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ETHNONYMS: Hwach'ǒk, Paekchong, Yangsuch'ǒk


Identification. These ethnonyms (and also some others: Such'ǒk Kwangdae, Chaein, and so on) refer to members of the little-known but significant (in terms of both numbers and economic impact) social minority that comprised distinctive "outcaste" communities throughout much of Korean social history. Distinctive Korean outcaste communities are no longer extant. Their stigma initially derived from a proclivity to pursue rude and peripatetic lifestyles at a time when the majority Korean culture was becoming settled, agricultural, and Buddhist; it was then fixed by a rigid social system into an inherited occupational trait-complex that centered on butchering cattle.

The position of Korean outcastes in relation to the three major social classes of Yi-dynasty Korea (a.d. 1392-1910) can be thought of in terms of a pyramid. At the apex was the scholar-gentry class (yangmin ). Commoners (sangmin ) comprised the numerical majority, and were principally free-born farmers. At the base of the pyramid were the low-born (ch'onmin), mainly slaves. The outcastes were also at the bottom and were not only low-born but separate from the main body of Korean society (and therefore not -min, or "nonhuman"); they were truly extrasocietal. In addition to butchering, outcastes also mastered and monopolized a constellation of satellite industries and occupations, together with complex networks of skills and services, upon which the Korean majority society, in peace and at war, depended. Outcaste communities were known by different ethnonyms that correspond roughly with the successive dynastic periods in Korea: the Unified Silla period (Kolisuch'ǒk, Yangsuch'ǒk, AD. 660-935); Koryo (Hwach'ǒk, Such'ǒk, Chaein, 9351392); and Yi, or Choson (Paekchong, Kwangdae, 13921910). Prolonged spatial and social marginalization of indigenous Koreans into an outcaste social minority promoted the development of some distinct ethnic characteristics in their communities. Accordingly, their everyday lives became secretive and unknown to majority Korean society, which anyway found them repulsive and uninteresting. Owing to the rapid and near total assimilation of outcastes into mainstream Korean society during the latter half of the twentieth century, the opportunity to develop any detailed and balanced picture of their community life has passed.

Location. Korea is an extremely mountainous peninsula extending southward from the Manchurian plain of Eurasia, projecting over 8° of latitude into the Pacific basin, and creating there a partial bridge between the continent and the western Pacific island arcs near Japan. Summers throughout most of the peninsula are humid and hot, and winters are cold and dry. This seasonal climate encourages farming, but steep terrain limits agricultural production to merely one-fifth of the land surface.

Demography. Outcastes may have originated as small bands of protohistoric riverine migrants. If so, their activities dispersed away from, and back into, a multitude of river valleys according to the cycle of seasons. Little effort was made to enumerate the outcaste minority during subsequent dynastic times. As polluting and untouchable "nonpeople," outcastes were administered "at a distance," and went uncounted during many censuses. Owing to their successful economic niche and accessibility to meat protein, their numbers increased during the dynastic period. Some dramatic population and economic gains for outcaste communities coincided with the Mongol invasion beginning in 1231, when non-Buddhist meat eaters and their allies, including exotic butchers and entertainers from central Asia, entered and occupied the entire peninsula for nearly a century, thereby enriching the skills and gene pool of the indigenous Korean outcaste society. A registration of outcaste peoples toward the end of the nineteenth century placed their number at approximately 50,000. During the middle of the Japanese occupation period (1910-1945) Korean Paekchong were estimated at over 40,000 individuals comprising 8,000 households and inhabiting as many as 350 distinct settlements. This estimate is considered low. The Paekchong were widely distributed throughout the peninsula at that time, with their largest numbers in the southern provinces of the land. The changing distribution of outcaste communities throughout the peninsula during past times was influenced by spatial changes in the demand for their inherited industrial monopolies and the service specialties and goods they supplied. Except for troubled times of famine, war, and political upheaval, when their reliance on the nomadic life-style had some adaptive value, service nomads of the Unified Silla period in general became more sedentary during the Koryo and Yi periods as the class structure solidified. Early on the outcastes' numbers were small and their distributions dispersed out from, and contracted into, a multitude of river valleys according to the cycle of seasons. To the extent that the outcastes were armorers and camp followers, their distributions varied with the fortunes of war. For example, in response to the increasing threat of land invasions during the Koryo dynasty, many outcastes were relocated by the government into the northern provinces. Many returned to itinerancy and marauding toward the end of the Koryo period. Later, these unruly outcastes became temporarily fixed in space when coerced by the early Yi government into abandoning their inherited itinerant ways to become farmers. This opportunity to assimilate into majority Korean society was short-lived. The economic trade-off for respectability was unpopular with the outcastes. More important, majority society vehemently and successfully resisted their assimilation, which threatened to "pollute" both its class system and village living space with the erstwhile untouchables. Thereafter, itinerancy remained a popular option in the outcaste community's occupational trait complex, and the widespread distribution of outcastes on the peninsula was guaranteed.

Linguistic Affiliation. Korean was the language of the outcastes. However, distinctiveness in speech and gesture is noted in some accounts. A dialect would be one outcome of this indigenous minority's long history of extreme social marginalization, ghettoization, and exclusive economic monopolies.

History and Cultural Relations

As indicated, Korea's outcaste communities could have evolved from the early marginalization of indigenous bands of riverine migrants, principally hunter-gatherer basketmakers, by sedentary agriculturalists. In this scenario, the villagedwelling Korean majority came to require and then demand the specialized goods and services of itinerant Korean "outsiders," but were wary of them on account of divergent lifestyles. Over time, prejudice led to hostility. Vague reasons for suspicion became rationalized with the successful introduction of Buddhism on the peninsula after a.d. 372. After several centuries, concepts of "pollution" and "untouchability" became institutionalized under Korean Buddhism. As time progressed further, a rigid class structure that totally excluded the outcastes was implemented and enforced by the majority society. This oppressive system solidified during the middle Yi dynasty. The beginning of egalitarian social reform did not begin to erode this system until 1894, when revised laws freed outcastes from inheriting inferior status in Korean society. Some related laws, however, deprived them of their inherited occupational monopolies, which resulted in increased economic hardships. Although the occupations of the erstwhile outcastes were no longer tainted and open to anyone, prejudice against them hardly diminished for the next fifty years. In the general opinion of the majority society during this period, successive centuries of untouchable status had tainted their bloodlines; Paekchong were considered polluted no matter what they did. Examples of some of the more degrading aspects of outcaste relations with majority Korean society during the Yi dynasty offer some insight into the evolution of an ethnic underclass on the peninsula. Most significant, marriage laws restricted outcastes to selecting mates from their own communities, isolating their gene pool. Perhaps this is why non-Koreans were acceptable for assimilation into outcaste society. Dress codes made outcastes immediately recognizable, whereupon a multitude of oppressive interpersonal social conventions were set into motion, designed to perpetuate by law the tremendous spatial and social gap that existed between a submissive minority and a dominant majority. Korea's untouchables, for example, were not permitted to wear the leather shoes they manufactured, but were restricted to straw sandals. They could not wear horsehair hats, nor travel by horseback, nor even cross the threshold into a "respectable" person's courtyard. Moreover, prevailing etiquette permitted children of the high-born to "speak down" to adult outcastes. This oppressive regime was only tolerable to outcastes because they enjoyed important legal rights of economic interaction with the members of majority society. These rights of access, however much circumscribed by humiliating conventions, protected the economy of the outcastes and promoted their livelihood and collective destiny. For example, settled outcastes were entitled to (and eventually licensed to) territorial rights to perform at local weddings and funerals and to butcher for village festivals. And, when slaughtering, the choicest morsels belonged to the butchers. In addition, outcastes were paid an annual tribute in rice by villagers for their entertainment and ceremonial services. Whatever pent-up resentment the degraded outcastes held toward the dominant majority society no doubt gained some release whenever an outcaste was called upon to torture and execute one of its members.


Physical marginalization of sedentary outcaste communities isolated them in hamlets just beyond the periphery of most Korean villages. This peripheral location kept them available and controlled, and spared sensitive Buddhists and Neo-Confucians the cries and odors of animal slaughter. Modifications in their living space to accommodate the special requirements of their industries and occupations distinguished outcaste settlements from majority Korean settlements. No matter how prosperous, outcaste families were forbidden tiled roofs on their homes; a uniformity of straw roofs became characteristic of the outcaste settlement.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The price paid by outcastes for their secure niche in Korean economic history has always been their dignity. Their inherited occupational trait complex, viewed over the long term, has centered on the butchering of cattle. This specialized economic niche was guaranteed to them in a.d. 525 when a law was enacted that required everyone to adopt the strictures of Buddhism, and especially forbade the killing of animals for food. There are numerous additional occupations and industries monopolized by outcastesmany itinerant in naturethat seemingly are unrelated to sedentary butchering. For example, an old Korean maxim relates that "a butcher dies with a willow leaf in his mouth." This offers some insight into the evolution of a variegated outcaste economy: another name for the earliest hunting-gathering Kolisuch'ǒk was "Yangsuch'ǒk," meaning "willow-basket wanderers." Among all indigenous Korean communities, these itinerants were most open to accepting orphans and outsiders into their society. This would have accelerated their marginalization by the more conservative indigenous majority on the peninsula. With the introduction of Buddhism, marginalization of the Kolisuch'ǒk began to become more institutionalized. Rather than just some unsubdued wandering tribes of the past, vaguely defined, the Kolisuch'ǒk communities were observed from the Buddhist perspective to survive by willingly breaking two of Buddhism's eight commandments, and for these transgressions they were "unclean," "untouchable," and despised. These two commandments prohibited the killing of living things and having frivolous economic pursuits (e.g., singing, dancing, acting). Outcaste industries and occupations were therefore either degrading (involving pain, blood, and death) or diverting (involving frivolity). Historically, this covered a wide array of goods and services that were unavailable, impractical, or forbidden to the "respectable" members of majority Korean society, who nevertheless demanded them. Moore cites seven classes of outcaste occupations from the Yi period: servants of the sheriff who beat people, etc.; buffoons, or traveling singers; butchers; basketmakers; sorceresses (female shamans); dancing girls; and makers of leather shoes. We can find a lowest common denominator in the hunting, butchering, executing, and basketmaking outcastes, in their peculiarfor Buddhist Koreadisregard for life. We can also identify a skill complex common to all of these occupations, one that centers on the knife as a symbolic artifact for the outcaste community. Once marginalized, the Kolisuch'ǒk were predisposed to expanding their economy into butchering, the marketing of animal skins, and the manufacture of leather footwear. The recurring exigencies of warfare on the peninsula rewarded basket-making leatherworkers, who manufactured woven shields sheathed in hides. We also observe the considerable overlapping of the degrading occupations and the diverting occupations, as ritual slaughter, music, and dancing all become monopolized over time by the outcaste minority; for example, outcaste jugglers sometimes tossed balls they had crafted from the organs of animals. Although early Yi government attempts to settle and assimilate outcastes as farmers were unsuccessful, by the early twentieth century many Paekchong, lately deprived of their hereditary monopolies and guaranteed income, had finally turned to agricultural pursuits, at least on a part-time basis. Remnants of the traditional itinerant outcaste economy and community persisted even into the early 1980s in some tiny, family-operated traveling circuses and medicine shows. These are but a shadow of conditions a scant century ago, when the outcaste economy thrived, and dosa (butchers), upa (dancing and singing troupes), ch'anggi (retired female entertainers and prostitutes), chup'a (female wine sellers), necha (puppeteers), macho (gamblers), and hwarang (comic magicians) itinerants traversed the peninsula. Female sorcery has more recently become co-opted and romanticized by the Korean government as part of its tourism and folklore industry, but is clearly dissociated from the Korean Paekchong tradition, which apparently embarrasses everyone and is never mentioned. The butchering of cattle remains a ubiquitous industry in Korea and is still distasteful to many Koreans, yet proceeds today without social stigma.

Industrial Arts. In addition to assorted leather manufacturing and basketwork, metalworking eventually became an outcaste industry but was never their exclusive domain.

Division of Labor. Men killed and butchered cattle, and stripped bark from the willow (a process that Buddhists equated with animal slaughter). Dog catching and butchering occupied both young and old males. Women's tasks may have included some killing of small animals, for example the sacrifice of a chicken by a sorceress (mudang ). Bartering baskets became primarily a female specialty. Increased door-to-door peddling of basketwork provided outcastes with opportunities to experiment with other sources of income: entertainment, healing, and exorcism, for example. A tendency evolved in Korean majority society to attribute sacred powers to the mudang, and this parallels the gradual stereotyping of Gypsy women in the West. Among all outcastes, female entertainers and prostitutes achieved closer physical (as contrasted with social) contacts with members of the male "respectable" classes, and this perhaps best illustrates subtle differences between Hwach'ǒk-type (degraded; male; "untouchable") and Chaein-type (frivolous; female; "touchable") categories of outcastes that have always existed.

Land Tenure. The Korean outcaste economy has been characterized as productive but nonagricultural. Many outcastes were itinerant, or semi-itinerant, so questions of land tenure are inappropriate for them. If successful sedentary communities of outcastes ever accumulated substantial capital and property during the dynastic era, these quantities and their distribution are unknown. Known Paekchong-owned agricultural lands of the early twentieth century were subsequently vacated, owing to a rapid dissipation of most Paekchong culture bearers into mainstream urban-industrial society, facilitating their search for anonymity.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kin Groups and Descent. Compared to the majority Korean society, knowledge of outcaste kin-group structure and organization is minimal. Outcastes were unmotivated to embrace a tradition of memorizing or writing genealogies (chokpo ) like "respectable" peoples.

Marriage and Family. Insufficient data preclude any meaningful discussion of marriage customs and domesticity for Korean outcastes as distinct from majority Korean society. In view of their "special" status and peculiar inherited rights and obligations, however, the socialization of outcastes must have differed significantly from the Korean social norm. In their nonagricultural, landless economy, inheritance centered more on the transfer of skills than of property. This helped to facilitate a rapid readaptation of settled outcastes to itinerant lifestyles, as necessary.

Sociopolitical Organization

Outcaste communities were internally self-governing, but detailed descriptions are unavailable.


The original Kolisuch'ǒk riverine migrants were no doubt animists. Throughout the past millennium outcastes were anathema to Korean Buddhists, Taoists, and Neo-Confucians. At the same time, their contributions in the service of these religions were significant, as outcastes were the longtime purveyors of incantations, charms, occult services, and sacrificial meat to the general public. Outcaste slaughtering for village ceremonies was sometimes preceded by swordplay and sword dancing. This suggests some convergence of ritual sacrifice and entertainment during the past. Their own prevailing religious convictions during most of the dynastic period (for example, whether or not outcastes practiced an ethnic religion) are unclear. They were especially attracted to Christianity when this opportunity finally arose toward the very end of the Yi period, but many "respectable" Korean Christians even then resented their involvement.

See also Burakumin; Korean


Chang, D. H. (1974). "A Study of the Korean Cultural Minority: The Paekchong." In Traditional Korea: Theory and Practice, edited by A. C. Nahm, 55-87. Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Center for Korean Studies.

Moore, S. F. (1898). "The Butchers of Korea." The Korean Repository 5:127-132.

Passin, Herbert (1956-1957). "The Paekchong of Korea." Monumenta Nipponica 12:195-240.

Rao, A., ed. (1987). The Other Nomads: Peripatetic Minorities in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Cologne and Vienna: Bohlau.

Soon, M. R. (1974). "The Paekchong: Untouchables of Korea." Hong Kong Journal of Oriental Studies 12:30-40.