Kolisuch'ǒk - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The price paid by outcastes for their secure niche in Korean economic history has always been their dignity. Their inherited occupational trait complex, viewed over the long term, has centered on the butchering of cattle. This specialized economic niche was guaranteed to them in A.D. 525 when a law was enacted that required everyone to adopt the strictures of Buddhism, and especially forbade the killing of animals for food. There are numerous additional occupations and industries monopolized by outcastes—many itinerant in nature—that seemingly are unrelated to sedentary butchering. For example, an old Korean maxim relates that "a butcher dies with a willow leaf in his mouth." This offers some insight into the evolution of a variegated outcaste economy: another name for the earliest hunting-gathering Kolisuch'ǒk was "Yangsuch'ǒk," meaning "willow-basket wanderers." Among all indigenous Korean communities, these itinerants were most open to accepting orphans and outsiders into their society. This would have accelerated their marginalization by the more conservative indigenous majority on the peninsula. With the introduction of Buddhism, marginalization of the Kolisuch'ǒk began to become more institutionalized. Rather than just some unsubdued wandering tribes of the past, vaguely defined, the Kolisuch'ǒk communities were observed from the Buddhist perspective to survive by willingly breaking two of Buddhism's eight commandments, and for these transgressions they were "unclean," "untouchable," and despised. These two commandments prohibited the killing of living things and having frivolous economic pursuits (e.g., singing, dancing, acting). Outcaste industries and occupations were therefore either degrading (involving pain, blood, and death) or diverting (involving frivolity). Historically, this covered a wide array of goods and services that were unavailable, impractical, or forbidden to the "respectable" members of majority Korean society, who nevertheless demanded them. Moore cites seven classes of outcaste occupations from the Yi period: servants of the sheriff who beat people, etc.; buffoons, or traveling singers; butchers; basketmakers; sorceresses (female shamans); dancing girls; and makers of leather shoes. We can find a lowest common denominator in the hunting, butchering, executing, and basketmaking outcastes, in their peculiar—for Buddhist Korea—disregard for life. We can also identify a skill complex common to all of these occupations, one that centers on the knife as a symbolic artifact for the outcaste community. Once marginalized, the Kolisuch'ǒk were predisposed to expanding their economy into butchering, the marketing of animal skins, and the manufacture of leather footwear. The recurring exigencies of warfare on the peninsula rewarded basket-making leatherworkers, who manufactured woven shields sheathed in hides. We also observe the considerable overlapping of the degrading occupations and the diverting occupations, as ritual slaughter, music, and dancing all become monopolized over time by the outcaste minority; for example, outcaste jugglers sometimes tossed balls they had crafted from the organs of animals. Although early Yi government attempts to settle and assimilate outcastes as farmers were unsuccessful, by the early twentieth century many Paekchong, lately deprived of their hereditary monopolies and guaranteed income, had finally turned to agricultural pursuits, at least on a part-time basis. Remnants of the traditional itinerant outcaste economy and community persisted even into the early 1980s in some tiny, family-operated traveling circuses and medicine shows. These are but a shadow of conditions a scant century ago, when the outcaste economy thrived, and dosa (butchers), upa (dancing and singing troupes), ch'anggi (retired female entertainers and prostitutes), chup'a (female wine sellers), necha (puppeteers), macho (gamblers), and hwarang (comic magicians) itinerants traversed the peninsula. Female sorcery has more recently become co-opted and romanticized by the Korean government as part of its tourism and folklore industry, but is clearly dissociated from the Korean Paekchong tradition, which apparently embarrasses everyone and is never mentioned. The butchering of cattle remains a ubiquitous industry in Korea and is still distasteful to many Koreans, yet proceeds today without social stigma.


Industrial Arts. In addition to assorted leather manufacturing and basketwork, metalworking eventually became an outcaste industry but was never their exclusive domain.


Division of Labor. Men killed and butchered cattle, and stripped bark from the willow (a process that Buddhists equated with animal slaughter). Dog catching and butchering occupied both young and old males. Women's tasks may have included some killing of small animals, for example the sacrifice of a chicken by a sorceress ( mudang ). Bartering baskets became primarily a female specialty. Increased door-to-door peddling of basketwork provided outcastes with opportunities to experiment with other sources of income: entertainment, healing, and exorcism, for example. A tendency evolved in Korean majority society to attribute sacred powers to the mudang, and this parallels the gradual stereotyping of Gypsy women in the West. Among all outcastes, female entertainers and prostitutes achieved closer physical (as contrasted with social) contacts with members of the male "respectable" classes, and this perhaps best illustrates subtle differences between Hwach'ǒk-type (degraded; male; "untouchable") and Chaein-type (frivolous; female; "touchable") categories of outcastes that have always existed.


Land Tenure. The Korean outcaste economy has been characterized as productive but nonagricultural. Many outcastes were itinerant, or semi-itinerant, so questions of land tenure are inappropriate for them. If successful sedentary communities of outcastes ever accumulated substantial capital and property during the dynastic era, these quantities and their distribution are unknown. Known Paekchong-owned agricultural lands of the early twentieth century were subsequently vacated, owing to a rapid dissipation of most Paekchong culture bearers into mainstream urban-industrial society, facilitating their search for anonymity.

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