Friday, August 1, 2014

Minjok History as a Modern and Democratic Construct

Hey peeps! After thinking for a long time about what to continue posting on this blog I decided, since the blog is called "Alex's East Asian Studies" that it would be appropriate to actually post some of the stuff I've written about during my time as an EAS specialist at University of Toronto. Why not Eh? So if you actually visit this blog regularly (I'm not sure if anyone does), you can look forward to seeing some of my actual research! Yay! (I'm assuming if you're reading this blog your probably into this sort of thing).

Here's a Korean history book all about Sin Chaeho
The following is a summing up of an article I read while I was studying in South Korea at Yonsei University. For those of you who are not aware of what minjok is, it's a political ideology that is unique to Korean historical discourse that Koreans are descended from a common lineage and thus share the same blood, ethnicity and culture. It has often been translated as "Korean Ethnic Nationalism" and has both pros and cons in its implementation. On the upside the concepts behind minjok have given the Korean people a sense of solidarity in times of hardship, on the other hand the ideas it promotes have proven to stifle acceptance of multiculturalism on the peninsula -- "Korea is for Koreans!" and all that (though most people I've found, are pretty open minded).

Mr. Sin himself.
Minjok history is often credited as being the brain child of the Korean historian and freedom fighter, Sin Chaeho (pronounced "shin") following the peninsula's annexation by the Japanese empire in 1910. Sin has been criticized as a revisionist historian by some and praised as a hero by others. In any case he's a complicated fellow and so is his history. In the following short summary I provide a few of the criticisms that other historians have of Sin's history and I present my own opinion that minjok history might have been useful as a tool to consolidate a Korean identity in the wake of the cultural genocide that the Empire of Japan was forcing on the Korean people. (Koreans were not allowed to learn their native language in schools and had to change their names to Japanese etc.) Hopefully this will be interesting to you!

Summary of Minjok as a Modern and Democratic Construct: Sin Ch’aeho’s Historiography by Alex Watts-Barnett

      As far as East Asian historiography is concerned Sin Chaeho, holds a dubious position as a predominately teleological historian and as such his historiography concerning the history of the Korean people as one cultural entity has come under scrutiny especially in modern times. The most popular critical commentary seems to be that Sin Chaeho and his compatriots created a history for the purpose of consolidating a tangible culture for the Korean people which could be preserved under Japanese colonialism and thus almost “constructed” the Minjok history to that end.
        It is widely believed that Minjok history draws upon a number of historical mythologies that have been present in South Korea for millennia – such as those recorded in the pages of the Samguk Yusa, a collection of oral histories compiled by the Buddhist monk Ilyon. The stories that hold the most significance to the Minjok historians were of the god of creation Hwannung and his son Dangun hailed in ancient times as the creators of the Korean peninsula and its inhabitants.
In his history Sin Chaeho attempts to use these figures to bring to light the idea that Koreans had descended from a common ancestor and thus have been a unique and ethnically unified people from their earliest days and points out their point of origin as being likely somewhere in Manchuria. Some argue that because of this Sin Chaeho and his peers even sought to validate a movement to attempt at “reclaiming” these lands of Korean heritage in Manchuria which, incidentally is where many Koreans fled to escape Japanese colonialism.                 
It is widely believed by more objective Korean historians that Korea as it is known today, had its roots in the more modern Joseon period and that prior to it, most Koreans did not view themselves as a unified ethnic whole. Others feel that this historical creation was created more as a counter measure against the Japanese cultural imperialism that was suppressing Korean culture. Essentially the argument that historians such as Hennery Em make is that despite drawing on and in essence having its roots in Korean pre-history, the idea of Minjok and the history that validates it is both a modern construct and a modern idea in that it was created in the 20th century in an attempt to justify and unite Koreans ethnic and cultural struggle against their imperial aggressors. To this end I feel that the minjok history certainly was a valuable tool whether or not it could be considered credible historiography.   

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