Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Durae, the Cooperative Labor System

A durae is a cooperative labor organization that was established as the culture of agriculture developed in Korea during the latter part of the Joseon dynasty when rice transplantation methods became widely implemented. Rice transplantation is simply the method of transplanting rice seedlings to a rice paddy, after first sowing them in a seedbed. By using this technique, the need for weeding could be reduced to only two times per year from the typical three times or more with the normal way of seeding. Work could be finished in a much shorter period by transplanting into this type of rice field filled with water.

A durae consists of 20 to 50 people depending on the size of the village, and at least one person per household is required to participate in the durae. The organization of a durae consists of three members: a group leader, an officer responsible for managing the group, and a secretary who handles the expenses and finances of the rice field and wages. While the members of a durae are obligated to participate without compensation, any earnings of the group are used toward public projects for the village such as improving a road or building a bridge.

A nongak (farmer’s music) or musical percussion group is formed within the durae for better work efficiency. With the percussion group leading the way, the durae leaves the village early in the morning to start work carrying with them flags symbolizing both the durae and Nongshin, the god of agriculture. As the workers’ hands become synchronized with the percussive beats and rhythms, the work becomes more efficient. The four main instruments in a nongak group are the janggo (hourglass-shaped drum), buk (barrel drum), jing (gong), and kkwaenggwari (small gong). The percussion group also acts as accompaniment to songs that the workers sing, also called nongyo.

In this way, cooperative labor combined with music and song has the effect of increasing efficiency and mental stamina to overcome the difficult labor of agricultural life. However, it is much harder to find remnants of the durae.

The modernization of agriculture has led to a decline in the need for such labor cooperatives for farming. These days, the durae, the original context for nongak and nongyo has become a thing of the past.

Nongak and nongyo are designated Important Intangible Cultural Properties in Korea and are still being practiced and transmitted. Nongak is registered as Important Intangible Cultural Property No.11 with special recognition of the regional characteristic rhythms of Gyeonggi, Jeolla, and Gyeongsang provinces. Nongyo, the enchanted singing of Gyeongsang province, is designated as Important Intangible Cultural Property No.84 and is still being transmitted today.