A State of Ranches and Forests: The Environmental Legacy of the Mongol Empire on the Korean Peninsula

John Lee, PhD Candidate
Harvard University

The era of Mongol Yuan domination in the Korean peninsula, stretching from 1271 to 1368, lasted less than a century. The relatively short span, however, would witness the integration of the Korean peninsula into the Mongol imperial ecumene, with immense implications for the late Koryŏ and subsequent Chosŏn dynasties. Previous scholarship on the period has largely focused on how interactions between Korean elites and the broader Mongol empire fostered intellectual, cultural, and political changes on peninsula. This paper focuses on another area where the Mongols made an indelible but oft-ignored impact: the Korean environment. From the invasion fleets built from felled Korean forests to the expansion of hunting grounds in the interior and ranches on the islands and coasts, Yuan policies and priorities deeply imprinted the Korean landscape. I argue that the imprints were not temporary: they left a lasting institutional legacy. Yuan exploitation of Korean coastal forests forced later Koryŏ and particularly early Chosŏn officials to reckon with the limited supply of domestic timber. Yuan reliance on horse cavalry necessitated the establishment of ranches on southwestern islands and along the coast; in turn, they would form the basis for the expansion of state ranches for military use and royal consumption in the early Chosŏn era. By extracting new flows of sylvan resources from the peninsula and instituting new mechanisms for corralling animal resources, the Yuan empire established the basis from which the Chosŏn dynasty would launch centralized control of the peninsula’s environment. The early Chosŏn government instituted protected forests (kŭmsan 禁山) and state ranches (mokjang 牧場) to an extent unprecedented to that point in Korean history. Such innovations should remind historians that empires are also spatial-political entities with the capacity to extract and engender biotic shifts with consequences ranging beyond the empire’s lifetime.

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