Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries

The Case of Korea

RYU Tongshik


Efforts to establish a sense of national identity received new urgency under the pressures created by modernization and the influx of Western culture. Movements to foster national culture and research related to national culture have come about as a result of such efforts. In the case of Korea the movement for national culture did not arise simply from the clash with Western civilization alone. More directly, it came as a reaction to the intrusion of stronger powers -- in particular, the imperialistic invasion of Japan. Japan attempted not merely to colonize but to Japanize Korea, and in so doing to wipe away all aspects of our own culture. With this in the background, it thus came about that research related to the national culture of Korea had its beginning in connection with the movement for independence from Japan.

The first direct contacts with Western civilization took place about one hundred years ago. And in looking at the flow of events since then we can discern three major periods with respect to Korean cultural studies: the last years of the Yi Dynasty around the end of the nineteenth century, the period of Japanese colonialism (1910-1945), and the post-Liberation period (1945 to the present). My intention is to present a brief overview of characteristics of the movement for the national culture and cultural studies during three periods.

1. The Last Years of the Yi Dynasty

The first introduction of Western civilization to Korea came about through efforts of the Roman Catholic Church in the eighteenth century. However, the neo-Confucianism of the Chu Hsi School which was the religious ideology of the Yi Dynasty ruling class effectively prevented widespread acceptance of the new ideas. The real impact of Western ideas upon Korean society did not begin to be felt until the closing years of the nineteenth century, following the 1876 treaty with Japan and subsequent treaties with Western nations. This opening of Korea through the establishment of international relations provided a good opportunity to learn about Western culture on the one hand, but on the other, it also paved the way for imperialist aggression.

The wave of new activity by foreign powers in Korea led not only to a situation of political instability, but also to one in which the traditional culture was in danger of being destroyed. In this unsettling context Koreans sought to affirm their sense of national identity by maintaining the old traditions. We can identify three major responses.

First, "refute the heterodoxy and guard the orthodoxy. " This phrase refers to the rejection of the Roman Catholic (Western) ideas that were seen as heretical in the context of the prevailing Confucian orthodoxy. The best way to deal with the threat posed by the intruding ideas was to refute them and hold fast to the orthodox Confucian view. Yi Hang-no (1792-1868) and his followers were the main advocates of this position. They held that religion was the central element of culture and looked to the Chu Hsi School of neo-Confucianism as the religious ideology to be protected because it provided the very foundation for the existence of Korean culture and the structure of the value system as well. Their way of thinking continued into the period of Japanese colonialism and played a fundamental role in shaping the ideology of the resistance movement.

The second major response was a movement for reform of Confucian ideas as advocated by Pak Un-shik (1859-1925). Like the followers of Yi Hang-no, advocates for reform also looked to Confucianism as the basis of traditional Korean culture and national identity, but on the other hand they saw the need for reform in order to adjust to the changing circumstances in which Korea now found itself. They believed it would be possible to preserve the nation and maintain the national culture through accepting Western thought but in the framework of a reformed Confucianism which would be the property of the whole people, not just the religion of the elite ruling class. Those who held this point of view could be compared to the Protestant reformers of sixteenth century Europe.

The third major response was the Eastern Learning (Tonghak) movement led by Choi Che-woo (1824-1860), which spread as a religious movement for national culture directly in opposition -- as its name suggests -- to Western (Roman Catholic) learning. Followers of the Tonghak movement saw that from the outside Korea was being threatened by imperialistic aggression on the part of Japan and powerful Western nations, while within the country the oppression of the people by a corrupt government was becoming unbearable. They believed that in this kind of situation the only way the nation could be saved was through religion. But the traditional religions, Confucianism and Buddhism, had lost their strength and the new Western religion was also one of the weapons of the foreign invaders. Therefore, they thought, the only hope for national salvation lay in the appearance of a new "Korean style" religion. Claiming the authority of divine revelation, Choi Che-woo proclaimed that Tonghak was this new religion so badly needed, but as a result he was executed by the government just three years later. The movement continued after Choi's death, however, and through the missionary efforts organized by his followers it grew over the next thirty years to become the largest religious group in Korea. Its culmination came in the Tonghak Revolution of 1894 under the slogan, "Save the nation and bring peace to the people by getting rid of government tyranny and keeping out Western and Japanese influence."

2. The Period of Japanese Colonialism

The second major period of the movement for national culture in Korea can be characterized in various ways. Extending from 1910 to 1945 it was of course the period of Japanese colonialism, but from the Korean viewpoint could be called the period of the Independence Movement. It was also a period of research.

From the time of the takeover in 1910 Japan's attempt to colonize Korea was carried out under a policy designed to eradicate Korean culture by gradually replacing it with Japanese culture. As I have said, it was an attempt not merely to colonize but to Japanize Korea, and this could only be done by eliminating everything Korean. They began with language and history, by prohibiting education and research related to the Korean language and Korean history. Then in the later part of the 1930s it became illegal to even speak Korean in Korea and Korean people were forced to worship at Japanese Shinto shrines. Striking at the heart of personal as well as cultural identity, the greatest indignity was that finally Korean people were not allowed to use their own names but were forced to take Japanese names instead.

Paradoxically, research into Korean culture during this period was initiated by Japanese scholars. Their purpose, however, was not to preserve or to foster the development of Korean culture but to provide justification for their colonial policy. Thus the field of Korean studies had its beginning as a servant of Japanese colonial policy. Some of the works produced by the Japanese during this period are as follows:

A Study on Korean Society (1910), Japanese Military Police Headquarters in Korea;
History of Korean Religions (1911), Aoyagi;
Folk Customs of Korea (1914), Imamura;
A Dictionary of Korean (1920), Japanese Government-General;
The Spirits of Korea (1929), Japanese Government-General;
Geomancy in Korea (1931), Japanese Government-General;
Divination and Prophecy in Korea (1933), Japanese Government-General.

Also, in 1922 the Japanese Government-General established an editorial committee for research on Korean history. The work of this committee, however, reflected a particular view of history designed to justify colonial policy.

While Japanese scholars were pursuing colonialist aims in research on Korea culture, Korean scholars on the other hand began their own research in order to discover in the traditional culture the spiritual basis for the independence movement against Japan. In contrast to the Japanese, who held what could be called a colonialist view of history, these scholars held a nationalistic view. For the most part they were traditional Korean scholars of the old school who were also independence fighters and had been living in exile in China since the fall of Korea to Japan in 1910. Some of their representative works are as follows:

Pak Un-shik (1859-1925):
The Painful History of Korea,
The Bloody History of the Korean Independence Movement,
A Study of Old Korea
Shin Chai-ho (1880-1936):
History of Ancient Korea,
A Study of Korean History,
Life and Thought of Yi Sun-shin;,
Chung In-bo (1893-1936):
A Study of Korean History,
A Selection of Korean Studies;
Choi Nam-sun (1890-1957):
Early Korea,
A Study of Tangun,
The Korean Independence Movement.

Along with such works as these which were produced in the traditional Korean pattern of scholarship, from the 1930s there were also works on Korean culture by scholars who followed Western methods of research. For example, the Korean Language Society was established in 1931 and began publishing a journal called Hangul that carried scholarly articles on the Korean language. This society also undertook the compilation of a Korean dictionary. Likewise, the Chindan Society founded in 1934 engaged in historical research on scientific principles. Their journal, the Children Hakbo, carried articles dealing with such areas as politics, art, the history of Korean thought, folk traditions and so on. Some of the representative works based on Western methods of scholarship produced during the period are as follows:

Socioeconomic History of Korea (1933), Paik Nam-un;
History of Korean Novels (1933), Kim Tae-jun;
History of Korean Drama (1933), Kim Jai-chol;
Thought of Korean Poetry (1937), Cho Yun-jai;
Ancient Songs of Korea (1943), Yang Ju-dong.

In addition, there were also Korean scholars in this period who were concerned with religion and folklore in relation to national culture. A few examples are:

Yi Neung-hwa (1869-1943):
A General History of Korean Buddhism,
A Study on Korean Shamanism,
A History of Korean Taoism;
Son Jin-tai (1900-1950):
A Study on Korean National Culture;
Song Suk-ha (1904-1948):
A Study on Korean Folk Culture.

3. The Post-Liberation Period

With the surrender of Japan in 1945 Korea was liberated from Japanese colonialism and again became an independent nation. However, the division of the nation into two parts and the tragic war between north and south that followed in 1950 temporarily stopped cultural activities and resulted in the loss of many valuable research materials. It was not until the 1960s that cultural research could be resumed on a normal basis, so that was when the modern period had its real beginning. By then the number of scholars had increased greatly because after Liberation it was easier to go abroad for advanced study and research and many who did so were returning to engage in their work at home. Also, although there have been a number of social problems along the way, the economic development beginning in the 1960s has provided more leeway for cultural activities.

If we say that the decade of the 1950s was a time of struggle for political stability and the 1960s one of struggle for economic stability, then the 1970s became the decade of search for cultural identity -- and we have believed that cultural identity is the cornerstone of national independence.

Beginning in the 1960s, a number of research institutes for the study of Korean culture have been established. Among them there are some independent organizations such as the Korean Research Center, but for the most part these institutes were set up within university structures. There were sixteen such institutes by the end of the 1960s, then twenty-two by the end of the 1970s. Also in 1978 the government established its own institute, the Academy of Korean Culture.

According to figures compiled by the Academy, at the end of 1978 there were 942 scholars in Korea engaged in various fields related to Korean studies. Historians (172) and linguists (149) comprised the two largest groups, and about seventy per cent of the total were young scholars still under the age of forty. Also, most of the research articles in the post-liberation period have been published since 1966. For example, 215 articles dealing with historical studies appeared in this period before 1966, while 816 have been published since then. The situation of other areas is similar. For studies on the Korean language the figures are 234 as opposed to 1,301, for literature 73 in contrast to 435, and for folklore studies 43 as against 254. This increase since 1966 shows the degree of activity among the younger scholars in the 1970s.

The first task of those engaged in Korean studies from the 1960s onward was the excavation of aspects of the culture that had been buried during the Japanese colonial period. Language and literature, for example, which the Japanese had tried to obliterate, had to be rehabilitated, and folk culture rediscovered. Next was the task of getting rid of the poison of colonialist ideology. Distorted interpretations of history created by the Japanese for their own purposes had to be corrected, for instance, so that the cultural heritage of Korea could be seen in its true light. As these tasks are being carried out the trend in research today is to adopt a scientific approach, shaking off the subjectivism that characterized both the colonialist studies and the nationalist studies of the previous period and replacing it with an objective viewpoint.

This, then, is the first task before us today: to completely get rid of the subjective orientation of the past and firmly establish a scientific approach to academic research. Scholarship must not be the servant of ideology, whether of the colonialist or of the nationalist variety. The second task before us is that we must shift our attention to the future. Previously we looked to our past and sought from it to understand our present. But that is not enough. The field of Korean studies encompasses all of Korea, and this includes the Korea of the future as well as the past and the present. Here, for example, we must face the problem of a divided nation and seek ways to contribute to the unity and harmony of our future national culture. Finally, the third task before us today is that we must broaden the scope of our interests to include concern for the rest of the world. No longer can any nation live apart, isolating itself from the rest of humanity. In studying the unique qualities of a particular national culture, then, we are also under obligation to consider the question of harmony between the uniqueness of a people on the one hand and the universality of all peoples on the other.