우물 안 개구리


Empty history

I’m spending a few weeks in Korea, mainly for the Academy of Korean Studies organised World Congress of Korean Studies that will be taking place this weekend in Chejudo. A few days ago I had the enjoyable experience of visiting the Hongsŏng area (South Ch’ungch’ŏng Province) together with one of our other contributors, Pak Noja. This was a sort of pilgrimage to see the birthplace of Manhae Han Yongun (1879-1944), the Buddhist reformer, poet and political activist whose writing we have been translating together. We also had the opportunity to visit the lovely Sudŏksa temple nearby, a place I would highly recommend.

Seeing the site of Manhae’s birthplace brought a number of thoughts and feelings to mind, but the sense of being somewhere historically significant or imbued with any atmosphere was unfortunately not one of them. Of course, this could be attributed to my attitude as much as anything else. But seeing a place that has been so obviously constructed in very recent times as a facsimile of the location where Manhae may have been born, I think most people might have similar feelings. The site consists of two small thatched cottages (초가집) one of which is the management office and the other a replica of the house where Manhae was born. Higher up, there is also a shrine to Manhae in the usual style of a small building within a walled compound with a grand gate. Besides that there is an expanse of freshly-paved wasteland, a few stele with inscribed poems (시비) and what appears to be a small museum, currently under construction.

Manhae birthplace 1

Although it seems they were constructed in the early 1990s, the two thatched cottages were nicely done and pretty enough. But I think there were two things about this place that made it profoundly ‘ahistorical’ for me. One was the expanse of paved ground, a barren nothingness, ready to be trampled on by hordes of daytrippers or school children (actually the place seems rather forlorn and only one coach turned up while we were there). The other was the lack of any real context – it seems that whatever material remains of the village where Manhae was born and lived have long since disappeared to be replaced years later by these disembodied symbols of the world that the young Han Yongun existed in.

Manhae birthplace 2

Noja pointed out this stone inscription, which is of the three additional points written by Han Yongun at the end of the Proclamation of Korean Independence (1919). The rest of the document was written by Ch’oe Namson. An English translation of the three points:

1. This work of ours is in behalf of truth, religion and life undertaken at the request of our people, in order to make known their desire for liberty. Let no violence be done to anyone.
2. Let those who follow us every man all the time, every hour, show forth with gladness this same mind.
3. Let all things be done decently and in order, so that our behavior to the very end may be honorable and upright.

National Museum plaza

Yesterday I went for a look around the new National Museum of Korea, located at Ich’on in Seoul, on what I believe was once a US Army golf course. As you can see from the picture below, this site of historical education has a similar expanse of emptiness in front of it, heightening the effect of the massive blank walls of the building. In some ways I quite like this sort of brutalist architecture, but you can’t help feeling that this is a crude attempt to impose upon the visiting masses a sense of awe at the weighty authority of Korean history. What I saw of the exhibitions inside (the history section) , was excellent however. I would recommend the parts on Chosŏn dynasty socio-economic life, thought and international relations which are refreshingly clear and lacking in nationalistic tones.


English craze as a modern Korean tradition

Filed under: — noja @ 6:06 am Print

Even having seen for around 15 years how one’s ability to follow the CNN anchors’ pronounciation habits functions in South Korea as the modern equivalent of the old treasured skills of Chinese poetizing, I still often feel baffled by the degree that the English craze has reached. On one plane, you have badly informed moms having the tongues of their kids operated on so that they can ideally conform to global standards; on another plane, my old Korean alma mater proudly proclaims that it will switch 60% of its teaching to the most scientific language in the world in 5 years. Korean history isn’t going to be exempt from this new duty of linguistic globalization , and it really feels eerie – after all, it was permitted to teach 조선사 and 조선어 in Korean even in during colonial times when Japanese remained the principal language of teaching, after the Law on Korean Education was revised in 1921-22 in what is considered one of the Government-General’s main concessions to the nationalistic spirit shown by the March 1, 1919 events. Although that too changed after the mid-1930s in many good schools, and I remember having seen the notes for Ewha lectures prepared by the later Prof. Yi PyOngdo (이병도) during that time – they were all in Japanese, of course. Anyway, it looks as though in these times cultural self-colonization may be much more thorough and destructive than anything forced from the outside by the classical “gun-boat” imperialists.

However, whatever I might have felt looking 7 years ago at my Kyunghee students making “study circles” for the collective reading of Newsweek (for me, it sounded like making a voluntary association for studying Pravda in the good old Stalinist days), I guess we have to acknowledge the enormous importance of English learning is a part of what may be called Korea’s “modern tradition”. It is quite obvious for the pre-colonial and post-colonial periods, and less obvious, but no less true for the colonial days. For pre-colonial and colonial Korea, building one’s cultural and social capital by learning English was by no means simply a feature of the life-stories of missionary school graduates like Yun Ch’iho and Syngman Rhee: what is really interesting is the role English played in the lives of the members of the fledgling modern elite who had no Christian connections.

It is largely unknown, but even early modern Korea’s greatest opponent of “동화적 모방” (‘assimilational imitation’ – that is how the “exclusion of national spirit from the modern education” was termed in one of Taehan Maeil Sinbo’s awe-inspiring editorials), Sin Ch’aeho, learned English on his own in the mid-1910s, while in China – and read Carlyle’s opus on hero worship, as well as Gibbon’s meditations on imperial declines and falls (“decline and downfall” being only too timely a topic for a militant nationalist like Sin 3-4 years after 1910), in their originals (변영로, “국수주의의 항성인 단재 신채호 선생”, – < 개벽>, 62호, 1925). Then, there is the inspiring story of the three Pyŏn brothers, Yŏngt’ae (변영태: 1892-1969 – Prime-minister in 1954-56, by the way), Yŏngno (변영로: 1897-1961) and Yŏngman (변영만: 1889-1954). All three – no conversion story involved, to my knowledge – began learning English by themselves, although Yŏngno was greatly helped by the YMCA services, and Yŏngman owed a debt to the pre-colonial School of Law Officers (법관 양성소). And all three were talented to the point of linguistic – and literary – genius. Yŏngno wrote his first English poem in 1914, and Yŏngman tried hard to create a new, novel genre of Chinese classical writing, influenced by European, primarily English literature.

Interestingly enough, English was also an OBLIGATORY subject in the colonial Advanced Normal Schools after the 1922 reform – it was taught 5-7 hours a week on average, while Japanese was taught 6-8 hours (강내희, “영어 교육과 영어의 사회적 위상”, – 공제욱, 정근식 편, < 식민지의 일상: 지배와 균열>, 문화과학사, 2006). So, lots of modern English loan words in Korean entered the language, in fact, much before 1945, although their spelling varied greatly. All this may provide, in fact, some interesting food for thought concerning the relationship between a global subsystem called “Japanese Empire”, and the British/American-dominated world-system as a whole…


Who Owns Koguryo Now?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 3:22 pm Print

Yonson Ahn’s article in the latest Japan Focus tracks the historiography of the Korean/Manchurian Koguryo state up to the present “textbook wars.” I’ve always found the division between the Silla-focused South Korean and Koguryo-focused North Korean scholarship quite interesting, and a very useful example for students of how contemporary politics can affect the historiography.

I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but as someone who teaches East Asia it makes more sense to me to include it in Korean history where it can get more attention, than in Chinese history where we’re already shoehorning in as much as humanly possible….


History, or politics by other means

Filed under: — noja @ 12:27 pm Print

I would like to share my musings and solicit opinions on one issue I always was interested in – namely, to what degree the ways in which states attempt to rule over the past and use it for forming a suitable present, are effective, and on what factors their effectivity depends. To illustrate what I mean, let us just look what the “history” in the public realm meant in South Korea in Yusin time in the 1970s, and what sort of “history” is being mass-produced and encouraged currently. In the 1970s, in the official discourse on history the catchword was “국난 극복사” (“the history of the overcoming of national emergencies”) or “국방 사관” (“the national defence-centred view of history”), and the visible facade of “history”, namely the “historical monuments”, was shaped accordingly: children and students alike were regularly bussed to Admiral Yi Sunsin’s memorial complex “HyOnch’ungsa” (practically obligatory for all) or to the lesser, refurbished and renovated complexes on the Kanghwa Island (celebrating the firght against USA Navy in 1871 and the fight against the French in 1866), on the Cheju Island (celebrating the anti-Mongol resistance of SambyOlch’o crack troops, 1270-1273) and elsewhere. Old Japanese idea that Silla’s hwarangs were nothing but fearless fighters – in fact, some of the colonial Japanese hsitorians viewed them as one source of Japan’s celebrated bushido – was given new lease on life by Park Chong Hee’s cheif court historian Yi SOn’gUn, so that even in the army, soldiers were supposed to great each other shouting “ch’ungsOng” (loyalty!) and “hwarang”. All this was certainly very needed stuff indeed for a hardcore developmental state striving to mould its low-class citizens into militarly disciplined workers and prevent them from developing any independent class consciousness of their own. And today, we have “The Presidential Committee for the Inspection of Collaborations with the Japanese Imperialism” (http://www.pcic.go.kr:8088/pcic/index.jsp), headed by venerable left-nationalist historian Kang Man’gil, and new, popular school history textbooks like 2002 “살아 있는 한국사 교과서” ( http://www.aladdin.co.kr/shop/wproduct.aspx?ISBN=8958620226 , translated recently into English by the Academy of Korean Studies), which are largely based on “Kang Man’gilian” view of history. So far the modern history is concerned, this view accentuates the ethno-national unity with North Korea, thus providing rationals for current attempts of the Southern elite to incorporate gradually the Northern nomenklatura into the regional capitalist system, and narrows the issue of “collaboration with imperialism” to the Japanese imperialism before 1945, thus allowing the public to vent its rage onto somebody else than today’s major tycoons, who either collaborated with American imeprialism only (Hyundai and Hanjin, known for their profiteering during the Vietnam War) or very little with pre-war Japanese and mostly with Americans (Samsung’s Yi PyOngch’Ol – took loans from Shokusan Ginko in the late 1930s, produced wares for the Japanese army and subscribed to the war loans – but this hardly qualifies for real “collaboration” as defined by the recently adopted laws). My question is – to which degree this sort of “history” distributed from above, is really believed, retained by the individuals’ consciousness, and influences their behaviour? One probable answer is – this “historical” propaganda does work so far as the state appropriates the conclusion-making powers from its subjects and forces upon them some (ideological) conclusions, which, however, have some real, tangible connection with their daily experiences; but it ceases to work, when the state-approved/disseminated conclusions loose their connections to the individual life-worlds. For example, Yusin period’s “militaristic statism” could work as much as the developing state-controlled economy allowed even the poorer subjects some chances for personal vertical mobility – not least, through the army ranks. State and its army were distributing some “carrots” to the “human resources” they wielded their stick over – and were believed in this degree. Then, the army, apart from the chances to rise to the position of NCO and serve as a professional soldier further, could also provide a sense of psychological compensation – you were allowed, once 고참 enough, to bully around the people, who would not allow you to come close to them in the real life. Once the opportunities for social mobility in general became much lower in the 1990s, the “militaristic statism” started obviously to lose its grip over the population – and we need World Cups, Yi Sunsin dramas and other extra props to keep it afloat. As to the idea that donating fighter planes to the Japanese troops before 1945 is a crime of “collaboration”, but building military objects in Southern Vietnam before 1975 is not – well, it is certainly usable so far as American capital owns large portion of Korean “blue chips” and American market is still needed by the Korean exporters. As soon as the dollar will plunge down and Korea will fully get dependant on the Chinese market, this part of “history” will certainly get some edit on it, I guess?

Vladimir (Noja)


‘An Elementary Reader for Citizens’ (國民小學讀本)

Kungmin sohak tokpon (1895)
At my own blog I’ve been writing a series of posts about some interesting old Korean books I’ve come across in the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies. This is actually no. 5 in that series, but I thought that it would be worthwhile crossposting it here. A list of the previous entries in the series can be found at the bottom of this post.

The book in question is probably the first modern textbook produced in Korea. Entitled An Elementary Reader for Citizens (國民小學讀本), it was first published by the education ministry of the country that was then known as Tae Chosŏn’guk (‘Great Chosŏn Nation’) in 1895, or year 504 of the dynasty, if you use the short-lived dating system that was current at the time.

A facsimile edition was published in the 80s which still seems to be available at secondhand bookshops. It is certainly a book that I’d like to get around to looking at in greater detail. The first attempt at creating some sort of general, state-led educational material in Korea must have echoes that can be seen and felt even today, 111 years later. It is also fascinating to see what these early educationalists thought was important for the citizens of Chosŏn to know about. And some of the language used, even in the chapter headings, is interesting too, like the use of the word Chinaguk (支那國) for China instead of Chungguk (中國).

Kungmin sohak tokpon - contents 1 (1895)
The title page and first page of contents.

The book contains 41 lessons/readings in all, covering everything from the American War of Independence to camels. Here are the titles of the first 12 lessons:

Lesson 1: Great Chosŏn (大朝鮮國)
Lesson 2: General Knowledge (廣智識)
Lesson 3: Hanyang [Seoul] (漢陽)
Lesson 4: Our Family (我家)
Lesson 5: The Reign of King Sejong (世宗大王紀事)
Lesson 6: Commerce and Trade (商事及交易)
Lesson 7: The Transformation [evolution?] of Plants (植物變化)
Lesson 8: Books (書籍)
Lesson 9: Getting Revenge through Kindness (以德報怨)
Lesson 10: Clocks (時計)
Lesson 11: The Camel (駱駝)
Lesson 12: The Treaty Powers (條約國)

I think some of my translations probably leave something to be desired, so any suggestions or corrections would be welcome. Or perhaps you might like to translate some of the rest of the lesson titles. Here are the rest of the contents:

Kungmin sohak tokpon - contents 2 (1895)

Kungmin sohak tokpon - contents 3 (1895)

Korean books at SOAS, previous entries:
Part one
Part two
Part three
Part four

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