Kolisuch'ǒk - Orientation



Identification. These ethnonyms (and also some others: Such'ǒk Kwangdae, Chaein, and so on) refer to members of the little-known but significant (in terms of both numbers and economic impact) social minority that comprised distinctive "outcaste" communities throughout much of Korean social history. Distinctive Korean outcaste communities are no longer extant. Their stigma initially derived from a proclivity to pursue rude and peripatetic lifestyles at a time when the majority Korean culture was becoming settled, agricultural, and Buddhist; it was then fixed by a rigid social system into an inherited occupational trait-complex that centered on butchering cattle.

The position of Korean outcastes in relation to the three major social classes of Yi-dynasty Korea ( A.D. 1392-1910) can be thought of in terms of a pyramid. At the apex was the scholar-gentry class ( yangmin ). Commoners ( sangmin ) comprised the numerical majority, and were principally free-born farmers. At the base of the pyramid were the low-born ( ch'onmin), mainly slaves. The outcastes were also at the bottom and were not only low-born but separate from the main body of Korean society (and therefore not -min, or "nonhuman"); they were truly extrasocietal. In addition to butchering, outcastes also mastered and monopolized a constellation of satellite industries and occupations, together with complex networks of skills and services, upon which the Korean majority society, in peace and at war, depended. Outcaste communities were known by different ethnonyms that correspond roughly with the successive dynastic periods in Korea: the Unified Silla period (Kolisuch'ǒk, Yangsuch'ǒk, AD. 660-935); Koryo (Hwach'ǒk, Such'ǒk, Chaein, 9351392); and Yi, or Choson (Paekchong, Kwangdae, 1392—1910). Prolonged spatial and social marginalization of indigenous Koreans into an outcaste social minority promoted the development of some distinct ethnic characteristics in their communities. Accordingly, their everyday lives became secretive and unknown to majority Korean society, which anyway found them repulsive and uninteresting. Owing to the rapid and near total assimilation of outcastes into mainstream Korean society during the latter half of the twentieth century, the opportunity to develop any detailed and balanced picture of their community life has passed.

Location. Korea is an extremely mountainous peninsula extending southward from the Manchurian plain of Eurasia, projecting over 8° of latitude into the Pacific basin, and creating there a partial bridge between the continent and the western Pacific island arcs near Japan. Summers throughout most of the peninsula are humid and hot, and winters are cold and dry. This seasonal climate encourages farming, but steep terrain limits agricultural production to merely one-fifth of the land surface.

Demography. Outcastes may have originated as small bands of protohistoric riverine migrants. If so, their activities dispersed away from, and back into, a multitude of river valleys according to the cycle of seasons. Little effort was made to enumerate the outcaste minority during subsequent dynastic times. As polluting and untouchable "nonpeople," outcastes were administered "at a distance," and went uncounted during many censuses. Owing to their successful economic niche and accessibility to meat protein, their numbers increased during the dynastic period. Some dramatic population and economic gains for outcaste communities coincided with the Mongol invasion beginning in 1231, when non-Buddhist meat eaters and their allies, including exotic butchers and entertainers from central Asia, entered and occupied the entire peninsula for nearly a century, thereby enriching the skills and gene pool of the indigenous Korean outcaste society. A registration of outcaste peoples toward the end of the nineteenth century placed their number at approximately 50,000. During the middle of the Japanese occupation period (1910-1945) Korean Paekchong were estimated at over 40,000 individuals comprising 8,000 households and inhabiting as many as 350 distinct settlements. This estimate is considered low. The Paekchong were widely distributed throughout the peninsula at that time, with their largest numbers in the southern provinces of the land. The changing distribution of outcaste communities throughout the peninsula during past times was influenced by spatial changes in the demand for their inherited industrial monopolies and the service specialties and goods they supplied. Except for troubled times of famine, war, and political upheaval, when their reliance on the nomadic life-style had some adaptive value, service nomads of the Unified Silla period in general became more sedentary during the Koryo and Yi periods as the class structure solidified. Early on the outcastes' numbers were small and their distributions dispersed out from, and contracted into, a multitude of river valleys according to the cycle of seasons. To the extent that the outcastes were armorers and camp followers, their distributions varied with the fortunes of war. For example, in response to the increasing threat of land invasions during the Koryo dynasty, many outcastes were relocated by the government into the northern provinces. Many returned to itinerancy and marauding toward the end of the Koryo period. Later, these unruly outcastes became temporarily fixed in space when coerced by the early Yi government into abandoning their inherited itinerant ways to become farmers. This opportunity to assimilate into majority Korean society was short-lived. The economic trade-off for respectability was unpopular with the outcastes. More important, majority society vehemently and successfully resisted their assimilation, which threatened to "pollute" both its class system and village living space with the erstwhile untouchables. Thereafter, itinerancy remained a popular option in the outcaste community's occupational trait complex, and the widespread distribution of outcastes on the peninsula was guaranteed.

Linguistic Affiliation. Korean was the language of the outcastes. However, distinctiveness in speech and gesture is noted in some accounts. A dialect would be one outcome of this indigenous minority's long history of extreme social marginalization, ghettoization, and exclusive economic monopolies.


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