After spending two years on Cheju Island (now officially written in English as “Jeju”) with the Peace Corps in 1972, Dr. David Nemeth, UT professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, returned to America to begin studying and writing a book about the traditional agricultural practices of the islanders and how these were being disrupted by Korea’s rapidly industrializing economy.That book titled The Architecture of Ideology: Neo-Confucian Imprinting on Cheju Island, Korea, was published in 1987 and now has been translated into the islanders’ native language of Korean.
Four decades ago when Nemeth traveled as a Peace Corps volunteer to then Cheju Island, a picturesque volcanic peak located in isolation far off the southern coast of South Korea, it was to assist in the modernization of the ancient habitat and its people. However, after spending time with the islanders and getting to know and appreciate their traditional culture, Nemeth discovered that he was naïve to not realize that his mission on the island was in fact to enable the eradication of their ancient way of life.
Before the intrusion of modernization, the islanders had existed in harmony with nature, Nemeth said. They practiced subsistence farming to feed their people, used natural stones to build their structures, and kept privy pigs to recycle their organic wastes. Because of their steadfast allegiance to these sorts of traditional farming practices, the islanders were perceived to be particularly “backward” and “primitive” by mainland government economic and social planners intent on achieving modernization throughout Korea, Nemeth said.
The islanders were therefore “encouraged” by the Korean government to set aside and forget their ancient traditions, Nemeth said, and to instead focus on adopting mass production and consumption habits. Many native islanders were seduced by or forced into using modern machinery and labor-saving devices, he added.
Nemeth recalled reading a thought-provoking article that questioned whether a new technology, like a tractor, was really just a mechanical device adopted by farmers to produce more food or if it might not also be a political instrument that deliberately disrupts traditional productive practices as part of a “conspiracy of economic growth.”
“I began to raise that question for discussion purposes as a critique of modernization — specifically suggesting that perhaps the destruction of Jeju Island’s ‘sincere’ and productive traditional landscape was ‘political’ and need not have happened,” Nemeth said.
Following this line of questioning, Nemeth came up with the concept of “enlightened underdevelopment” to explain how people can be motivated by a sense of shame to choose not to accept labor-saving devices that might interfere with or undermine their spiritual relationship with their habitat.
“Taoists lived and promoted this concept long ago,” Nemeth said. “Mahatma Gandhi more recently valorized a similar concept to nurture village self-sufficiency in India. Even conservative Amish farmers practice enlightened underdevelopment and its rigid techno-selectivity: They believe it is not just what or how you use a technology, but what kind of person you become when you use it.”Nemeth said industrialists might disparage this concept as “primitive” — thereby implying that it is crude or unsophisticated.
“The evidence for the concept I observed and interpreted in practice on Jeju Island was not ‘primitive’ in this negative sense; these traditional practices seemed to me to be, in contrast, wise and productive,” he said. “I concluded that enlightened underdevelopment in practice trusts to appropriate technologies. It actively resists adopting seductive but unfamiliar and unproven agricultural technologies that have the capacity to do great damage to the spirit and to the soil.”
The virtues of traditional subsistence agriculture practices on Jeju Island are topics unheard of today, Nemeth said. Any nativistic movement that would reinstitute subsistence agricultural values and practices on the island is frowned upon by the national government.
Modernization propaganda during recent decades has erased any public memory of better times in the past. Most of the people on the island have forgotten entirely or retain only vague memories of ancient island traditions, even those observed in practice 40 years ago and described in detail in Nemeth’s book.
Nemeth said he hopes that the book’s translation and republication in Korean, which occurred in February, will encourage islanders to begin to recall and appreciate some of their earlier traditions and the profound and complex reasons for past agricultural practices.
The translation into Korean 25 years after the original publication was achieved due to requests by some of the islanders, who wished to read about the complexities and logic of their near-forgotten past cultural practices. After discovering a copy of the English language book in their university’s library, they convinced a local public library to spend some grant money to fund the publication of this Korean translation as a public service, Nemeth said.
The new translation by Dr. Ko Young-ja is timely, according to Nemeth, because this September Jeju Island will host the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress, which is held every four years at different locations around the globe.
Nemeth said he hopes that his book will impact positively on many of the expected 10,000 conservationists in attendance at the Congress. Those Jeju Islanders who have read the book in Korean will have ample opportunity to educate their guests about the historically harmonious relations between humankind and nature on the island, and to introduce them to the concept of “enlightened underdevelopment.”