우물 안 개구리


Things I don’t know about Korea, part 3

One of the things that I noticed about the materials I used last time I taught Korean history1 is that the texts I chose for my course did not mention, much less discuss in depth, the recently departed Moon Sun Myung‘s Unification Church. The global reach of this uniquely Korean Christian sect would seem to make it a natural topic for discussion, but even works that look in some detail at the religious changes of modern Korean history didn’t address this sect.

The absence was so striking, that I started to wonder if there was some sort of political minefield or cultural taboo at work, or if I had grossly misunderstood the scale and impact of the movement. I haven’t been looking all that hard for answers one way or the other in the two years since, but I certainly would like to have some better sense going in this time.

  1. and I’m scheduled to teach it again in the Spring, in parallel with my Modern Japan course, so it’s on my mind. I’m thinking of adding some literature to the syllabus []


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. []


檀紀 Conversion Dashboard Widget 1.0

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 11:06 am Print

Here at 우물 안 개구리 we are delighted today to bring you an amazing new tool that will revolutionize your life. Well, at least if you are reading Korean texts or newspapers which put all the dates in 檀紀 years. And you are so mathematically challenged you can’t take a number and subtract 2333 in your head. And you haven’t bothered to memorize the 檀紀 years for the period you are interested in. And you have a Mac with OS X installed. And you can’t be bothered to do the calculation on paper.

Ok, maybe it won’t revolutionize your life, and the potential beneficiaries of this wonderful new product may not earn me a whole lot of karma, but I’m happy to announce the results of 1.5 hours of fiddling with the “Dashcode” developer’s application on a slow Friday night:

The New Frog in a Well 檀紀 Dashboard Widget


It is a thoroughly amateurish job, but if you install this widget, enter the 檀紀 year and press return, it should give you the year in a more familiar form.


Korean (Gender) Studies at ASPAC

In spite of the lovely Korean Studies Center which headquartered the conference, ASPAC 2007 didn’t have a lot of Korean content. In fact, with the exception of one paper on a mixed panel, I think I saw it all.

AAS President-Elect Robert Buswell gave the keynote address at the banquet on Saturday night, speaking on “Korean Buddhist Journeys to Lands Real and Imagined.” Though it was a bit long and specialized for an after-dinner discourse, I found it thought-provoking. I didn’t however, take notes, so you’ll have to wait for the paper (I’m sure there’s a paper in the works) to get the details. I was struck by a few thoughts, though.

  • Given the frequency of Korean Buddhist travel as far as India, and the ease with which they navigated China in particular, I think we need to reconsider travel in Asian history. It’s clearly more of a norm than an exception, at least for certain categories of people. That means a great deal more integration among elites, more awareness of neighboring (and even distant) cultures than our traditional national-limited cultural histories suggest. It also means that western travellers like Marco Polo need to be considered a very small part of a much larger travelling and writing public; yes, I’m reconsidering Marco Polo, somewhat, because narratives like the ones Buswell described put his journies into a much more plausible context.
  • The “imagined” travelogues to legendary and/or allegorical lands constitute a rich fantastical literature which ought to be considered in comparison with work like The Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.



Homer B. Hulbert Event

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 10:00 am Print

I made a visit to the foreigner’s cemetery located at on the Seoul Union Church grounds in Hapjeong. Today banners were hanging in several places around the station and church advertising a memorial event or 추모식 for this Friday (Click the picture for a zoomed in version of the event details) to be held at the church for Homer B. Hulbert who, according to the banner, “loved Korea more than the Koreans do.” The event has some big sponsors and might be interesting to attend if you are in Seoul and have the time to kill.

I only know of Hulbert (1863-1949), who was an important early missionary to Korea, from his brief political involvement in 1905, and his most famous work The Passing of Korea, written in 1906. However, he also published a history of Korea the year before and much earlier helped James Gale on A concise Dictionary of the Korean Language published in Yokohama in 1890. You can read more about him here (Korean PDF here).

UPDATE: Fixed English translation. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that Hulbert loved the country more than its people. Sorry about that.


Museum: The Korean Christian Museum at Soongsil University

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:16 am Print

In my constant search for quiet, smoke-free, and affordable coffee shops to study in, I recently came upon the Starbucks near Soongsil University (숭실대학교), which is only a few bus stops away from the Seoul University subway station. After spending a nice Sunday reading there recently, I wandered about the Soongsil campus and discovered that the university has a Korean Christian Museum. I came back to visit the museum on a less holy day and found that it has quite a bit to offer.

The museum has three floors. The first floor is dedicated to the history of Christianity in Korea, with sections covering Nestorianism 경교 (景敎) in East Asia (with some evidence of its spread to Korea, but I admit I was somewhat suspicious of this), Catholic inroads, and later missionary efforts. There are a number of interesting texts housed here, including very old writings about Korea, bible translations, early Korean language manuals used by missionaries, a text of a 1839 royal decree against Catholicism, and various early missionary periodicals etc.

The second floor has one section dedicated to the history of the university beginning in the late 1890s, and a second section which has little if anything to do with Christianity at all. Called “Modernization and the National Movement” this room has all sorts of exhibits related to early modern and modern Korean history, including a great section dedicated to the development of astronomy and geography in Korea. The standard triumphant tale of Korean ingenuity, enlightenment and growing nationalism is narrated throughout, but the assembled artifacts on display are well worth the visit.

Finally, the third floor has again nothing, that I could tell, to do with Christianity, but instead collects various archeological findings from earlier periods of Korean history.

The museum is quite close to SNU and its offerings are considerably more interesting than the fixed exhibits on SNU’s own campus museum (As my fellow contributor Gyewon has pointed out, however, there are often very interesting temporary exhibits to be found there). While all the exhibits are labeled in Korean, the museum provides a great English language booklet with well-written explanations and pictures of most of the important museum exhibits.

More Info: The museum has free admission and is open 10-16 Monday-Friday and 10-12 on Saturdays. You can reach it by going to Soongsil University subway station, or by bus (751, 752, 753, 501, 650, 5511, 5517).

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