Kolisuch'ǒk - History and Cultural Relations



As indicated, Korea's outcaste communities could have evolved from the early marginalization of indigenous bands of riverine migrants, principally hunter-gatherer basketmakers, by sedentary agriculturalists. In this scenario, the villagedwelling Korean majority came to require and then demand the specialized goods and services of itinerant Korean "outsiders," but were wary of them on account of divergent lifestyles. Over time, prejudice led to hostility. Vague reasons for suspicion became rationalized with the successful introduction of Buddhism on the peninsula after A.D. 372. After several centuries, concepts of "pollution" and "untouchability" became institutionalized under Korean Buddhism. As time progressed further, a rigid class structure that totally excluded the outcastes was implemented and enforced by the majority society. This oppressive system solidified during the middle Yi dynasty. The beginning of egalitarian social reform did not begin to erode this system until 1894, when revised laws freed outcastes from inheriting inferior status in Korean society. Some related laws, however, deprived them of their inherited occupational monopolies, which resulted in increased economic hardships. Although the occupations of the erstwhile outcastes were no longer tainted and open to anyone, prejudice against them hardly diminished for the next fifty years. In the general opinion of the majority society during this period, successive centuries of untouchable status had tainted their bloodlines; Paekchong were considered polluted no matter what they did. Examples of some of the more degrading aspects of outcaste relations with majority Korean society during the Yi dynasty offer some insight into the evolution of an ethnic underclass on the peninsula. Most significant, marriage laws restricted outcastes to selecting mates from their own communities, isolating their gene pool. Perhaps this is why non-Koreans were acceptable for assimilation into outcaste society. Dress codes made outcastes immediately recognizable, whereupon a multitude of oppressive interpersonal social conventions were set into motion, designed to perpetuate by law the tremendous spatial and social gap that existed between a submissive minority and a dominant majority. Korea's untouchables, for example, were not permitted to wear the leather shoes they manufactured, but were restricted to straw sandals. They could not wear horsehair hats, nor travel by horseback, nor even cross the threshold into a "respectable" person's courtyard. Moreover, prevailing etiquette permitted children of the high-born to "speak down" to adult outcastes. This oppressive regime was only tolerable to outcastes because they enjoyed important legal rights of economic interaction with the members of majority society. These rights of access, however much circumscribed by humiliating conventions, protected the economy of the outcastes and promoted their livelihood and collective destiny. For example, settled outcastes were entitled to (and eventually licensed to) territorial rights to perform at local weddings and funerals and to butcher for village festivals. And, when slaughtering, the choicest morsels belonged to the butchers. In addition, outcastes were paid an annual tribute in rice by villagers for their entertainment and ceremonial services. Whatever pent-up resentment the degraded outcastes held toward the dominant majority society no doubt gained some release whenever an outcaste was called upon to torture and execute one of its members.


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