AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 104

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Session 104: Nationalism, Historical Subjects, and the Writing of Modern Korean History

Organizer: Eugene Y. Park, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Chair: Michael E. Robinson, Indiana University-Bloomington, USA

Discussant: Michael E. Robinson, Indiana University-Bloomington, USA

The demands of nationalist ideology often drives modern history, which is dominated by the national subject. Resisting the moral and political judgments of contemporary nationalism in crafting our narratives is difficult, because history is both the work of historians proper and historians who write with legitimation of particular political outcomes in mind. A key problem is to find a way to recognize nationalism’s influence in shaping history without it shaping and warping the historian’s narrative. This panel seeks to examine how historians contend with this dilemma. Eugene Y. Park complicates the conventional understanding of the early modern status category of chungin by questioning the negative nationalist judgment of chungin as "collaborators" or profiteers during the colonial period. Chin-Oh Chu weighs the historical significance of Emperor Kojong in contrast to long-standing negative and more recently positive assessments of his role--both based less on Kojong as a ruler than his proximity to Korea’s fall into colonial status. Jong Chol An explores how transnational and non-nationalist approaches to the history of Christianity can help us better understand the vast realm of experience that occurred without reference to the experience of colonial rule and occupation. Finally, by examining the construction and operation of Independence Hall of Korea and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Hong Kal analyzes the influence of 1980s South Korean nationalism on governmentality as well as how both institutions represent official attempts to construct national identity.

In the Margins: The Specialist Seoul Chungin in South Korea's History Discourse
Eugene Y. Park, University of Pennsylvania, USA

Chungin and their descendants remain marginalized in South Korea's public discourse on history which privileges the nation. Grouping together a broad range of late Choson secondary status groups, a prevailing view on those from chungin families sees them hiding their non-yangban origins, espousing "civilization and enlightenment" ideology, "collaborating" with the Japanese, and constituting the South Korean elite. However, in terms of residence, career paths, and marriage ties, various secondary status groups differed significantly from one another. Focusing on an endogamous group of capital chungin who worked for the state as technical specialists or noncommissioned military officers, this paper highlights some patterns about their plight in the modern era, as well as the descendants'. Above all, a desire to reinvent the family's past was common among those of administrative functionary or commoner backgrounds, whereas those from specialist chungin families have generally rejected the old hegemonic discourse on status and descent. Second, though chungin certainly welcomed modernization, for most official careers and business interests suffered upon the Russo-Japanese War. Third, the colonial rule, the Korean War, and industrialization broke up chungin lineages into individuals on widely differing social trajectories. Though many descendants are professionally and economically well placed in society, South Korea’s history discourse bounded by master narratives on the nation and elite descent groups excludes those of chungin descent. Ultimately, how they fare in this regard can be a meaningful indicator of the degree to which the dominant discourse can accommodate long overdue multigenerational narratives on nonelites in general.

Yet Another Overly Nationalistic Interpretation: A New Portrayal of Emperor Kojong in South Korean Historiography
Chin-Oh Chu, Sangmyung University, South Korea

For long, historians have depicted Emperor Kojong as an inept ruler. This assessment originated from the Japanese imperialism rationalizing the Japanese take over of Korea. For sure, Kojong endeavored to establish a modern nation-state and defend Korea’s independence. Also, since no indigenous political force capable of replacing him existed at the time, realistically the emperor had to be the focal point of an effort to build a modern nation-state. Given the uniqueness of his position and role, Kojong is the person ultimately responsible for Korea’s fate more than any other Korean--say, the yangban, the Confucians, the "Enlightenment Party," the "Conservative Party," the Tonghak, or pro-Japanese Korean leaders. Led by Yi T'aejin, a recent, revisionist South Korean interpretation challenging the age-old depiction of Kojong as an inept leader is meaningful in that it contributes to a more nuanced analysis of Kojong’s leadership, but unfortunately the interpretation itself is an overblown assessment of the emperor. As such, it hinders any serious attempt to search for causes of an historical injustice and to seek lessons for future. In this sense, Imperial Korea was a grand project that the Korean people had to work with in tackling and resolving various new issues as they struggled to construct a modern nation-state, although the colonial rule arguably deprived the Koreans of such an opportunity. Regardless of how one interprets the impact of colonialism on Korea, an overly positive assessment of Kojong has become yet another overly nationalistic interpretation of Korean history.

Religious Bid for Nationalism? Nationalistic and Transnational Dimensions of Religion in Colonial Korea
Jong Chol An, University of Tuebingen, Germany

Previous studies on colonial Korea tend to focus on political and economic dimensions. Since the liberation, the paradigm of Japanese exploitation versus Korean resistance has not only been resistant to change in the mainstream Korean historiography but has even become almost the raison d'etre for modern Korea history field. Certainly for both national pride and in search for the truth, it was imperative for the post-liberation Korean scholarship to debunk the Japanese colonialist historiography. A most significant contribution of nationalism to historical scholarship on colonial Korea has been educating the public on exploitative dimension of colonialism and the importance of history as a vehicle of resistance. More recently, though, a growing body of historical studies has become interested in the majority Koreans who were pursuing neither resistance nor collaboration. This shift reflects a strengthening awareness among Korean historians that various phenomena of colonial Korea involving human agency, traded commodities, and private thoughts, among others, are better understood from a transnational perspective. Religion, too, can offer much for pursuing transnational history, but more mainstream Korean research on the religious history of the colonial era remains remarkably loyal to the pro-Japanese/anti-Japanese dichotomy. As a subfield that has not been at the forefront of historical scholarship on colonial Korea, religious history has focused on the anti-Japanese resistance—especially true among studies on Protestantism and the Shinto shrine worship. Considering that a national boundary does not necessarily circumscribe a religion, we can expect ongoing research on colonial Korea to address more border-crossing issues.

Ancestors, the Avant-Garde and the Making of "Nation" in Postcolonial Korea
Hong Kal, York University, Canada

Some of the most controversial sites for the production of nationalism have been museums, memorials and monuments. These institutions provide "official" narratives of the nation comprising tales that are partial and unfinished. The instability of both nation and narrative requires the continuous reinvention of tradition and revision of history. Increasing contestation over how to represent the nation’s past--particularly colonialism, war and postcolonial state violence--demonstrates the significance of the politics of exhibition cultures. This paper discusses the Independence Hall of Korea (IHK) and the National Museum of Contemporary Art (NMCA) as cultural forms of governmentality in South Korea. These seemingly different institutions, one dedicated to historical memories and the other to contemporary art, embody the political culture of the 1980s. The IHK (opened in 1987) represents the nation by way of the history of anti-Japanese resistance to evoke an essentialist idea of ethnic patriotism. By returning to the authority of the sacrificial ancestor, it seeks to transcend the history of state violence, especially the 1980 Kwangju massacre. The NMCA institutionalizes contemporary art in terms of the international discourse of modernism. In these spaces of museums, the state performs as an aesthetic, legitimate guardian of the national spirit. These two museums project the nation as evolving into the utopian space of perfect harmony, a place devoid of historical conflict and contradiction. The global "outlook" of the NMCA and the "inward look" of the IHK show the shared mode of cultural amnesia narrated in the tale of the ethnic nation.