우물 안 개구리


Things I don’t know about Korea, part 2

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 11:05 pm Print

I’m having great fun with this class, but I’m still discovering vast areas of ignorance as we move along:

  • Eunuchs: The Kabo reforms abolish the office of Eunuchs, but how many were there and how important?
  • Seven Day Week? By 1896 there clearly is a seven day week in place, but when was that put in place? Is it part of the Kabo calendrical reforms?
  • The books I’m reading don’t refer to Tonghak and to early Progressives (or conservatives) as “nationalist”: They call them “incipient” and “proto” but won’t actually admit to modern nationalism until 1905 or 1910. Do they think ‘nationalism’ only exists in a modern context, and Korea’s context isn’t modern until some kind of political transition? This seems arbitrary: though Korea may not be modernizing effectively in the 19c, I find it hard to see how Korea’s not pretty well enmeshed in a modern context by, say, 1880. I suppose you could have the ever-popular “is anti-imperialism really nationalism” debate all over again (it’s kind of fun to do with the Boxers, once), but it seems unnecessarily fussy to me, at least on first reading. I don’t see what distinction they’re making and they’re not explaining it, either. We shouldn’t use jargon unless we’re willing to explain it.


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. []


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.



Two talks this week

Filed under: — Owen @ 12:38 pm Print

A couple of very interesting talks coming up at short notice for anyone who happens to be around in LA or Seoul in the next couple of days (or perhaps both if you’re the jetsetting type).

Tomorrow fellow frog blogger Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov) will be giving a lecture at the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch:

Politics of Conscription: Militarized Statehood in Postcolonial Korea – Dr. Vladimir Tikhonov
Tuesday May 22, 2007, 7:30 pm
2nd Floor, Somerset Palace, Seoul

Meanwhile, on Wednesday afternoon, Jeong-il Lee will be giving a talk about Kija in late Chosŏn Korea along with another talk about Korean memories of Ming China at the UCLA Asia Institute:

“Kija with Qizi: Re-packing Antiquity and Civilization in Late Choson Korea” – Jeong-Il Lee
Wednesday May 23, 3:30-5:30 pm
10367 Bunche Hall, Los Angeles


Sea Devils (revisited)

Filed under: — Owen @ 12:11 pm Print

Professor Gari Ledyard of Columbia University has left a couple of extremely good posts on the Korean Studies Mailing List that deserve to be shared here. They also put a somewhat different perspective on the article I noted here about African mercenaries fighting alongside Ming troops during the Imjin Wars (1592-1598). His posts are in response to a question about whether Portuguese soldiers were fighting with the Chinese in late sixteenth century Korea. The first one looks at the source of the notion that Portuguese were in Chosŏn and includes an excellent translation of the relevant passage from the Sŏnjo Sillok (Veritable Records of King Sŏnjo). The second posting on the same subject deals with another passage from the Sillok regarding the ‘Sea Devils’ and also the claims about early visits to Korea by Spanish Jesuits in the late sixteenth century.

The upshot of all this is that the Sillok passage on which the article about ‘African mercenaries’ seems to have been based is rather ambiguous. While it appears unlikely that it refers to Portuguese soldiers, there is also nothing to show positively that it is talking about Africans – Gari Ledyard points out that the soldiers could be from a number of areas in south and southeast Asia as well as Africa.

Below is the translation of the passage from the Sŏnjo Sillok, reproduced with Professor Ledyard’s kind permission.


Sell yourself

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:09 am Print

“Selling yourself” – one of those phrases we use in a somewhat metaphorical sense, but which nonetheless has a more literal meaning than we probably give it credit. In modern capitalist society, where pretty much anything can be commodified, we regularly sell our labour to others. To put this another way, we alienate part of ourselves in order to get the cash that we need to sustain ourselves. But in precapitalist societies such as Chosŏn, it was possible not just to sell part of oneself on a temporary basis but to sell oneself whole, to alienate one’s own body in perpetuity.

I recently came across some information about the Chosŏn practice of ‘self sale’ (chamae 自賣) in volume 3 of the brilliant Chosŏn sidae saenghwalsa (History of everyday life in the Chosŏn dynasty) series, in the section on ‘famine foods’ (구황식품, 굶주림을 해결하라, pp. 196-217):

During repeated famine years, when people’s livelihoods became uncertain, some starving peasants sold themselves and their wives and children as slaves in order to guarantee at least some level of subsistence. The document created for this purpose was called a chamae mun’gi (contract of self-sale).

Here is an example of such a document, dating from 1815, from Andong in Kyŏngsang Province:

Contract of self-sale
(Source: Donga Ilbo).

Interestingly, there is still a word used in everyday Korean which is clearly related to this practice and the more general Chosŏn practice of buying and selling slaves as commodities: momkap (몸값), literally ‘body-price’. Although nowadays it is used to mean the price of a prostitute or the cost of a ransom.

Actually, a project I’m currently working on has led me to think quite a bit about the question of slavery in Korean history. For anyone who is interested in a short and clear introduction to this topic, and the quite fierce debates that surround it, I would highly recommend reading the late James Palais’ essay ‘Slave society’ in the small booklet published in 1998 by Yonsei University under the title Views on Korean Social History. I seem to recall that there are one or two people in the US working on the subject of slavery in Chosŏn history for their PhD research, but I can’t remember who they are. Perhaps someone can enlighten me… And while I’m asking for enlightenment, perhaps our fellow mainland and archipelagan froggers would know whether similar practices of ‘self-sale’ can be found in Chinese and Japanese history.


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.


If you thought the Chosŏn dynasty was over, think again

Filed under: — Owen @ 4:58 pm Print

Actually, strictly speaking, 88-year-old Yi Hae-won was crowned queen (or should that be empress?) of the Great Han Empire (大韓帝國) last week, rather than the Chosŏn kingdom. The accession of Korea’s new monarch has apparently been greeted with some sarcasm from the public (off with their heads!) and some have even accused the royal descendants of just copying this whole idea from a popular current TV drama about an imaginary Korea with a constitutional monarchy (life imitating art? – never!).

In other royalty-related news, it seems that the main gate of Kyŏngbokkung Palace, Kwanghwamun, will soon be dismantled so that it can be moved 14.5 metres south of its current position. Maybe it’s just me but it seems as though the whole thing of restoring Kyŏngbokkung to exactly how it was 100 years ago is going a bit over the top. And I rather like it the way it is now, with ivy growing over the walls.


History news round-up (brought to you by the Korea Times)

For some reason the Korea Times seems to be quite a decent source of history news these days, so in the absence of a more heavyweight post, here’s a round up of articles I’ve come across in the last week or so:

A couple of weeks ago the Korean Supreme Court released a bundle of court rulings from the early colonial period for the first time. The rulings date from 1912-1914 and the article notes how at that time custom still had an important influence on how the law was executed:

The court acknowledged concubines and gave supreme rights to the eldest sons of families. A person’s legal capacity was decided not by his or her age but by whether he or she had the intelligence to determine gains and losses.

Last week it was announced that a number of Chosŏn royal seals are missing, having been lost by various Korean museums. This is really not good for Korean museum PR:

The Board of Audit and Inspection also said that the surface of a royal seal made for the concubine of King Sonjo rusted away and a turtle-shaped seal, made of jade for the wife of King Sonjo, had been destroyed.

They said that every one of the of 316 seals owned by the National Palace Museum of Korea had been damaged in some way.

Two wooden ships found off the coast of China last year have turned out to be extremely rare examples of Koryŏ flat-bottomed wooden ships.

“It provides evidence that flat-bottom ships could sail as far as Shandong Province. Flat-bottom is a unique feature of ancient Korean ships unlike Chinese ships that had relatively pointy-shaped bottoms,” Choi Hang-soon, professor at the Department of Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering at Seoul National University, told The Korea Times.

“It seems the Koryo ships arrived in the Chinese port, and had some big repairs there,” said Choi, who participated in the international academic conference on the ancient ships last week in Penglai.

And finally… A KT student guest columnist lauds the philanthropic attitude of Chosŏn dynasty sŏnbi (Confucian scholar-officials). This is something that interests me a lot as I’m planning to do some research on the ‘gift economy’ in Chosŏn Korea. However, I must admit that I can’t help being a bit put off an article when I see empty catchphrases like ‘sŏnbi spirit’ being thrown around and I’m not entirely convinced about the idea of seeing members of the exclusive and exploitative yangban class as moral models for our age, however philanthropic they may have been. Actually I could criticise numerous aspects of that column, but that would seem rather misanthropic of me…


Yun Chi-ho’s Diary Online

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 8:45 am Print

Owen has posted some great links on the study of pre-modern Korean history. In one of his postings he mentioned the National History Compilation Committee (국사편찬위원회 國史編纂委員會). I poked around the site when Owen linked to it but had no idea they had great modern materials as well.

A Japanese friend of mine just returned to Japan and Waseda after spending a week here collection some colonial period materials. He was hoping he could buy a copy of Yun Ch’i-ho’s original Chinese/English diary while he was here which he had heard was out of print and only now available in Korean. I went used book shopping with him but we had no luck. However, after his return, he discovered—and was kind enough to tell me—that the entire diary is online via the 국사편찬위원회 website.

To find this diary, simply go to the history.go.kr website, enter 尹致昊日記 or 윤치호일기 in the search box and you will find three hits. The first hit will lead you to a volume index, followed by a year and month index where you can read his entries directly online. Whoever compiled it was also nice enough to mark proper nouns as “People” or “Places.” If you are not sure what kind of thing one of the specially colored words are, simply hover your mouse over it and it will tell you whether it is a person, place, etc.

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