우물 안 개구리


Disparity Studies

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:57 am Print

In my discussion of the job market I said “I only saw two Korea positions, which seems about par for previous years: at some point, though, Korea positions should catch up with Japan ones.” Morgan Pitelka took exception, noting (correctly) that

Other than UCLA, which continues to have one of the most productive Korean studies programs outside of Korea, and perhaps Harvard and Columbia, how many grad schools are cranking out Korean studies PhDs? I also know of only a handful of liberal arts colleges with any substantial Korean studies, and rarely language. Very few regional/MA-granting universities have substantial Korean studies. Almost all have some Japanese studies. Also, as far as I know, few colleges or universities DON’T have access to study abroad in Japan. On the other hand, most colleges and universities don’t have study abroad options in Korea.

He’s absolutely right, of course: Korean studies doesn’t have the infrastructure Japanese studies does in the US1 and that means that — like the painfully slow growth of MidEast studies and Islamic history after 9/11 — it will take real time and effort to build. But that’s a symptom, I think, not the root of the issue. As I said, “Korean history is no less interesting than Japanese history, and the US is no less involved in Korean affairs than it is in Japanese affairs.”

Another commenter, “Overthinker” offered a cultural explanation:

There seem to be three fundamental reasons why Japanese Studies is “bigger” than Korean. One is that WW2 was more significant that the Korean War, and has given us longer-lasting imagery; household words like Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima that everyone knows about, whereas to most people the Korean War is basically Klinger in a dress. Second is the dominance of Japanese products in the marketplace: while LG and Samsung etc are strong players, they have not yet achieved the dominance of Toyota, Sony, and Nintendo. Third is the generally “cooler” images of Japan. Think of Korea, and most Americans would be hard-pressed to think beyond the aforementioned M*A*S*H and perhaps Kim Il Jung singing “I’m so ronery”. Mention Japan and people think of samurai and geisha and ninja, plus robots and giant rubber monsters stomping Tokyo on a regular basis. All these three factors would seem to indicate a greater interest in Japan at the BA level, which translates to bigger graduate programs, and more PhDs in the area. To become bigger, Korea needs to become more popular – more people at the undergrad level need to be curious about the place.

This is closer, I think: I definitely agree that Japan’s lead in economic and cultural production is a part of the puzzle. The relationship between pop culture images and student demand is not always straightforward, but it is true that there is more Japanalia in American culture than Koreania2 and more interest in the cultural roots of its economic success3 because that success was so striking in the 80s.

But, as I’ve said before, “there’s no question that a historian can’t complicate by talking about what led up to it” and I think the key to this puzzle is earlier. Much earlier: I think it starts in 1853.


  1. or anywhere in the West, I think, but I’m just going to go with what I know []
  2. No, I don’t know that “Koreania” is a word: would “Koreanalia” be closer? []
  3. I just had a discussion with my World History students about Musashi’s Book of Five Rings…. []


The 30-second tour of historical Pukchon

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:28 am Print

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.


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.



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. []


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?


Asian History News Dump, March 2007

This is a “dump”: all the Asia related stuff I’ve saved over the last…. two months? Anyway, nobody else has blogged about it, so I thought I’d toss it out there. I hope to resume more … measured blogging soon.
[Crossposted at all three Frog Blogs; sorry about the irrelevant stuff.]


Boston and the Bamboo Grove

Filed under: — Owen @ 2:23 pm Print

I must admit that I’ve not felt at all keen on bringing up here the most recent Korea-related history controversy to hit the news. As many readers are probably already aware, many Korean-Americans and the majority of the South Korean media have been upset over the book So Far from the Bamboo Grove. I suppose my reluctance is due to the fact that I find something particularly depressing about the whole business. Perhaps it’s the sense that this seems to pit different immigrant groups in the US rather pointlessly against one another. In any case, I’ve been sent some links to articles on this matter by an editor at the Boston Globe, which I will post here in the interests of sharing information.

The first one covers the South Korean angle, noting that the South Korean consulate has asked the (Massachusetts) Department of Education to ‘rethink its use of the book’. The second concerns the author’s (Yoko Kawashima Watkins) response to the controversy at a recent press conference, where she seemed to admit to certain problems with her book by offering to see if a more extensive historical introduction could be included in future editions.

Personally, I think Professor Carter Eckert of Harvard already pinpointed rather well (in the same newspaper back in December – reg. required) the core of this controversy and why the use of the book as school text has upset Korean-Americans so much:

While Yoko’s story is compelling as a narrative of survival, it achieves its powerful effect in part by eliding the historical context in which Yoko and her family had been living Korea. That context, simply put, was a 40-year record of harsh colonial rule in Korea, which reached its apogee during the war years of 1937-45, when Yoko was growing up.

This is not an argument for censorship or banning books. There is no reason why Watkins’s book cannot be used in the schools. Introduced carefully and wisely, in conjunction, for example, with Richard Kim’s classic “Lost Names,” an autobiographical novel about a young Korean boy living at the end of Japanese colonial rule in the 1940s, it can help students understand how perspectives vary according to personal and historical circumstances.


Is there such a thing as an innocent nation?

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:34 am Print

Moving away from the news reports for the moment, something a bit more speculative. The above question is one that crops up in my mind every now and then when I read something about how Korean history is distinguished by the number of invasions the country has suffered or hear a Korean say that their country has never invaded anyone else.

Reading this post by Jay (an English teacher in Inch’ŏn), set me off thinking about his some more (this is slightly circular as Jay’s post itself was inspired by Noja’s post below on anti-Americanism). In his post, he notes the bits of Korean history that are not taught in Korean schools:

· the massacres of Vietnamese peasants by ROK forces
· political prisoners, imprisoned for 40 years
· WW2 crimes committed by Korean soldiers
· the widespread and calculated terror pursued by Rhee’s regime, from 1948 and continuing into the civil war
· reference to the war as a civil war
· patriotism as something other than loyalty to the state
· a defence of the right to withhold labour
· the dangers lurking in “pure blood” mythologies
· feminist, race, queer theories of any kind

Perhaps the easy answer to the question posed above is simply no, since the whole point of the nation as it was conceived in the late nineteenth century is to impose the will of a minority of people on others. If it can’t do this externally via imperialism, then the nation will sure as hell do this internally by stifling dissent, enforcing conformity through nationalist education and militarism and creating an ‘identity’ that necessarily closes off one group of humans from another (thus helping to prevent us from collectively realising the global transformations that are so clearly required if we are to survive).

But perhaps this is too simple: there really are historically determined differences in the way that different countries behave at different times; and there really is a hierarchy of strong and weak states in the modern world.

Chosŏn Korea, for example, is not a society that I would aspire to live in (assuming that time travel technology was perfected). Like other feudal/tributary societies it was based on the brutal exploitation of the great majority, who lived short lives and for much of the time barely subsisted, even as they saw the fruits of their labour taken from under their noses by the magistrate’s tax collectors and the local landlords. On the other hand, perhaps because of its particular geographical and ideological location within the Sinocentric world order, it was a country that showed no interest in expanding beyond its borders, conquering and subjugating other peoples, in clear contrast to Hideyoshi’s Japan or Qing China.

I’m not sure whether there is a conclusion to my meandering thoughts. But perhaps my uneasiness whenever I hear someone tell me that Korea has, in effect, ‘always been innocent’, comes from the fact that class societies, whether premodern polities or modern nation states, are always guilty in some way or another.

As a side note to these thoughts, I heard the excellent Gary Younge speak last night at a meeting on Islamophobia and racism. Discussing the press reaction to the recent furore here in the UK over racism on Celebrity Big Brother, he wondered how it was that whenever countries like Britain and the US ‘lose their innocence’ in a controversy like this they seem to be able to regain it again so quickly.


Orthodoxy, or more revisionism? (History news round up II)

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:18 pm Print

Time for part two of my history news round up. Another big history-related story toward the end of last year concerned a proposed new rightwing history textbook designed for use in Korean high schools. Now it was the turn of ‘leftist’ politicians (scare quotes denote my extreme scepticism about calling Uri Party politicians in any way leftwing) to be upset by distortions of history, ideological bias and so on. Actually things kicked off properly when a press conference held at the end of November by a New Right-affiliated textbook group called Textbook Forum was invaded by progressive civic groups and a punch up ensued.

It seems that the new textbook is rather pro-Park Chung-hee and as historian An Pyongjik claims, attempts to get away from history teaching as the ‘history of movements’ (the independence movement, the democracy movement etc). Its critics particularly took issue with its treatment of the April 1960 Students’ Revolution which overthrew President Syngman Rhee, since it bascially denies that it was a revolution at all, but rather a ‘student movement’ controlled by leftists. Han Hong-gu of Sungkonghoe University (bastion of all things progressive) commented that the textbook was no different from those currently being promoted by the Japanese far right.

As usual, the Hankyoreh cartoonist had a good take on this:
Hani textbook cartoon
(Hankyoreh Geurimpan, 4 December 2006)
On the left, a former Japanese collaborator and a (presumably dead) Park Chung-hee are addressing a member of the New Right who is carrying a copy of the textbook, saying:
“What the hell are you doing revealing our true intentions so carelessly?”
On the table behind them sit books which praise the dictatorial Yusin system of Park and attempt to justify the actions of Japanese collaborators.

But then almost as soon as it looked like it might get interesting, the storm blew over and the erstwhile opponents met and agreed to cooperate, after the Textbook Forum people had agreed to use the word ‘revolution’ to describe the April 19, 1960 movement. Amazing what a difference a word can make.

Anyway, something is definitely afoot here and no doubt the Korean right really is trying to take a leaf out of the textbooks of the Japanese right. It also strikes me that this attempt to rebrand a conservative view of history as ‘new’ (part of the whole ‘New Right’ rebranding project) is rather disingenuous – there is nothing new or daring about claiming that what Park Chung-hee did was wonderful or in the best interests of the nation (even if it was a bit painful) this is just the old propaganda warmed over for a new generation of school students. That doesn’t mean, on the other hand, that current Korean school history textbooks are above criticism or revision.


5,000 years

Filed under: — Owen @ 6:06 pm Print

One of those phrases that anyone dealing with Korean history must learn to live with is the ’5,000 years’ business. Today I came across one of the most creative uses of this cliche yet from Kim Jong-il’s ‘unofficial spokesman’ Kim Myong Chol (crazy guy, not very crazy name), who claims that last October’s nuclear test was the fulfilment of a 5,000-year old Korean ambition:

One of the 5,000-year-old aspirations of the Korean people is to acquire powerful national defenses equipped with long-range deep-strike capabilities of hitting the enemy’s heartland and turning it into a sea of fire, instead of letting Korea become a war theater. For the first time in Korean history, Kim Jong-il has fulfilled this historic aspiration as he has put the Korean Peninsula under North Korea’s own nuclear umbrella, neutralizing the US nuclear umbrella.

I can just imagine the neolithic people of the peninsula, kicking back around the cave fire, having just feasted on a prime cut of deer meat, saying to one another, “you know what we really need, it’s a great big thermonuclear weapon and a nice ICBM to deliver it with.”

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