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...
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.
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”
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.
Categories at del.icio.us/hunjang: businesskeepers ∙ Koreanhistory ∙ modernization ∙ Koreanlanguage