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“The Mystery of the Century”: Buddhist Lay Monk Villages (Jaegaseung burak) Near Korea's Northernmost Border, 1600s to 1960s

Lecture: Other UCB Archaeology | October 30 | 4 p.m. |  Institute of East Asian Studies (2223 Fulton, 6th Floor)


Hwansoo Kim, Department of Religion and the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Department

Eunsu Cho, Visiting Professor, International and Area Studies Teaching Program, UC Berkeley

Institute of East Asian Studies (IEAS), Center for Korean Studies (CKS)


A Japanese newspaper editorial from 1930s colonial Korea characterized the isolated villages of married Buddhist monks spread across the northern border between Korea and China as “the mystery of the century.” These lay monk villages (K. jaegaseung burak or Jp. zaikesô buraku) existed from the seventeenth century until the 1960s. The males in these villages shaved their heads and had wives and children, and their households ranged in number from thousands to tens of thousands at their peak. These lay monks and their families comprised the descendents of the Jurchens, an ethnic group from northern China who migrated to Korea and later mixed with Koreans.
In this presentation, based on previous scholarship and on untapped primary sources, I would like to take up two questions. First, how did these villagers come to take on a monastic identity (or, at minimum, the appellation)? Second, how should we understand the history of these communities within the context of Korean Buddhism? While scholars conventionally understanding the origin of this monastic identity as coincidental and unauthentic, I argue that Korean monks fleeing or relocating as a result of Joseon Korea’s anti-Buddhist policies perhaps contributed to the formation of a monastic identity of the males in these villages. Finally, I will address how the Neo-Confucian Joseon dynasty, imperial Japan, and North Korean authorities politicized these communities for their own purposes.

This lecture is part of a series "Continental Korea," placing Korea in historical East Asian context.


ieas@berkeley.edu, 510-642-2809