From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Asian Ethnicities (3c)—Korea

A year ago on Round and Square (16 July 2011)—Le Tour de la France: Stopping Under a Fir Tree
Click here for other posts dealing with East Asian ethnic majorities:  
China 1       China 2       China 3       Japan 1       Japan 2       Japan 3       Korea 1       Korea 2       Korea 3
[a] Culture RF
The first three entries (each in several segments) for the Round and Square series "Asian Ethnicities" deal with the majority ethnic groups in China, Japan, and Korea. We are starting with these groups precisely because they permeate all of the nooks and crannies of their respective histories. Indeed, the history of China is often taught (and this is especially true in Chinese schools) as the history of the Han ethnicity. As we shall see, this is particularly problematic in China, since the history of China can better—this is my opinion—be taught as a constant set of interactions with ethnic groups to the west, south, and especially north. It is no less important in Japan and Korea, however. The relative homgeneity of those populations exacerbate the problems, and engagement with various ethnic groups tends to be even further marginalized. I hope to give, in these introductory posts, a way of thinking about majority ethnicity in China, Japan, and Korea. These are by no means my last word on the subject(s). As you can see from the introduction to this series, these are works in process and are meant to be essays in every sense of the term.
[b] Unified RF
Cultural Life
Like the Chinese Qing (1644-1911) and Japanese Tokugawa periods (1603-1868), later Choson represented a profound flowering of traditional culture—with a richness of art, philosophy, and historical writings, as well as vernacular fiction and traditional crafts, that represent a high point in the minds of many later writers, as well as a pride in a shared identity that continues to this day in the historical consciousness of Koreans. As Western pressures increased, pride in this cultural heritage came to be expressed increasingly in opposition to threatening outsiders—another pattern in a country with a dominant majority ethnic group. This was seen in the nineteenth century with various critiques of encroaching Westerners. The prominent scholar Yi Hangno (1792-1868), for example, complained that Catholicism could not possibly replace the Confucian traditions that had become so much a part of Korean civilization. Note the manner in which each civilization is characterized as essentially a unified entity.

When Chinese civilization encounters a barbarian people, those barbarians are transformed by Chinese ways into a civilized people.  Barbarians look up to China and are delighted to receive its civilizing influence.  This is the way things are in the natural order of things....Regrettably, Europe was not introduced to the basic principles of the Great Tao, and Europeans were not turned into more virtuous people by its civilizing power. Europeans do have a remarkable talent for technology.  They easily surpass the Chinese in that area.  But that achievement makes them arrogant, and they think that they can convert the whole world to their way of thinking.  They need to think again!

[c] Gate RF
It is with the confidence of a member of a great civilization—one with which Koreans identified strongly—that Yi Hangno responded to the West in the early nineteenth century.  It was with a very different tone that Koreans struggled with Japan, China, and the West in the century that followed, ending with the fall of the Choson period in 1910.  

A number of aspects of Choson history and society gave rise to a slowly growing sense of national identity, many of which were drawn upon by writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as they tried to create a distinct sense of Korean ethnicity and nationhood.  Although it was slow to take root, an important change took place with the debate that followed the development of an indigenous Korean script in the fifteenth century.  King Sejong's preface to the Hunmin Chongum (Correct Sounds to Instruct the People) makes the point that even though Korea was deeply influenced by Chinese civilization, there remained distinct differences.

Although our country's rituals, music, and literature are comparable to those in China, our speech and language are not the same as China's....With these twenty-eight letters, infinite turns and changes may be explained; they are simple and yet contain all the essence; they are refined and yet easily communicable....They can be used whatever and wherever the occasion may be.  Even the sounds of wind, the cries of cranes, the crowing of roosters, and the barking of dogs can all be transcribed in writing.

Ch'oe Malli's opposition to the alphabet, however, is instructive in the way that it portrays the relationship between the two countries:

[d] Scripted RF
Ever since the founding of the [Choson] dynasty, our court has pursued the possibility of respecting the senior state with utmost sincerity and has consistently tried to follow the Chinese system of government. As we share with China at present the same writing and the same institutions, we are startled to learn of the invention of the Korean script.....Although winds and soils vary from region to region, there has been no separate writing system for local dialects.  Only such peoples as the Mongolians, Tanguts, Jürchens, Japanese, and Tibetans have their own writings.  But this is a matter that involves the barbarians, and is unworthy of our concern.

The school of "Practical Learning" (sirhak) that developed in late Choson further developed this growing theme. Although they wrote in classical Chinese and were imbued with the Neo-Confucian teachings of their early education, they began to differentiate themselves as Koreans from what Choe Mali had called “the senior state.” At the same time, those same scholars began to criticize abuses within Korea that had formed over the centuries—most pointedly directing their criticisms at the yangban aristocracy and the examination system that strongly symbolized Chinese influence.

          To select men for public office on this basis is really a foolish thing to do.....
          The examination system thus selects men who are useless, and it does so 
          on the basis of worthless writing.

With the Practical Learning scholars, there came a growing awareness of Korea as a separate entity from China.  This resulted in a burst of writing about Korea, geographical studies and, increasingly, work in the vernacular that would provide an intellectual model for later reformers, who sought to advance a distinctly Korean national identity in the face of outside influences during the last 150 years.  It is precisely in these last 150 years, as well, that a concept of a distinctly ethnic Korean society began to develop.
[e] Practical RF
Click here for other posts dealing with East Asian ethnic majorities:  
China 1       China 2       China 3       Japan 1       Japan 2       Japan 3       Korea 1       Korea 2       Korea 3

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