[KS] Korean Commons?

Jim Thomas jimpthomas at hotmail.com
Thu Sep 6 14:51:51 EDT 2012

Dear All,
Since former Peace Corps volunteers and old-school "village" ethnographers have not yet chimed in on "village" Korea in connection with the "commons," let me take a stab at it.
First, let me say, as many others have already, that the Anglo-American commons is just that; and we should not expect to find it elsewhere in the same form. Second, as all of you probably know, since the late 1980s, there has been a strong push to find social "collectivism" (if not equality) everywhere in the pre-modern Korean past (and to find it in unlikeliest parts of that past). The search for an historic Korean "commons" seems to be an extension of this. I believe such endeavors are misguided.
Late Chosŏn-era Yangban had all sort sorts of meeting houses that served as "commons," but these were exclusive of commoners and lowborn (in terms of the interests they served at the village and practical levels). Peter Bartholomew has argued that commoners were allowed and even invited to join in discussions and poetry recitations within Yangban meeting houses and intellectual circles, but I would point out that in late Chosŏn, peasant farmers (who shouldered most of the tax burden) most often could not get a fair hearing with local officials (which led to many of the agrarian rebellions of that period). And, it seems, part of a "commons" entails being heard as well as seen.
While there was extreme social inequality in premodern England and North America, just as in Chosŏn, one big difference would seem to be that the Anglo-American town crier was speaking to everyone in the vicinity of the commons and they were hearing him with much the same ears. He would read out news and announcements for the illiterate (who obviously would not have been able to read posted bulletins on their own). In other words there was the expectation that the dissemination of information in the town should be aimed at everyone equally, even within a context of pervasive class inequality. I believe there was no such expectation in Chosŏn times--quite the contrary. 
It would seem that the cadastral survey in the 1910s at least partly redefined the difference between public and private property throughout Korea--as well as raising the bar on what records were necessary to retain title to private property. And the destruction of the walls surrounding all 350+ Korean walled towns and cities quickly brought an end to whatever pre-modern built structures might have resembled a town square. Over the course of the 20th century, village festivals--which continue to serve as something of a social, if not physical, "commons" in Japan--were tragically lost in Korea in all but a very few places. And the festivals that have been "revived" in Korea primarily serve tourist interests and bear little or no resemblance to what once was. Perhaps these losses bolstered the role of churches and kage as important meeting places throughout much of 20th Century Korea.
In A Korean Village between Farm and Sea, Vincent Brandt captures some of the intricacies of village meetings and gatherings that cross the class divide. Except that in Sokp'o, because of the prevalence of fishing, there was a communitarian ethos that successfully contended with class-based hierarchy, leaving Brandt optimistic about the potentials of meetings to serve common interests. Not all Korean villages were so lucky. And not all of us are so optimistic.
For a year in the early 1980s, I lived in a small village (of 300) in what was then Hongsŏng-gun in Chungch'ŏngnam-do. This was a dominant surname village where the Chu lineage had the run of the place. There was no “commons” of any sort. This was at a time when village "green belting" had just been legislated by Chun and many villagers who were used to gathering kindling and low hanging branches on private and village (or government) property for free were being cited and fined, apparently for the first time. This land was usually in dense thickets or in the proximity of burial mounds which made it unsuitable for other uses. At the time any land--public or private, urban or rural--could be targeted for "greenbelting." Those who gathered firewood clearly considered this land public and were very resentful when they were denied access to it. I was personally assigned the task of breaking in a wild horse from Cheju Island to pull a carriage, and I had to find fresh grass for it to graze on. Neighboring farmers (asserting claims to uplands) had no problem tolerating small sheep, but a 500 pound horse with a good appetite was another matter. In effect, by the early 80s, there was no "communal land" in the village. Everything had some private or government claim on it. 
In lieu of the evidence elsewhere, perhaps Andong is a place to look for a Korean commons. Martina?

-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://koreanstudies.com/pipermail/koreanstudies_koreanstudies.com/attachments/20120906/17f99705/attachment.html>

More information about the Koreanstudies mailing list