우물 안 개구리

11/22/2005

Market economy and exchange in ancient Korea

Filed under: — noja @ 10:52 pm Print

Dear all, one topic that might be interesting to discuss is the degree of the development of market relations, exchange economy and internal trade in early traditional Korea. I myself fell in love with this sort of things while reading the materials on the discussion on the so-called “Asiatic mode of production” in (still Marxist-Leninist) Soviet historiography of the 1960-70s. My older colleague, Prof. S.V.Volkov, was, in fact, a champion of this theory, which was also carefully backed by my dissertational adviser, M. N. Pak – also the latter chose not to irritate the mighty orthodox opponents of the “Asiatic mode” thesis and speak very carefully about “early feudalism”, with an “extremely low degree of the development of market relations”. Of course, now I understand more or less that the over-generalisations about “Asian” history as a whole smack too heavily of Orientalism to be taken seriously; China and India after 15-16th C. had the degree of the “proto-capitalist” development Europe could be envious of at that point, and some archaic “European” societies (Spartan, for example), also seemed to have highly centralized exploitation/redistribution systems. So, if we want to continue developing this thesis, we probably should speak of early statehood in a more general context, taking references to “Asian” out; we may also speak, I guess, about agrarian bureaucracies, which manage to preserve and develop to a fantastic degree of complexity the centralized redistribution mechanisms rooted in the “state exploitation” technologies of the early antiquity. But, with all these reservations and precautions duly taken, I still suppose that the earlier Marxist insights about centralized redistribution and its historical trajectory in the agrarian monarchies continue to be valid – and wonder what the others think about it.

For one thing in Korea particularly, a fact Korean historical textbooks seem to studiously avoid mentioning is that Korea began minting metallic coins only in the late 10th C. (and on very small scale) – compared with Japan’s 7-8th C. coins production and China, which had coins already for almost a millenium to that point. In fact, various Chinese coins seem to have been used by the proto-Korean state already in the ancient Chosŏn time – but mostly for external exchange and/or prestige purposes. The media of the internal exchange in Unified Silla seems to have been either rice or textiles: the markets in the capital were managed by the state (kwansi) and most of the high-level artisanship in the capital was concentrated in state workshops. State was the biggest actor in these commercial transactions, which still took place – buying, for example, lots of paper for the sutra-copying at the state-run temples (we have mokkan materials on these transactions). Private external trade started to flourish when central controls weakened in the late 8th – early 9th C. – but powerful merchants like Chang Pogo were more interested in acquiring state power than in the development of the purely commercial side of their enterprises. So, shouldn’t we conclude that “early feudal” (to use M. N. Pak’s term) Korea really largely lagged behind in the terms of market economy development, compared to its neighbours – the state both controlling the existing (internal) market operations and largely substituting the market with its own production/distribution network?

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