Two Cultural Challenges for Korea: Accepting the Richness of the Joseon Dynasty and Value of the Ideographs (essay)

Two Cultural Challenges for Korea: Accepting the Richness of the Joseon Dynasty and Value of the Ideographs

Emanuel Pastreich

October 21, 2011

There are two major cultural challenges that Korea faces today as it suddenly finds itself playing an international role on a scale that no one had imagined could happen so soon. Both challenges relate to Korea’s cultural identity, and both may seem somewhat obscure to internationals unfamiliar with the specifics of Korea’s cultural experience.

The first challenge is for Koreans to recognize for themselves, and introduce with confidence to the world, the full richness of the Korean cultural tradition. So often we see international visitors being treated to second-rate gayageum performances or men running around with long strings spinning around from their hats as they leap and prance. Much of this entertainment does not really impress the foreign guest because the Koreans themselves are not so taken with it. And sadly, just down the street there are performing artists and visual artists who are world class and completely unknown to the world.

Part of the problem is the ideological decision of Korea to place all emphasis on the rapid modernization of the last fifty years. There is a fairy tale often repeated for foreigners that makes many Koreans feel proud, but is ultimately destructive. We are told that Korea had the same GDP as Somalia in 1954 and since then rose to be the tenth, or eleventh, largest economy in the world. Although the story may sound impressive, and it is not false, it is not exactly true. More importantly it is misleading in a manner that diminishes Korea’s stature in the world.

Why? Because although it may seem positive to emphasis Korea’s sudden rise, it gives the false impression that Korea suddenly came into being around 1988 with the Olympics. Very impressive, but the culture lacks gravitas in the eyes of many in that it seems to have no history or classical culture. In fact, Korea succeeded because in 1954 there may not have been enough food, but there were philosophers and novelists, electrical engineers and architects in those bread lines. Nor was that intellectual sophistication in Korea the mere product of the Japanese colonial period modernization. Korea had an extremely sophisticated intellectual tradition before the 20th century which is virtually unknown to the world. Korea’s accomplishments in irrigation and agriculture, government and moral philosophy are remarkable, and perhaps the degree of success is precisely the reason that modernization.
Whether we talk about Korea’s Buddhist writings and its robust Zen (Seon) tradition (increasingly recognized as unique in Asia) or its Confucian tradition (whose discourse on propriety that has created a culture of honest respectfulness here), Korea has a past that is comparable to that of China and Japan.

Sadly, many Koreans speak of Korea’s cultural greatness out of a sense of obligation to support the team, but have little sense for exactly what is great about Korea’s traditions. Moreover, because the policy has been to translate primariliy modern writers, who represent a more “modern” Korea and who might win Nobel Literature Prizes the tremendous past remains largely inaccessible, and even when translated is often translated poorly.
Ironically, the myth that the Joseon period was dominated by a backwards anti-modern closed society that caused Korea fell behind the world was largely created by the Japanese as part of their colonial policy. And yet Koreans even today believe that argument about the Joseon period. It might have been true of Korea during the last days of the corrupt late Joseon, but certainly the Joseon period was also an age when Korea was one of the most innovative nations in the world, leading in agricultural innovation, engineering and sustainable development. It may seem like a minor matter to some, but revising our view of Korea’s past is the first step Korea must take to play a greater role in world affairs.

Another important issue in Korea that may seem obscure to Westerners is the issue of the ideographs, commonly known as “Chinese characters.” As much of Korea’s writings are preserved in ideographs, it is tragic that such critical writings are obscure to Koreans today. Korea needs to reconsider the status of ideographs and their usage today.

The ideographs, those glyphs that in some cases started out as representations, are best known today as “Chinese characters.”

In the spirit of self-determination, Koreans have stopped using those symbols in part because they are assumed to be associated with Chinese cultural dominance. Of course the Japanese continue to use them. The question is whether the ideographs are really “Chinese?” Are they any more Chinese than Korean?

The oldest ideographs are found carved on the oracle bones dating from the 14th century BC that were discovered in Anyang, Henan Province. These ideograms are carved in bone, and thus survived. It is highly likely that ideographs existed throughout the region even earlier but simply do not survive because they were carved on wood or written on leaves. I would not go as far as to say that ideographs were in common usage in Korea at that early date, but I would suggest that we do not know exactly how far the ideographs spread and by when. The records obviously do not survive.

More importantly, the people who employed those ideographs did not think of themselves as Chinese. They were Shang people of the Shang Empire. The ideographs were shared by many tribes (later clans and kingdoms)–none of which agreed that they were part of a “Chinese race.” “China” is a very real continuous tradition but we can only identify its contours tracing it backwards. They became If it were possible to do a genetic test of the DNA of Shang people and compare it with Chinese living in Guangzhou and Koreans living in Seoul, which population group would they be closer to? Perhaps the test can be conducted.

The ideographs became a common language for East Asia from before the 2nd century BC until the 1930s, and continue to serve that role today. The decision of Koreans to stop using Chinese characters has made Korean writings less accessible to the rest of Asia and much reduced Korea’s intellectual influence. Moreover, Koreans have more trouble learning Chinese and Japanese than they would if they regularly employed ideographs. Using them in writing would do much to increase Korea’s intellectual visibility in East Asia. Of course Korea is also very visible in terms of kimchi and television drama. But in terms of intellectual writing Korea still has not had the impact it could. I would not say that Koreans should go overboard in employing the ideographs, but I will say that they would do well do get over the allergy.


One response to “Two Cultural Challenges for Korea: Accepting the Richness of the Joseon Dynasty and Value of the Ideographs (essay)

  1. Charlie October 22, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    I can’t speak to the use of ideographs, but it is a fact that, here in the US, the idea of a high culture in Korea’s past is unknown to anyone who doesn’t set out to learn.
    Korea seems to have started with the Korean War; no past is mentioned except perhaps as a colony of Japan. This is likely true for most of the West.
    How to change this is a matter for discussion, but should involve multiple fronts.

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