”American Professor Searches for the Future in Korea’s Forgotten Traditions” (interview with KOREA.NET)



“American Professor Searches for the Future in Korea’s Forgotten Traditions”

June 17, 2013


Emanuel Pastreich, known around Seoul by his Korean name Lee Man-yeol, has lived in Korea for more than six years. He is a professor at Kyung Hee University’s College of International Studies and the founder of the Asia Institute. Pastreich started his study of Asia at Yale College and continued his education at Harvard University, the University of Tokyo, and Seoul National University. He developed a remarkable affection for Korean culture while doing his comparative studies and recently translated into English the short stories of the intellectual and novelist Park Ji-won (1737∼1805).

Pastreich has a passion for the culture and literature of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) a period that has been, he feels, underestimated by Koreans in their headlong rush into modernity. He is now writing a new book in which he talks about how traditional Korean culture could play a role in contemporary society. This book, titled “Another Korea,” presents overlooked aspects of Korea that he feels are relevant to modern problems. The book will come out in Korean in July 2013.

I spoke with this blue-eyed American, someone who might be better called a “cosmopolitan of 21st century,” recently at a Seoul cafe that he frequents. This balding and bespectacled man, now approaching 50 years of age, related to me in fluent Korean his insights about Joseon-era narratives that most Koreans are unfamiliar with, not to mention Chinese pre-modern novels like The Plum in the Golden Vase (Jin Ping Mei) and The Dream of the Red Chamber (Hóng Lóu Mèng) and Japanese narratives such as the yomihon genre of the Edo period (1603–1867). The conversation showed his broad knowledge of the Korean tradition that ran from the thought and literature of the Joseon dynasty to the issues of contemporary Korean society.


So you have settled here in Korea after living in China, Japan and the United States for many years. I am reminded of such learned masters of the Spring and Autumn Period in ancient China (770~403 BC) like Confucius, who wandered the realm looking for wisdom and for a state that would listen to his good advice. What was it about the literature of Korea, in the cultural energy of this country, that attracted you?


My journey through Asian learning started in Chinese studies, leading me first to Taiwan, then to Japan and finally to Korea as I tried to understand better that tremendous tradition. At this moment, in the start of the 21st century, Korean culture is the most vital and creative, and that aspect of the country attracted me. Compared to China and Japan, Korea has the soundest governance system and the most balanced and harmonious cooperative relations between the government and the private sector. I am not saying that Korea is perfect, but I find a dynamism here that encourages both innovation and stable policy that is hard to find. There is an atmosphere here that inspires flexibility and experimentation and is suitable to my character. It is no coincidence that I live in Korea.

The foundations for the production of new technologies and new culture are quite solid and there is a vision for future. In Korea, there is palpable regeneration and vitality. I taught Japanese literature in the U.S. for eight years and lived in Japan for many years, but it was quite rare that a Japanese would call me up and say, “Let’s have a conference,” or “Let’s write a paper.” But in Korea, I get so many offers from universities and government institutes that I often have to turn them down.

For example, when I was a professor in the U.S., I was invited to advise the Korean Cultural Center at the Korean Embassy in Washington D.C. I served as the editor-in-chief for the online magazine “Dynamic Korea.” It was extremely unusual for Korea, for any country, to give that sort of a position to a non-Korean. I also worked as the adviser to the governor of Chungcheongnam-do (South Chungcheong Province). I feel that Korea’s openness and its dynamism result in foreigners participating in policy-decision making to a remarkable extent. It is a tremendous virtue of Korea.


You have noted in your recent writings that as we face challenges from advances in technology, from changes in how we use information and communications, we need to look back to the noble traditions of the Joseon period and rediscover their virtues and their relevance to our age. Why do make that argument?


Korea has achieved a level of technological and economic development over the last 60 years, one that has become the envy of the world, and Korea is now bench marked by developing countries. But there is no time for Korea to bask in that glory. Times are changing faster than anyone ever imagined and Korea must advance to a new level for its sake, and for the world’s sake. But that new level is NOT a faster smartphone or a more fashionable sports car. That new level is spiritual and artistic, true leadership in the deepest sense of the word. To play that role, Korea must recognize the true origins of its success and make that original culture global.

Let me give an example. Until the 19th century, the Korean government and society were run according to the rules of propriety (Yehak), a complex set of rules for proper behavior in Confucian society that date back to the earliest times in East Asia. Rules of propriety, unlike modern civil law, criminal law and constitutional law, formed a rational system designed to encourage proper behavior on the part of individuals. But they were also a means of governance for families and the nation. Whereas modern law quickly falls back on punishment to achieve its goals, rules of propriety were normative and often heuristic.

I believe that those rules of propriety can be extremely effective, more so than criminal or constitutional law, in addressing the challenges of a networked society. In a networked society, we find that criminal and constitutional law are not really the answer. There are many problems that emerge related to the problems of complete strangers exchanging opinions, developing close relations, or people who are not on the same level like student and teacher, CEO and office worker, developing close relations online.

This network society problem may seem minor, but in fact, in that it creates tremendous conflicts in hierarchies, it can be extremely serious. So, I would argue that we can modernize those traditional rules of propriety and apply them very effectively in this networked society—showing that Joseon thought is not behind modern thought, but maybe, in its own way, more advance and more appropriate.


Why do you search for the answers to today’s problems from Korea’s past?


What is technology? It is not just semiconductors and flat panel displays. The institutions by which you govern, through which you try to make citizens better people, these are also technologies. Those technologies developed by Koreans over hundreds of years have tremendous value today if we can unlock the code. Let’s take the example of >i>The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty—Korea’s remarkable historical record. The annals were produced by a government system that ensured objectivity in writing the public record. That human system worked well for five hundred years in Korea. The facts, even sensitive issues, were accurately recorded. Recording political events in detail and doing so objectively is not easy, even today.

We can find in that system a good model for a government managing information objectively, and in a balanced way. We just need to modernize that past tradition–just as modern democracy was created by modernizing ancient Greek democracy.

Korea has many strengths that Koreans just do not know about. In part Koreans lack confidence because they learned in school that modernization is a matter of overcoming the past. I am suggesting that we can discover the future if we look closely at the past.


You suggest that we can think about this challenge as being similar to the Renaissance. That is to say, you remark that at that time, in the 16th century, there was a completely new set of technologies and economic tools that had been introduced into Europe and had no precedent. But it was not possible to just say, let us do something that has no precedent. Instead, Renaissance thinkers said, “Let us go back to the greatness of Rome and Greece.” What they did, in fact, was to combine new technologies and new economic systems with the best of the past to create a new civilization. Do you really see the potential to inspire a Renaissance in Korea?


The potential is there. We need the vision. The Annals of the Joseon Dynasty have some qualities that are unmatched by modern media in the accuracy it produced. So combining those strengths with modern technology could produce something truly new.

But there is more to the analogy. If we look at Italy at the start of the Renaissance, one source of inspiration was the influx of scholars from Byzanthium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire after its fall to the Ottomans. Those learned and sophisticated scholars transformed Italy. Now in Korea as well, we see that the best and brightest of the world are coming to Seoul to find opportunities. Koreans ask, “Which of the young Koreans will be the next Steve Jobs?“ That is the wrong question. Ask how we can get the next Steve Jobs to come to Korea and stay here. If he is in fact a Korean, but ends up leaving to go to the U.S., then he is not a Korean Steve Jobs.

The technological advances of the 15th century led a conversion of technology and culture, leading to fusion of contents. The painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo is representative of that fusion. They are a new form of art that did not exist in ancient Greece or Rome.

Confidence in one’s ability to create culture is also essential. Korea has an advantage in that respect as well. The country has a strong will and the energy required to creating something new. In that sense, Italy at the start of the Renaissance has something in common with Korea today. Korea could be a cultural center like Florence during the Renaissance. But Koreans must make up their mind that this is what they want.

Finally, we must inspire people, and not just make them work all the time. Antoine de Saint-Exupery once wrote, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”


How did you become interested in the classic Korean novel, especially those of the Joseon period, an era which Koreans today have so much trouble understanding?


I was planning a Ph.D. dissertation on comparing Chinese and Japanese novels. I came to feel that such a comparison was meaningless unless I understood what had happened in Korea as well. Ultimately, I compared how Korean and Japanese intellectuals adopted and interpreted Chinese narrative, especially literature in vernacular Chinese. I read Kim Man-jung’s Dream of the Nine Clouds and wrote about it at length.

But I was most drawn to the works of Park Ji-won. Here were novels that would have great appeal in English translation, I thought. In those novels, we find an aristocrat writer who made beggars and poor farmers the protagonists of his novels, something rare in Western fiction at the time, or even today. He used biting sarcasm, but also retained optimism about humanity.


Park Ji-won and Jeong Yak-yong, two Korean intellectuals of the 18th century that you were inspired by, took a great interest in China and Japan. Park introduced new technology and ideas from China that many Koreans had ignored. Jeong took an interest in the construction technology of Japan. What do their examples suggest to us?


The approach to scholarship of Jeong and Park is known today as “practical learning” (shilhak), and it had a very specific meaning: pursuing useful knowledge without bias or ideology. At the time, the ruling class in Korea had a negative view of Japan and Manchu because those countries had invaded Korea, and also they lacked legitimacy in their eyes. But these scholars suggested that there was much to learn from China (then ruled by the Manchus) and Japan. They had an open attitude, a willingness to absorb the good qualities from the Manchus and Japanese, regardless of their personal feelings.

Park felt that Koreans should adopt better systems and technologies from China such as those of civil engineering, regardless of what they thought of the Chinese government. Park wrote in the preface of the book “Discussion of Northern Learning” (Bukhakui 北學議) that openness to new ideas was essential—regardless of where they come from. “Northern Learning” referred to studying contemporary China.

He noted, “There is no other way to study. If there is something of which I am ignorant, I must ask others and learn more. I should do so even if the source for information is a passerby on the street. If it be children or servants who know more than I do, even if by just a bit, I should never hesitate to learn from them. If I just feel ashamed that I am less knowledgeable than others and therefore do not ask someone more knowledgeable, then I will be stuck forever in a hopeless situation, lost in outdated ideas.”


You recently said that Korea should take as its model in diplomacy the example of the ancient Chinese state of Zhou in the Spring and Autumn Period of China. What specifically do you mean?


Zhou was not a superpower and was much smaller than the states of Chu and Qin. But Zhou maintained good relations with all states and impressed the realm with its adherence to good government. It maintained a balance in the region and received a respect that went beyond its military might. If we look at international relations today, no one wants another arrogant superpower. But if Korea follows the Zhou model closely, there is no limit to its potential to play a leading role.


Korea’s economic progress is remarkable and its rapid development is unprecedented. Nevertheless, Korea’s happiness index is stagnating or even declining. What advice would you give to Koreans to address this problem?


In physics, we have always the forces of action and reaction. In the same sense, such extreme and rapid development has taken its toll. The result is that in a land that looks like a paradise for those coming from the developing world, there is rampant depression, high suicide rates and low fertility rates. One way to address this problem is to reconsider the legacy of traditional Korea. Those who favored modernization argued that Confucianism was abstract, impractical and useless. They embraced an ideology of the visible, of the here and now. But we lost much of the spiritual aspects of human experience as a result. The Confucian scholar’s house was empty. He read a small number of central classic texts over and over. But his life was much richer than ours even as we enjoy TV and air conditioning. Why? Because traditional Koreans believed, correctly, that the most important things are invisible to the eye. Today we are in danger of going too far in the other direction. We have all these technologies. But as Einstein once said, “You pay the most for those things you get for free.”

Korea’s remarkable achievements mean that Korea has a responsibility to show the world a better way. Every time a Korean drinks out of a plastic cup and then throws it on the ground, visitors from developing nations see that act and assume this is how you do things in an advanced nation.

When I look around in Korea, I see lots of problems, as I do in other countries. But the balance between government and business is a little better, the gap between the rich and the poor is not as bad in other countries. The degree of those gaps may seem trivial now, but as time goes by, they will produce enormous differences.

Koreans often imagine “developed countries” out there that they want to be like. Such ideal countries do not exist. All the nations of the world now face terrible contradictions and economic disparities. I am impressed by the degree to which the Korean public believes that the government can play a positive role in making the world better. Many nations have lost that confidence, and consequently, have far more trouble reforming themselves.

By Wi Tack-whan, Limb Jae-un
Korea.net Staff Writers

original text

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