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Empty history

Posted By Owen On 10/25/2006 @ 4:01 am In Colonial,Conferences,Historiography,Intellectual,Late Chosŏn,Museums,Nationalism | 7 Comments

I’m spending a few weeks in Korea, mainly for the Academy of Korean Studies organised World Congress of Korean Studies that will be taking place this weekend in Chejudo. A few days ago I had the enjoyable experience of visiting the Hongsŏng area (South Ch’ungch’ŏng Province) together with one of our other contributors, Pak Noja. This was a sort of pilgrimage to see the birthplace of Manhae Han Yongun (1879-1944), the Buddhist reformer, poet and political activist whose writing we have been translating together. We also had the opportunity to visit the lovely Sudŏksa temple nearby, a place I would highly recommend.

Seeing the site of Manhae’s birthplace brought a number of thoughts and feelings to mind, but the sense of being somewhere historically significant or imbued with any atmosphere was unfortunately not one of them. Of course, this could be attributed to my attitude as much as anything else. But seeing a place that has been so obviously constructed in very recent times as a facsimile of the location where Manhae may have been born, I think most people might have similar feelings. The site consists of two small thatched cottages (초가집) one of which is the management office and the other a replica of the house where Manhae was born. Higher up, there is also a shrine to Manhae in the usual style of a small building within a walled compound with a grand gate. Besides that there is an expanse of freshly-paved wasteland, a few stele with inscribed poems (시비) and what appears to be a small museum, currently under construction.

Manhae birthplace 1

Although it seems they were constructed in the early 1990s, the two thatched cottages were nicely done and pretty enough. But I think there were two things about this place that made it profoundly ‘ahistorical’ for me. One was the expanse of paved ground, a barren nothingness, ready to be trampled on by hordes of daytrippers or school children (actually the place seems rather forlorn and only one coach turned up while we were there). The other was the lack of any real context – it seems that whatever material remains of the village where Manhae was born and lived have long since disappeared to be replaced years later by these disembodied symbols of the world that the young Han Yongun existed in.

Manhae birthplace 2

Noja pointed out this stone inscription, which is of the three additional points written by Han Yongun at the end of the Proclamation of Korean Independence (1919). The rest of the document was written by Ch’oe Namson. An English translation of the three points:

1. This work of ours is in behalf of truth, religion and life undertaken at the request of our people, in order to make known their desire for liberty. Let no violence be done to anyone.
2. Let those who follow us every man all the time, every hour, show forth with gladness this same mind.
3. Let all things be done decently and in order, so that our behavior to the very end may be honorable and upright.

National Museum plaza

Yesterday I went for a look around the new National Museum of Korea, located at Ich’on in Seoul, on what I believe was once a US Army golf course. As you can see from the picture below, this site of historical education has a similar expanse of emptiness in front of it, heightening the effect of the massive blank walls of the building. In some ways I quite like this sort of brutalist architecture, but you can’t help feeling that this is a crude attempt to impose upon the visiting masses a sense of awe at the weighty authority of Korean history. What I saw of the exhibitions inside (the history section) , was excellent however. I would recommend the parts on Chosŏn dynasty socio-economic life, thought and international relations which are refreshingly clear and lacking in nationalistic tones.


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