우물 안 개구리

Postings by Remco Breuker

Contact: remco [at] froginawell.net

Bugs, beetles and worldviews

Filed under: — Remco Breuker @ 8:57 am

Having been temporarily expelled from my office because of the presence of beetles that merrily eat through the wooden ceiling beams, I had to think of an entry in the History of Koryŏ (Koryŏsa 高麗史) about a similar problem that plagued the pine trees of Kaesŏng. At first sight this entry may look obscure and hardly worth of any serious attention. But I think this passage is more than an anecdote; it offers a fascinating entry into the worldview(s) of Koryŏ. This is the concerned passage:

“In the fourth month of 1102 (the seventh year of the reign of Sukchong) insects were eating the pine trees, so Buddhist monks were mobilized to recite the Flower Garland Sutra (Hwaŏmgyŏng 華嚴經) for five days to stop this disaster. On the kyeyu day in the fifth month the king led some of his ministers in the palace in a celebration of a commemorative ritual for Sangje上帝 and the Five Emperors五帝. A prayer of repentance was directed at T’aejo 太祖, the sun and the moon and was only discontinued in the evening of the third night. On the pyŏngsul day of the sixth month, the ruler decreed that the ministers of state should perform rituals in honour of the spirits of the great mountains and streams of the east, west, south, north and the middle of the country, divided in three separate places of worship. He furthermore decreed that 2,000 monks should be gathered and split in four groups that would tour the mountains around the capital and in the provinces, while reciting the The Heart of the Prajna Paramita Sutra (panyagyŏng 般若經) to the insects to rescue them and stop disasters. In the end, 500 soldiers were mobilized to catch the insects on Pine Tree Peak (Songaksan松岳山).”

The appearance of insects in Kaesŏng’s sacred mountains, eating the pines that were considered essential to the well-being of the dynasty, was not to be taken lightly. Indeed, when this happened later in the dynasty “the people said that [the appearance of the insects in the pine trees] was the foreboding of the emergence of a new dynasty”. The significance attached to this omen, however, is perhaps of less immediate interest than the solutions that the Koryŏ court came up with in this case and in many other, comparable instances. First, it made Buddhist monks perform sutra recitations and in other instances elaborate rituals. When that did not prove to be effective, the king himself offered Daoist rituals to the Ultimate Being and the Five Emperors, to the founder of the dynasty and to the sun and the moon. Then, the spirits of the landscape, of Koryŏ’s mountains and streams were beseeched to intervene. Desperate, one can easily imagine, that the insects did not disappear, 2,000 monks were send out to preach to the pesky little bugs and when that did not work, soldiers were sent into the mountains to engage in close combat with the blasphemous insects. Other instances also record to mobilization of troops of shamans. (more…)

Cinema, nationalism, and nostalgia

Filed under: — Remco Breuker @ 4:33 am

I have just finished reading a new book on Korean cinema (New Korean Cinema, New York: NYU Press, 2005, edited by Chi-Yun Shin and Julian Springer). It was a satisfactory read, most of the essays in it are good, some excellent. It has left me with some questions, though, and I am curious how other academics working on Korea think about these questions. Reading this book (and others as well), I have come across repeated statements on nationalism with which I find it hard to agree. The first one is the generally shared assumption that South Korea is an intensely nationalist country and that art (cinema) has to overcome nationalism (and nationalism alone) to become ‘real’ art. While superficially this may seem to be the case (especially from the outside), I have often found that, with the exception of the radical nationalists, nationalism is often a matter of rhetorics, not entirely perhaps, but to a significant extent at the least. Cultural studies in particular seem to take the all-pervasive influence of nationalism as a given, without problematizing what kind of nationalism is being discussed, in what context and from whom it emerges and for whom it is intended. The rhetorics of nationalism, as those of any influential ideology, must perhaps not be taken at face value, but be seen as a distinctive and for its users familiar way of communication.

Related to this is the also popular notion (present in several essays in this book) that due to the disappearance of the oppressively propagated nationalism of the 70′s and ’80s South Korea now is more fragmented, more anxiety-ridden and more diverse than it was during the 70′s and 80′s. (more…)

Finding Korean journal articles online

Filed under: — Remco Breuker @ 4:42 am

Following up on Owen’s very useful posts, I’ll write a few words on finding Korean journals online. I have used the RISS site a lot and they do have an option for foreigner users now, but there is a snag if you want to download articles for which you have to pay. This used to be possible by using a credit card and the prices were reasonable, between 2ooo to 4000 won per article, depending on length, journal and newness. About a year ago, however, when the site became more friendly towards those unfortunate souls without a Korean ID number, it also became impossible to pay with foreign credit cards. I don’t think the site itself has any control over this, because they use a widely used plug-in from a large electronic banking company. Anyway, it has become impossible to charge non-Korean credit cards. The last time I tried was about four months ago. As for obtaining articles for which you should pay, the best way is still to ask someone on a Korean campus. As most Korean universities are subscribers of journal article databases, anybody with a campus ID address can download any article they require. This is probably also the best way to get hold of unpublished MA and Ph.D. theses, although for those you need to have an ID address of the university where the particular thesis you want was submitted. Complicated, but often worth it.

Self-Introduction: Remco Breuker

Filed under: — Remco Breuker @ 10:59 am

My name is Remco Breuker. I am very excited to be part of this new weblog on Korean history. I am finishing up a Ph.D. on medieval Korean history, more specifically, the emergence of a nation during the early Koryŏ period (918-1170). My research interest primarily lie in pre-modern Korean history, nation and identity formation, historiography and, more contemporarily, Korean cinema. I am further interested in such things as (the translation of) modern Korean literature, contemporary Korean history and the history of Manchuria.

My background is in Japanese Studies, but already during my MA I leaned more and more towards Korean Studies until I decided to do my Ph.D. on Korean history. I have spent altogether five years in Korea, doing research and pursuing graduate studies in Korean history. I welcome the creation of a blog such as this; to be able to exchange information, research, views and comments on Korean history in an East Asian context will be very stimulating. I strongly believe in approaching Korean history both from within the peninsula and from without. Contemporary political issues, such as Japan’s war past or the Chinese-Korean dispute about the status of the historical legacy of Koguryŏ, make it very clear that none of the East Asian countries can or should be studied in isolation. This is as much true for pre-modern East Asia. Despite the influence of national historical narratives that understandably focus on the own nation, historians should try to avoid an altogether exclusive focus on the nation. This is one of the reasons why I am very interested in frontiers on the Korean peninsula, in particular the northern frontier that for centuries both symbolically and physically separated the states on the Korean peninsula from those in Manchuria.

I am looking forward to becoming a regular contributor to this blog and share and learn as much as possible. The fact that this blog welcomes postings in Korean is, I think, very important. It provides a chance to bring together two academic worlds which regrettably tend to follow rather separate trajectories into closer and more frequent contact. I am very happy to be part of this.

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