우물 안 개구리


Things I don’t know about Korea, part 2

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:05 pm Print

I’m having great fun with this class, but I’m still discovering vast areas of ignorance as we move along:

  • Eunuchs: The Kabo reforms abolish the office of Eunuchs, but how many were there and how important?
  • Seven Day Week? By 1896 there clearly is a seven day week in place, but when was that put in place? Is it part of the Kabo calendrical reforms?
  • The books I’m reading don’t refer to Tonghak and to early Progressives (or conservatives) as “nationalist”: They call them “incipient” and “proto” but won’t actually admit to modern nationalism until 1905 or 1910. Do they think ‘nationalism’ only exists in a modern context, and Korea’s context isn’t modern until some kind of political transition? This seems arbitrary: though Korea may not be modernizing effectively in the 19c, I find it hard to see how Korea’s not pretty well enmeshed in a modern context by, say, 1880. I suppose you could have the ever-popular “is anti-imperialism really nationalism” debate all over again (it’s kind of fun to do with the Boxers, once), but it seems unnecessarily fussy to me, at least on first reading. I don’t see what distinction they’re making and they’re not explaining it, either. We shouldn’t use jargon unless we’re willing to explain it.


Tonghak and Taiping

I was struck, preparing for class yesterday, that the Tonghak and Taiping faiths were surprisingly similar and arose nearly simultaneously: Syncretic monotheistic faiths drawing on Confucian, Christian and indigenous magical traditions, with anti-foreign reformist programs and a counter-cultural ethos of equality.1 There are obvious differences, too, in teachings and in the leadership, but the structural similarities raise some interesting possibilities for research and teaching.

I’m not the first person to have this insight apparently, though it doesn’t look (from what little I can tell from these links) like there’s any hint of direct connection between them. I’m a little surprised, frankly, that World History textbooks (which love those kinds of parallel moments) haven’t picked up on it. Of course, Korea’s place in World History textbooks overall is pretty pitiful at the moment and the Taiping movement rarely gets more than passing mention in an already busy and traumatic Chinese 19th century. With the rise of religious history, it seems likely that these issues might come closer to the forefront, though, and I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there does something with this confluence.

  1. The Japanese “New Religions” of the 19th century are very heavily Shinto-influenced, with some Buddhism and almost no Christianity, nor did any of them become political movements. It’s not the same. []


Generating Power–Electric, hydroelectric, thermal (coal), atomic

I’m back once again to this question of electricity and power in its various forms, as I think the long-term story of generating power in NE Asia (1880′s-present), and specifically on the Korean peninsula, sheds some interesting light on the transnational history of the contested region, this in distinct contrast to the individual national histories of power industries.  I would love to be able to link: (1)  electrification (late 19th century), to (2) the colonial period (especially the hydroelectric power plants in the North along the Yalu and Tumen), to (3) the electrical showdown / cutoff of May 1948 (North stops providing access following UN elections), to (4) the period of the war and reconstruction (temporary barges, and later thermal stations), to the (5) decision to pursue atomic power (late 1950′s, with a commercial industry by the late 1970′s).  For now, though, I’ll just briefly touch on the Bechtel project associated with the mid-1950′s, which covers #4.

I recently managed to get a copy of the Bechtel in-house report on the project, with three major thermal stations, completed between 1954 -1956, at Tangin-Ri, Samchok, and Masan (which was the image from my last post in August).

This map shows that the effort was an attempt to plug into the existing grid at various points in the country (roughly comprising a triangulation) in 1954.  What I don’t know, and would love to know, is how much of this grid predates 1948, as I suspect much of it does.

And below  is a letter of thanks from the Korean side, following completion of the project, although I have not had a chance to look this document over.

For now, this consists of little more than musing on the topic, but in the aftermath of the Recent awarding of the reactor project for the UAE (Korea and Hyundai won the bid as part of a consortium),  and Lee Myung-Bak’s mobilization of the ROK domestic nuclear industry, I really want to put together something more substantive: that is, to take a long look at the history of power from the standpoint of a thorough transnational history (involving the U.S , Korea, Japan, Canada, at the very least).  More on this later~


Things I don’t know about Korea, part 1 of many

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:38 pm Print

Now that I’m teaching my Korean History course I am, of course, running into questions I cannot answer. I’m going to post them here periodically:

  • Though the Choson-era Korean Army (in its various commanderies and provincial forms) was conscripted from peasantry (and officered, it appears, by military Yangban), where did the Navy get its personnel? You can’t just conscript a peasant and put him on a ship and expect him to be useful: did they recruit from fishing communities, or was there a training process?
  • What’s the numerical breakdown of Choson society? I’ve seen suggestions that as much as 20-30% were in the unfree categories at the bottom of the social scale, but I can’t seem to get a handle on the Yangban and Chungnin classes, either in total population or (as one of my students asked) rate of shedding members to lower classes.
  • Who was the aged, deeply bearded gentleman depicted on the Japanese colonial-era Korean bills? (See below)


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