On the Curse of Untouchability: The Baekjeong of Korea

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In my last essay, I addressed the issue of untouchability in India. As mentioned in that essay, the concept of untouchability is not just peculiar to the Indian subcontinent but is a concept that exists in several other countries and cultures throughout the world.

In this essay, we will look into the issue of untouchability in Korea. While in India the untouchable population is commonly referred to as Dalits, in Korea they are commonly referred to as Baekjeong.

Historically, the Baekjeong were people belonging to an untouchable caste in Korea. They were said to originate from some minority nomadic groups of disputed ethnicity, who were mostly settled in fixed communities in the early years of the Goryeo Period between 918 to 1392 AD. Goryeo was a Korean state established in 918 during a time of national division called the Later Three Kingdoms period and it unified and ruled the Korean Peninsula until 1392, thereby achieving, according to historians, true national unification.

Initially, during this period, the term Baekjeong was a neutral term used to refer to the common people. It was only much later, that is during the period of the Joseon Dynasty (which was the last dynastic kingdom of Korea), that the term came to have a derogatory connotation, taking on the role of an insulting title used to refer to the lowest classes of Korean society.

Much like in the case of the Dalits of India, this low position of the Baekjeong in society was most probably due to the occupations they practiced, such as butchery, performing executions, hunting, tanning, weaving baskets, and other such occupations that included animals and meat. These occupations were regarded as impure, sinful, and lowly in Korean society.

It is said that the Baekjeong, who lived in fixed communities and were mainly butchers by profession, became nomadic groups after the Mongol invasion of Korea. As they split up into different nomadic groups, the Baekjeong formed subgroups. And as the centuries rolled by, the term Baekjeong came to be increasingly used to insult and degrade another person.

However, the explanation for the origin of untouchability in Korea is not as straightforward as one might assume. Although the abovementioned theory is fairly popular and more or less accepted by scholars in general, it is not the only theory put forward to explain its origin.

According to the great Korean philosopher, poet, scholar, and agronomist Chong Yagyong, also known as Dasan, who was one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of the late Joseon period, the Baekjeong had Tatar origins. Tatar was a general term used to refer to all northern people, Manchurians, Mongols, etc.

In one of his works, Dasan attributes the origin of the Baekjeong to a nomadic group called the Yangsucheok, from the Goryeo period. The Yangsucheok were experts at hunting and butchering animals and weaving baskets.

However, being an unknown nomadic group and due to the nature of their occupations, the Yangsucheok found it difficult to be integrated into society and were discriminated against.

They were believed to have descended from either the Khitan people, who were a nomadic people from northeast Asia (modern-day areas of Northeast China, Russian Far East, and Mongolia), or the Jurchen people, who were East Asian Tungusic-speaking people (living in modern-day Northeastern China) and descendants of the Donghu people.

These nomadic groups were not registered in any national register of any province as they lived in temporary residences while moving across large areas.

As mentioned above, during the period after the Goryeo Dynasty, the term Baekjeong was not used for the lowest class of people in society. Scholars speculate that Baekjeong was originally a term used to describe a person who has no burden of duties, meaning a person, or a group of people who have not been granted any land as they were not given certain duties from the state.

However, their status began changing with the onset of the Joseon Dynasty when the 4th ruler of the Dynasty, King Sejong, consolidated several outcast groups with ordinary farmers, leading to the formation of a combined group of people referred to as Baekjeong. In a gesture of goodwill, King Sejong included them in the national register and gave them settlements to form fixed communities and land to cultivate. He even laid down policies to put an end to the discrimination faced by the Baekjeong.

Unfortunately, as in almost all cultures where untouchability exists, the common people themselves, that is the masses, had no desire to stop discriminating against the Baekjeong and their descendants. They continued discriminating on the grounds of history and tradition, disobeying the policies laid down by the king himself. To make matters worse, the government officials who were in charge of putting an end to this inhumane practice themselves had no desire or intention to do so. These officials too disobeyed the order of the king.

The common people looked down upon the occupations of the Baekjeong, considering them to be illegal, criminal, antisocial, unclean, impure, sinful, and despicable. While the majority of the people farmed for a living, the Baekjeong continued to undertake their primary occupations of butchering, weaving, tanning, dancing, singing, performing executions, etc.

A common Buddhist man in society believed such jobs to be below their status as a self-respecting individual, especially jobs that included animals, as they were thought to be sinful and polluting. This led to continued discrimination against the Baekjeong, making it almost impossible for them to integrate into normal society.

The lifestyle of the Baekjeong was considered a moral violation of Buddhist principles, and just like the Dalits of India, the Baekjeong were deprived of opportunities for advancement in society and were expected to do the same degrading jobs as dictated by tradition.

As the practice of untouchability became rigid and more inhumane in Korea, the Baekjeong came to be seen as polluted and impure people who were to be avoided as much as possible. They were prohibited from the following practices – drinking or smoking in the presence of members of the higher classes, having surnames, using titles or characters such as wisdom, righteousness, benevolence, etc. in their personal names, having the same burial grounds as the members of the higher classes, married women wearing a hair stick, riding a horse when marrying, wearing a horsehair hat, wearing leather shoes, wearing silk clothes, living in a roof-tiled house, and leaving their house without wearing a bamboo hat. They were also expected to lower themselves in front of members of the higher classes and common people.

There were several other restrictions and prohibitions they were subjected to, making it as good as impossible for them to assimilate into normal society.

Over the years, several policies were laid down and organizations established with the aim of bringing an end to the discrimination against the Baekjeong, the most notable reform being the Gabo Reform, which was a series of sweeping reforms suggested to the government in 1894. The Gabo Reform legally abolished the inhumane Korean caste system, thereby attempting to bring an end to the practice of untouchability in Korea.

However, in spite of the Korean caste system being legally abolished and rendered illegal, discrimination against the Baekjeong did not stop. They continued to be excluded from the workings of normal society. Their family registers were separate from the rest of society, with either a red dot or the word butcher marked against their names under occupation.

Even though the Gabo Reform was not as effective as it was intended to be, it did stimulate a gradual process of change in the conditions of the Baekjeong. The reform allowed the Baekjeong to become artists, scholars, or government officials if they had the ability to do so. Nevertheless, the majority of the Baekjeong were still confined to their traditional occupations that were considered unclean, impure, and polluting by others.

Organizations advocating the rights of the Baekjeong pushed for such progress and improvements and took the necessary actions for the same. They also acted as official representatives of the Baekjeong in legal matters.

A lot of these changes and reforms initiated for the social improvement of the Baekjeong were inspired by the Korean nationalist religion, Donghak, and Christianity. These religions introduced Korean society to the concepts of social equality and egalitarianism.

The Donghak peasants, hoping to put an end to the discrimination and unjust practices, began an armed movement in 1894 that came to be known as the Donghak Peasant Revolution, or the Donghak Rebellion, or the Donghak Peasant Movement. The rebel peasants used the values of the Donghak religion as a political ideology and sought equal rights for the lower classes in Korean society. Although unsuccessful, the rebellion inspired the Gabo Reform.

Christian missionaries also preached that all human beings were equal in the eyes of God, and they advocated putting an end to discrimination against the Baekjeong and other lower classes. The missionaries even attempted to include the Baekjeong in their worship services, resulting in protests from non-Baekjeong who claimed that such integrating measures were against traditional Korean society.

Although discrimination against the Baekjeong continued over the years, they began actively resisting and protesting against such discrimination by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many were jailed for refusing to follow what was traditionally expected of them, such as wearing or not wearing certain items of clothing.

The advent of industrialization and urbanization saw many Baekjeong lose their monopoly over their traditional occupations, especially butchering. The Japanese took control of the slaughterhouses and began to exploit the Baekjeong who worked as employees. This left many of the Baekjeong in financial distress.

Nevertheless, by the early 20th century, there were several educated and wealthy Baekjeong in Korean society, as well as several non-Baekjeong who desired the improvement of the Baekjeong. All these parts came together in an alliance to establish the Hyeongpyeongsa in 1923. The Hyeongpyeongsa was established to advocate the abolition of classes and of contemptuous appellations, promote mutual friendship among members, and enlighten the members. It also advocated communal fellowship and civil rights for the lower classes.

Over the years, the Hyeongpyeongsa underwent several changes in scope, aim, and vision, thereby broadening the movement. The young socialists in the organization have today gone on to form connections with other movements, focusing on economic and social injustices against the Baekjeong with a wish to create a more equal and egalitarian society in Korea.

Although the condition of the Baekjeong has improved over the years, the problem of discriminating against them still exists to this very day. The Baekjeong, and even their children in schools, continue to face discrimination by the authorities, higher classes, and common people.

Much like in the case of untouchability in India, the social evil of untouchability in Korean society continues to this day in spite of it being illegal and frowned upon. Several activists and organizations in Korea are working hard to rid Korean society of this inhumane practice at the earliest, however, such meaningful and permanent change may take several years to come about.

Needless to say, such a change can only take place if the people get rid of their regressive mentality and accept the Baekjeong as their equals.