Guide Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919

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Empire for not only taining read. Michael J. Pettid. State University of New York, Binghamton. Michael J. Pettid. Korea Between Empires, , by Andre.
Table of contents

Like its counterpart in Meiji Japan, civilization intruded on all matters Chinese, and China was regularly cited as an exemplar of barbarity. Such a shift became integral to the rearticulation of Korean identity outside the bounds of the East Asian regional order. Authentic Culture, Pure Identities The decentering of the Middle Kingdom led also to a reconsideration of the long cultural interaction between the peninsula and its continental neighbor.

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As many studies have shown, nationalist movements frequently frame expressions of identity as projects of cultural recovery through which authentic national cultures are retrieved intact from the precolonial past. As nationalist reformers sought to assert the purely Korean, practices that had earlier been shared without any privileging of geographical origins were sifted to deter- Decentering the Middle Kingdom 61 mine just what could now be categorized as foreign so as to identify the Korean.

Geographical origins came to be privileged so that the nationality of cultural forms was inscribable almost wholly by its spatial source. Consequently, a crucial component of the reconstruction of Korean national identity in these years was the attendant reinvention of the category Chinese. Just what it was that marked this particular nation as Korean was to be counterbalanced with just what it was that made their neighboring nation Chinese. For these reasons, after the Sino-Japanese War when the most immediate threat to Korean sovereignty came from Japan and Russia, Korean writers devoted a surprising amount of attention to historical China.

Found in all newspapers, journals, and textbooks, dependence was linked to a wide array of nationalist concerns, used variously to criticize individual behavior, government policy, social structure, and factionalism, as well as to call for new types of knowledge—all the while linked to the objective of sovereignty. Past national dependence on China, according to many analysts, stemmed from the behavior of individuals.

Everyone across the country relies on someone else, without any notion of self-reliance and independence. This is why even though in the morning the nation became the vassal of the Qing and in the evening is subject to the interference of Russia or Japan, the people do not have the slightest sense of shame.

If a nation relies on another, it threatens its independence, loses its national face, and also cannot avoid slavery. As an institution, slavery had long been in decline when in , as part of the social agenda of the Kabo reforms, it was outlawed. Both sovereignty and citizenship acquired their meaning in contrast to slavery. Countless editorials berated their predecessors for a centurieslong political dependence that had been enabled by and, in turn, helped spur an obsession with Chinese learning.

But this dichotomy served writers well insofar as it buttressed their calls for a cathartic elimination of Chinese cultural forms from the peninsula. Only by reestablishing cultural purity, it was argued, could true independence be attained.

Decentering the Middle Kingdom 63 The veneration of past Korean heroes became one of the primary avenues for inculcating greater knowledge about the nation. If not an age of heroes, it was an age of writing about heroes. Despite this achievement, U 35 been treated only scantily in prenationalist histories. Statues were raised in his honor in front of schools,36 and his name appeared in patriotic poetry.

This is the nature of our nation! It is thus! This is how strong and brave is the nature of our nation! More than this, U of that purely Korean past for which they were searching. The Language of Nationalism Such calls for the recovery of an unadulterated Koreanness rested on an assumption that there existed a simple, natural separation between the cultural forms originating in the continent and those rooted in the peninsula, despite centuries of exchange, appropriation, and interaction.

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Just as an archaeologist could dig up lost relics of the past, national character could be unearthed from the sands of time. As though culture was as objective as shards of pottery, it could be sought, retrieved, and restored—in short, returned to an untainted, original state. The transition from the use of characters to a phonetic alphabet is a well-known story that took place over several centuries.

Since the classics were written in characters and deemed to be the source of all truth, abandoning them would be tantamount to losing access to this knowledge. They will be futilely expert in the Vulgar Script. But what use can be made of that! The Culture of the Right, which our country has amassed and accumulated, will gradually come to being swept from the earth. Instead, the nature of each writing system was determined by its link to knowledge, one offering access and the other precluding it. But they do not know whether the price of rice at the small market just outside their door is high or low.

No longer special, they now were judged merely in terms of their merits as a communicative tool. But even when characters were appraised for their communicative abilities, few Korean writers gave them high marks. Only the script. It became the basic building block of the enlightenment project.

Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919

In creating these national meanings, writers commonly naturalized the link between nation and writing. In this way, the existence of a special language and script in one nation is certainly a sign that this country is naturally a self-governing nation [chajuguk]. By naturalizing the link between the written word and nation, writers simultaneously undermined the claim of characters to national transcendence.


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Chinese writing is the writing of China. As many reformers argued, characters should no longer be part of the national curriculum and thus should be taught side by side with English and Japanese in foreign-language schools. But in one of the few pieces published in these years that called for retaining characters, at least one writer refrained from making such a judgment.

Rather, he creatively asserted that with their putative origins in Korea, characters were Korean, not foreign, and as a Korean writing system, he insinuated, it deserved to be preserved, not purged. Even the embattled defenders of characters sought to frame their arguments in terms of nation and geographic origins. This style of counterargument, sharing as it did the same assumptions about writing and nation and dependent on the spurious notion that characters did not come from China, had little chance of stemming the increasingly widespread and ideological use of the alphabet.

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The calls by nationalists to rediscover the indigenous and discard the Chinese were most successfully realized in the writing reform movement. It was in this area that the assumptions toward national culture most closely matched the objects of reform. Few challenged the iconic value of the alphabet—which, in turn, served to reinforce the wider calls for authenticity and seemingly to substantiate the assumptions about the easy divisibility of Korean from Chinese culture.

Even the selection of characters, he complained, seemed to come out of the Kangxi Dictionary, a reference to an eighteenth-century volume famous for including the most obscure Chinese characters. In his article, Yi Kwangsu argued that the continued use of what for most of the population was impenetrable prose had much to do with the reputation of the writers and their desire to impress others with their knowledge.

There also were problems concerning the standardization of the alphabet. Indeed, not all reform efforts included a pair of cultural objects that could be so neatly inscribed with two, contrasting, national origins.

Korea, 1900

In other areas of reform, divergent political, social, or ideological concerns could equally 72 Decentering the Middle Kingdom work at cross-purposes to the assumptions about culture that underlay the calls to decenter China. From King to Emperor The months following the conclusion of the Sino-Japanese War proved to be the nadir in the political fortunes of the Korean royal house, when in quick succession Queen Min was assassinated by Japanese agents and King Kojong escaped to the safety of the Russian legation.

Initially, its efforts focused on the vestiges of the tributary relationship. If the razing of the old monument represented an ending, the construction of another symbolized a fresh beginning. As long as King Kojong kept his royal title—a title that in the ritual language of tribute was beneath that of emperor—the suggestion of subordination lingered.

In October , a memorial requesting a change in the royal status was submitted. Kojong declined all the supplications—except, of course, the last. We refused them numerous times, but there was no way to end their requests. Presented to the Beijing court for approval, the Ming emperor picked the former. With its connotations of independence, the tradition of the ancient Han kingdoms was claimed for the new emperor and his empire. Throughout this process of reinventing the Korean royal house, a wideranging arsenal of imperial symbols and rituals was invoked. Ostensibly employed in conventional fashion, this mixture of symbols in fact functioned in imaginative ways.

In the last years of the dynasty, however, these traditions were wielded untraditionally. Reinvented to serve the new purpose of independence, they maintained their external form while embodying fresh meanings. Central to this reinvention was a reformulation of the concept of emperor. One Heaven, one Emperor had been the accepted order until Kojong donned the imperial robes. It was this deliberate violation that paradoxically brought fresh meaning to the hoary symbols.

The rituals created a metonym for the nation: just as Kojong could now claim equal status to his Beijing counterpart, so too could the Great Han Empire claim equality with the Great Qing Empire. Instead, meaning was interpreted solely from their function. But 76 Decentering the Middle Kingdom the court did not invoke such meanings.

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In seeking to reassert its own power and prestige, these symbols and rituals proved useful because they linked throne, nation, and independence, making each essential to the other. In a period when various social groups were participating in a contested process to reconstruct the national identity, the court used the imperial rituals and symbols to position the king at the center of newly emerging visions of an independent Korea.

Decentering the Middle Kingdom 77 jiwei. In conventional ritual language, the former term implied an illegitimate usurpation of the imperial mantle, while the latter signaled the legitimate assumption of the throne by the individual holding the Mandate of Heaven.

What the Chinese editors interpreted as illegitimate was precisely the violation of established norms that the court deliberately manipulated to symbolize the independence of the nation through the throne. Although the interpretation of these rituals depended on the same assumptions, very different conclusions were reached. In November , these contending visions spilled into the streets of Seoul. Rumors—possibly planted by its detractors at court—suggesting that the Independence Club planned to establish a republic began to circulate around the capital.

After making a few alterations during his voyage to Tokyo, Pak later sent back a copy to Seoul. The trigrams, also associated with metaphysical debates and the Book of Changes, were, at a popular level, used for fortune telling. Instead, in this one particular context—stitched together on a white background—the symbols took on the most national of meanings. Both outcomes were a part of the same process, one that was less an epiphany of national consciousness in which an inherent Chineseness or Koreanness was recognized than an effort to instill nationality into texts and symbols, which until very recently had been considered universal.

A Lost Korean and Eastern Civilization This tension between the calls for decentering China and the various practices running counter to its assumptions also was manifested in the effort to think of Korea as part of a newly conceived region, the East Tongyang. In so doing, the subordination Decentering the Middle Kingdom 81 of the East that by these very enlightenment standards had become so evident to Korean writers was deemed temporary. In offering a way out of this dilemma, reform along the lines advocated by various nationalist organizations might appear alien to recent Korean experience, but as the editors strove to show through their novel interpretations of Korean and East Asian history, such reform in fact followed principles inherent in a global history to which Korea, as part of the East, belonged.

The possibility that the Eastern past could be judged as enlightened by these standards received little attention in its pages. On this point, however, the Tongnip sinmun was a minority voice. Far more common were attempts to dispossess the West of any proprietary right on civilization by discovering in the Korean and East Asian pasts cases of enlightened practices.