우물 안 개구리


Korea: The Uniqueness

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 12:31 pm Print

Over at my own blog Muninn I have posted an entry talking a bit about the portray of Japan and Korea in the “Hall of Asian Peoples” in New York’s Museum of natural 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.


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…


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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