Yi Jinkyung

From an East Asia of Wokou to an East Asia of Displaced Persons

  1. monsters of the sea


Leviathan is a sea monster. In Hebrew, it supposedly means a “whale.” It is most unfortunate that the name of this monster, which, as the incomparably immense and vast sea itself, as an arena of unpredictable and uncontrollable events, should be seen as the sea itself, came to be the title of Thomas Hobbes’ book. This is because Hobbes’ Leviathan is an image of the state created after hypothesizing incidents that can arise when individuals who have come to possess equivalence mutually pursue their respective desires in the worst image of the “war of all against all” and, with the fear of such a state as a pretext, based on words/ideas such as “contracts” and “consent,” made or given by no one. In that it is a monster on the opposite end of the spectrum from Leviathan as an unpredictable monster, this should, in fact, be seen as the worst usage of an original word. Because Hobbes’ Leviathan is a product of attributing the condition predating nations to the disorder called “war” and of investing the emblem of order to control or eliminate such a state to the nation, the Leviathan here has become an emblem symbolizing order. In other words, the image of a monster that previously represented an incomparably vast arena of unpredictable events has been devoured by an emblem of the state that holds and controls the right to decide everything. Michel Foucault would have called this the devouring of actual war, of forces colliding and vying against one another as in war, by the “interplay of representations” of war (“Society Must Be Defended”). Gilles Deleuze/Félix Guattari would have called it the devouring of the potential strength of war machines by the trickery and techniques of capture used by magicians and priests (A Thousand Plateaus).

Rather than returning to the Bible in search of the etymology of the word, it would be better, instead, to follow Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, which is fascinated by the giant whale Moby-Dick and solidifies the affect of not only the Atlantic Ocean but also the entire sea. This is because, with emblems of “primitive” origins already captured by modern emblems, returning to the origin once again cannot defeat the strength of modern emblems. Seeing a giant sperm whale in Leviathan, Melville directs Leviathan in a direction different from that of Hobbes: toward the indeterminate potentials of the sea itself, toward monstrous strength that is unconquerable, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. With Ahab at the forefront, the writer follows the indeterminate strength of existence that devours not only the determinacy but also the individuality of beings. An ontological drama where one follows the immense strength of Moby-Dick, staking one’s entire life – though it must be something that one cannot even dream of without trembling in the end, it clearly is a temptation that anyone capable of being swept over by the power of fascination can never shake off.

The sea is an ontological arena. It is an arena where countless waves including both large waves and ripples that cannot even be called “waves” rise and disappear. Beings lose their individuality and disappear into that sea of existence: “There open fanes and gaping graves / Yawn level with the luminous waves;” (Edgar Allan Poe, “The City in the Sea”). In addition, the sea is an arena where all individual beings are born and unforeseen events arise. Nor does this hold true only for the sea. The same is true of all arenas of unknown strength, arenas of indeterminate existence including bottomless abysses, crevices, and large forests such as jungles:


Bottomless vales and boundless floods,
And chasms, and caves, and Titan woods,
With forms that no man can discover
For the tears that drip all over;
Mountains toppling evermore
Into seas without a shore;
Seas that restlessly aspire,
Surging, unto skies of fire;

from Poe, “Dream-Land”


Just as Melville was fascinated by whales, Poe was captivated by the darkness of the sea. However, it would be wrong to see Moby-Dick simply as a whale swimming in the sea, as a being. Rather, it should be called an “impossible whale,” an image representing the immense potential itself that exists in the sea. It is an image representing the emergence of individuals similar to events that arise anywhere in the sea even though they devour all individuals. Moby-Dick is a drama of the sea’s monstrosity itself.

Such unpredictable strength, indeterminable strength is commonly called “disorder,” and such disorder is customarily interpreted as signifying “evil.” Interpretations of Moby-Dick as an animal symbolizing evil follow such common ideas. Though the indeterminate darkness of existence lies there, rejecting the light supplied by human thought or knowledge, it nevertheless cannot be called “evil.” Though events or uncontrollable strength arising unpredictably within existence undoubtedly and often will strike as disasters or catastrophes, they nevertheless cannot be called “evil.” However, it is better, instead, to proceed with the disgraceful label of “evil” than to hand over this monster to the Hobbesian state, which allegedly was born to prevent the war of all against all, than to paint this monstrous image with an emblem of that “good” order. It is because power that imposes order and exercises control, however specious the reasoning behind its approaches may be, is closer not to the wildness of whales, or the barbarity of the sea, but to the “cunning” of humans who seek to tame it.


  1. those afloat on the sea


Yeono and Seo seem to have contrary friends as much as does Leviathan. In the legend recorded in the Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms; a semi-factual Korean history book compiled in 1281 by the Buddhist monk Iryeon), Yeono picks edible seaweeds but then travels to Japan across the sea on a floating rock. In search of her missing husband, Seo likewise travels to the neighboring country on the same rock. Because some versions of the legend supposedly substitute the rock with a fish, it would be possible to see this fish as one that a human can ride, or a large whale capable of crossing the sea. The image of a rock afloat on the sea – this, too, resembles a whale. If Leviathan and Moby-Dick are whales that cannot be ridden or even be approached, the whale that transports the married couple is one that can be ridden, that can be ridden in order to go somewhere. Nor is it necessary for the object to be a whale. In fact, it can even be a ship. It represents not indeterminate strength such as the darkness but strength that enables one to move from the position currently occupied to another one. It is strength that enables one to be free from one’s given position and to change one’s given determinacy. It is strength that enables one to move on and to cross that sea of indeterminacy by floating among determinate islands.

Though the word “nomadism” is originally related to those who live by moving in deserts or grasslands, it may be more correct to say that a mobile way of life is linked more closely to the sea than to deserts. The sea is a space where one can move anywhere from anywhere. In the words of Deleuze/Guattari, it is a “smooth space.” It is a space of change and fluidity. In that respect, those who cross the sea on a rock are nomads of the sea. Therein lie those who move according to the flow of seawater, a life of liquid fluidity.

Once Yeono and Seo leave for Japan, the sun and the moon over their native Silla (57 BC-935 AD), an ancient Korean kingdom, lose light. At the words of the astronomer-astrologer that the phenomenon is due to the departure of energy from both heavenly bodies to Japan, the king of Silla attempts to bring back the couple, but they do not. Although the couple supposedly said that their relocation had been heaven’s will, they probably did not return because a way of life moving according to the currents had no reason to be tied to a nation. The state belongs not to a liquid way of life afloat on the sea but to a solid way of life that traps and stops it, to a sedentary mode of life. Yeono’s rejection is a rejection of a way of life that is trapped in the solid waterway dug up by the state and belongs to a “destination.” A nomadic and fluid way of life is the rejection of being trapped in and accustomed to a sedentary and state-centered way of life. No, it consists of Yeono and Seo entrusting themselves to the rock’s flow and leaving their home country even before their rejection. In other words, the couple leaves because they sense that the power of the ancient state has come close enough to capture their lives. The account that Yeono became the “king” in Japan, where he reached after being afloat, signifies that the land still lacked a monarch, a state. Even though he thus supposedly became the king, there is no corresponding ruler whatsoever in Japanese myths and records. This signifies that the word “king” was a symbol of the natives’ expression of welcome or respect for the arrival of the exotic Yeono.

However, the couple does not simply stop at turning their backs on and disregarding their former home country. For the sun and the moon over Silla, which have lost their light, Seo gives silk that she has woven. Regarding the weaving and presentation of silk, some have interpreted the couple as technicians and, unreasonably connecting to this a figure such as Seok Talhae (?-80 AD) – a future king of Silla (r. 57-80 AD) – even as ironmaking technicians. However, such interpretations stem from the confused confounding of what belong to entirely different systems. This is so for two reasons. First, ironmaking technology is linked not to the nomadic life of riding the sea but to the lives of those who search for mineral deposits, which makes them belong to disparate systems (Deleuze/Guattari classify them as “migrants” in distinction from nomads). Second, ironmaking technology is related to the transition from a life of collecting nature to one of “conquering” nature and with the capture of surplus value exceeding necessary labor. When interpretations such as “Yeono became the king of Japan because of ironmaking technology” are added to this confusion, one will end up attributing those who leave their home countries and cross the sea to the state, which is the opposite of a nomadic life at sea. In other words, what has occurred to Leviathan befalls these people, too.

In the myth, the only thing that allows us to surmise the couple’s original occupations is the allusion that Yeono rode a rock to Japan while picking edible seaweeds on the seashore. Because he lived by picking seaweeds, he should be called a “fisherman.” Seo would have been no different, either. Although she later presents officials from Silla with silk that she herself has woven, it is unlikely that silk weaving was her original occupation. This is because silk can be woven only when there are silkworms and mulberry fields, which are far removed from fishermen living by the sea. Consequently, silk weaving must be seen as a new occupation for Seo after her arrival in Japan. The dispatch of silk to Silla signifies the movement of objects instead of humans and the exchange of objects between disparate territories. Would not the account that this piece of cloth made possible the restoration of solar and lunar light signify that such exchange of objects is an important pillar of the survival condition of light? In the end, this seems to signify that Yeono’s and Seo’s secession from their home country led to international exchange. Would this not imply that nomadism or movement across national boundaries is the primary current underlying international exchange?


  1. an east asia of wokou


Wokou (Mandarin Chinese; Korean: Waegu; Japanese: Wakō) are Japanese pirates who were active on the seas of medieval East Asia (c. 1350-c. 1588). However, this is a name given by dynastic states in China and Korea, which had to resolve these people’s “invasions.” Contrary to the designator, Wokou were not ethnic Japanese pirates but constituted a literally transnational, mixed group encompassing not only Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, and Okinawans but also Southeast Asians including Vietnamese and Indonesians. Although, of course, there can have been many Japanese members, the name bears the word Wo, signifying “Japan” and “Japanese” (but also, more generally, “dwarfish” and “submissive”), probably because these people came from waters unfamiliar to dynasties in China and Korea and therefore were recorded with the name of the island state across the sea. History is thus recounted according to what has been record. Nomads, “pirates,” masses, and minorities do not record their own lives. All of them are historicized from the perspectives of those who write histories. That would also be why Wokou were named kou, signifying “bandits,” and thus became “pirates.” However, they were not simply a group formed for the purpose of robbing others of their wealth but one of displaced persons who mostly had been banished by their native countries or seceded thence due to the difficulty of continuing residence there. Of course, they would have engaged in piracy as well. However, it is amply clear even from dynastic records that they engaged in maritime trade instead of solely committing “piracy.” In other words, Wokou were a group of nomads at sea who lived by traversing the vast waters from the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea to the South China Sea.

Wokou were a group of people who moved on the seas among disparate countries in so-called “East Asia” encompassing China, Korea, Japan, and the Ryukyu Kingdom on Okinawa, which was independent at the time (1429-1879), and engaged in diverse forms of “exchange.” This group consisted, in itself, of people from heterogeneous ethnic groups and, in the form of “guidance,” led their colleagues to their former homelands. Though, to diverse nationals, they may have seemed like a group of traitors who had betrayed their native countries, they conversely can be said have been the main actors of exchange and hybridization who inserted heterogeneity into national homogeneity.

Tanigawa Gan (1923-95), a Japanese poet and revolutionary who was active in mining areas in Kyushu and participated in miners’ labor movement during the 1950s, took special note of the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, the principal area of activities by Wokou, comparing it with the Mediterranean. On a smaller scale, the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea are waters surrounded by China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and Okinawa. On a larger scale, even the South China Sea, which is surrounded by diverse Asian countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Indonesia, can be linked to it as well. When we recall that the sea surrounded by the very heterogeneous societies of Europe, Islamic region, and North Africa was none other than the Mediterranean, it is understandable that Tanigawa should have turned attention to the East China Sea. A sea thus surrounded by various countries serves as the birth of new ideas and practices in those areas through the exchange and intermixture of the heterogeneous cultures around it. Mixed into classical Green civilization as we know it was the culture of Egypt in Africa (Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization), and mixed into European civilization as we know it was the culture of Islam. Such exchange and intermixture, above all, were the most important sources making possible the birth of “great civilizations” along the Mediterranean.

Seen in this respect, the Yellow Sea-East China Sea-South China Sea can be imagined as an important source of the birth of a new civilization through the intermixture of the cultures of the countries surrounding it. Moreover, Tanigawa is a figure who not only engaged in the labor movement but also, seeing the rise of literary clubs where laborers themselves wrote, organized a network of such clubs in the name of “Circle Village” and created a commune of “displaced persons” such as miners, impoverished farmers, fishermen, burakumin (untouchable outcaste), and Korean and Okinawan immigrants, living and acting together with these people. For such reasons, he claimed that, even within Japan, Kyushu would become the head of the lizard and Tokyo would become the tail. This was because, just as he had done in Kyushu, if transnational communities where Korea, China, Okinawa, and Taiwan met and intermixed could be created in the Yellow Sea-East China Sea, in the case of Japan, the center of such exchange and intermixture would, of course, be Kyushu, an area adjacent to that sea. This would not have been unrelated to the fact that Morisaki Kazue (1927-), Tanigawa’s colleague and lover, turned attention to Wokou. It is because the Yellow Sea-East China Sea noted by Tanigawa was the sea that the community of displaced persons called Wokou had traversed earlier.

In the eyes of narrow-minded people who cannot transcend national frameworks even today, when transnational streams have begun to brim over national boundaries in the name of “globalization,” what would the attempts of those who, through the stage of the Yellow Sea-East China Sea and the community of Wokou, sought to imagine a vastly different world seem like? We seem to be able to see and to imagine more broadly because we live in the present. Capital has already moved beyond South Korea, China, Vietnam, and Laos and is stretching its hands even to India. In addition, the flow of migrant workers passing through South Korea has extended its circuit all the way to Pakistan and Iran via China, Vietnam, Philippines, and Bangladesh. If so, then our imagination and thought must rightly be expanded to go beyond the East China Sea and to encompass the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean as well.

In an age when the sky has supplanted the sea to become the arena of physical exchange and the Internet has replaced sea routes to become the circuit of cultural exchange, the geographical image of the Mediterranean, of land surrounding the sea, has already become something of the past. Nevertheless, would it not be possible for Wokou, the name of a group of displaced persons who summoned people from disparate ethnic groups to the sea and formed a new type of community, to be a name for summoning flows of people and lives who secede from the state on the edges of nations in a sphere that has already transcended East Asia and expanded to the globe? Would it not be possible for that name to be a spell capable of intermixing heterogeneous ways of life beyond national and linguistic barriers and of conjuring new ways of life, a new world? Would it not be possible to say that the word “pirates” embedded in the term Wokou appropriately describes monstrous attempts to traverse the seas among states and to erode national order and to shape new, transnational lives? Would it not be possible to say that the derogatory connotation or discomfort aroused by the word Wokou, which have been supplied by “history” education above all, is, instead, an appropriate affect for describing the long distance from the existing order, like the emblem of “evil” attached to indeterminate and unpredictable strength?


  1. an age of pirates, an age of whales


The Mediterranean was made into what it was not by the geographical image of the land surrounding it but by the heterogeneity of the cultures surrounding it. This sea became a generating factor of new civilizations not because of the special excellence of any culture along it but because of the liquid fluidity that enabled those heterogeneous cultures to flow, to meet, and to intermix. The same thing must be said of the East China Sea, South China Sea, limitlessly spread space of aviation lacking land, or space on the Internet, where the speed of light erases geographical distance. If any of them can become a space for creating a civilization that has yet to come into being, a future time that will arrive, this, too, will be not because of the strength of any culture boasting excellence but because of the fluidity of the space, enabling disparate cultures to intermix, connect, and metamorphose. It will be because of the heterogeneity of the cultures surrounding that space.

If one believes that all of this holds true only for spaces among states or ethnic groups, then one’s thinking or imagination continues to be caught in the framework of geographical images. The same thing must be said of the situation within a single nation, within a single “ethnic group.” What prompts the generation and development of something creative in an individual state is the heterogeneity of people and ways of life moving, meeting, and intermixing within the space of that state. It will be possible for national territories to become birthplaces of new cultures when liquid fluidity enabling heterogeneous cultures and ways of life to flow and meet freely and to intermix is released into their atmosphere.

We now live in an age of “universalized” displaced persons. The immense flows of refugees overflowing the globe already seem to have become the primary currents determining the direction of politics in many countries, whether in a good or a bad sense. Even Japan and South Korea, which previously maintained strong exclusivism against other ethnic groups amidst the illusion of ethnic “uniformity,” have drawn mass-scale streams of migrant labors into their respective national territories in order to supplement labor shortage. A more fundamental thing is that such flows of displaced persons are not limited solely to those who cross national borders. The immense stream of (nong)mingong in China, or migrant workers from rural areas who have had to work on a level below that of laborers in general due to their lack of legal qualification to work in cities, has been a case of people becoming refugees within their own country. Precarious workers, who have already exceeded 1/3 of the total work force in not only South Korea but also Japan, where the employment system was previously characterized by lifetime employment, show that the stream of displaced persons, who are native laborers yet do not occupy the position of laborers, has become a universal foundation even within individual nations. Another important stream contributing to the flow of displaced persons has been the group of laid-off and unemployed people who roam the streets because they cannot find employment even though they wish to work. It is now well-known that none other than this flow of displaced persons will increase even more dramatically along with the development of artificial intelligence (AI).

In that respect, displaced persons are our future and constitute an image of the “universal” human possessing the future tense. No, it is wrong to put it in this way. It is just as inappropriate to continue trapping them in an image of the “human” as it is to replace Leviathan with the human monster called the “state.” As they are already viewed thus everywhere, they are those who are not human, who are not treated as human, and who lack qualifications as human. They are “non-humans.” They are non-human “monsters” who have come to surround and to siege humans unawares. They are the seas surrounding lands and the huge whales that can rise from those seas in whatever unpredictable forms. They are pirates who invade settlers like immense waves sweeping over land. Even national territories are becoming vast “seas” where streams of deterritorialized, displaced persons unite. Regardless of whether one sees it optimistically or pessimistically, an age when streets where displaced persons roam instead of factories where laborers work will become the foundation of a new life will be an age of new pirates, an age of new monsters – an age of whales, an age of Leviathan.

About the Author

Yi Jinkyung (born in 1963 as PARK Tae-ho) is a researcher and writer on sociology, philosophy, and economics. He has written on the topics of Marxism and modernity. His philosophy-related books include Philosophy and the Chimney Sweep, The Hitchhikers Philosophy Journey, Nomadism, and Ontology of the Subversive. He has also written The Reveries of Mathematics, a book for general audiences on the history of mathematics, and the film-related book Philocinema. He earned a doctoral degree from the Seoul National University Department of Sociology with a history of Western architecture titled “The Birth of the Modern Residential Space.” He has also written the Marxism-related books Marxism and Modernity, Capital beyond Capital, Marxism of the Future, Communism, and Masses and Flux as well as a book titled Philosophy Class for Life to promote good living. More recently, Yi has published Unprecedented Classics, a book about the classical fiction of the Joseon era, and Philosophizing Buddhism, an attempt at a modern interpretation of Buddhist teachings. He is active with the intellectual community Suyunomo 104 (www.nomadist.org) and has worked since 2003 as a professor in the Seoul National University of Science and Technology Department of Basic Education.