An outdoor play where a Paekchong is about to kill a bull. In pre-modern Korea, the Paekchong were outcastes whose occupations tended to involve the taking of life, like butchery, leather making, and capital punishment. (source: Jon Dunbar, link)
Like Japan with its Burakumin, Korea used to have its own outcastes: the Paekchong (or Baekjeong). Today, they no longer exist as an identifiable group, and even their name is largely unknown to younger Koreans (Rhim, 1974). As late as the mid-20th century, however, they still numbered over 50,000, with most living in segregated ghettoes (Passin, 1956).
The Paekchong were considered behaviorally different. This was in fact the original reason for segregating them:
The Paekchong had to live in segregated communities not only by popular custom, but also by law, since the 15th century. According to the provisions of the Compilations of National Laws known as the Kyongguk-taejon, the Paekchong were limited to residence in only certain areas of the capital as well as in certain areas throughout the provinces. The rationale for these laws was that the Paekchong were originally vicious and uncivilized, and they enjoyed killing animals. They were, therefore, kept apart from the ordinary people in order to maintain public peace and public morals. (Rhim, 1974)
This view appears in the recollections of a Korean from a small farming town:
I remember very well,” he told me, “that when our parents scolded us for improper behavior, they used to call us ‘paekchong’. […] We thought of them as vulgar, unrefined. Not many of them went to school however, because even though there was no law against it, somehow they didn’t seem to have ambitions of that kind, or else they were afraid [of being insulted or beaten up]. […] “One of the things I remember especially is that they used to kill stray dogs. These were the people who would catch your favorite pet dog if you weren’t careful and cut him up. I remember one of them used to carry a long curved knife, rather than a straight one, and I was always afraid of it. He used to steal around the streets carrying a heavy stick and searching for dogs. When he caught one, he would beat it to death on the spot, its blood dripping right in front of our eyes. You can imagine how we felt about that. I still cannot get over the feeling that a man who kills dogs is the worst kind of human being there is. Killing cattle may be unpleasant, but it is a necessary profession. (Passin, 1956)
Today, such deviancy is put down to the effects of discrimination. Because the Paekchong were segregated, they ended up developing atypical and often dysfunctional behaviors. Because they were confined to ‘unclean’ professions that involved the taking of life, like butchery, they became insensitive to the shedding of blood and no longer felt revulsion at the idea of killing.
If we look at the historical record, however, the arrow of causality seems to point in the other direction. Ancestral Paekchong were already behaving differently at a time when they had not yet been segregated and when, in fact, much was being done to integrate them into Korean society.
When the Paekchong first enter history, they seem to have been a nomadic hunting people called by such names as Kolisuchae or Yangsuchuk:
In an entry in the annals of the Koryo dynasty for the year 1217, there appears an important new term—the kolisuchae—referring to the outcastes of the Silla period “The kolisuchae,” it says, “are the remnants of the Paekche tribes that T’aejoe (the founder of the Koryo dynasty in 918) found it hard to subdue. They have always been unregistered and exempt from tribute, and they like the nomadic life, changing their residence frequently. They engage only in hunting or in the making and selling of willow baskets. Also dancing girls come from these families.”(Passin, 1956)
[…] before the 13th century, the kolisuchae had specialized in basketmaking, hunting, and what might be called “entertaining”, that is acting, prostitution, etc. But by the beginning of the 13th century, hunting becomes less important, and slaughtering comes to the fore as a distinctive occupation of theirs. (Passin, 1956)
Being an alien people from Tartar, the Yangsuchuk were hardly assimilated into the general population. Consequently, they wandered through the marshlands along the northwest coast. They were engaged in the making and selling of willow baskets. They were also proficient in slaughtering animals and had a liking for hunting. Selling their wives and daughters was part of their way of life. (Rhim, 1974)
This population may have later absorbed other nomadic groups that drifted into the Korean Peninsula, particularly during the Mongol invasions:
[…] even these scholars who see the connection between the Paekchong and the Hangsuchuk of Koryo period do not argue that all of today’s Paekchong are descendants of the Yangsuchuk. They maintain that the alien tribe known as the Yangsuchuk is part of today’s Paekchong. Since the Koryo period, other alien peoples, such as the Manchurian Kitans and foreign captives taken during the wars, might have entered the Yangsuchuk. (Rhim, 1974)
Beginning in the 14th century, the authorities tried to integrate these nomads by forbidding them to wander, by making them take up farming, and by forcing them to intermarry. It was at this time that they were renamed Paekchong (‘common people’) with a view to making their integration easier:
Some time in the reign of King Sejong (1419-1450), it is ordered that the outcastes be called paekchong, that is “common people”, and that they be registered, settled down into fixed communities, transformed into agriculturalists, and even made to intermarry with the common people. But in spite of the efforts of the authorities, the outcastes themselves fail to cooperate—we read constant complaints of their backsliding, refusal to engage in farming, thievery, nomadism, etc.—and the common people and officials both refuse to accept them into their ranks. An extremely revealing entry of 1442 notes: “… it has been ordered that the name of the hwachae-chaein be changed to the paekchong, but officials and the people call them the ‘new paekchong‘ and look down upon them, saying that they engage in hunting. (Passin, 1956)
[…] But all along there are disquieting signs that the new policy is not working. The people will not accept them, they do not intermarry, they do not give up their bad habits of wandering, thieving, and illegal slaughtering. In 1435, we read that “most of the thefts in Kyonggyib are committed by the new paekchong. They rely on their horses and do no agriculture.” The Governor (Kamsa) of Ch’ungch’ong requests in 1437 that the “new paekchong“, who are causing a great deal of disturbance in his locality, be restrained. They enter the capital illegally and commit robberies, and they also slaughter cattle illegally. […] By 1451, we learn from the statement of a prison official that of the 380-some thieves and murderers held in all the provinces, half are chaein-paekchong (Passin, 1956)
By the end of the 15th century, this attempt at integration was recognized as a failure. Through official ordinances and popular custom, the Paekchong became confined to certain areas, usually on the outskirts of towns. They were now systematically shunned and spoken to as one would speak to children (Rhim, 1974). On the other hand, “they were left pretty much to their own devices, just so long as they did not disturb outsiders” (Passin, 1956). They were allowed to run their own communities and resolve internal disputes, except for serious crimes. They were also exempt from taxation, compulsory labor, and military service. Finally, they were given a monopoly over occupations that involved the taking of life (and which were considered ‘unclean’ by Buddhists), like butchery, leather making, dog catching, and capital punishment (Passin, 1956). These occupations often paid well, as one observer noted in the 1960s: “The Paekchong were not necessarily poor, and the butchers especially, maintaining good price controls and profit margins, are today comparatively well-off” (Henderson, 1968, pp. 53-54).
In contemporary social science, the Paekchong are seen through the lens of the discrimination paradigm. Discrimination excluded them from normal Korean life and thus kept them from becoming ‘normal.’
But normality wasn’t so wonderful in pre-modern Korea. It typically meant living in the same place year-round, doing the same kind of laborious farm work, and using violence only in self-defense or on behalf of the king. Although such an arrangement does bring some tangible benefits, it wouldn’t necessarily interest all humans, particularly those from a nomadic hunting background. Hunters have to move around continually because the land can support only so much wildlife. Hunters must also kill and get their hands bloody on a regular basis, be it the blood of animals or the blood of fellow humans. Indeed, each adult male is expected to defend himself and his kinfolk, since no police and no army exist for that task.
Such a social arrangement is very different from the one that had developed in Korea by the early Middle Ages. The shift to agriculture, serfdom, and a State-pacified society had created a new cultural environment that selected for a new type of human, one who was willing to stay put in one location, perform repetitive work, and forego violence.
This behavioral change can be understood in purely culturalist terms, i.e., the acquisition of a new personality type through learning and social conditioning. On the other hand, all of the relevant behavioral traits are highly heritable, e.g., monotony avoidance, time orientation, and ideation of violence (Horn et al., 1976; Jang et al., 2006; Saudino et al., 1999; see also JayMan, 2012). This is what gene-culture co-evolution is all about. We make new cultural environments, and these environments remake us. Culture has made us participants in the evolutionary process. Our manmade environment has thus been no less important than our natural environment in determining how we’ve evolved.
Indeed, it may have been even more important. We know that human genetic evolution began to accelerate 40,000 years ago, with the fastest evolutionary change taking place during the last 10,000 years (Hawks et al., 2007). This was not a time when our ancestors were adapting to new climates, landscapes, and ecosystems. Humans had already spread over the entire surface of the earth, from the tropics to the polar regions. Now they were moving into niches of their own making and having to adapt to new technologies, social structures, and behavioral norms.
Hawks J., E.T. Wang, G.M. Cochran, H. Harpending, & R.K. Moyzis. (2007). Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), 104, 20753-20758.http://www.ts-si.org/files/RecentAccelerationHumanAdaptiveEvolutionPnas.pdf
Henderson, G. (1968). Korea, the Politics of the Vortex, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Horn, J.M., R. Plomin, and R. Rosenman. (1976). Heritability of personality traits in adult male twins, Behavior Genetics, 6, 17-30.http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01065675
Jang, K.L., W.J. Livesley, and P.A. Vemon. (2006). Heritability of the big five personality dimensions and their facets: a twin study, Journal of Personality, 64, 577-592.http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1996.tb00522.x/abstract?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false
JayMan (2012). All human behavioral traits are heritable, December 31, JayMan’s Bloghttp://jaymans.wordpress.com/2012/12/31/all-human-behavioral-traits-are-heritable/
Passin, H. (1956). The Paekchong of Korea. A brief social history, Monumenta Nipponica, 12 (3/4), 195-240.http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2382752?uid=3737720&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21102740088661
Rhim, S.M. (1974). The Paekchong: “Untouchables” of Korea, Asian Studies, 12, 137-158.http://www.asj.upd.edu.ph/mediabox/archive/ASJ-12-1-1974/rhim-paekchong%20untouchables%20of%20korea.pdf
Saudino, K.J., J.R. Gagne, J. Grant, A. Ibatoulina, T. Marytuina, I. Ravich-Scherbo, and K. Whitfield. (1999). Genetic and environmental influences on personality in adult Russian twins, International Journal of Behavioral Development, 23, 375-389.http://jbd.sagepub.com/content/23/2/375.short