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Unformatted text preview: Rice and Koreans: Three Identities and Meanings Hahm Hanhee Abstract This paper presents the way Koreans have distinctively conceptualized rice throughout its history of agriculture. In the minds of Koreans, rice does not exist as a single object. There are three different identities within the single physical conceptual category of rice. They are “byeo,” “ssal,” and “bap,” and each has its own cultural realm, function, and meaning. “Byeo” as a plant is considered to exist in a world of nature controlled by Heaven and the gods. In the process of growing, it encourages a spirit of cooperation and communal way of living. After the harvest, “ssal,” the grain from the ears of “byeo” becomes such a commodity that “ssal” has generated tension and conflict between the wealthy landlords and poor tenant cultivators. “Bap,” another form of rice, exists within the realm of the family. The quality of “bap” in its distribution on the everyday meal table corresponds with the structure of patriarchy. However, when families start to eat “bap,” this normative structure can be turned upside down. Unlike in the English language and its associated cultures, the articulations of rice in Korean have been meticulously developed to describe rice in terms of growing, producing, and cooking, a differentiation that grew naturally out of a long history of rice cultivation. Even though Korea now witnesses its agricultural economy rapidly shrinking, the foundation of the Korean people’s morality, values, and worldview are embedded in the culture of rice farming. Keywords: rice culture, cultural identity, moral economy of rice, community spirit, rice as commodity, family structure Hahm Hanhee (Ham, Han-hui) is Professor of Anthropology at Chonbuk National University. She received her Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1990. She has authored several books and articles, including A Cultural History of the Kitchen (2005) and “Korean Culture Seen through Westerners’ Eyes” (2003). E-mail: [email protected] 90 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2005 Introduction This study considers the distinctive Korean cultural concepts regarding rice. In the minds of Koreans, rice does not exist as a single object. There are at least three different identities within the single physical conceptual category of rice, such as mo and byeo (young plants),1 ssal (hulled rice), and bap (cooked rice). Koreans are often confused by the English term “rice” since, by the use of such a word, rice is simplified into a single object through the Western classification. This linguistic difference between English and Korean is also directly related to the fact that each language speaker understands the object(s) in a different way. Unlike in English, the articulations of rice in Korean have been meticulously developed to describe rice in terms of growing, producing, and cooking, differentiations that grew naturally out of the fact that rice cultivation has long been the basis of the Korean livelihood. Nonetheless, the studies on rice in Korean scholarship have uncritically drawn upon the analytical framework developed by English speaking scholars who consider rice to be a singular entity. There are countless studies about rice but few have clearly reflected ordinary Koreans’ concepts of rice. Previous studies on rice have focused on the importance of rice to the politics, economy and culture at both national and local levels. Those who study agriculture, folklore, and social sciences have respectively developed their own research approaches to the subject of rice. For instance, in the study of agriculture, the focus is on the systems of rice production, such as land, labor, and other technical development.2 In the social sciences, rice as a major staple food is studied as a part of the political economy. Class structures, tenant disputes, and agricultural policies have been exhaustively investigated by researchers engaged in an analysis of 1. There are two different stages of young rice plants, mo and byeo. Mo is called a very young stage of the plant and it is also distinguished from byeo, the later stage of the rice plant. 2. In relations to the topics of rice and rice agriculture, many books, thesis, and reports have been published by Korean Rural Economic Institute. 91 Rice and Koreans the political economy of rice (Jo D. 1983; Choe J. 1975; Kim B. 2004; Bak et al. 1984; Sin 1979; Yi H. 1991, 1998; Yi U. 1986; Yi Y. 1998).3 In the study of folklore, the focus has been rice’s cultural aspects (Korean Folklore Society 1994). Rice in folklore is seen as either a symbol of wealth or as the heart of the Korean spirit (Jang 1975, 1989; In 1993; Yi H. 1991). In this paper, by delineating various forms attributed to rice, I will explore a unique connotation of each. Rice: Why Not National Food? Although nowadays farmers consist of only approximately seven percent of the Korean population and the agricultural economy constitutes 4.3% of the nation’s GDP,4 rice remains a special resource for Koreans. Since the beginning of industrialization in the 1960s, Korea has quickly lost its farming population.5 Because of the quick transformation of the nation’s economy, rice farming has also decreased in significance in the nation’s industry. However, Koreans still have special cultural attitudes and historical memories of rice that have contributed to its continued importance in Korea. First, Koreans are proud of the history of rice planting in their country. Rice planting in Korea can be traced back to one thousand years BC Archeological evidence shows that people living on the Korean peninsula started to plant rice from the latter period of the Neolithic Age or the early Bronze Age in about 2000 BC (National Museum of Korea 2000, 11). Having the benefit of such a long history has made it possible for Koreans not only to develop rice farming techniques, but also to embed the culture of rice farming into the daily life of Koreans (Choe H. 1997; Yi C. 1991). Because of its histor- 3. Several references among many are selected here. 4. Korea National Statistical Office, March 2005. . 5. Korean farm population was 14,400,000 in 1970 and has decreased into 3,400,000 in 2004. In about a thirty year period, the farm population was reduced by one fourth. The statistics are from Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, March 2005. 92 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2005 ical and cultural importance, Korean farmers have identified themselves as superior agriculturalists among farmers from other rice farming countries. Farmers have been proud of the quality of Korean rice. Old retired farmers living in the Gimje plains, one of the largest rice farming areas in Korea, who I met during my fieldwork, told me that rice from Gimje used be the “best.” According to my informants, even the Japanese royal family preferred damageum, which was a special variety of rice produced in Korea, to the rice produced in Japan during the colonial era. The Gimje farmers are not unique in their attitude that the quality of their own variety is second to none; their counterparts in other rice farming areas have the same feeling about their own varieties. In terms of consumption, Koreans are the most dependent on rice. Regardless of locality or social class, most Koreans prefer to eat rice during every meal. Even though the Westernized life styles of city dwellers have provided other options for breakfast, according to a recent survey, seventy-five to eighty percent of Koreans still eat rice for breakfast everyday (An M. 1992). Yet, Japanese and Chinese have shown a change of their eating habits in that they prefer bread or porridge to rice at breakfast for the sake of convenience. Koreans have not conceded their tradition and preferences in this way. Given that rice has long been the major staple food and remains important to the everyday life of Koreans, it could be thought of as strange that rice is not identified as the most representative Korean food. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the Korean government chose kimchi (gimchi) and bulgogi (marinated beef) as the representative national food. Since then, the two dishes have been the most popular Korean food for foreigners. Some wonder why kimchi was chosen over rice as a symbol of Korean culture. Han Kyung-Koo, a cultural anthropologist, speculates that rice may not be thought of as a distinctive food (Han 1994, 53). Many other countries also eat rice as their major staple food. Even the Japanese identify themselves with rice according to relevant studies (Ohnuki-Tierney 1993). However, according to Han, kimchi is thought to be very unique and distinctive so that it can be more easily identified with Koreans. His argument is 93 Rice and Koreans quite compelling, drawing upon Lévi-Strauss’s explanatory framework suggesting that food is selected for consumption not because it is “good to eat” but because it is “good to think” (Lévi-Strauss 1966). It is correct to say that kimchi is “good to think” because, historically, no countries other than Korea have eaten kimchi, not even her close neighbors, China and Japan. While kimchi is distinctive to Korea and Koreans, rice is not. According to this line of argument, rice is too well-known and too plain to stand for Korean identity. However, it is still insufficient an explanation as to why rice cannot be a representative food for Koreans. I would argue that rice is really difficult to think as the sole symbol of Korea or even one of the symbols of Korea not because rice is ordinary and indistinctive, but because for Koreans, rice has a variety of forms and each form has a distinctive implication in the Korean culture. In the notions of Koreans, rice does not exist as a single object in the way that it is simplified in the Western way of classification. In comparison to the Western conception of rice as a single entity, in Korean thought, there are three to four different identities within the single physical concept of rice and each identity delineates a different function and meaning for the general concept of rice. Koreans are confused by the idea of rice as a single concept. Koreans have developed their own epistemological view of rice in the course of its long history as a part of its agricultural livelihood. It is thus necessary to understand the Koreans’ own cultural concepts on rice in detail. Byeo, Ssal, and Bap As briefly noted above, the English term, rice, has three different terms and meanings in Korean; byeo means young plant; ssal means hulled grain; and bap means cooked rice.6 Farmers begin to prepare for rice farming in the early spring. They nurture sprouts from the 6. Here I consider mo and byeo as the same analytical category even if farmers differentiate them in cultivation. 94 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2005 seeds and plant them in the seedbed during April and early May. The sprouts are called mo and the seedbed is mopan. After waiting for about a month while mo grows in the seedbed, farmers transplant the baby mo to the rice fields in May and early June. Traditionally, transplanting was the most difficult farm job. It required intensive labor over a short period of time. Group work or cooperation among neighbors was indispensable, so before the mechanization of Korean agriculture industry, farmers established various forms of labor cooperatives such as communal work and labor exchange institutions in order to cope with the large amount of work necessary for transplanting (Ju 1995; Kim J. 1992; Bak S. 1991). After transplanting, mo grows quickly in fields filled with water, and then grows into byeo under the summer heat. Once the plant grows large enough to cover the field, farmers call it byeo. In the early fall, byeo starts to ripen. In July, byeo produces an ear of rice. At the end of the summer, byeo’s head bows as the ears of rice get heavier. An ear of rice is called isak and plants whose ears get heavier are called isak paenda. The ripeness of ears of rice alerts the farmers as to when the harvest time will be. Farmers are ready to harvest in the early fall. Byeo Seen as Heaven’s Offering It takes six to seven months for the sprouting mo to transform into the harvest byeo, depending upon the natural environment. Mo and byeo are different stages of the rice plant. They are natural resources that the farmers believe belong to nature, Heaven or an agricultural god, regardless of who actually owns the plants. According to farmers’ understanding of cosmology, the farmers are responsible for the rice plant and must take care of them but the eventual success of a farming season and a good harvest is always in the hands of supernatural forces. The farmers must ask for help from these gods every step of the way. Every year, from the first day of New Year, farmers dedicate various religious rituals to the god(s) through elaborate food sacrifices. Because of the farmers’ beliefs that mo and byeo are natural Rice and Koreans 95 resources bestowed unto them by the god(s), the farmers care for mo and byeo collectively. They share labor, tools, farming animals, and information. This system of cooperation for planting and growing mo and byeo is the traditional norm. The farmers who grow mo and byeo consider themselves to be legitimate cultivators acknowledged by Heaven.7 They are expected to cooperate with each other, be humble so as to hear the voice of nature, follow the rules of the agricultural god and wait until Heaven’s orders. During the mo and byeo planting season, farming villages are filled with the spirit of cooperation, modest sense of living, and spirituality. In fact, at each stage of the rice season, farmers used to regularly engage in worship of Heaven and gods who were in charge of rain, land, agriculture, as well as to all the other gods related to farming. These religious rituals are accompanied by village festivals (Yi S. 1993). In order to grow mo and byeo, farmers form various work units. The smallest work unit is a family and a larger unit is made up of neighbors. The largest team is the village communal work team that is set up for the transplanting season regularly each year and for the construction or repairs of reservoirs and water routes on special occasions. The village work team helps the poor families that do not have enough labor. The elderly, widows, and sick people also benefit from the village’s cooperative work team. The following is a memoir of an old farmer in a rice farming village in Gimje, Jeollabuk-do province: Dure was a kind of farming ritual in which we did communal work on the rice field together, playing drums and other musical instruments. After transplanting we usually practiced dure three times in a row during a busy summer season; dure for the first weeding, chobeol maegi, jaebeol maegi for the second, and for the third weeding, sebeol maegi. In our village, the 15th day of July by the lunar calendar, baekjung, is the last day of communal weeding and gardening. On the last day of a series of dure, villagers gathered to drink wine, play musical instruments, and dance. The baekjung fes- 7. Farmers are the foundation of the world, Nongja cheonha ji daebon ( 農 者 天 下 之 大 本 ) . 96 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2005 tival called sulmaegi8 was the most fun time for us. Throughout the farming season farmers usually carry out a series of communal work in order to best grow mo and byeo. They carry out weeding and trimming in the rice fields regularly. It is a painstaking job that is always followed by entertainment. Village women prepare food and wine for the dure workers. Dure is the multifunctional institution for farmers to enhance their community spirit through work, to help the poor and weak, and to enjoy themselves by playing musical instruments, singing, and dancing together (Jo G. 1987, 156). Ssal as Commodity In the fall, farmers are busy harvesting the byeo that are fully matured with heavy ears. When byeo turns into the color of gold and rice fields are covered with this fully grown byeo, Koreans call it a golden rice field. The term has a double meaning. The golden color implies a good harvest and farmers’ happiness that results. Gold also implies money and wealth. In the agricultural economy, rice was used as a monetary exchange unit. Once byeo turns gold, its character changes along with its color and shape. Unlike immature byeo, the golden byeo is ready to become a commodity. Matured byeo is thrashed and yields ssal, the husked rice. After ssal comes out of byeo, it no longer belongs to the realm of nature and Heaven but belongs to the owners of the rice field. It means that ssal becomes a commodity and then gets enmeshed in the Korean political economy. As indicated above, English speakers do not differentiate ssal from byeo, which are two very different objects for Koreans. Koreans are aware of the differences in the rice plant in each growing period. The rice plant has a different identity, as well as a different name, for each period of its development. There are three distinctive stages of growth: mo, byeo, and ssal. I analyzed the stages of mo and byeo 8. Sulmaegi means “drinking festival.” Rice and Koreans 97 together because the two stages have common cultural meanings. However, ssal, unlike byeo and mo, raises issues of rent payment, tenancy contracts, ownership of land, state taxes, market prices etc. Landowners always tried to get more ssal out of the land and the government found ways to collect more taxes on the ssal. Historically, ssal was an object that was firmly controlled by the wealthy and powerful in Korea (An B. 1995, Hahm 1992). As long as ssal remained a valuable economic item, people competed with one another for limited ownership rights. The ruthless competition over this valuable resource created clashes between the haves and the have-nots. During the Joseon dynasty, class conflicts between the yangban (noblemen) landlords and the peasant cultivators were significant (Ko 1998; Bak M. 1997). The angry peasants who were often stripped of their legitimate share of yields fought against exploitation by the yangban landlords. Many of the poor peasants at the time did not possess enough land for subsistence so they were forced to rent agricultural land from rich landlords and paid annual rent to the landlords. From the Joseon period to the colonial period, rent for agricultural land in Korea was 50% to 60% of the total yield. The tenants paid rent with rice, usually in the husked form of ssal. Agents of the landlords collected rent on the spot at the harvest (Hahm 1992). An old retired farmer from Seosan, Chungcheongnam-do, told a story of how he and other tenants survived in the midst of economic hardship when Korean agricultural communities were very poor.9 Until the 1960s, many rich people in Korea held agricultural land as the major source of income. The farmer in Seosan was a tenant of a major landlord who resided in his village. In general, village-resident landlords, who were called jaechon jiju, were more generous with their tenants in collecting rent and with respect to other matters than the other type of landlords, called bujae jiju, who did not live in the villages. These nonresident landlords did not have any relationships 9. For more details, see my paper (Hahm 2000) addressing the farmers’ stories of the socioeconomic changes in the Seosan area during the 20th century. 98 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2005 with their tenants on a daily basis and were not aware of how difficult it was for the tenant cultivators to grow rice in the unfriendly natural environment. There were many difficult situations faced by tenants in order to produce a good harvest. No matter how difficult their situations were, tenants were supposed to pay rent on 50% of the annual yields in addition to paying management fees, such as extra expenditures for fertilizers or a water tax, and even had to use their own farm tools. In a year when there was drought, flood or any other unexpected disaster, the ...
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