Magistrate Yi Hyong-sang’s draconian Neo-Confucian “reformation” of Jeju Island in 1702 attempted to systematically purge the island of all Buddhist, Shamanist and Animist temples and shrines. As we Peace Corps Volunteers assigned to the island between 1966-1981 can attest, he either was not very thorough in his efforts or Buddhism, Shamanism and Animism have enjoyed a remarkably healthy recovery since his gala and “victorious” return to Seoul.
Evidence that Buddhist temples and Shamanist and Animist shrines were once again thriving could be encountered everywhere on the Island in 1973-1974 during my own Peace Corps service there. I photographed this active shrine one day while hiking, when I stumbled across its remote location at the hidden mouth of a lava tube accessing a well.
Ironically Neo-Confucianism, all-powerful and aggressively exclusivist in 1702, seemed everywhere passé or in a hopeless tailspin on the island in 1974. Not only was there a robust presence of all the ancient and medieval Jeju religions across the rural landscape, but I also discovered Christianity booming among the island’s urban populations. I was surprised to encounter a few teams of Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses at the five-day markets, frequenting bakeries and walking the city streets while evangelizing door to door. In 1973 even the Baha’i faith seemed to be successfully recruiting some students at Jeju College.
However, back in 1702, Neo-Confucianism in the person of Magistrate Yi was clearly intent on systematically searching out and destroying every visible trace of any place of worship for Buddhists, Shamanists and Animists, even in their most remote locations. His intention was to sow the seeds of his Neo-Confucianism into the voids created by his successful “search and destroy” campaign. The ruthless process of the purge was captured in spectacular detail on maps drawn by a talented artisan who accompanied the destructive juggernaut of Magistrate Yi’s clockwise circumnavigation of the island. His name was Kim Nam-kil.
What better documentary evidence of the thoroughness of Magistrate Yi’s “search and destroy” campaign than this map scene drawn by Kim?
We can come to appreciate the story this illustrated map tells in both its entirety and in its detail. Let’s begin where we left off last week and note the lookout tower on a coastal oreum visible in the lower right-hand corner. I previously described this ubiquitous artifact of the Yi Dynasty Jeju Island colonial era as a “fire-tower,” a “lookout tower” and a “fortress.” However, the Korean-language term that most accurately describes this structure is bonghwadae (fire beacon tower). We can conclude from their frequent appearance on Kim’s maps, all drawn during Magistrate Yi’s nefarious tour of the island in 1702, that they were ubiquitous landmark features in the culture landscape at that time.
Fire beacons were probably perched atop all seaside oreum during Yi Dynasty colonial rule. When the Yi Dynasty was founded in the 14th Century, Japanese pirates (waegu) were already raiding coastal settlements on the Korean peninsula, in the Korean archipelago and on Jeju Island. The bonghwadae was obviously invented and deployed by the Jeju Islanders more than 700 years ago to be able to warn residents of seaborne approaches by both foes and friends. Given their significant purpose, rudimentary beacon towers had good reason to exist long on the island before the Yi Dynasty colonial period. Over time they evolved into a more sophisticated and elaborate defense communications system.
Jeju Island’s fire beacons are described in the records of early Western explorers voyaging in the vicinity of Jeju. By paraphrasing a potpourri of these explorer accounts I can provide Jeju World Wide readers with a concise description of their observed operation in the context of their natural surroundings: This island is composed of innumerable hills of various shapes and sizes, such as cones, saddles and tables. Most of these hills have forts built on their summits. From these, fire lights are displayed every evening. The rapidity with which these signals are answered is astonishing. We have seen the whole coast illuminated by these fires in less than five minutes. Each hill seems like a little volcano, suddenly bursting out with its dense white columns. We perceive the smoke of the beacon fires in every part of the island; We find the islanders keeping vigilant lookout from the summits of all their high hills. Little guards in little square forts always seem to be moving about; At stated hours, both near sunset and during the night, signal fires pass from hilltop post to hilltop post in succession, beginning with the post nearest to our ship; During daytime this method of communications by fire beacon is affected by smoke, which is cleverly performed by throwing wet chopped straw — and sometimes rice husks — onto the fire. Members of our crew attempt in vain to interpret the messages communicated via these curious, intricate smoke signals.
Enough of these beacon towers. Let’s move our discussion to other aspects of Kim’s map, displayed above. As interpreters our eyes seem to take us from the bottom of the map to the top by guiding us through steadily increasing elevation into the remote, unpopulated volcanic hinterlands that rise upon the flanks and flows of Mt. Halla. Along the way we pass into some partially forested cave country. We discover there that Magistrate Yi’s well-equipped and organized expeditionary force has established a secured perimeter around some suspicious shrine sites and that some of his armed escort have already entered deep within some of these caves bearing torches.
The cave in the foreground is a hub of activity. Yi has disembarked from his large canopied chariot and mounted a smaller palanquin in order to personally direct his search and destroy operation. We observe what seems to be a smaller strike-force taking the hunt deeper into the interior of the cave. However this “S.W.A.T. team of sorts” appears to be encountering no resistance. Perhaps if we zoom into the map we can affirm that the military action for possession of this particular cave is a far cry from the battle for Captain Jack’s Stronghold and Cave as discussed in some of my previous essays. Magistrate Yi seems quite safe even though he is close to the front lines of any potential combat that might break out at the cavernous shrine site. We infer from the evidence at hand that Magistrate Yi will likely not suffer the unexpected and tragic fate of U.S. Army General Canby when murdered on the threshold of Captain Jack’s Stronghold by its indigenous defenders.
In the complete map above there are actually three suspicious caves and possible shrine sites depicted by Kim. Clues that the cave in the foreground is being actively purged of its shrine become more telling on our closer inspection of the map details. The middle cave in the map at a higher elevation into the hinterlands appears to be newly discovered. An inspection seems barely underway. The third cave is marginal to the map, and only half revealed by it. My guess is that its location has not yet been found out – but the implications on the map are that it soon will be.
The talent of artisan Kim and especially his skilled eye for detail in 1702 are accomplishments we Jeju Island history-and-geography buffs in 2013 can really appreciate as we scan his map closely after the passage of several hundred years. Is what we slowly gaze upon and contemplate here the depiction of a “heroic stronghold”? Not intentionally, I would have to conclude: artisan Kim was probably every inch the anti-Shamanist/Animist Neo-Confucian that Magistrate Yi was in the year 1702.
In a recent essay in my Jeju World Wide series I defined “heroic strongholds” as spirited places that speak to avid listeners of human strengths and weaknesses, heroics and betrayals, depravations and valor, corruption and camaraderie. With this definition in mind I can also conclude in the affirmative that artisan Kim’s illustrated map depiction can be interpreted as an unintentional portrayal of a heroic stronghold. There is a story that could be told based on a sympathetic interpretation of artisan Kim’s map about “a peaceful cave shrine founded by indigenous Jeju villagers in their island homeland as a sacred place for worship. It came to pass that in 1702 this shrine and others like it were deliberately destroyed by a hostile colonial intruder; a militant magistrate named Yi Hyong-sang. However, the villagers persevered in their beliefs and eventually overcame the adversity of Yi’s intolerant aggression and rebuilt their shrines.” This is the story of a heroic landscape. This is the story I would tell while standing on the threshold of the humble cave shrine I photographed in 1974 and displayed at the beginning of this essay.
Thanks to electronic magnification of the map and the opportunity it provides for a closer inspection of the individuals in the cave and their activities, as well as their modes of dress and body language, it becomes easier for us to discern the betrayals instead of the heroics in artisan Yi’s depiction of the events. A case in point: The presence in the scene of what appears to be a few unarmed villagers, centrally positioned by Kim, and depicted (at least in the middle cave) with their heads hanging low. Are these women? Men or women, these villagers apparently have either 1) been captured inside their shrines, or 2) been “persuaded” by Magistrate Yi to lead his search and destroy team to the locations of their secret cave shrines sites. If the latter, then have not these individuals betrayed the locations of their people’s most precious sacred spaces and thereby doomed them to destruction?
Next Week: Search and Destroy’ on Jeju Island, circa 1702 (Part 2)