A new thought on the Bobusang peddlers of the olden times in Korea
A new thought on the Bobusang peddlers of the olden times in Korea
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  • 승인 2015.04.28 18:11
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On the occasion of the Hansik Day ritual

The Korean people have an old saying: “In Cheongmyeong, even a wooden poker will shoot green sprouts if you plant it in the ground.” Literally, Cheongmyeong means “fine and clear” (a balmy day) which falls on April 5, 2015. It is the fifth in the 24 divisions of the year of the Lunar Calendar.

On this balmy day, I visited the Hongdowon-gil in Jukrim-ri, Chungcheongnam-do with clean air where the port and a railroad meet each other. At the Hongdowon of the ‘Wonhongju Yukgun Sangmu-sa’ (called ‘Sangmu-sa’ in brief), an important folk cultural asset, located at the foot of Mt. Acha against the backdrop of Mt. Oseo, an 800 meter-high mountain above sea level, a seasonal ritual is held today. After a cheerful folk art performance nearby, they held a solemn ritual ceremony. I approached the master of ceremony named Jeopjang (head of a group of peddlers) and had an interview with him. Excerpts follow:

Question: They call you Jeopjang. Do they use the name in reference to the leaders of the ‘Wonhongju Yukgun Sangmu-sa’?
Yes, Jeopjang means the leader of the group of Bobusang (merchants of the olden times who carried their goods on the back).

Q: As a peddler yourself, please explain about the ‘Wonhongju Yukgun Sangmu-sa’. And what functions did the Hongdowon play?
In 1851, a prominent peddler named Im In-son who lived in Daeheung County initiated to organize the ‘Yukgun Sangmu-sa’ with peddlers in neighboring 6 counties, including Daeheung, Hongju, Gyeolseong, Boryeong, Cheongyang and Ocheon County. And in 1901, 50 years thereafter, Head Choi Deok-ju supplemented the Cheonggeumrok (directory of intellectuals and Confucian scholars) and changed the name of the ‘Yukgun Sangmu-sa’ to ‘Wonhongju Yukgun Sangmu-usa’, the predecessor of current ‘Wonhongju Yukgun Sangmusa’. In early years, members of the organization carried out peddling activities with headquarters at the Hongdowon, but the headquarters were moved to Hongseong later. In early days, the organization was separated into two; the ‘Sangmu-usa’ and ‘Sangmu-jwasa’, but later they integrated into one group ‘Sangmu-sa’. We have been holding ‘Hansik’ (cold food festival) ritual at this time every year. And the Hongdowon was an institution of providing various services to members of the ‘Sangmu-sa’. It served as a space for commercial transactions, rest, and exchange of information and prices of commodities. It also treated sick members, provided financial support, and buried at a cemetery when any members died. They called the collective grave of members with no family as the ‘Muhan-san’.

Q: When did you get involved with the ‘Sangmu-sa’?A: I joined the ‘Sangmu-sa’ in early 2003 and became its head in April of the same year.

Q: You have been serving there for 13 years. And have you held the ritual for 13 years?
Yes. But, without support of members of the ‘Sangmu-sa’ and my wife, I would have been difficult to do so.

Q: The ritual today was attended by many people. Do such diverse age groups take part in the ritual every year?
A: It’s true. Despite their busy schedule, a large number of regional organization representatives and teachers as well as students of the history study club at Daecheon High School attended the ritual. I believe youths’ interest in the historical site that may be forgotten proves that Korea has bright future.

Q: I was impressed by enthusiastic attitude of teenagers as they attended the event, wearing traditional clothes of peddlers. What meaning does the Hansik Ritual have?
A: As time elapsed, its organization and activities experienced varied changes. We intend to keep basic spirit of peddlers, and that is the Hansik Ritual. As I explained earlier, the Hongdowon served as an asylum for peddlers with no family or relatives after their death while playing the role of a community. It is meaningful to admire and remember soul of those people who died with loyalty and hard life.

Q: Would you introduce several examples of memorable events?A: In 2008, Dr. Lee Hun-seob, a former business administration professor at Gyeonggi University attended the Hansik Ritual along with over 80 students, greatly encouraging me to revive the name of peddlers. He is a representative figure who exerted efforts to correct improper description of peddlers. And he received good response from regional officials and citizens by delivering a special lecture on reviving the original title of peddlers.

The Naepo Festival held in 2010 reproduced the shape of the Hongdowon by exhibiting relics and pictures of past peddlers and by holding performance of peddling goods around the market by peddlers. They also reproduced the history of Hongju and ‘Wonhongju Yukgun Sangmu-sa’ with a documentary film. The documentary is a meaningful record, featuring more than 500 people.

After that we could arrange to display relics and remains of peddlers at the history museum of Hongju Fortress. We first planned to establish an independent exhibition hall, but we failed due to lack of financial support.

Q: Please introduce representative folk items among relics and remains of peddlers.
A: A representative document is the ‘Cheonggeumrok’, a list of executives of peddlers’ organizations. It is designated as the Important Folk Material No. 30-4. Originally, ‘Cheonggeumrok’ meant lists of students of Confucianism kept at the Seonggyungwan, lecture halls and regional schools.

We also keep an old document entitled ‘Seonsaeng Seonan’, a 12-piece folding screen, that contain records of 111 heads of the ‘Sangmu-sa’ including Im In-son, the first head. Other important seals and rules of the organization are displayed at the history museum of Hongju Fortress.

Q: In my young ages, I learned from school that those merchandisers are ‘Bobusang’ (peddler) and I am familiar with that title. But you insist to call them ‘Bubosang’ (peddler). Please explain the reason why you insist that.
According to the ‘Chaesinjabrok’, a miscellaneous record, written by Ji Bong-jib, when General Lee Seong-gye of Goryeo Dynasty (later the founder of Joseun Dynasty) was wounded in battle against Manchurian forces, Baek Dal-won, a peddler, saved his life by taking emergency treatment. Then, at the request of the peddler, General Lee Seong-gye promised to help peddlers. And later when General Lee came to throne as the founding king of the Joseon Dynasty, he bestowed a seal called ‘Yua Bubosang Jiinjang’(exclusive seal of peddler) along with a royal command for supporting peddlers. The king’s order cleared defined peddlers as ‘Bubosang’. But later, the Japanese colonial government intentionally changed peddler’s title to ‘Bobusang’ in its book entitled ‘Commerce of Korean People’ published in 1925. It was an attempt to weaken capacity of Korean peddlers who played major role in the Korean economy in those days and to dominate the distribution market structure by Japanese merchants and capital based on the Ganghwa Treaty concluded between Korea and Japan in 1876. It was one of actions of distorting the history such as those of damaging the national spirit of Korea by driving iron stakes into grounds across the country and indicating Korea’s East Sea as Sea of Japan.

Q: I feel uneasy as I think that there still remains distortions of history by Japan around the country. Would you explain about structure of peddlers and their roles?
In general, merchants can be divided into two groups ? merchants who receive customers at fixed places and those who move around in search of customers. The former is called a store keeper and latter is called a peddler. Peddlers are subdivided into two groups ? those who carried commodities on Korean A-frames and those who carried goods on the head by wrapping them in cloth. As most of A-frame-used peddlers are men, they mainly sold bulky goods, such as fishes, salt, earthenware and wooden containers. And women peddlers carried goods mainly on head or shoulder who mostly peddled small but high value goods, such as cotton clothes, silk, ramie clothes, writing supplies, gold, silver, copper products, accessories and cosmetics.

Q: Then, did they carry any signs of peddlers?
Of course. They carried various nameplates called ‘Chaejang’. The nameplate was inscribed with one’s affiliated group and name on its front side and code of conduct on its rear side, prohibiting lies, immoral actions, obscenity and burglary. They say it was based on 4 doctrines of community rules. It was the ethical code required for peddlers to earn trust both from producers and consumers.

Q: Besides their role as merchants, peddlers played other important roles for wellbeing of the country. Would you give some examples?
As they travelled around many regions for business, peddlers were very familiar with geography. During the Japanese Hideyoshi Invasion of Korea in the Year of Imjin (1592) and invasion of Manchurian Invasion of Korea in the year of Byeongja(1636), they helped army soldiers by transporting rice and weapons. And they even fought against invaders by organizing merchant army, while playing the role of emergency communication during rebellious incidents. They also supplied foods and daily necessities to people during social turbulences.

Q: I feel that peddlers always shared pleasure and pains with changes in history. Can you introduce any interesting culture of peddlers?
In their history, we find that they maintained friendly relations among themselves though they are colleagues and rivals at the same time. A typical example is that they had the custom of exchanging clothes each other. By occupational nature, they should have repeatedly met and departed each other on the road. They showed strong sense of ties by exchanging clothes saturated with unique scent. It is similar to actions of exchanging uniforms between rival soccer players after games in these days.

Q: It is really a humanistic story. Now I can have clear picture of forgotten peddlers in our history. I would like to know what you want as the head of the Sangmu-sa’.
There still exist many documents that wrongly defined peddlers as ‘Bobusang’. I want to correct this term to ‘Bubosang’ as bestowed by the founding king of the Joseon Dynasty. I also hope that historical value of peddlers will be reevaluated. In addition, I want youths will remember the existence of peddlers and their lofty vision will be soundly inherited to youths. Thank you for coming such a long way to meet me.
This road witnesses the life of peddlers who opened up economic flow by travelling around the country even though they were called ‘itinerant vendors’. At this meaningful event, we want to console their soul even for a moment and recollect their achievements. I feel that the ‘Hansik Ritual’ may provide peddlers with an opportunity of peddling around again under the clean sky. I appreciate hard work of Head Han Sang-in and members of the ‘Wonhongju Yukgun Sangmu-sa’ for preserving the historical site for over a decade.

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