Thor's Korea Diary

The Hermit Kingdom - A Book Review
(sort of)

@30 January 2003

Click into the Hermit Kingdom
Yang Sung-jin and Lee Nam-hee
published 2000 by Dongbang Media Co. Ltd, Seoul
ISBN 89-8457-034-6 03910  321pp; won14,000
If  you think of all the computer keyboards you have ever known, and compress them into that single word 'keyboard', then most folk who use such things -- from the Congo to Murmansk, from Vancouver to Terra del Fuego -- won't disagree that your definition is pretty much like everyone else's.
Now consider words like 'god', 'democracy'  and 'nation'. George W. Bush has God on his side, and so does Osama bin Laden. The first article of the Chinese constitution says that China is a 'democratic dictatorship', and nobody in Beijing smiles at it. Depending upon the flavour you favour, between 160 and 244 collections of people on the planet Earth are known as 'nations'. These collections of people will happily kill each other in arguments over the meaning of 'nation'. I  for one often don't know what they are talking about.
At this moment in life's journey, I  am particularly uncertain about the meaning of the nation coded as 'Korea'.  For most of the last 57 years this hasn't mattered too much. It was one of those names you see on maps, and it occasionally turned up in news stories about strikes and riots. Now though, I've been dumped in the locale of 48 million people who call themselves 'South Koreans', so this word 'Korea' has suddenly sprouted a humongous hairy growth of extra meanings, from tiny pet dogs dyed purple, to the ice on the road outside, to those funny bows that my students make to me all the time.  Sometimes I meet other foreign mercenaries, and  for them the 'Korea' thing has indelible overtones of hard liquor, late night parties and a certain sub-species of good-time girls. For most of these mercenaries, the meaning of 'Korea' began yesterday, and will be freeze dried in their brains when they go home to become wage slaves in another ant heap called 'America', or wherever.
For those of us who like to find some system connecting the purple dogs, the hard liquor and the labour strikes, it can help to read a few books. That is, books, like any chance conversation, can crystallize the myths we live by. I guess I've read around sixteen books on Korea over the last couple of years. The mist swirling around that word 'Korea' is still rather opaque, but from time to time I do see the hint of an outline.
"Click into the Hermit Kingdom" is a good place to look for such outlines of 'nation' in the Korean style. Korea happens to have the most complete set of official historical national records in East Asia. Yang Sun-jin and Lee Nam-hee have combed a CD ROM compilation of these records covering 500 years of the Choson Dynasty, to produce an eclectic but revealing collage of reports on many subjects. In researching this review I was a bit taken aback to discover that the text of the volume is in fact available on the Internet at, so if you don't mind staring at an electron gun, you can read the whole thing for free.
The Choson Dynasty extended from 1398 to 1910 (when Korea was absorbed forcibly into the Japanese empire until 1945).  Choson Korea was consciously allowed to exist by the Chinese as a buffer state against the outer barbarians. It was an existence conditional upon formal annual homage to the Chinese emperor, but for all practical purposes the Choson court was master of its own affairs. There seems to have been a somewhat schizophrenic vacillation between asserting indigenous Korean habits and hyper-imitating the Chinese world view (maybe paralleled by the current ambivalent reaction to Western cultural influence). 
The records upon which Yang & Lee's book draws were made possible by a uniquely independent class of scholars called Sagwan (historians). The Sagwan, who were civil servants appointed by examination, tirelessly recorded matters great and small, including Kingly indiscretions. There were times when the Choson kings would have happily canned the Sagwan, but dared not. This was a dynastic rule hedged around with limitations : the limitations imposed by regional power politics, the limitations imposed by a constant search for legitimacy, and the limitations of precedent. The Sagwan were the keepers of precedent, and were not above reminding the king that his behaviour would and should set a model for all who were to follow. Chinese dynastic records and histories are famous (or infamous) for rewriting the past to glorify the present. Their provincial cousins, the Sagwan, seem to have maintained a more detached tradition.
With relatively honest record keeping, a clearly defined moral universe and political adventurism contained by regional realpolitik, the Choson Koreans should have had the making of a highly successful society. Some would argue that they were indeed successful, despite the depredations of the Hideoshi invasion in the 16th Century. Certainly there were some notable successes in administration, and occasional technical innovation. However the code by which this culture was defined also set its boundaries. In particular, its rigid hierarchical caste system, unbending patriarchal values, ideological extremism, and the institutional disparagement of technical and commercial activity, all combined to generate a system that was incapable of real change and competition. By the end of the 19th Century these structural weaknesses had reduced Choson Korea to  the mere shell of a nation. That it survived so long was probably a product of the dynasty's carefully preserved isolation from international political activity.
The material in "Click Into The Hermit Kingdom"  was compiled  for a series of  newspaper articles in the English language Korea Herald. This in turn was made possible by the revolutionary transcription to searchable CD ROM of ancient writings, so that, as one historian observed, it had become possible to research in three hours what had previously taken three years. The authors of  this book have undertaken to put a populist face on the normally dry  facts of historical record. That is, perhaps because the genesis of Yang & Lee's book is journalistic, they make brave attempts to match doings of ancient Koreans with the shenanigans of the modern variety. Sometimes their sense of deja vu is legitimate. The Choson bureaucrats were quick to defend their class interests, often like today's descendants, and more than one King tried to go over their heads to exploit public opinion. In 1403 King Sejong had all social classes polled on a proposed new tax system. 98,557 people approved, and 74,149 disapproved, but Sejong noticed clear regional divisions and decided to scrap the proposal. This has a very modern flavour about it. Again in 1750 King Yongjo, reflecting  public opinion,  pressed for tax reform against the stiff opposition of officialdom.
People everywhere, and from every period, exhibit similar appetites and try similar escapades. There will always be adulterers, thieves, opportunists, the loyal, the kindly and the gullible. Different cultures however attach rather different values to those behaviours. In terms of my own peculiar code, I often find Korean and American notions of virtue and sinfulness equally puzzling. The Choson Annals are certain to tickle our recognition with accounts of such human quirks, but I'm a little uneasy when Yang & Lee find unchanging benchmarks for 'the Korean character' in this sort of thing. Koreans, like any tribal collection of folk,  will have certain popular tendencies at a certain time in their history, but if we measure those tendencies against a whole population, every time we will come up with a bell curve. Most of the sample will cluster around one (or two) positions, and minorities will trail off at either extreme. It is the outsiders who are often most interesting in such groups,  for some of them are already leading where the herd will follow. For example, let's  take, sexual behaviour and 'the Korean character'.
Koreans of the Koryo period frequently had polygamous marriages. This generated certain problems, but eased others. The Choson court decided that polygamy was an outrage to Confucian values and outlawed it. Did this change men's sexual behaviour? No. A system of concubinage crept in at the margins, then became general, together with a whole class of kisaeng girls, 'fallen women' with the special status of 'entertainers'. What did happen was that widows, who had often been supported within the system of polygamy, became wretched social outcastes with no means of support. Divorce became economically and socially almost impossible. And modern Korea? Everyone, Korean or foreigner, will offer a vocal opinion on 'the Korean character', qua sex, and find ready examples to support this stereotype or that. The truth of course is that sexual values, like so many other values, are in extreme flux. This is a culture which within living memory has been beaten to a pulp, stood on its head, battered by international exposure, and crucified by a 40 year industrial revolution  -- an agrarian society which finds its children living in eighteen-story apartment blocks and working by the clock in factories or offices. So you pays your penny and picks your prejudice ....
One of the more pleasing tidbits in "Click into the Hermit Kingdom" is its sober treatment of the national hero, Admiral Yi Sun-shin, and his 'turtle ships'. Recall that Admiral Yi was the fellow who turned Hideoshi's invading Japanese Armada into flaming wrecks in 1593, saving Korea's pride if not its economy. The picture of the Choson court we get at this time is of a decadent, incompetent, bickering ruling class with no respect for or understanding of practical skills. Whatever Yi achieved was in the teeth of their opposition. President Park Chung Hee, the autocratic author of Korea's industrial transformation in the 1970's, wisely promoted Admiral Yi as a hero figure.  It is fair to say though that most Koreans (yes, most people everywhere) have an idea of their history which owes more to cinematic invention than what might (or might not) have really happened and why. In Admiral Yi's case, a model of his kobukson (turtle ships) at Hyonch'ungsa shrine, Asan, has shaped the popular imagination but might not have a lot to do with reality. Countless references laud the kobukson as the first iron clad battleships, and an invention of Admiral Yi himself. However, there is simply no evidence that the kobukson were iron clad. There are historical mentions of these boats going back before Yi's time to 1413, and perhaps earlier. They are known to have been clad with wooden blocks, with pikes and swords jammed between the blocks and the whole covered with a disguise of hemp cloth. This made it deadly for Japanese soldiers or pirates to jump aboard for hand to hand combat. Admiral Yi's kobukson were fast, maneuverable, and deployed to ram enemy ships, but iron battleships they weren't. He may have only had about three of the things ...
Choson Korea, unlike its Japanese neighbour, was not a militaristic state. Armies were known to be necessary, but were poorly funded. Officer training was a possible career path for a gentleman, but it was unpopular. Some kings, like Sejong, took a keen interest in military technology. However the whole tenor of the Yangban upper caste was towards dabbling in poetry, talking airily about moral proprieties, and scrambling for social status. In other words, they were not an especially fine advertisement for a pacifist society. Yang and Lee make the reasonable point that the rich & famous, then and now, are always the first to avoid conscription to military service. Choson men were expected to do two to three month's military service every five years, until the age of sixty, as well as being available for national campaigns. From the earliest times, the Yangban contrived to avoid this obligation, and even to evade military taxes.
Indeed, the Yangban as a group did their best to evade citizen obligations and paying taxes altogether. As a consequence, over the centuries crafty families by the thousand, then by the tens of thousands, found ways to forge, bribe or otherwise invent a Yangban genealogy for themselves. It is no accident that the bulk of modern Koreans share only a handful of surnames -- originally the handles of upper class families. Genuine members of the lower classes did not actually have surnames at all.  Again, it is easy to seize on these behaviour patterns as keys to the 'Korean character'. What makes the outcome special though is not any strange Korean personality trait, but the rigid social scaffolding of Neo-Confucianism which acted as a cookie-cutter template for certain common results. I sometimes meet Korean university staff who boast that their children were born in America (and hence have the right to American passports).  This is the same kind of cop-out mentality that drove the Choson Yangban,  but nowadays you will find not just Koreans, but privileged families from Hong Kong to Lagos who also angle for foreign passport escape hatches.
'Click into the Hermit Kingdom', like all good journalism, is easy to read, to the point, and rich with examples. Only a few of its topics have been touched upon here. You will come out of it with a whole bunch of new hairy meanings to fit to your mental lexical mystery called  'Korea'. Probably though you will still not have figured the origin of those miniature purple dogs.


* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"The Hermit Kingdom - A Book Review"... copyrighted to Thor May 2003; all rights reserved
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