Before the Mongol invasions in the mid-thirteenth century, the outcasts in Korea, called the gorisuchae, were divided very lightly into two camps: (1) the hwachae or suchae, who hunted and butchered, and were seen as crude; and (2) the jaein (재인 才人), who were principally actors, entertainers, minstrels, prostitutes, and so on, and were sometimes described as "frivolous". Near the end of the Goryeo era, the term hwachae-suchae replaced gorisuchae to refer to the outcasts.
The term baekjeong itself means "common people". In the early part of the Goryeo period (918–1392), the outcast groups were largely settled in fixed communities. However, the Mongol invasion left Korea in disarray and anomie, and these groups gradually became nomadic.
The latest theory in Korea is that the baekjeong were the surrendered Khitans from the Third Goryeo-Khitan War. Following the decisive defeat of the Khitans by General Gang Gam-chan, the surrendered Khitan tribesmen were scattered throughout Goryeo in isolated villages to keep them from rebelling en masse. As the Khitan Liao dynasty fell to the Jurchens in Manchuria, the Khitans had nowhere to return to and were slowly absorbed by the Koreans in the following centuries. Befitting their nomadic origin, the Khitans were prized for their skills in hunting, butchering, skinning, and leather tanning. Over time, they became the meat- and skin-working underclass of Korea. They also brought dog eating, which is a nomadic staple, to the peninsula, spreading dog eating to other members of the Korean underclass. Following the Mongol invasion a century later, Koreans looked at the baekjeong as potential fifth column allies of the Mongols and mistreated them. This became institutionalized following the ousting of the last Mongol contingents from Goryeo under King Gongmin. By the beginning to Joseon Dynasty, the baekjeong had solidified as the lowest class among Koreans.
Although they did not strictly obey Buddhist prohibitions, the Koreans did not eat a great deal of meat until the arrival of the Mongols. The nomadic baekjeong brought horses and cattle with them to the peninsula to satisfy their desires for meat, and, being expert butchers, both slaughtered animals themselves and trained other outcasts in the practice.
In the early part of the Joseon Dynasty, King Sejong had attempted to assimilate the outcast groups, who had been engaging in banditry. He ordered that they be registered, settled into fixed communities, made to work in agriculture, and even ordering their intermarriage with other commoners. However, this policy was a failure, in no small part because the outcasts themselves refused to cooperate with the authorities, having little interest in farming and agriculture, and instead continued to thieve cattle and operate as nomads. By the 15th century, attempts to assimilate the outcasts were abandoned, and the outcasts were forced into fixed ghettos on the outskirts of towns and villages. The baekjeong were not given free rein over their own ghettos, and as the population increased, they were not generally allotted any more land, resulting in overcrowding. The communities themselves were largely autonomous, with strong internal organization and solidarity. In all but the most serious crimes, order was maintained from within. Although they were not registered citizens and had no civil rights, this worked to their advantage in several ways; they were excused from military service, compulsory labor, and paying taxes. Most importantly, the baekjeong had a monopoly over their special occupations, with both social control and strong resistance preventing others from entering their fields of work.
The jaein continued to exist as one variety of baekjeong; the other were those formerly called the hwachae, but now simply the baekjeong proper. While the jaein continued to remain nomadic to some degree, the baekjeong had become largely settled into segregated ghettos. The primary occupations reserved for them were basketry, butchering, leather working, and the making of straw sandals. Although these positions were considered the most polluted and degrading, they were “not merely an imposition; they were also a privileged monopoly.” When in the twentieth century others began taking up these occupations for themselves, the baekjeong protested, seeing their control over these enterprises as an exclusive right.
Throughout much of the Joseon Dynasty, they were also forced to serve as executioners. The baekjeong found this task deplorable and often assigned the job to the most wretched of their people, sometimes those bordering on psychological illness. They were also assigned to be dogcatchers and to kill feral dogs, even as late as the twentieth century. The Hyeongpyeongsa later worked towards ending this imposition, believing that it created a very negative impression among the common people regarding the baekjeong. Essentially, then, the group was assigned to the most demeaning tasks in Korean society. They were also considered in moral violation of Buddhist principles, which led Koreans to see work involving meat as polluting and sinful, even if they saw the consumption as acceptable. This is clearly demonstrated by an ordinance in 968 CE, which prohibited the slaughter of cattle but also explicitly allowed for the continued sale and consumption of meat. The baekjeong themselves appear to have considered butchering a polluted act, and often ceased slaughtering for three years after the death of a parent.
The group had long suffered severe social discrimination in Korean society. The baekjeong were seen as a contemptible and polluted people that others feared and avoided meeting. When higher classes did come in contact with the outcastes, they put them in a position of clear subservience. For instance, meeting yangban along the road, they were expected to bow and use language honoring them duly, even to children of yangban. They could also be ordered to show respect or go on errands by yangban, even their children. When conducting business with higher orders they had to do so from the entrance to the garden, as even the veranda was off limits to them. Restrictions on how the baekjeong could compose themselves served to mark their lower status. Such sumptuary laws were numerous, and included forbidding the use of ornamental hairpins by women, and requiring that sandals be made of straw rather than leather. The extent to which they were seen as a polluted people is well-illustrated in the fact that their bodies were kept in separate graveyards so as not to mingle with those of the yangmin dead.
Near the end of the Joseon Dynasty, a mutual aid organization for the baekjeong was established called Seungdong Doga (승동도가, 承洞都家), with representatives from various communities. The organization was involved in taking actions, coordinating improvements, and acting at times as the official representative of the baekjeong in legal matters. As a result of the Kabo Reform in 1894, the group disbanded, seeing its purpose as having been served. However, this legal equality did not equate to social equality. Many remained segregated from society at large, and conditions worsened in some respects. Although still largely limited to their traditional occupations, modified regulations in 1896 allowed non-baekjeong to become licensed butchers, eventually leading to meat businesses which have pressured many out of one of the few tasks allowed them.
Changes in Korea
Towards the end of the 19th century, there was an increasing impetus on human dignity and liberalization. Of particular importance was the growth of certain religions supportive of change. Tonghak, a Korean nationalist religion, wished to end unfair sinbun conventions, and Tonghak peasants had staged an uprising in 1894 in favor of human rights, especially for those low on the social ladder. They also demanded that the baekjeong no longer be forced to wear discriminatory hats and widows be allowed to remarry. Although this uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, it was an important impetus behind the Kabo Reform, and helped to abolish the sinbun structure that had restricted some groups legally. However, the baekjeong had benefited much less from these changes than other groups, such as the slaves.
The other major religious influence on human rights came through Christianity. Some missionaries had converted baekjeong to Christianity, stating that everyone has equal rights under God. However, everyone was not equal under the Christian congregation, and protests erupted when missionaries attempted to integrate them into worship services, with non-baekjeong finding such attempts insensitive to traditional notions of social status. Thus, both Donghak and Christianity exposed the baekjeong, and Koreans more generally, to concepts of egalitarianism and social equality. Parallel to and supportive of the rise of these ideas were transitions occurring in Korean society as a whole, particularly with regard to social classes.
However, while changes to improve the Baekjeong's social status was slow, commoners (the lower of the yangmins), who had economically been little different from slaves, was already meaningless as the respect for the government in the 17th century as they fled from the invading Japanese and Manchurians, leaving the civilians at their mercy. The government also awarded many militiamen yangban class sinbuns in exchange for their voluntary militia activities against these invaders. In time, with the rise of commerce, merchants bought forged family histories and official sinbun documents as well. Eventually, around three fourths of the population were yangban in name.
Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the baekjeong began to resist the open social discrimination that existed against them. In 1900, leaders from 16 counties petitioned the mayor of Jinju to wear the same clothes and hats as other people. When others in the north refused to wear the humiliating garb traditionally expected of them and were jailed, an effort was made to release them. Growing industrialism in Korea began to erode baekjeong dominance over certain occupations, particularly as Japanese began to control slaughterhouses and exploit them as employees.
However, as some baekjeong fell into financial despair, the loosening of segregation led others to profit from changes, giving them the ability to fund efforts for change. Beyond financial resources, organization was also strengthened due to the longstanding connections created through segregation and close-knit social networks. Between these human and financial resources, an emphasis on progressive models, and feelings of social deprivation and discrimination, the conditions were ripe for the baekjeong to mobilize for change. One of the earliest of these movements was in 1910 when Chang Chip'il, later an influential member of the Hyeongpyeongsa, attempted unsuccessfully to establish a trade union for butchers. In 1921 the Jipseong Johap was established by Korean and Japanese entrepreneurs, attempting to provide poverty assistance for butchers. However, this effort for improvement of economic conditions was soon overshadowed by an organization with broader goals.
The Hyeongpyeongsa was launched in Jinju on 23 April 1923 through the alliance of wealthy or educated baekjeong and non-baekjeong proponents of change, advocating for “the abolition of classes and of contemptuous appellations, the enlightenment of members, and the promotion of mutual friendship among members.” It advocated both for individual civil rights as well as communal fellowship, recognizing that the group must maintain its identity under the strain of changes such as urbanization and industrialization which threatened to atomize the community. Thus, the Hyŏngp'yŏngsa pursued both an equality of human rights and the right to assimilate into the broader public, even as it worked to forge a common identity.
More importantly, they focused on social and economic injustices affecting the baekjeong, hoping to create an egalitarian Korean society. Their efforts included attacking social discrimination by the upper class, authorities, and “commoners” and the use of degrading language against children in public schools. Power within the organization shifted several times, including the shift in 1925 from the original Chinju faction advocating educational reform to a group of Seoul intellectuals more interested in economic reforms based around traditional occupations. In 1927 a number of members of the Hyŏngp'yŏngsa were arrested for their involvement in the creation of an underground nationalist organization. Their absence was partially responsible for the organization's shift to the socialist left in the late 1920s.
The growing power of the radical wing divided the movement, and much of the economic support provided by wealthier baekjeong was pulled, particularly under the strain of the Great Depression, which had negatively impacted the meat and leather trades. The young socialists in the Hyŏngp'yŏngsa forged connections with other movements, attempting to broaden the movement and work towards “the reconstitution of Korea as a whole.”
At the 1931 national conference, they stirred controversy within the movement by introducing a dissolution proposal, feeling that the organization had abandoned its original aims in favor of those of the bourgeois intellectuals directing it. It was their belief that dissolution would better serve their interests as it was replaced by trade unions. The dissolution proposal failed, but not without further alienating more conservative members of the movement, who would already financially strapped from broader economic conditions in Korea. Even more fatal for the movement was the arrest of a number of young radical members, who were accused of establishing a secret communist organization, the “Hyeongp'yeongsa Youth Vanguard”, which authorities said demanded struggle against feudalism and the abolishment of private property. The trial related to this accusation dragged on for four years, before the defendants were found to be innocent. It appears likely that the “organization” was a construction by Japanese authorities to ensure the labor wing of the Hyeongpyeongsa would not interfere with their access to leather needed for the invasion of China. As a result, the Hyeongpyeongsa shifted to the right, abandoning progressive ideals and finally disbanding in 1935, claiming the movement's aims had successfully been met.
Going through the colonial period and the Korean War, Korean society changed enormously. Traditional Korean values were gradually loosened, and with those social changes, the traditional caste system also began to be loosened. Under colonial rule, the social disparity became not between the "Baekjeong" and the "Yangmin", but the "sympathizers (traitors)" and those who were "less cooperative." The Japanese seized all possessions of uncooperative cells, and redistributed them to themselves and those who helped oppress their fellow Koreans. Baekjeong origins and Yangmin origins had less meaning in a society where the colonial sympathizers exploited all others to an equal level of poverty. The Korean War further shook up the social positions as everyone not only lost their wealth, but their houses were uprooted or occupied by complete strangers from various origins. Whereas particular people having a "baekjeong family history" was a widely known rumor in every town, the tumult of war masked the refugees in uniform anonymity.
Although Korea continues to have a hierarchical society, the caste system has disappeared. Although the term 'baekjeong' is still used, it's usually considered to be a historical term, little-used in daily life.
- Herbert Passin (1957). "The Paekchŏng of Korea: A Brief Social History". Monumenta Nipponica. 12 (3/4): 211.
- Kim, Jung-Seop (1999). "In Search of Human Rights: The Baekjeong Movement in Colonial Korea". In Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson. Colonial Modernity in Korea. p. 326.
- Kim, Joong-Seop (2003). The Korean Baekjeong under Japanese rule: the quest for equality and human rights. p. 147.
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- Passin, Herbert. 1957. "The Paekchŏng of Korea: A Brief Social History” Monumenta Nipponica. 12 (3/4): 195–240.
- Kim, Joong-Seop. 1999. “In Search of Human Rights: The Paekchŏng Movement in Colonial Korea” Pp. 311–335 in Colonial Modernity in Korea, edited by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson. Cambridge; London: Harvard University Asia Center.
- Kim, Joong-Seop. 2003. The Korean Paekjŏng under Japanese rule: the quest for equality and human rights. London; New York: Routledge.
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