[KS] KSR 1999-02:_Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Mon Jul 12 19:16:01 EDT 1999

_Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea_, by Gi-Wook Shin.
Korean Studies of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.  xii + 234 pp. (ISBN
0-295-97548-2 cloth).

                   Reviewed by Sallie Yea
                Victoria University of Wellington

[This review first appeared in _Asian Studies Review_, 21 (1997): 249-51]

       Shin's study on peasant protest during the colonial period in Korea
is a major contribution to a recently growing genre of research in English
on Korean society (see also Abelmann 1996; Wells 1996).  Social forces and
civil society have been identified as a neglected third element shaping
Korea's path to modernity and hence correcting the emphasis on state and
world system as the most prominent factors shaping this path (see Koo
1994).  The common thread running through much of this research is an
exploration of the significant formative role social forces have played in
shaping Korea's historical trajectory and rapid modernisation.  Historical
and political agency is located in the social actors themselves,
particularly in populist minjung forces such as peasants and tenant
farmers, blue collar industrial workers, and other marginalised social

       In the context of this recent scholarship, Shin investigates the
role of peasants in shaping modern Korean history.  He documents the
protests, rebellions and other dissenting practices undertaken by peasants
during the Japanese colonial period in Korea (1910-1945).  Shin's central
argument is that "Korean peasant activism in the first half of the
twentieth century has greatly influenced society and politics in the
second" (p. 174).  In particular he shows how such protests influenced the
course of postwar rural class relations and social structures.  He argues
this historical influence convincingly, citing peasant activism as the
basis for social revolution and the sweeping land reforms in North Korea,
and the various struggles around land that took place in the immediate
circumstances of a liberated South Korea.

       A second argument of the study concerns the ways in which peasant
activism has been investigated and theorised, both in previous studies on
Korea and elsewhere.  For Shin, these studies are plagued by the
inadequacies of the "colonialism-pauperisation-revolution" thesis.  This
thesis claims that Japanese colonialism produced structural conditions
conducive to revolution: exploitation and pauperisation of the peasantry
and subsequent polarisation of the rural class structure into "big,
parasitic landlords and poor, landless tenants" (p. 177).  The problem with
these studies, according to Shin, is that is they view peasant revolution
solely as an outcome of colonialism. Shin rejects this view for the Korean
case and is sceptical of studies which attempt to explain peasant protest
by simply "slotting them in" to existing theoretical approaches.

       Shin provides a neat overview and critique of the
'colonialism-pauperisation-revolution' thesis.  He then moves on to argue
that peasant radicalism and dissent in Korea was various and mutlifaceted
during the colonial period, and cannot be reduced to a certain type (a
response to the harshness of colonial system) or a particular theoretical
construct of peasant rebellion (such as the pauperisation-revolution
thesis).  He states his intention as examining the ways class, nation, and
the state combined to produce such diversity and complexity in rural
conflict and protest.

       To illustrate the multifaceted nature of peasant protest, the study
focuses on four major forms of peasant protest and rebellion: tenancy
disputes (1920-39), "the red peasant union movement" (1930-39), "everyday
forms of resistance" (1940-45), and the "peasant rebellion of 1946"(p. 6).
Each of these four forms of peasant protest occupy a separate chapter in
Shin's study.  In each case Shin explores the actual socio-economic
circumstances of the peasants, concentrating on the varying effects of
colonialism and commericalisation on different rural class strata.
Contrary to the conventional view, Shin discovers that colonialism and
commercialisation did not polarise, but greatly diversified the rural class
structure, so that protests and struggles emerged around a variety of
claims and issues which were peculiar to certain groups.

       While Shin is at pains to demonstrate the variety of peasant
protests and movements - in terms of their aims, social agents, sites, and
specific grievances - he nonetheless tends to reduce dissent in each case
to its barest economic threads.  Peasant protest and grievances were (and
are) also related to social class, and often provided scathing critiques of
social hierarchies in rural Korea.  In addition, many of these protests were
expressed in rural folk culture, art and ritual performance, such as
p'ansori.  These cultural elements of peasant protest and dissent also have
a contemporary (albeit re-worked) validity (see, for example, Choi 1995).
The reconstruction and reworking of these mechanisms of protest within the
context of postcolonial modernity in South Korea are, unfortunately, not
considered at all in Shin's study.  In purporting to address the central
role of peasant protests in shaping Korea's modern history, Shin thus
overlooks this vital deployment of cultural forms of protest and dissent in
contemporary social conflicts.  An unfortunate omission from Shin's study
is thus the recognition of the cultural dimensions of peasant protest, both
in the past and today.

       Shin must, nonetheless, be commended for the richness of his
historical account and his detailed exploration of the four types of
peasant movements in colonial Korea.  The study is also impressive in its
intricate usage of historical sources.  Despite some unfortunate omissions,
Shin's book provides an excellent account of peasant protest in colonial
Korea, and adds considerably to a growing genre of scholarship which
explores the role of social forces in shaping Korea's modern history.  This
book would be a valuable addition to the collection of any scholar of
modern Korean society or history, as well as an appropriate inclusion in
any general reading list for students of Korean Studies.


       Abelmann, Nancy 1996.   _Echoes of the Past, Epics of Dissent: A
South Korean Social Movement_.   Berkeley: University of California Press.

       Choi, Chungmoo 1995.  'The Minjung Culture Movement and the
Construction of Popular Culture in Korea'.   In Wells 1995.

       Koo, Hagen 1994.   _State and Society in Contemporary Korea_.  Ithaca:
Cornell University Press.

       Wells, Kenneth (ed.) 1995.   _South Korea's Minjung Movement: The
Culture and Politics of Dissidence_.  Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press,

Yea, Sallie.  1999
Review of Gi-Wook Shin, _Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea_
Korean Studies Review 1999, no. 2
Electronic file:
[This review first appeared in _Asian Studies Review_, 21 (1997): 249-51]


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