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. []


Once more, dear friends, into the breach….

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:26 am Print

Korea Center PavilionIn my first post here I said that I was going to be teaching a Korean history course for the first time: I lied. Or rather, I was scheduled to teach it, but the course didn’t make its minimum enrollment. However, the time has come to try again.

The last time I did this, I was going to focus it on upper-level undergrads and make it as much about primary sources as possible. The only four books I’d ordered were Korea Old and New: A History (Eckert, Lee, Lew, Robinson, Wagner), The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry, and the two volumes of the new Sources of Korean Tradition from Columbia.1 Ambitious and, apparently, off-putting in the extreme.

I’m torn, really, on the question of whether to teach a “Rice Paddies” style course — all of Korean history in a single semester — or break it up (as I have my China and Japan courses) into pre/post 1700 (and start with the later one, which should draw more students at first). If I teach the whole history, I might well keep the poetry — I do poetry in my China and Japan courses, and the Korean stuff is lively and diverse — but I can’t see using the Sources sets as-is. This time I want to pitch the course much more broadly, and draw in some of the business and language students — Koreans actually make up one of our largest groups of foreign students, and our business department has a long-standing interest in Korea — so that the course really does reach critical mass. So I’m thinking that the heavy dose of Columbia primary materials is probably not a great idea. That said, I prefer to have students read primary materials as much as possible, or ethnographic-style observations, or historical scholarship which evokes a clear and detailed recreation of a moment or era.

I’d love to hear thoughts from our readers about what works and what doesn’t, what’s come out recently that’s good for students, and especially if there are better textbooks at this point.

Update: I just ran across Kenneth Robinson’s Korean History Bibliography, which looks like a great starting place.

  1. Vol. 1: From Early Times Through the Sixteenth Century ; Vol. 2: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries []


Remixing Tagore

Filed under: — Owen @ 8:15 am Print

This story in the Korea Times about Rabrindranath Tagore’s poem ‘The Lamp of the East’ caught my eye. In the South Korean nationalist imagination this poem has a remarkably important position as a sort of ‘external legitimator’ for Korean independence. But according to the KT, the version that appears in many of the nation’s high school textbooks has, shall we say, been remixed and enhanced:

…the poem titled “The Lamp of the East” seems to have been over glorified to the point where it has taken on a life of its own, spawning hundreds of different versions with stronger words and longer passages to boost nationalistic sentiment.

More specifically, it seems that an unrelated passage has been taken from Tagore’s poetry collection Gitanjali and added to his original poem about Korea published in the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in 1929:

“The version of the poem that combines excerpts from Gitanjali has been widely spread for a long time and it is often mentioned by politicians and even newspaper columnists. There are even some literary schoolbooks that list the variation as the original version of `The Lamp of the East,”’ a high school history teacher in Seoul, who asked not to be named, said.

According the Wikipedia article about him, Tagore himself was not exactly the model independence fighter and was almost killed by Indian expatriates while staying in San Francisco in 1916 because of his apparent lack of devotion to the cause of Indian independence. In fact, from a strictly nationalist point of view you could say that he sounds a bit like Yi Kwangsu – a mixture of the good and the dubious. Interestingly enough the very comprehensive article doesn’t mention Korea once, so it would seem that the significance of Tagore for Koreans is not necessarily matched by the significance of Korea to Tagore and his legacy. Actually, one wonders whether it was in fact the strong impression made by the Koreans that Tagore met in Tokyo (Dong-A bureau chief Yi T’aero and poet Chu Yohan) in 1929 that moved him to write his famous-in-Korea poem as much as his feelings about a country he was never able to visit.

There are many fascinating aspects to this literary-historical episode: the creation of historical memory and national identity; the fundamentally non-self-contained nature of nationalism and its need for external legitimation; and questions concerning the malleability and authenticity of a literary text (especially when in translation). But perhaps what intrigues me most of all, is who actually came up with the idea of remixing Tagore’s poem in the first place, and why did they feel the need to do so.

In case people are interested, I’ve transcribed below the original text (with original han’gul spellings and hanja preserved – the jpeg was not too clear so I hope I’ve rendered the spellings correctly) of Chu Yohan’s translation of Tagore’s poem that appears in the picture of the Dong-A article provided by the Korea Times:

일즉이 亞細亞의 黃金時期에
빗나든 燈燭의 하나인 朝鮮
그 燈불 한번다시 켜지는 날에
너는 東方의 밝은 비치 되리라

English original:

In the golden age of Asia
Korea was one of its lamp-bearers
And that lamp is waiting to be lighted once again
For the illumination in the East.

For the sake of comparison, the extra 11 lines added from Gitanjali song 35 and included in the version of the poem known to many Koreans are below the fold.


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.


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


Japanese teacher disciplined for opposing nationalist textbooks

Filed under: — Owen @ 1:23 pm Print

I wonder whether anyone else has seen this article from the Christian Science Monitor, which I picked up via the Marmot’s Hole and Far Outliers. It concerns the story of a teacher in Tokyo who has been disciplined for attacking the view that “Japan never invaded Korea.”

[W]hen a Tokyo city councilman in an official meeting said “Japan never invaded Korea,” her history class sent an apology to Korean President Roh Moo-hyan – an action that sparked her removal from her classroom.


Masuda, who says her two sons have Korean friends, got censured after her class did a study group on Japan’s occupation of Korea. Her social studies class wrote a letter of apology to Roh, and sent it to the Korean Embassy in Toyko. In a cover letter, Masuda said that councilman Koga Toshiaki’s remarks were “a disgrace” by objective historical standards, but “regrettably [they] can be presented proudly as a triumph in the assembly of Tokyo, the capital of this country.”

The class never heard from the Korean consul. But Masuda did hear from the Tokyo Board of Education. Her letter was discovered by a Yasukuni shrine support group and they complained to city officials. Masuda was told that while Mr. Koga did speak in public, it was “inappropriate” for Masuda to repeat his name in a letter that was not private, and a violation of city employee codes.

Masuda is now ordered to spend her days in a small room studying public servant regulations, a serious humiliation she says. She in turn is trying to fight in court.

I wonder if there is any sort of support campaign for Ms Masuda, or if there is an e-mail address where those of us who want to can send messages of support.

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