우물 안 개구리

Postings by Owen Miller

Contact: owen [at] froginawell.net

Sell yourself

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:09 am

“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.

Boston and the Bamboo Grove

Filed under: — Owen @ 2:23 pm

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

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.

New book on Paekche

Filed under: — Owen @ 9:27 am

News comes, via the Korean Studies mailing list, that Jonathan Best’s history of Paekche is now out. I wouldn’t normally use this blog to advertise a single book, but I’m personally quite excited about this one, since a book in English on an ancient Korean kingdom is a very rare thing*. I’m looking forward to seeing this in our library.

From the blurb:

This volume presents two histories of the early Korean kingdom of Paekche (trad. 18 BCE-660 CE). The first, written by Jonathan Best, is based largely on primary sources, both written and archaeological. This initial history of Paekche serves, in part, to introduce the second, an extensively annotated translation of the oldest history of the kingdom, the Paekche Annals (Paekche pon’gi). Written in the chronicle format standard for the traditional official histories of East Asia, the Paekche Annals constitutes one section of the Histories of the Three Kingdoms (Samguk sagi), a comprehensive account of early Korean history compiled under the editorial direction of Kim Pusik (1075-1151).

*Actually I can’t think of any others, except possibly Kenneth Gardiner’s book The early history of Korea: the historical development of the peninsula up to the introduction of Buddhism in the fourth century A.D., which I believe is based on his PhD thesis on Koguryŏ. Perhaps we can persuade fellow Frog contributor Noja to translate his thesis on Kaya into English one day.

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

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:18 pm

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.

Open sesame

Filed under: — Owen @ 4:01 pm

Click over to Nick Kapur’s post at Frog Japan for news on new plans to allow archaeologists to access Japanese imperial tombs (kofun). Depending on how far things get, this could have very important implications for our understanding of both Korean and Japanese history… there might even be results within our lifetimes.

5,000 years

Filed under: — Owen @ 6:06 pm

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.”

Revisionism (History news round up I)

Filed under: — Owen @ 7:23 pm

It’s been a bit quiet around here lately, but hopefully that will improve with the new year. To kick things off this year I thought I’d gather together the various thoughts and abandoned posts that have been knocking around for the last few months and do a series rounding up recent history news that has caught my attention.

There was much talk of ‘revisionism’ in Korea a couple of months ago. It’s a word that fascinates me purely because its meaning is so completely dependent on context. First President Roh Moo-hyun was accused of this crime for referring to the Korean war as a civil war during a visit to Cambodia. This is significant for Roh’s rightwing detractors because it appears to reflect the ‘progressive’ view of the Korean war that owes much to Bruce Cumings’ masterwork, The Origins of the Korean War. So, setting aside for the moment the fact that it would be perfectly feasible to call the war a civil war (ie two parts of a country going to war against one another), Roh’s statement was revisionist in the sense that it appeared to ‘revise’ the standard South Korean government position that the Korean War was simply a war of aggression initiated by Stalin. As the Chosun Ilbo put it in its usual blunt style:

“The Korean civil war” is a term coined to glorify the invasion by North Korea. It does not appear in our elementary, middle and high school textbooks. Yet it comes out of the mouth of the president, who symbolizes the legitimacy of the republic, and who doesn’t mean anything by it.

After Roh, his candidate for Unification Minister, Lee Jae-young joined in, in his confirmation hearing, apparently causing general apoplexy among GNP politicians.

Irrespective of which side one agrees with in this dispute,* what we learn from this is that in the specific context of South Korean society, the term revisionism (수정주의 修正主義) means questioning the orthodox view of history created and maintained by successive rightwing governments in the postwar decades. But as Wikipedia shows rather nicely, revisionism means many other things elsewhere. In the UK for example, it has been used to refer to the (now orthodox) historical view that attempted to overthrow Christopher Hill’s earlier Marxist interpretation of the English Revolution. In the Soviet Union, it was constantly used as a term of abuse for anyone straying from the orthodox Marxist-Leninist line (ie the ideology of the Soviet regime), while in Maoist China it became a term of abuse for the Soviets under Krushchev. Most notoriously, the term revisionism is used to refer to people like David Irving (recently out of an Austrian jail cell) who attempt to deny or minimise the Holocaust. In other words, just about anyone can be a revisionist.

So, my advice is that any time you need an all-purpose but suitably intellectual-sounding piece of invective with which to assail your opponent, calling them a revisionist will probably fit the job. Unless of course you have something better up your sleeve.

*My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that most people outside of Korea would rightly view the position of the South Korean right as somewhat absurd – there was no doubt an element of civil war in the Korean War, whatever way you look at it. On the other hand, I don’t agree either with the view that the war was simply some sort of ‘revolutionary civil war’ in which the imperialists interfered to prevent the unification of the Korean people under a glorious socialist government, as the DPRK and its supporters in the South would like to paint it. The Korean War seems to show that wars can be both civil and international (perhaps they often are?); can have elements of social war and elements of senseless fratricidal bloodshed; can be both inter-imperialist wars for territory and influence and personal squabbles among rival aspirants to the leadership of a country.

On that rather depressing note…
여러분 새해 복 많이 받으세요!

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

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.

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