Thursday, September 18, 2014

A New History of Korea - Ki-baik Lee

It isn't really new any more - this is something like the 7th revised edition, and it was still released all the way back in '84 - but I wouldn't have expected to see this in the local library, and I don't really know much about Korean history, outside of what I learned from M*A*S*H.

It's also designed I think for someone with more of a familiarity with Korean history, or at least the basic. Lee will mention the names of various people without necessarily expanding on them, and so I get the sense these are people known to those who have already done some basic study. Like how someone who hasn't studied U.S. history might not recognize Daniel Webster if you mentioned him as an example for a point you were trying to make.

The book starts are far back into Neolithic times as there was any information for, and runs up to 1960, through the various kingdoms and ruling classes that have dominated or fought over the peninsula through that time. Certain things come up repeatedly, like those various kingdoms trying to adopt things from the larger powers around them, without winding up under those same powers' thumbs. Like China has a nice written language and some good advances in science, let's see if we can bring those over here and incorporate them, but not in a way that gives them dominion over us. It isn't always successful (Japan turned them into a colony for over 30 years in the early 20th century, among other times), but it's a fairly consistent tightrope they try to walk.

Well, sometimes they walk it. Sometimes the ruling classes don't even bother. There's a line Lee writes at roughly the time Japan is throwing away any pretense of trying to protect Korea and is basically abolishing its sovereign government: 'The fact is that Kojong and his government feared the censure of the people they governed more than they feared the threat from Japan.'

Something that comes up a lot in this book is the common folk, the peasant class, get left holding the bag for the excesses and stupidity of the folks running the show. There are at least a half-dozen occasions in the book where Lee describes the conditions for farmers as being so bad that many people simply abandoned their farms. They were being forced to bear pretty much all the tax burden, and corrupt officials were screwing them over on loans of grain, or adding charges onto their taxes, so that over half, maybe up to 75% of what they produced was going to the government or their local magistrates (who were often given land by the government as a form of payment, and could then require the local farmers to tend it for them). Faced with that, a life spent begging, or as a bandit, seemed preferable. But the government response is frequently to crack down harder, to make the neighbors pay the taxes of those who abandon their lands. When the Mongols invade, the government retreats to a nearby island, since the Mongols aren't adept on the water. So they can claim they weren't conquered, but in the meantime, the majority of the citizens are stuck dealing with an invading army wrecking everything. It reminded me of the things I read about the Spanish Civil War, how the government had historically failed to recognize how vital the peasants were, and how the Republic also failed to capitalize on the initial good will a lot of the villagers had towards it. The various Korean kingdoms rarely did much to encourage the populace to fight hard to preserve their power.

The book is a fairly dry historical text, though that may owe to something being lost in translation, but there's a lot of interesting information in there. I didn't know Koreans were responsible for the creation of movable metal type used for printing, or that South Korea was briefly a dictatorship in all but name within a few years of the end of the Korean War. Lee discusses the roles Buddhism, Confucianism, and later Catholicism played in shaping society, and why he thinks they grew or shrank in popularity, looks at how the development of their own written language (prior to the han'gul, they used the Chinese written language, but it didn't match up precisely with what was spoken in the peninsula) held open literature and education to a wider segment of the population, and how art would reflect the feelings of the people at that time.It's an impressive work in the amount of ground it covers in a fairly short amount of pages.

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