HistoryBits: Korea

HistoryBits: Korea

Bits and Pieces of History

Society

Society/Yangban

With their eyes fixed on the Golden Age of the Past as the idyll for the present and future—and with no tradition of democracy, it’s no wonder that the Koreans revered class rigidity to the exclusion of social mobility. What could originality produce, except something less than the idyll… and perhaps a disruption of consensus and social harmony as well? Korea’s scholar-mandarin tradition, with its emphasis on rote regurgitation of the Confucian canon, ensured that creative thinking in the manner of the Enlightenment ideals of 18th-century Europe would not flourish. The Koreans (until recently) had no tradition or understanding of democracy, believing that to advance the interests of the individual is to undermine the interests of the many. The preoccupation of the yangban class with ancient and rigid forms precluded the development of a spirit of freewheeling creativity that would have enabled it to deal with the inroads of the Japanese (and the outside world in general) and adapt with greater success to the modern day.Culture/Hangul: The invention of the alphabetical hangul represented an enormous break from the baroque oppression of a written language that had been comprised entirely of Chinese characters. They say that in order to understand the culture of a people, one must understand their language. In the case of the Chinese language, certain canons of the culture can be discerned in the fact that the high art of Chinese calligraphy could only be mastered by the scholar-mandarin; mastery of the written language was emblematic of the gulf that separated the scholar from the commoner. It is a language that is supremely ill-suited to science and technology–the Chinese term for “cement” is “foreign dust;” for “theater,” it is “electric shadow-hall”—but which is very well suited indeed to poetry, philosophical epigrams, and the cultivation of an artistic turn of mind. At the same time, it accords well with the Chinese veneration of the ancient idyll, and with the Chinese concept of the highest and best qualities of its culture and the literati who best represent them. Otherwise, it might have taken a top-to-bottom makeover of the Chinese cultural personality in order for Korea to adapt to modernity.

Power

Power/Admiral Yi

The victory of Admiral Yi’s turtle boats over the hated Japanese invaders is even today one of the most earnestly discussed topics amongst Koreans; when I taught in Korea in the early 1970s, it seemed that one of the first questions I was always asked was “Have you heard of Admiral Yi?” For an enormously talented people that have suffered so much from being caught between the geopolitical animosities of Japan, China, and Russia, even something like this that transpired more than 400 years ago is a much-needed point of national pride and is still very much alive ands kicking around in the present. And that’s the way history is—ain’t no such thing as time, and everything that ever happened is very much alive and well in the capacious present moment.

Power/King Sejong

King Sejong’s invention of the alphabetical hangul represented an enormous break from the baroque oppression of a written language that had been comprised entirely of Chinese characters. They say that in order to understand the culture of a people, one must understand their language. In the case of the Chinese language, certain canons of the Korean culture can be discerned in the fact that the high art of Chinese calligraphy could only be mastered by the scholar-mandarin; mastery of the written language was emblematic of the gulf that separated the scholar from the commoner. It is a language that is supremely ill-suited to science and technology–the Chinese term for “cement” is “foreign dust;” for “theater,” it is “electric shadow-hall”—but which is very well suited indeed to poetry, philosophical epigrams, and the cultivation of an artistic turn of mind. At the same time, it accorded well with the Korean veneration of the ancient idyll, and with the Korean concept of the highest and best qualities of its culture and the literati who best represent them. Otherwise, it might have taken a top-to-bottom makeover of the Chinese cultural personality in order for Korea itself to adapt to modernity.

Power/Dear Leader

We seem at a loss as to how to deal with the Mad Hatter of North Korea. Perhaps our experience with Saddam Hussein will provide us a better understanding of the consequences of Mr. Kim’s bizarre behavior with his abductions, missile firings, currency counterfeiting, and trafficking in narcotics and nuclear materiel, and his Bomb. The Korean people themselves don’t hate us–they’re as desperate to get rid of the Dear Leader as we are, but the whole business of totalitarianism in North Korea goes back to the post-World War II division of the peninsula and Mao Zedong’s installation and manipulation of his pet regime (Mao was just as bonkers as Kim & Son).

North Korea

North Korea’s quest for the prestige that might assuage its image as a financially and morally bankrupt regime that has been relegated to the rubber room of the community of nations lies at the heart of its nuclear brinkmanship and diplomatic theatre. Recognition and engagement may well be the remedy, but on what wavelength does one engage a madman like Kim Jong-il?


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