우물 안 개구리

11/6/2005

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 4:11 am Print

What did visitors to late Chosŏn and colonial Korea have to say about the people and society they found there? When seen through the lens of imperialism and all of the racist or essentializing habits of that period, what might we recognize in the language and generalizations of our own time?

There is a vast and growing academic literature looking at these cross-cultural encounters, and at the many recorded descriptions and analyses of distant peoples to be found in the form of travel writings, diaries, and the anthropologist’s ethnography. From this scholars are finding new and exciting ways to understand the way that empire is justified and maintained but also explore better confront the perils of describing that which is foreign to us.

In the case of primary works related to Korea we can find the Western visitor judging their host culture by the concepts of race, religion, and enlightenment civilization that they bring with them, but anyone reading their writing cannot help but note the heavy presence of Japan and indeed a kind of “Japanese filter” in much of writing from this period. Long before annexation in 1910 or the establishment of the protectorate in 1905, Japan was effective in convincing many Western visitors to Korea of its noble and civilizing intentions, if they occasionally failed to impress them with their attempts to force reforms on King Kojong’s court.

In a series of postings here at Frog in a Well, I’m going to share some passages from contemporary travel accounts which capture some of views about Koreans held by visitors in Korea which appear frequently in the writings I have looked over for this little project.
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