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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Pobusang or pubosang

The peddlars who took care of most of the circulation of goods and merchandise in the country during the Chosôn (Joseon) era are nowadays known as pobusang (褓負商). There were actually two kinds of these, posang (褓商) and pusang (負商); the former carried and sold mostly small wares and the latter bigger merchandise like brassware and other bigger kitchenware. Now we learn from the site bubosang.net that the original term, allegedly coined by Yi Sông-gye or T'aejo, the founder of the state of Chosôn, would have been pubosang (負褓商), and that the more familiar term pobusang would be a result of the Japanese distortion of Korean history when they wanted to disparage the economic policies of Chosôn.

The story of the Japanese colonial scholarship on Korea is well known (better known than that scholarship itself), said to have contributed to the justification of the Japanese takeover of Korea. In that, the Japanese colonial scholarship would also have described the status of trade and traders as lower than it actually was, thus showing that without the Japanese help Korea would never have gotten out of that non-modern line of thinking. Sure, merchants were among the "good people" (yangin) and not among the "base" or "despised" (ch'ônmin), but I must have been reading terribly wrong books and understood everything terribly wrong for thinking that in few places did the premodern elite succeed so well in restricting commerce as in Korea. Perhaps the Chosôn era proponents (the so-called "Practical school" or sirhakp'a) of more active commerce and easening of the restriction of the participation of yangban in commerce were wrong in describing the official attitude towards commerce in Chosôn as marôp (末業) or ch'ônôp (賤業), "despised (or low) occupation". The Bubosang site tells that the four occupations of officials, peasants, artisans, and traders (sa-nong-kong-sang 士農工商) was not a ranking order but a term which indicated the four main livelihoods of the people (paeksông 百姓), excluding only the king and the slaves. The sa-nong-kong-sang would have been a ranking order of occupations in Japan!

Paying attention to the economic and commercial changes that took place during the late Chosôn period is all good and a lot of valuable research has been done, but all this goes so much towards unreasonable nationalism that important considerations of history go all spoilt. From the description of the truth behind pubosang:
Therefore the way (haengsil) of the pubosang, still in the consciousness of Korean merchants, is a truly noble example of merchant ethics (sangin chôngsin) and is in no way inferior.
Not inferior to what? Does it need to be said? And I was going to mention in passing in my thesis that the premodern forms and practices of trade are quite irrelevant to keeping a shop in the present-day Korea...

Update.
Kotaji's comment deserves to be lifted from the comments to the main page:
You're getting very close to the topic of my thesis here so I feel obliged to comment. I think one of the roots of the problem here (alongside the reflexive nationalism of much modern Korean historiography and its echoes of mechanistic Stalinist Marxism) is a Eurocentric (and in my opinion incorrect in the European context too) understanding of the role of commerce and merchants in the development of capitalism.

Merchants in precapitalist societies tended to be well integrated into the prevailing political-economic system. This was true in Europe as well, where merchants were usually happier with monopolies guaranteed by political elites than they were forging ahead to a brave new world on the basis of their supposed 'commercial spirit'. In fact the pobusang seem to have been one of the most conservative and strongly state-allied commercial groups in ChosOn. They were the people used by the government, if I remember rightly, as street thugs to break up the protests of the Independence Club in the 1890s.

This is not to say that the role of commerce and merchants in societies like ChosOn was static or lacking in contradictions, just that it was well integrated into the political-economic system of a tribute extracting elite.

The comment space is too short for the following quote of a newspaper article as a rejoinder to the comment above, so I add here a piece of article from a few years back about a book, which appears to attempt a thorough reassessment of the pobusang. Such an interesting thing, ways in which the ideas about premodern commerce and traders are presented in the contemporary Korea. But isn't that what's interesting in history in any case?
월봉저작상 수상 조재곤씨 “보부상도 근대화 지향”
조선일보 2002-04-10

“보부상은 근대화에 반대한 수구세력으로 인식됐지만, 황제권 강화를 통해 근대화를 지향한 이중적 측면을 지닌 존재였습니다.조재곤(趙宰坤•41) 서울대 한국문화연구소 선임연구원은 19세기 후반 보부상의 성장과 활동을 집중적으로 분석한 ‘한국 근대 사회와 보부상’(혜안출판사)으로 최근 제21회 월봉저작상 수상자로 선정됐다.
저작상 심사위원회(유영익 이기동 이태진)는 이 책이 “독립협회와 쌍벽을 이루던 황국협회의 결성과 갈등 구조를 살피는 데 비범한 성과를 거뒀고, 국권 함몰시기 보부상의 변천 과정 등 근대 상인자본의 원류 탐색에 성과가 탁월하다”고 평가했다. 조씨는 “보부상은 봉건 상인으로 알려진 것과는 달리 근대화의 필요성을 실감했고, 실제로 그 일익을 담당하려고 했다”고 말한다.
구한말 외세의 경제적 침탈에 대해 국내 상권 수호에 힘썼고, 상공학교 설립을 추진하는 한편, 경제지인 상무총보를 발간하는 등 근대적 지향을 분명히 했다는 것.
그는 “보부상은 19세기 중반 소규모 행상들이 영업 행위를 보장받기 위해 조직돼 1890년대 4만~5만명에 달하는 거대 조직으로 성장했다”고 말한다. 보성 학교를 설립한 이용익이 보부상 출신이고, 민족 자본가 이승훈도 평안도 일대에서 보부상을 했다는 설명이다.
그는 “보부상은 전통적 행상과 근대적 상인을 연결하는 중간적 존재”라고 말했다.
전통시대 상인(商人) 전문가에게 최근 인기를 끈 사극 ‘상도’에 대해 물었다.그는 “상인들의 활동을 역동적으로 그린 것은 흥미롭지만, 송상과 만상의 갈등을 지나치게 강조하는 등 역사적 사실을 왜곡한 측면이 많다”고 아쉬워했다.
월봉 저작상은 일제시대 언론과 민족운동에 헌신한 월봉 한기악(月峰 韓基岳) 선생을 기리기 위해 1975년 제정됐다. 시상식은 10일 오후 4시 대한출판문화협회 회관 4층 강당에서 열린다.(02)732-3333
/김기철기자 kichul@chosun.com

And for the last, the interested can access a movie file of a 1991 TV documentary piece on traditional marketplaces and the pobusang at prof. Lee Mun-woon'g visual anthropology archive.

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