[KS] KSR 2001-10: _Constructing "Korean" Origins_, by Hyung Il Pai

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Sat Jul 21 00:56:15 EDT 2001

_Constructing "Korean" Origins: A Critical Review of Archaeology,
Historiography, and Racial Myth in Korean State Formation Theories_, by
Hyung Il Pai. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard East Asian Monographs,
2000.  543 pages. ISBN:  0-674-00244-X.

Reviewed by Roald H. Maliangkay
Leiden University

	[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 4 (2001): 170-73.  _Acta
Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

Nationalism has been a major force in the creation of the Korean state in
the twentieth century. It was fueled during the colonial period when it
underpinned the struggle for independence. Korean intellectuals promoted
patriotism, and with it a sense of nationhood, yet the question of identity
suddenly became an important issue when Japanese archaeologists began
digging into Korea's past. Their activities and those of anthropologists,
paid for largely by the Japanese government, focused on the history and
culture of Korean civilization. The Japanese military government planned to
assimilate the Korean people and the outcome of the studies, so it hoped,
would serve to facilitate the assimilation process. It also made efforts to
prevent expressions of a distinct Korean identity. For that purpose it
imposed strong censorship and ruled that, among other things, the Korean
Confucian institution was to be broken down, Korean history books
rewritten, and Japanese taught as the primary language at schools.

After the liberation, the ensuing strong anti-Japanese sentiments helped
the state to further boost nationalism, this time in order to increase
competitiveness and productivity, improve national unity, and preempt
criticism of the government. The success of South Korean president Park
Chung Hee's policy of cultural indoctrination, in particular, was such that
today most South Koreans share the same ideas about their unique cultural
heritage and 5,000-year history. Park's nationalism focused on the threat
from foreign powers and the uniqueness of Korea's national identity. It
involved advocating old Confucian values that underscored the
responsibility shared by all strata of society in achieving the state's
economic and political objectives. Perhaps under the influence thereof,
many Koreans, both scholars and laymen, began dealing with their colonial
past their own way. They did so either by blaming the Japanese for
stripping the country of its cultural treasures and economic resources, and
leaving the country in ruins, or by rewriting the history of Korea, which
they considered to have been greatly contrived by the Japanese during the
colonial period. The starting point was to "prove" the historical truth of
the myth of Tan'gun, who allegedly founded the first Korean state as early
as 2333 B.C. Popular support for adopting the Tan'gun theory was
significant, and was further gained under Park's rule. Due to this
widespread support, and the fact that many of these historians gained
prestigious positions in the academic world, the misconceptions stand
largely uncorrected and continue to thwart objective Korean historiography.

In _Constructing Korean Origins_, Hyung Il Pai tackles most of the
post-colonial historiographical constructions. With great dexterity she
examines how and whether Korean historians have used the available data in
formulating their many preconceived theories on the existence of Tan'gun's
very early and purely Korean civilization, which, so they argue, was one of
formidable cultural development and influence. Based on her findings, she
shows that, instead, the first Korean state was not an isolated culture and
cannot have been formed until much later.

In terms of the number of pages, the book is divided in two sections. The
first part is made up of seven chapters, and the second of a relatively
long section (127 pp.) of appendices, followed by the notes, bibliography,
glossary and index. In the introduction, "The Formation of Korean Identity"
(pp. 1-22), Pai summarizes the factors that led to the current trends in
historiography. She outlines the nationalist cultural policy of South
Korea's post-war governments and the nationalist activities of scholars,
and explains how they have managed to shape the Korean identity. Urged on
by the fast industrialization and urbanization, the government has become
the arbiter in terms of which archaeological sites are salvaged from
destruction by building projects. According to Pai, it is now "the supreme
authority over the 'authentic domain of identity'" (p. 13). Not only do I
find her assessment of the role of the state here overly strong, but unless
one recognizes the shared interests of the state and the archaeologists,
the former seemingly contradicts what follows on page 17. There, Pai writes
that due to the extensive interference with Korea's past by the Japanese,
the Korean archaeologist has become the "mostÉwidely recognized" and "most
authentic authority" on what constitutes the Korean identity.

In "The Colonial Origins of Prehistoric Korea" (pp. 23-56), Pai elaborates
on the colonial activities of Japanese archaeologists in Korea. She
describes the enormous scope of their research and discusses the most
important Korean racial theories. Japanese archaeologists were the founders
of archaeology in Korea. They not only excavated hundreds of burial sites,
but also identified more than two thousand of them. Because, moreover, they
published their findings in many reports over the years in a language
similar to Korean and would eventually even train the first generation of
Korean archaeologists (p. 35), their work and methodology have had an
enormous impact on Korean historiography and archaeology to date. The
excavated objects were carefully restored and preserved, and many of them
were taken to the museums in the capital. To prevent further damage to the
objects, the Japanese enacted a series of laws and measures, aimed at both
Korean looters and Japanese soldiers (p. 33). Pai argues that the system of
kokuho (Kor.: kukpo = "national treasures"), which the current Korean
cultural properties preservation system employs, started with the enactment
of the 1916 law (p. 434, n. 29). The term, however, does not appear in the law
(see Chosen sotokufu 1916: 3-5) and in Korea appears not to have been
introduced until after the end of the Pacific War. It was first used in the
name of a committee, the Kukpo myOngsOng ch'OnnyOn kinyOmmul imshi pojon
wiwOnhoe (Interim Committee for the Preservation of Natural Monuments,
Places of Scenic Beauty and Historic Interest, and National Treasures),
which the then Minister of Education, Kim POmnin, established on 19
December 1952 to carry out repairs on cultural properties damaged during
the Korean War (ChOng Chaejong 1985: 4; see also Maliangkay 1999: 78).
There is no doubt, however, that the system, and with it the concept of
national properties, found its origin in the 1916 law.

Chapter 3, "The Mythical Origins of Ancient Korea" (pp. 57-96), primarily
deals with the Tan'gun myth and how noted nationalist historiographers,
such as Sin Ch'ae-ho, Ch'oe Nam-sOn, Paek Nam-un and Kim Chae-wOn, began
using it to define a new and foremost distinctive, separate Korean history.
As she discusses the claims made by these early scholars and their
contemporary followers, Pai systematically repudiates their state-formation
theories, which heavily relied "on data, methodologies and data inherited
from the Japanese" (p. 96). In the consecutive chapter, "Korean
State-Formation Theories: A Critical Review" (pp. 97-126), she shows how
racism already imbedded in the methodology of Japanese archaeologists led
to the contrivance of Korean state-formation theories. Criticizing the
methodology of the general Korean archaeology today, she says:

"Korean scholars today have yet to fathom the imperialistic motives lurking
behind colonial scholarship's imagined Korean racial origins in 'primitive'
Manchuria, even though they continue to target Japanese ancient historians as
arch-villains for their 'distorted' view of Korean history É (p. 98)

Pai also warns against the adoption of Confucian ideas, which emphasize a
dynastic lineage and presume a certain superiority (p. 112). Instead, she
proposes a new approach to understanding Korean prehistory, which focuses
on the interactions between identifiable groups. This method is illustrated
in the following two chapters, "Lelang: A Case Study in Cultural Contact
and Cultural Change" (pp. 127-173) and "The Lelang Interaction Sphere in
Korean Prehistory" (pp. 174-236). In these chapters she systematically
discusses the data and objects collected of the Han dynasty commandery of
Lelang and paints a clear picture of the cultural interactions spheres in
the area. By doing so, Pai proves quite convincingly that the first Korean
state cannot be dated earlier than around 108 B.C.

In the final chapter, "Nationalism and Rewriting the Wrongs of the Past"
(pp. 237-287), Pai once more underscores the importance of history and
archaeology as political tools. She relates the 1995 dismantling of the
building of the Seoul National Museum, the former headquarters of the
Japanese Government-General in Korea, and the issues the handling of
cultural heritage raises from the perspective of identity. In describing
the history of the museum, however, she fails to mention that because the
properties, many of which had long been hidden from view, were turned into
national icons, the Japanese intentionally deprived some of them of their
religious significance (De Ceuster 2000; see also Maliangkay 1999: 79). In
her final conclusion, Pai once more repeats what she set out to prove,
namely that "'the ancient' is as an indispensable and unavoidable source of
a nation's identity."

Despite the large number of novel claims Pai makes in her book, I found
most of them well supported. The only two hiccups I came across were the
"musicologists tell me," which turned out to be based on personal
communication with no more than one person (p. 423 n. 12), and, on a similar
note, "the Japanese perspective" (p. 238, 460 n. 8), which is also backed up
by one presumably primary source only. Overall, the style and editing are
excellent. The book reads very well and has a clear layout. The index and
glossary are, unfortunately, very short, the first listing only 150 words,
the second 134. Their constrictions were probably necessary to limit the
total number of pages, though I would have thought that specific terms such
as sadae--the first mention of which (p. 15) is not listed in the
index--minjok t'ujaengsa (pp. 137, 245), hwabunh'yong (?) (p. 135) and
chuch'e (pp. 59, 254) certainly merited listing. As far as the editing is
concerned, I only found one inconsistency on p. 121, where Pai speaks of a
majority of 77 percent, which on p. 452 n. 26 seems to be 75.4 percent. Apart
from a few occasional misspellings (see Leland [Lelang] on p. xii,
S™kkurram [S™kkuram] on p. 434, and Talch'um [T'alch'um] on p. 468n54), the
translations and romanizations are very consistent and accurate. On two
occasions, however, I felt that words had been too quickly repeated:
"During É subjects" and "the main agenda É people" on page 36 and 37, and
"Thus É peninsula." and "The É Korea" on page 240 and 243.

_Constructing Korean Origins_ is a wonderful achievement. It is thorough and
provocative and a very important addition to Korean historiography. My own
prime interest being cultural policy and music, I personally found the case
studies of Chapters 5 and 6 somewhat turgid at times, because of their
great detail and the complex comparisons of data, but the remaining
chapters are certainly significant to Korean cultural studies in a more
general sense. This is simply a brilliant piece of work that I trust will
soon find its way to the reading lists of all Korean history and East Asian
archaeology classes.


ChOng Chaejong. 1985. "Munhwajae wiwOnhoe yaksa [Short History of the
	Cultural Properties Committee]." Munhwajae 18:1-18.
Chosen sotokufu. Taisho 5 [1916]. _Chosen koseki chosa hokoku_ [Reports on
	Investigations of Ancient Sites in Korea]. Keijo.
De Ceuster, Koen. 2000.  "The Changing Nature of National Icons in the Seoul
	Landscape." _Review of Korean Studies_ 3.2:73-103.
Maliangkay, Roald H. 1999._Handling the Intangible: The Protection of
	Folksong Traditions in Korea_.  Ph.D. thesis, The University of London.

Maliangkay, Roald H. 2001
Review of  _Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions_, by
David R. McCann, (2000)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2001, no. 10
Electronic file: http://www.iic.edu/thelist/review/ksr01-10.htm

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