Non-Orientalizing Colonial Ethnography

I am re-visiting reprints of a journal called Korean Social Work (『朝鮮社会事業』), which colonial bureaucrats and social reformers in Korea published nearly every month between 1923 and 1944. The articles were written mostly in Japanese, and many of the authors (both Korean and Japanese) expressed, just like the social bureaucrats in the Home Ministry in the metropole, a combination of reform-minded, progressive ideas and a colonizer’s mindset that could be characterized as a ‘civilizing mission.’

I would like to introduce here an article that I encountered in vol. 5 no. 10 October 1926 issue entitled “Sociology of Korea That Appears in Folklore”(「民間伝承に現はれた朝鮮の社会相」). The author used an alias of 青丘同人, under which he introduced a Korean folk story in almost every issue around these years. In this particular issue, however, he gave a more detailed analysis of the characteristics of Korean folklore. I cannot tell if he was ethnically Korean or Japanese (although he calls Japan “our country”), but he was obviously a very dedicated ethnographer of Korea, was trained in Western theories, and operated professionally in the Japanese language.

The first thing that one notices in his article is a heavy emphasis on ordinary people’s history. The author criticized the official historical records for being too aristocracy-centered, and argued that in order to understand Korean society we need to turn to folklore — “the shapeless art of the languages of the masses.” Considering that folk studies were growing in Japan and everywhere else in the world, this itself is not quite unique. In fact, this global ethnographical turn in the 1920s led to a big wave of Orientalist colonial knowledge in most of the empires. We are also familiar with many accounts of Japanese ethnographers Orientalizing the colonial Other.

The rest of this article, however, turned out to be a lot different from the “Other”-ing that I expected to find. His analysis develops rather in an unexpected direction. One unusual aspect of his article is that he uses Marxist class struggle to analyze Korean sayings and popular jokes. Many of the social reform bureaucrats who were publishing this journal were overtly anti-Marxists, and they regarded social work as a necessity to prevent the spread of Marxism and Communism. Despite that, 青丘同人 fearlessly demonstrates “social revolutionary elements” hidden in Korean sayings. According to him, “the origin of social revolutions is embedded in the moment where ordinary people’s social conditions have totally changed and the old system no longer works. It must be clear that when ordinary people’s knowledge recognizes the ignorance of the ruler, they resort to action.” Popular jokes and sayings capture this exact moment. For example, the following joke shows how ordinary people mocked the way in which the privileged class would collapse from within:

A younger brother said, “No matter how arrogantly you behave, I am superior to you when it comes to our social statuses.” His older brother asked, “Why?” He answered, “Because when you were born, our father was just an ordinary official, but when I was born, he was already an emperor-appointed one.”

青丘同人 gives a number of examples in which ordinary people ridiculed the incompetence of the ruler and the old aristocratic system. He argues, “… people in Korea who did not prefer overt conflicts [with upper classes] turned to the mocking (笑殺) to comfort themselves. The only way of revenge for the weak was to passively laugh out the despotic behaviors of the stronger.” Doesn’t this line of argument sound familiar to us?

Another unique part is his attempt to deconstruct the stereotypes of the status of women in traditional Korea. He challenges the stereotypical understanding that Korean women had been oppressed by men, locked in the home and deprived of any freedom. He first explains that the structure of the inner house (内房) where women mainly stayed was so complicated because men needed to protect women from outsiders in the face of foreign invasions. What is interesting is that he quickly dismisses the importance of this original reason, and points out that this system of locking up women in the house lasted only because it worked for women too (“it was based on love”), and because women reigned over their own kingdoms in their inner houses. “Otherwise women would not stay inside more than three days.” 青丘同人 also disputes the alleged wickedness of the custom in which women were forced to wash clothes all day everyday so that they would not have energy or time for adultery. He regards washing clothes as more about providing appropriate exercise for women. “Compared to bodily disciplining like chastity belts in the West, foot-binding in China, and blackening teeth in Japan,” chastity control in Korea in the inner house was far more aesthetic (趣きのある).

The issue I want to raise is not about whether we agree or disagree with his analysis. As far as I can tell, he was an ethnographer who did not try to Orientalize Korea. In fact, many of the points he made are a precursor to what scholars in the 1980s and 90s (i.e. supposedly the Said-ian self-reflective age) attempted to argue. I always found it sad that, whenever we discuss colonial ethnographers, we inevitably find Orientalizing, Other-ing operations. I think this article by 青丘同人, someone I do not know who really was, is giving us an opportunity to think about ethnography as a more diverse field than we usually think.

UPDATE: I just found 青丘同人’s real name in volume 5 no.7. It is 清水兵三 (he started to use  “青丘 清水兵三”) . I might be able to track him down, now!


  1. Without denying the interest in what you’ve found, I think there are other readings which might be more problematic. The approach seems almost Yanagida-esque, the kind of cultural nationalism which fades into a kind of agrarian triumphalism, traditionalism. The ‘social revolution’ discourse seems to be aimed at the old pre-colonial regime specifically, which strikes me on the surface as more self-justifying (for a Japanese ethnographer) and tactical than representing a committment to a marxist analytical method.

  2. You should check out the article by yourself, Jonathan, if you have a chance. At least to me, it did not appear “self-justifying and tactical” at all, and it really has a very strong belief in Marxism in his piece — this is especially so because, in his logic, Korean masses could take action by themselves. True, the Yanagita element is there (as I implied in his focus on folklore), but as far as I can tell, his take is quite different from the main stream of Yanagita students who explored Korea. I don’t want to disregard the diversity of opinions among ethnographers as you say.

  3. That’s interesting. I wonder if there’s any hope of piercing the veil of pseudonymity in this case, to get a better sense of the career of this folklorist. ’26 is right after the Peace Preservation Law, but before Marxist scholars were completely driven underground or into tenko. Do you know how long 青丘同人’s column continues?

  4. Quite Interesting. I’ve tried 2 websites to find out some info about 青丘同人,– (The National Library of Korea) and Keris(Korea Education & Research Information Service)

    Nothing from Keris, but NLK has One book,’晉州案內’, edited by 青丘同人.
    The bibliography information of it is as follows.

    표제(表題)/ 책임표시사항(責任標示事項) : 晉州案內 / 伊作藍溪 著. 鎭海要覽 / 岡萬吉 著. 統營郡風水害誌 / 淸水兵三 編

    판사항(版事項) : 影印再版
    발행사항(發行事項) : 서울(Seoul) : 경인문화사(景仁文化社), 2000
    형태사항(形態事項) : 416p. : 삽도(揷圖) ; 23cm
    총서사항(叢書事項) (韓國地理風俗誌叢書 ; 272)

    晉州案內 原本發行事項 : 晉州 : 晋州郡晋州面飛鳳洞, 大正3[1914]
    鎭海要覽 原本發行事項 : 鎭海 : 騰龍閣, 大正15[1926]
    統營郡風水害誌의 原本發行事項 : 統營 : 統營郡廳, 昭和9[1934]

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