387). University of Hawaii Press. Kindle Edition.
This is why the baekjeong were butchers. Because these Khitan refugees brought their meat eating habits to Korea. They were horsemen. Like the Mongols, they relied on their horses for everything, including transportation, clothes and food. More than the native Koreans, they knew how to slaughter animals.
Dae Hong Chang writes that some of these Tungusic people settled into communities in Korea and became farmers. They assimilated into Goryeo society. Others must have had a tougher time of it. They might have stuck to their hunting and gathering ways. It’s totally conceivable given the wilderness of Goryeo at the time and the very mountainous terrain. Although Goryeo had a sophisticated surveyance system in which land was recorded and assigned to prefectures, there were large swaths of wilderness still untamed, in which these Tungusic people could have subsisted much like they did in their home country — by hunting and then selling the meat in villages.
So we’ve come full circle. The baekjeong did jobs that no self-respecting Buddhist Korean would touch, including anything working with animals. Slaughtering animals; leather making; these kinds of dirty duties were avoided by Koreans, and so were filled de facto by baekjeong.
Here is where japan and korea share something in common. Just like in Korea, Japan traditionally was buddhist, and traditional buddhists don’t slaughter animals. So the baekjeong of Japan, the eta, or the burakumin, did it for them. And to this day, the Japanese slaughter industry is dominated by descendants of that “untouchable” class.
Here’s where I really get speculative. But tell me if i’m crazy or not. I’ve always been curious about a few very peculiar dining habits in Korea that you don’t find in China or Japan. First there’s the whole obsession with charcoaled slabs of beef. That’s definitely Tungusic. But also, the korean habit of sharing soup from the same bowl. You don’t see that anywhere. If you go to a korean bbq place, there will often be one large stone pot of bubbling daengjang jjigae, which is fermented tofu soup, and spoons for everyone. You’re all supposed to dip your spoon into the communal soup and eat it.
It’s notable because it doesn’t quite meet the hygienic standards of really anyone, including China and Japan, and certainly not the west. And yet there it is.
I have to believe that these things come from the Tungusic tribes up north. Here’s where I got this idea: when you read the accounts of the Mongols from outsiders, they often remark on the Mongol’s very particular table manners, or lack thereof. The Mongols were known to hack of a huge slab of meat from a carcass using a huge knife. They’d stab the meat with the knife, tear a chunk off with their teeth, then pass the knife to the next guy. They’d all eat it together. Communal meat on a stick, as it were.
Now think of how Genghis Khan’s father, yesugei, died. A rival chieftain offered him a bowl of fermented mare’s milk, and out of custom he couldn’t refuse it. Unfortunately it was poisoned, and yesugei died. Communal fermented mare’s milk, Drunk out of the same bowl.
And it makes sense! Hygienic practices of separating food for each diner is based on social, urban, communicable diseases. In a nomadic tribe, it was less likely that your dining companion had smallpox, because your companion was probably your relative. This is my speculation, but it makes sense to me. Korea is really a mixture of the high brow China and the barbarian Tungusic tribes.
So the next time you’re in a korean bbq place, raise a toast to the Khitan, and the other Tungusic tribes people that we think went extinct, but actually survive as Koreans. Look at your Korean waitstaff, or your Korean dining partners, and wonder if they are descendants of the ethnic minorities that first came to Korea in the 12th century.