AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 221

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Session 221: Imagining Modern Korea Through History: Korean Historiographies of Science, Technology, and Medicine Reexamined

Organizer: Sang-Hyun Kim, Hanyang University, South Korea

Chair: Gregory Clancey, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Discussant: Gregory Clancey, National University of Singapore, Singapore

Until recently, the field of Korean Studies has shied away from recognizing science, technology, and medicine (STM) as important subjects of humanistic and social scientific inquiry. One consequence is that, while any discussion of Korean society and history necessarily presupposes certain historiographical assumptions about STM, these premises are rarely scrutinized. Recent sociocultural and historical studies have convincingly demonstrated, however, that the construction of the very meanings, contents, and trajectories of STM are closely intertwined with the (re)imagination of national identity and histories. Taking insights from these studies, this panel will critically analyze Korean historiographies of STM—not only those constructed and adopted by professional historians but also those by other actors—as discursive sites within and through which particular cultural understandings of STM, modernity, and nationhood are simultaneously produced and maintained. By revisiting Korea’s shifting historiographies of early Chosŏn, Chong’s paper illuminates how Korean historians, including Hong Yi-sup, have attempted to invent their country’s own scientific tradition. Lim’s paper suggests that Jeon Sang-woon’s historiography of science was developed out of his desire to provide lessons for South Korea’s contemporary project of building national science. Kim’s paper examines some of the popular writings on the history of science and technology in Korea—and the underlying sociotechnical imaginaries—from the 1960s to the 1980s. Finally, Paik’s paper looks into the recent historical debates over the epidemic control measures by the Japanese colonial government among Korean historians, historians of medicine, and medical professionals.

Inventing “Scientific” Tradition in “Korean History”: The Historiography of early Chosŏn from Hong Yi-sup to the Present
Daham Chong, Sangmyung University, South Korea

This paper traces how Korean historians, in their scholarly work, have invented Korea’s “scientific” tradition out of its pre-modern past. For instance, the prominent Korean historian Hong Yi-sup argued that the astrology, phonology, and medicine of the King Sejong era had considerable similarities to their “modern” counterparts in the West and were therefore comparably “scientific.” But he maintained that these “sciences” were exceptional in the Confucian tradition of Chosŏn, which he saw as being an impediment to the country’s modernization. Hong’s emphasis on these innovative features amidst “backward” Confucianism was welcomed by historians in postcolonial Korea since it could help them imagine Korea’s own scientific tradition. It also posed a dilemma, however, for Hong’s interpretation that such accomplishments were an exception rather than the norm might downplay Korea’s latent capacity to modernize on its own. To resolve this problem, it was proposed to redefine Neo-Confucianism—which Hong believed led to “feudal” Chosŏn—as “early modern.” The scientific tradition that Hong had highlighted could then be recast as a natural step in Korea’s “internal evolution” toward modernity, not an exception. When its Chinese origin rendered Neo-Confucianism ill-suited to serve as a foundation for Korean modernity, yet another historiographical move was made, framing the version of Neo-Confucianism adopted in Chosŏn—and its attendant “scientific” advancements—as uniquely Korean achievements. This move, which constituted an integral part of Korea’s revisionist historiography of early Chosŏn, enabled historians to reconcile the foreign origin of the “early modern” character of the period with Korea’s native “scientific” development.

“Lessons from the Constructed Past”: Jeon Sang-woon’s Nationalist Historiography of Science in 1960s South Korea
Jongtae Lim, , South Korea

When Jeon Sang-woon—one of the pioneering historians of Korean traditional science—started his research career in the 1960s, South Korea was witnessing a rapid institutionalization of science under the Park Chung-Hee government. This paper attempts to read Jeon’s writings as his conscious effort to provide historical lessons for Korea’s national project of building science in the 1960s. Jeon saw his historical investigations as a crucial means to identify “the national scientific Self”. Through his study of a series of milestones in Korean traditional science, he sought to demonstrate the creative potential of Korean people to successfully transform the imported Chinese sciences into their own unique achievements. In these historical events, Jeon emphasized, the government played a crucial role in overcoming the hostile influence of Confucian culture and in guiding the works of scholars and artisans toward the service of Korea’s local needs. One of the exemplary moments was, according to him, the early fifteenth century when, under King Sejong’s leadership, Korean science seemingly achieved its independence from Chinese metropolitan science. Interestingly, as this paper will argue, these features of Korea’s scientific tradition that Jeon claimed to have observed were, in fact, projected from the then widely accepted imperative of developing an independent national science in postcolonial Korea. It is ironic that Jeon, in turn, presented his constructed past as a valuable historical lesson for South Korea’s developmental state–led by Park Chung-Hee, who wished to become the second King Sejong in Korean history.

Co-Producing Science and Nationhood: Popular Historical Representations of Science and Technology in Korea, 1960s–1980s
Sang-Hyun Kim, Hanyang University, South Korea

Ever since the emergence of modern nation-states, science and technology have been regarded, in many parts of the world, as being among the most potent symbols and sources of national pride and prosperity. However, acknowledging the prestige and material benefits that accrue to the nation from its scientific and technological achievements alone does not capture the multifaceted nature of the relationships among science, technology, and the nation. Science and technology are not just mobilized—materially and symbolically—in (re)imagining the nation in the Andersonian sense. They also form integral parts of the technologies of nationhood that produce national subjects with distinct cultural norms and assumptions. Furthermore, the meanings and values of science and technology that accompany and constitute these two interrelated processes are themselves co-produced with national self-understandings. This paper will attempt to highlight and explore the ways in which these complex interweavings of science, technology, and the nation have been reflected, articulated, and reinforced in and through the historical representations of science and technology in Korea. In particular, this paper will examine popular history of science writings—written by professional historians (e.g., Park Seong Rae) and science writers (e.g., Park Ik Soo and Hyun Won Bok) from the 1960s to the 1980s—and their underlying sociotechnical imaginaries. The analysis will focus on some of the works covering the late Chosŏn period, the Japanese colonial period, and the South Korean postwar reconstruction period.

Contagious Disease, Colonial Medicine, and Contested Boundaries: The Korean Nation and its Social Body in the Historiography of Epidemic Control
Young-Gyung Paik, Korea National Open University, South Korea

This paper closely looks into the recent historical debates over colonial medicine in Korea, especially those concerning the epidemic control measures introduced and implemented by the Japanese colonial government. The problem of how to prevent and protect against contagious disease has been one of the most challenging tasks of governmentality facing the modern state—both colonial and postcolonial. Epidemic control—through medical surveillance, diagnostics, treatment, community education, etc—is, in fact, a new form of technologies of power that disciplines the relationship between, and the boundaries of, the individual and social bodies. The debate over epidemic control under Japanese colonial rule thus provide us a unique opportunity to examine the ways in which the boundaries of the Korean nation and its social body have been imagined, produced, and contested in the historiography of medicine, as composed by Korean historians, historians of medicine, and medical professionals.