Whose Mountains are These?: Elite and Nonelite Perceptions of Mountains in Chosŏn Korea


Thursday, March 23, 2023, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Thomas Chan-Soo Kang Room (S050), CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

Korea Colloquium

Whose Mountains are These?: Elite and Nonelite Perceptions of Mountains in Chosŏn Korea

Michael Pettid
Professor of Premodern Korean Studies, Binghamton University (SUNY)

Michael Pettid is Professor of Korean Studies at Binghamton University where he has taught since 2003. The focus of his research and teaching is premodern Korea's history, literature, religion, and culture. His most recent books are the co-edited volumes of Premodern Korean Literary Prose (Columbia University Press, 2018) and Death, Mourning, and the Afterlife in Korea: Critical Aspects of Death from Ancient to Contemporary Times (University of Hawaii Press, 2014); he also has monographs of Unyŏng-on: A Love Affair at the Royal Palace of Chosŏn Korea (Institute of East Asian Studies, UC Berkeley), and Korean Cuisine: An Illustrated History (Reaktion Books, 2008) among numerous other publications. His most recent publication is a co-authored and annotated translation of a nineteenth century guidebook for women, the Kyuhap ch’ongsŏ [The Encyclopedia of Daily Life] (University of Hawaii Press, 2021).  

Chaired by Si Nae Park, Associate Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University


While some 70% of the Korean peninsula is mountainous and thus not suited for the type of agriculture practiced in valleys and flood plains, it was nonetheless home to a significant population during Chosŏn. Here we can find a diverse group of residents and visitors, ranging from hunters and slash-and-burn farmers to bandits and escaped slaves, to upper status visitors to the scenic peaks and waterfalls in the mountains. For the upper status males (and the occasional female) that visited the famous peaks, the mountains represented a Confucian perfection of the cosmos embodied in these, to them, unspoiled places. Unlike the phantom mountains found in Western works, these were well known and often frequented peaks that helped these men literally mark their places in history alongside their forefathers. The carvings could be ancient: Yu Mongin (1559-1623) wrote of seeing the name of Yongnang, a leader of an elite youth group in the Silla Kingdom (57BCE-935CE), carved on many famous peaks. Thus, for the elites, the mountains were a means to connect with the great men of past epochs, a place to join with them, and a muse for poems and other writings.

Yet this take on the mountains fully denies the presence of many other individuals who in no way saw such historic luster or Confucian sublimity in the peaks and valleys. Rather these people struggled for survival utilizing slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting, and gathering greens and herbs. Life was harsh, isolated and at times full of loneliness. They not only had to contend with predatory animals such as tigers, wolves and bears, but also bandits and runaway slaves who were certainly not above taking whatever they needed for survival. For them this was no utopian retreat, but rather a stand of last resort, the only thread on which they could fight for survival.

Finally, somewhere in the midst of this milieu we also take note the thriving shamanic and Buddhist traditions based in mountains. Buddhist temples, which had been banned from the capital by Confucian lawmakers in the fifteenth century, now relocated fully to the mountainous parts of the peninsula. Thus, a steady stream of pilgrims made their way to the mountains to visit the temples. Likewise, shamans, also persecuted by the elites, held rites in these same mountains for a wide variety of causes. With all of these visitors—both elite and non-elite—there was even more interaction with residents of these regions.

My project aims to show the shadow society that existed in the mountains, one that had little connection with the dominant values and norms found in the capital or even present in the farming or fishing villages that lay below. While those living in the mountains were not necessarily above the law, they were oftentimes living beyond the reach of the law. This gave them a certain autonomy in their lives and further helped develop unique cultural practices that were absent elsewhere. I will also note the unique relationship that they cultivated with the environs of the mountains, one quite unlike what was found elsewhere.


To attend this online event, please register here.

Generously supported by the Young Chul Min Memorial Fund at the Korea Institute, Harvard University