Things I don’t know about Korea, part 2

I’m having great fun with this class, but I’m still discovering vast areas of ignorance as we move along:

  • Eunuchs: The Kabo reforms abolish the office of Eunuchs, but how many were there and how important?
  • Seven Day Week? By 1896 there clearly is a seven day week in place, but when was that put in place? Is it part of the Kabo calendrical reforms?
  • The books I’m reading don’t refer to Tonghak and to early Progressives (or conservatives) as “nationalist”: They call them “incipient” and “proto” but won’t actually admit to modern nationalism until 1905 or 1910. Do they think ‘nationalism’ only exists in a modern context, and Korea’s context isn’t modern until some kind of political transition? This seems arbitrary: though Korea may not be modernizing effectively in the 19c, I find it hard to see how Korea’s not pretty well enmeshed in a modern context by, say, 1880. I suppose you could have the ever-popular “is anti-imperialism really nationalism” debate all over again (it’s kind of fun to do with the Boxers, once), but it seems unnecessarily fussy to me, at least on first reading. I don’t see what distinction they’re making and they’re not explaining it, either. We shouldn’t use jargon unless we’re willing to explain it.


  1. I’m intrigued by your question. Indeed, at least in a broad sense, why shouldn’t Tonghak or even Kapsin be interpreted as “nationalist?” I’m not sure what you’re reading, but I assume the inclusion of qualifiers like “incipient” and “proto” has a lot to do with the powerful influence of Sadae in these movements. If we use Gellner’s definition of nationalism (which is appropriate since he addresses the same relationship between modernization and nationalism that you’ve spoken to), can we really say that Tonghak and other early movements conform? I don’t know. I’m curious to see if some consensus develops.

  2. Eunuchs were present in the late Chosŏn court, and if you are really keen on figures I will try to dig out a 1911 organization report that enumerates just how many of them were cashiered by the Government-General. My recollection is that there was a significantly larger number of (female) palace attendants – makes sense, of course – who also lost their positions in this bureaucratic downsizing, which was carried out successively if sporadically until 1926, the year of former emperor Sunjong’s death. With the “court” of Prince Yi transferred to Tokyo, the palace staff was reduced to bare bones.
    The adaptation of the Gregorian calendar took place in 1895-96; the Sillok records reflect use of “Western calendar” from January 1, 1896 onward. Evidently part of the Kabo reforms as you note, but this reform appears to have coexisted with the use of the lunar calendar. One scholar argues that Greg dates were used for royal/imperial birthdays (as in Meiji Japan, new national holidays) and visits to royal shrines, suggesting that they constituted a feature of “official nationalism”; at the same time, however, events such as spring planting festivals continued to rely on a lunar schedule.


  3. I am glad that you noticed this problem in Korean history, which I understand as a residue of previous scholarship based on the epistemological model of modernization theory. In a nutshell, Japanese historians were free to extend the meanings and experiment with the fluidity of concepts such as ‘modernity’ and ‘nationalism’, but such was not the case for Korean historians. It made sense to speak of Tokugawa shogunate as the early modern period of Japan, but not so for precolonial Korea, for example. This problem further compounded when Western historians of Korea reacted strongly to the (allegedly) nationalist historiography of South Korea, and in the field at present, one is almost prohibited from speaking of ‘modernity’ or ‘nation’ in precolonial context (some try to push the boundaries of those terms but only with extensive use of qualifiers denoting the proto- or quasi- nature of such consciousness). This practice is so pervasive that at one point I was instructed not to translate Songgyun’gwan as National Academy, even though that is precisely the meaning of this institution which is basically the Korean equivalent of Guozijian (which Chinese historians more than happily refer to as National or Imperial Academy, as opposed to regional schools).

    This semantic game has been bothering me for some time now. If you read Don Baker’s works on Choson Catholicism, you will notice that Koreans were aware of Western philosophy and technology for many centuries, meaning that the Western ideas and knowledge of Europe, though mediated through Jesuit texts written in Chinese, were present in Korea long before the twentieth century. That said, I agree with James Palais that the sociopolitical conditions in the last decades of Choson was not conducive to carrying out effective modernization projects on their own. What I want to learn more about is the degree to which the encounter with West after 1910 was a shock for the Koreans, especially for those who resided in urban centers, and I also would like to know more about the ways in which the traditional world views shaped and in turn was shaped by more rapid and drastic encounters with modernity under Japanese colonialism.

    As you pointed out, this division of (precolonial = modern ideas can exist only in incipient/quasi/anticipatory form) and (colonial = modernity really begins) is too arbitrary. I am hoping that introducing data-intensive methods in Korean history (this would be one utility of digital humanities) will help diversify the perspectives in the field. Having said that, let me know if you would like to use some statistical data in your teaching (i.e., demographics, literacy and education, economy, etc.). It might be a nice supplement to the assigned narratives and I am personally interested in knowing about how your students respond to it.

    Finally, on eunuchs: unlike the eunuchs in the Ming dynasty, Choson eunuchs to my knowledge never wielded political power. Some queen dowagers and royal in-laws did, but not eunuchs.

  4. Thanks, everyone: this is quite helpful.

    In part, thinking about Joel’s note about Sadae, I wonder if part of the problem is the hypocrisy of modernization theory. Which is to say, European and American society is largely self-evidently modern in most defintions, and “pre-modern remnants” are considered exceptions which don’t call the definition into question, whereas the application to non-Western societies has almost always taken a much stricter line. “Democracy” runs into the same problem: we don’t tend to do really effective comparative work noting the similarities between “hybrid” or “partial” democratic systems in non-western societies and the ‘flawed’ or ‘ocassional’ problems in Western democracies.

    I’m sounding rather Saidian, here, but these definitional questions are one are where his analysis rings most true for me.

  5. I might help you with your question about the calendar, but I have to admit I did not get it. The Gregorian calendar is one thing, the Western way to deal with is another, the seven days week is still another.

    The Gregorian calendar, as we usually define it today, goes back to the 1896 Kabo reform. But you might know that the Western way to calcul the calendar and its time unit were officially adopted in Chosŏn in 1653 with the Shihŏn calendar. However if your question really dealt with the seven days week… well, wether it was the gregorian, or the traditional luni-solar and solar calendars, they all have a seven days week. Actually, most calendars in the world, if not all – personnaly I don not know any whicj does not – have a seven days week, even if the reason is a kind of mystery in my eyes.

    I hope this help you anyway.

  6. The traditional Japanese calendar didn’t really have a ‘week’ but did divide the month up into ten-day chunks, only adopting the seven-day week when it adopted the Gregorian calendar. I was under the impression that the Chinese and Koreans did as well. In fact, Wikipedia doesn’t cite any non-Western seven-day weeks.

  7. On calendars, you might chat with Joe Nowokowski. He did some interesting research, may even have turned it into a dissertation or otherwise published it, on Korean market days as a five-day week calendar. My experience living in the boonies as a Peace Corps vol in the early 70s was that the market day calendar was the most useful for making appointment, say, to ask a TB patient to come to the district health center for a check-up. Even out in the villages in the counties, everyone knew when the district market days were – I still remember 40 years later – 2,7.

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