우물 안 개구리


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. []


The Sideshow in Korea?

Yet the costly Iraq war must also be recognised as a sideshow in the Bush global counteroffensive against Islamist militancy, just as the far more costly Korean war was a sideshow to global cold war containment.

So says Edward Luttwak, in an extensive attempt to speed up the process by which History justifies and valorizes the policies of this administration. [via] He’s mostly engaged in a bit of dramatic post hoc, ergo propter hoc whereby a shift in government policies towards extremist Islamic groups is the result of Pres. Bush’s Trumanesque firmness, but the damage done to the success — military and diplomatic — of the initial Afghanistan campaign by the Iraq campaign isn’t taken into account at all.1 The Korean war — which I have a lot of trouble seeing as a “sideshow,” given the direct involvement of Chinese and Russian forces and a lot more actual shooting than in Europe — advanced the cause of anti-communism. It was a success, in the sense that it preserved South Korea as a non-communist state and it was the last full-scale conflict between the great powers for some time. The only sense in which Korea could be called a “sideshow” is that Truman’s containment policy engaged a lot of other parts of the world as well.

He then goes on to mangle Chinese history — Tang, Song and Ming dynasties never conquered anyone, right? — and to cast the future of Asia in binaries (China: convergence or communist collapse? India: corruption stagnation or “traditional” good Brahmin governance?), as well as giving the administration credit for North Korean disarmament instead of noting their years of footdragging on same which have exacerbated the proliferation problem.

Truman deserves better.

  1. He’s also assuming that al Qaeda’s “call to action” attacks were likely to inspire imitators rather than revulsion in the short run, which seems like he’s taking their own rhetoric way too seriously. Romantic nihilists have been claiming that “the masses are on the brink of revolution” and “dramatic action will awaken them” for over two centuries now. []


Korea: Better than Vietnam, anyway

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:58 pm Print

Thomas C. Reeves, perhaps my least favorite HNN blogger, is arguing that the success of South Korea justifies our Middle East policies, especially Iraq. The comparison of Bush to Truman is nothing new, nor is the analogy of Iraq and Korea. But this particular one is quite egregious, and I can’t let it pass without comment. Reeves’ main point — that South Korea is better off than North Korea and that the US had a hand in that — is true, but in such a shallow manner as to be empty rhetoric. His larger theme — that the support for freedom and opposition to tyranny are worthwhile even when unpopular — is also true, but the use of the Korea and Truman raise serious questions.

First, of course, is the sheer hubris of attributing the difference solely to “American influence and protection.” The Korean War was initiated by North Korea in direct action against US/UN troops, not by a US invasion. The US was already in Korea, for good reason, but ham-handedly refusing — as was the Soviet Union — to allow Koreans to determine their own post-colonial path. US involvement in South Korean politics over the quarter-century after the Korean War delayed progress towards democracy, did nothing in particular to promote religious tolerance (unless you count supporting Christian missionaries, which seems a bit self-serving), and I’ve never seen anyone argue that US involvement was particularly good for the Korean economy, either.

The attempt to tar opponents of Bush Administration policy as new McCarthyites — well-intentioned, perhaps, but short-sighted, partisan and hypocritical — ignores literally years of critics saying “it would be good for everyone if we could proceed in a responsible and effective manner.”1 Instead, Reeves pulls out the middle ground, leaving only support for the Administration (who are, according to Reeves, more Trumanesque than Johnsonesque or Kennedyesque or Rooseveltian or Wilsonian….) or “appeasement and retreat for mere political gain.” It’s a short step from this kind of manicheanism to “stabbed in the back” revisionism.

Ultimately, this is a classic case of the political rhetorical use of historical analogies: pick the one which has the most obvious parallel for the result you want to see, and ignore differences.2 It’s irresponsible for a historian to trade in these facile arguments.

  1. e. g. []
  2. Reeves waves it away with “Yes, of course, there are many differences between Iraq and the Middle East today and the Korean peninsula of more than a half century ago.” My students wouldn’t be allowed to get away with that! []


Asian History Carnival #15

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:11 am Print

Korea Center Pavilion
Welcome to the Fifteenth edition of the Asian History Carnival! The picture is of the beautiful pavilion at the Center for Korean Studies at UH-Manoa, where ASPAC just met and I was elevated to the illustrious ranks of Secretary pro tem and Secretary-elect in a heady rush.1 I didn’t have the time to blog during the conference, so I’m doing my conference blogging afterwards, staring with South Asian issues (textbook controversies, identity, and a new South Asian Studies Conference).2 I’ve also been helping Ralph Luker with a little Blogroll Revision, so the non-US history blogs are much more accessible. Finally, there’s a new way to keep track of the History Carnival community: the History Carnival Aggregator, your one-stop shop for announcements! Well, enough about me, let’s see what the rest of the blogosphere’s been up to this last month!


  1. something about my neurotic tendency to write everything down seems to have swayed the electorate []
  2. I still have Korean and Japanese panels to comment on next week. Somehow I managed to entirely miss any Chinese panels. []


Analogy Alert: Iraq/Korea

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 4:00 am Print

this via:

White House spokesman Tony Snow said Bush would like to see a U.S. role in Iraq ultimately similar to that in South Korea.

“The Korean model is one in which the United States provides a security presence, but you’ve had the development of a successful democracy in South Korea over a period of years, and, therefore, the United States is there as a force of stability,” Snow told reporters.

and this via

Missing from much of the current discussion is talk about the success of democracy in Iraq, officials say, or even of the passage of reconciliation measures that Mr. Bush said in January that the troop increase would allow to take place. In interviews, many senior administration and military officials said they now doubted that those political gains, even if achieved, would significantly reduce the violence.

The officials cautioned that no firm plans have emerged from the discussions. But they said the proposals being developed envision a far smaller but long-term American presence, centering on three or four large bases around Iraq. Mr. Bush has told recent visitors to the White House that he was seeking a model similar to the American presence in South Korea.


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