우물 안 개구리

Postings by Owen Miller

Contact: owen [at] froginawell.net

Korean history talks: January-February 08

Filed under: — Owen @ 11:30 am

Some very interesting Korean history talks coming up in the next few months. Obviously to attend them all one would need the sort of jetsetting lifestyle that is beyond most of us, or possibly even a time machine. But hopefully there will be something good near to you. Please feel free to make corrections or suggestions for additions to this list in the comments section.

January 18, Centre of Korean Studies, SOAS, London
Staffan Rosen, Stockholm University
“Merit and Reward – The Imperial Korean System of Decorations 1900-1910 in an International Perspective”
Room G52, SOAS main building, 5pm
More info

January 25, Fulbright Forum, KAEC Building, Seoul
Richard D. McBride, II
“When did the rulers of Silla Korea become kings?”
6th floor conference room, 7pm (R.S.V.P. by Monday, January 21st)
More info

January 28, UCLA Asia Institute, Los Angeles
Keun-Sik Jung, Seoul National University
“Colonial Censorship and Japanese Publication Police System”
10383 Bunche Hall, 3pm
More info

February 6, UCLA Asia Institute, Los Angeles
Dr. Yongwook Yoo
“Palaeolithic Settlement of the Korean Peninsula: A Research Before the History of Korean People”
11377 Bunche Hall, 12pm (talk in Korean)
More info

February 8, Centre of Korean Studies, SOAS, London
Gina Barnes, Professorial Research Associate, SOAS
“Cross-straits relations between Korea and Japan in the mid-4th to 5th centuries”
Room G52, SOAS main building, 5pm

February 21, Comparative Histories of Asia Seminar, Institute of Historical Research, University of London
Vladimir Tikhonov (Pak Noja), University of Oslo
“Sin Ch’aeho’s (1880-1936) Metamorphoses: Confucian Scholar, Social-Darwinist Nationalist and Anarchist”
Room NG15, Senate House Building, 5pm
More info

February 21, Harvard Korea Colloquium, Cambridge Mass.
Rachel Chung, Columbia University
“Sông Hyôn’s Model for Study of Music: Neo-Confucian Philosophy of Music in 15th Century Chosôn Korea”
Room S250, CGIS South Building, 1730 Cambridge St., 4pm
More info

February 22, Centre of Korean Studies, SOAS, London
Vladimir Tikhonov (Pak Noja), Institute of East European and Oriental Studies, Oslo University
“To beat or not to beat: discussions on pedagogical ideals, corporal punishment and military training in colonial Korea”
Room G52, SOAS main building, 5pm

The 30-second tour of historical Pukchon

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:28 am

When I was in Korea last month I stayed at a lovely place in the area of Seoul known as Pukchon or ‘North Village’ that lies between the two big palaces. It’s actually an area made up of many small neighbourhoods (tongs) that was once favoured by yangban aristocrats and now by the the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. It’s been discovered as a tourist area and parts of it have been ‘conserved’ while others have come to have a distinctly up-market feel with trendy cafes and so on. Having said that, not everyone there is convinced that what is being done to conserve and promote the area is actually in its best interests, as this site run by a British expat recounts.

While staying there I happened to notice a few sites of historical importance that might be overlooked on your average tour, and they are all conveniently within a few metres of one another and a stone’s throw away from the walls of Ch’angdokkung Palace in Kye-dong. None of these sites are anything to look at, as you will see from my pictures, but they should have some significance to anyone interested in the history of Korea with about half a minute to spare. So, I proudly present my 30-second tour of historical Pukchon:

Starting out from the front gate of Ch’angdokkung, take the small road up the left-hand side of the palace wall, passing the big Hyundai buildings on your left. When you come to the first left turning take this, going up a short hill. Just over the top of this on the right-hand side of the road is my first site: an engraved stone marking the site of Yŏ Un-hyŏng’s house:

Site of Yo Un-hyong's house
I’ve written something on my own site before about Yŏ Un-hyŏng, a moderate leftist nationalist who found himself in the way of Kim Ku in the late 1940s and was assassinated not that far away from Pukchon, on the other side of Ch’angdokkung, in Hyehwa-dong. Yo was one of those important historical figures who has been somewhat swept aside by history – he had apparently met Lenin when he visited Moscow in 1922, had worked for Chiang Kai-shek and was one of the founders of the short-lived Korean People’s Republic in 1945.

Moving a little further down the street and a building that might be mistaken for a large house turns out to be the offices of the Yŏksa Munje Yŏn’guso (Institute for Korean Historical Studies):

Yoksa munje yon'guso
In some ways this is an organisation that has historical importance in its own right as the main left nationalist history association to emerge from the political turmoil and radicalisation of the 1980s in South Korea. This is the organisation that founded the Yoksa Pip’yŏngsa (Historical Criticism) publishing company whose books will be found on the shelves of any historian of Korea and which publishes the important historical journal Yŏksa Pip’yŏng. The views associated with this organisation and its members are generally regarded as having achieved the status of historical orthodoxy in the Korean academy, although these days they are being challenged by new trends such as ‘postnationalism‘ and quantitative history.

Finally, if you retrace your steps a little and take the first turning on the left up a narrow street, a signboard on a building on the left side of the street should catch your attention. It’s the headquarters of the Min clan:

Min-ssi HQ
It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this one family in the history of late nineteenth century Korea. Somehow though, its current manifestation seems inappropriately prosaic, especially with the little scooter parked outside.

Why octopuses are good at archaeology and Yonsama is the son of God

Filed under: — Owen @ 12:11 pm

A brief news round-up. I meant to blog on the story of the octopus that ‘discovered’ a treasure trove of twelfth century pottery off the coast of Korea when it first hit the headlines a couple of months back. Now it seems that the acquisitive cephalopod’s find was considerably more spectacular than first thought and some 10,000 pieces of celadon pottery await excavation from the site. There is a bit more detail in another article on the find in the Hankyoreh, which informs us that the ship carrying the pottery was probably on its way from kilns in Kangjin in Cholla Province to Kaesong, capital of Koryo, when it sunk over 700 years ago.

Meanwhile, on my other favourite subject – historical TV dramas – I see that Bae Yong-jun’s new opus on the life of King Kwanggaeto, ‘Taewang sasin’gi’, will finally be hitting Korean TV screens this autumn. With great modesty Bae (AKA ‘Yonsama’) will be playing Jumong, founder of the Koguryo kingdom, King Kwanggaeto himself and the son of God (no, not that son of God, but rather Hwanung, father of Tan’gun). I wonder how a drama aimed at rectifying China’s mistaken attitude toward Korean history will play in Japan, where anything involving Yonsama seems to be marketed heavily.

History ‘faction’

According to the Hankyoreh, historical novels are all the rage at the moment in Korea. This doesn’t really surprise me all that much as historical novels seem to be pretty popular everywhere at the moment, although in Korea there always seems to be something more of an overtly political aspect to the popular fascination with history.

Unfortunately the article doesn’t really provide any convincing answers to the question of why historical fiction is particularly popular the moment:

…few deny that historical novels have their own special appeal. Lee Myeong-won, a book critic, said the unusual popularity of historical fiction can be ascribed to the easiness with which novelists find things to write about, compared to the difficulty authors face when trying to grapple with what is transpiring now in current society. In addition, authors are able to ride on the interest surrounding historical events in which people tend to hold fascination.

I’ve brought up this subject before here, so I obviously have quite an interest in the relationship between academic history and popular history/historical consciousness in the form of books, TV series and films. Is the popular depiction of historical events and characters all about entertainment, or is it really about a subtle (and not so subtle) type of ideology formation? Or perhaps people’s desire to read and write about history (outside of the academic paradigm) plays a deeper, more constructive role in society?

The June struggle in the British newspapers

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:22 pm

Over at my own blog I’ve decided to mark the anniversary of the events of June 1987 in South Korea by following contemporary reports from the British newspapers on a day-by-day basis. Twenty years ago today, the real action of the June events was getting under way with serious violence on the streets of central Seoul, and the famous siege of Myŏngdong Cathedral began.

Personally I find something exciting about looking back at an event that happened within my memory (at least I have vague memories of the TV news reports) and seeing it as ‘history’. It is also interesting to see how perceptions of the event here and in Korea may have changed since the correspondents first filed their reports from the scene.

All the posts will be accessible from this link.

Meanwhile, at Japan Focus, Paik Nak-chung has an article on the June Struggle and its legacy.

… and then they came for Taekwondo

Filed under: — Owen @ 11:21 am

Another sign of Korea’s increasing sense of insecurity in the face of rapidly growing Chinese economic and political power, or another sign of China’s aggressive attitude toward Korean cultural heritage, designed to assert cultural hegemony and keep its ethnic minorities in check? This time the Chinese have apparently got their sights on Taekwondo:

Concern is rising among Korean officials that China might try to assert taekwondo as its own homegrown sport.

Ko Eui-min, chairman of the World Taekwondo Federation Technical Committee, said, “China is doubted to have been adopting its Northeast Asia Project in taekwondo.”

Northeast Asia Project is an attempt to distort ancient Korean history in the northeastern territory of what is now China, including the Koguryo Kingdom (37 B.C.-A.D. 668) and the Palhae Kingdom (698-926).

“I was really upset to hear that the broadcaster at Changping Stadium in Beijing said taekwondo is a Chinese martial art, during the 2007 World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) Championships,” he said.

On the first day of the biennial competition, he introduced taekwondo, saying, “Taekwondo originated from Korea, combining Japanese and Chinese martial arts.”

The paradox is that Taekwondo is both a highly nationalistic subject in South Korea and perhaps Korea’s most well-recognised international cultural export. Can something like this be globalised and at the same time so firmly embedded in nationalistic discourse? The next paragraph in the above-linked article actually brought a wry smile to my face (my emphasis):

“I feel really sorry that we have not tried to protect taekwondo while China is preparing for the event. Although many renovations have been under way inside the taekwondo governing body after new leaders like the president and general secretary took office, we still have a lot of things to do,” said the 68-year-old taekwondo master, who resides in Germany.

It is a bit unfortunate that this blog hasn’t covered the whole Koguryŏ history controversy in much greater detail. Fortunately though, the subject has produced plenty of good English-language commentary over the last six months or so. The stand out examples are Andrei Lankov’s piece at Japan Focus; Yonson Ahn’s article at History News Network; Andrew Leonard’s introduction at Salon.com; and Choe Sang-hun in the International Herald Tribune. If you still want some more, I’ve managed to collect a variety of related internet resources in my del.icio.us links tagged Koguryŏ.

Two talks this week

Filed under: — Owen @ 12:38 pm

A couple of very interesting talks coming up at short notice for anyone who happens to be around in LA or Seoul in the next couple of days (or perhaps both if you’re the jetsetting type).

Tomorrow fellow frog blogger Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov) will be giving a lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch:

Politics of Conscription: Militarized Statehood in Postcolonial Korea – Dr. Vladimir Tikhonov
Tuesday May 22, 2007, 7:30 pm
2nd Floor, Somerset Palace, Seoul

Meanwhile, on Wednesday afternoon, Jeong-il Lee will be giving a talk about Kija in late Chosŏn Korea along with another talk about Korean memories of Ming China at the UCLA Asia Institute:

“Kija with Qizi: Re-packing Antiquity and Civilization in Late Choson Korea” – Jeong-Il Lee
Wednesday May 23, 3:30-5:30 pm
10367 Bunche Hall, Los Angeles

Sea Devils (revisited)

Filed under: — Owen @ 12:11 pm

Professor Gari Ledyard of Columbia University has left a couple of extremely good posts on the Korean Studies Mailing List that deserve to be shared here. They also put a somewhat different perspective on the article I noted here about African mercenaries fighting alongside Ming troops during the Imjin Wars (1592-1598). His posts are in response to a question about whether Portuguese soldiers were fighting with the Chinese in late sixteenth century Korea. The first one looks at the source of the notion that Portuguese were in Chosŏn and includes an excellent translation of the relevant passage from the Sŏnjo Sillok (Veritable Records of King Sŏnjo). The second posting on the same subject deals with another passage from the Sillok regarding the ‘Sea Devils’ and also the claims about early visits to Korea by Spanish Jesuits in the late sixteenth century.

The upshot of all this is that the Sillok passage on which the article about ‘African mercenaries’ seems to have been based is rather ambiguous. While it appears unlikely that it refers to Portuguese soldiers, there is also nothing to show positively that it is talking about Africans – Gari Ledyard points out that the soldiers could be from a number of areas in south and southeast Asia as well as Africa.

Below is the translation of the passage from the Sŏnjo Sillok, reproduced with Professor Ledyard’s kind permission.

Remixing Tagore

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:15 am

This story in the Korea Times about Rabrindranath Tagore’s poem ‘The Lamp of the East’ caught my eye. In the South Korean nationalist imagination this poem has a remarkably important position as a sort of ‘external legitimator’ for Korean independence. But according to the KT, the version that appears in many of the nation’s high school textbooks has, shall we say, been remixed and enhanced:

…the poem titled “The Lamp of the East” seems to have been over glorified to the point where it has taken on a life of its own, spawning hundreds of different versions with stronger words and longer passages to boost nationalistic sentiment.

More specifically, it seems that an unrelated passage has been taken from Tagore’s poetry collection Gitanjali and added to his original poem about Korea published in the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in 1929:

“The version of the poem that combines excerpts from Gitanjali has been widely spread for a long time and it is often mentioned by politicians and even newspaper columnists. There are even some literary schoolbooks that list the variation as the original version of `The Lamp of the East,”’ a high school history teacher in Seoul, who asked not to be named, said.

According the Wikipedia article about him, Tagore himself was not exactly the model independence fighter and was almost killed by Indian expatriates while staying in San Francisco in 1916 because of his apparent lack of devotion to the cause of Indian independence. In fact, from a strictly nationalist point of view you could say that he sounds a bit like Yi Kwangsu – a mixture of the good and the dubious. Interestingly enough the very comprehensive article doesn’t mention Korea once, so it would seem that the significance of Tagore for Koreans is not necessarily matched by the significance of Korea to Tagore and his legacy. Actually, one wonders whether it was in fact the strong impression made by the Koreans that Tagore met in Tokyo (Dong-A bureau chief Yi T’aero and poet Chu Yohan) in 1929 that moved him to write his famous-in-Korea poem as much as his feelings about a country he was never able to visit.

There are many fascinating aspects to this literary-historical episode: the creation of historical memory and national identity; the fundamentally non-self-contained nature of nationalism and its need for external legitimation; and questions concerning the malleability and authenticity of a literary text (especially when in translation). But perhaps what intrigues me most of all, is who actually came up with the idea of remixing Tagore’s poem in the first place, and why did they feel the need to do so.

In case people are interested, I’ve transcribed below the original text (with original han’gul spellings and hanja preserved – the jpeg was not too clear so I hope I’ve rendered the spellings correctly) of Chu Yohan’s translation of Tagore’s poem that appears in the picture of the Dong-A article provided by the Korea Times:

일즉이 亞細亞의 黃金時期에
빗나든 燈燭의 하나인 朝鮮
그 燈불 한번다시 켜지는 날에
너는 東方의 밝은 비치 되리라

English original:

In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again
For the illumination in the East.

For the sake of comparison, the extra 11 lines added from Gitanjali song 35 and included in the version of the poem known to many Koreans are below the fold.

Hankyoreh opens up the world of Korean convicted war criminals

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:49 am

At the risk of attracting more trackbacks from the lovely people at Occidentalism, I thought I’d bring people’s attention to this really fascinating piece on Korean convicted war criminals translated from Hankyoreh 21. Here’s a sample:

“I cannot deny that the prisoner camp conditions were deplorable,” said Lee. Food, medicine, and clothes were not properly provided, and many forced laborers lost their lives due to wounds and diseases that went untreated. In the month of March 1943 alone, a full quarter of the 800 Australian prisoners were hospitalized. One hundred died. For good reason, the Australian military prosecutors could not forgive the Japanese for putting their men through hell on Earth. They were eager to pursue those responsible for the deaths of their comrades, but in their fury were not about to lend an ear to the plight of a youth caught up in the gears of the imperial war machine.

Lee served as a supervisor of the prisoners at Hintok. As a civilian hired by the Japanese military, he was lower down on the chain of command than a private. However in the trial proceedings, he had somehow been transformed into the “Camp Commandant.” The reason for this was that the military prosecutors took the testimony of the prisoners at their word, without an objective investigation into the situation. Most of the Australian prisoners did not know Lee’s Japanese name. Instead, they gave the various guards nicknames, which in the case of Lee was “lizard.” The origin of this name is unknown.

Hankyoreh also has a more analytical piece on the subject here, which includes this succinct description of the catch 22 in which the former war criminals found themselves once they were released:

Even upon release, however, the convicted war criminals were left in a difficult position. Though Japan enforced the prisoners’ Japanese citizenship during their prison term, the newly freed men were not given the according financial support afforded to other veterans of the Imperial Army. “It’s absurd,” lamented the director of the Committee for Reparation to Victims of the Pacific War. “They were punished for being Japanese, but were rejected aid for not being Japanese.” The war criminals were also denounced in Korea as pro-Japanese collaborators. Upon liberation, most were in their mid 30s. Succumbing to depression, two committed suicide.

It’s quite likely that I’m barking up the wrong tree here, but the name of the support organisation founded in the fifties by the convicted Korean war criminals – Dongjinhoe (同進會) – sounds remarkably similar to the name of the early twentieth century pro-Japanese organisation called the Ilchinhoe (一進會). I suppose it’s possible that since they were operating in Japan they chose a name that might be amenable to the Japanese authorities.

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