[KS] KSR 2001-14: _Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity_

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Tue Jul 31 23:40:49 EDT 2001

_Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity_, edd. by Hyung Il Pai
and Timothy R. Tangherlini Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, 1998. 
Korean Research Monograph No. 26.  ISBN: 1-55729-062-8.

Reviewed by Sallie Yea
Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology

An enormous amount of scholarship has been devoted to unpacking the
interrelations between concepts of identity, nationalism and their
respective constructions in recent years. The profusion of generalist
literature on the subject has been almost as conspicuous as its absence for
the Korean context. Pai and Tangherlini's edited volume represents the
first major attempt in English to critically examine some of the
multitudinous expressions and engagements of Koreans with national identity
and nationalism (notwithstanding such valuable, but more specifically
focused, volumes by Chungmoo Choi and Elaine Kim's _Dangerous Women_ and
Gi-Wook Shin's _Peasant Protest and Social Change in Colonial Korea_).

_Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity_ follows a 1995
conference on the same theme. The aim of the book is, "to expose
national narratives and their position as postcolonial constructions
originally inspired by intellectuals and historians who were part of the
anti-Japanese resistance efforts in the colonial period" (p. 4). The focus
is, in other words, on identifying - and in some instances challenging -
these narratives of Korean identity formation.

The volume is ambitious in its coverage of narratives of national identity
and the agents responsible for their construction. It includes chapters on
language, religion (Buddhism and Christianity), music, literature,
archaeological discoveries, shamanism and modern political discourses of
"nation". The narratives analysed emanate in particular from scholars,
intellectuals, students and writers of fiction.

To my mind the chapters in the volume can be divided into three types of
studies, depending on their subject. First are those that focus on the
achievement of national identity through resistance, particularly against
foreign influences (superpowers). Narratives of national identity drawing
on this premise of "identity through opposition" include Fulton's chapter on
kijich'on (camptown) fiction and Tangherlini's discussion of shamanism.
Fulton's excellent and well-researched chapter explores the ambiguous
status of Koreans who live and work in US military camptowns as expressed
in literature. Tangherlini's chapter analyses the concept of cultural
resistance, expressed through the re-working of indigenous Korean cultural

The second type of study includes those chapters that examine constructions
of national identity through asserting or imagining a common ethnicity,
race, language and/or religion. Chapters that fall under this heading
include Pai's chapter on the construction of a narrative of national
identity through historical/ archaeological evidence, King's chapter on the
meaning(s) of han'gul, Buswell's chapter on Buddhism and Baker's chapter on
Christianity. In these last two cases the focus is on the ways in which
foreign religious ideologies became indigenised and Koreanised. Shin's
chapter discusses the ways former President Park Chung Hee used national
heroes and minjok narratives as a means of legitimizing his own political
power. Both this chapter and Pai's are interesting because they make
explicit how different interests can invoke and rework nationalist
histories, events and objects for their own purposes.

Finally, a more eclectic combination of chapters focuses on the tensions
between discourses and icons of national identity and the changing,
competing ways and contexts in which these are expressed. The main
contribution here is Dilling's chapter on the evolving (and increasingly
globalised/ capitalist) contexts in which Korean music is being performed.
Tangherlini's chapter on shamanism also contains elements of this thread of
analysis since shamanism, as an important component of traditional Korean
culture, has been reworked in the context of democratic-nationalist
discourses offered up by the student movement since the 1980s.

There are two weaknesses in the volume, to my mind. First is a failure to
deal adequately with the generalist literature on nationalism, identity and
(social/ cultural) construction. I found most chapters' analyses to lack a
theoretical sophistication, which could have been useful in further
extending the conclusions of their own studies. References in the volume's
introduction to such a body of literature are scant and this pattern is
repeated through all but two of the chapters (Tangherlini and Shin's
contributions demonstrate an engagement with the relevant generalist
literature that is largely lacking elsewhere). Repeated references by
contributors to Anderson's seminal work, _Imagined Communities_ do not
represent satisfactory engagement with this literature given the prominence
of "nationalism" in the title of the volume.

A second weakness is the failure to embrace a fuller range of
manifestations of how Korean identity is constructed. Here one can think of
multiple examples and processes that could have been taken into account.
One of the first to spring to mind is the commodification of select
elements of Korean culture through tourism, for both local and global
consumers. Another is the anti-imperialistic nationalist discourses
emerging as a result of the "IMF Era", the economic crisis that began in
late 1997 (although the volume's publication not long after the onset of
the crisis perhaps makes it unrealistic to expect it to be discussed at
length within). Yet another is the diverging (and competing)
discourses of historically significant populist movements and uprisings
(Tonghak, Cheju, and 1980 Kwangju for example). The uprisings in both
Kwangju and Cheju have been subject to multiple interpretations in recent
years that draw on different understandings of the nation. Finally, one
might think of the implications for national identity brought about by
South Korea's"new minorities", of whom migrant workers and North Korean
defectors represent just two examples. Indeed, Fulton (p. 201) remarks
that, "such contact offers a fascinating area of study precisely because of
the cultural differences it exposes". This weakness of the volume is
certainly not one individual contributors are beholden to mention, but it
should have been at least alluded to by the editors of the volume in their
introduction. I should also add that these suggestions are meant less as a
criticism of the volume than an invitation to initiate another.
Globalisation has presented a context and focus by which some of these new
questions of national identity are begging to be addressed.

In sum, the contributors to the volume should be congratulated on their
informative and generally well-researched studies, and the editors
commended for conceiving of a project that fills an important gap in
English language discussions of Korean identity. The volume is useful for
Koreanists, East Asian historians and anthropologists (perhaps more than
other disciplines) and would be a valuable inclusion on senior level
undergraduate and postgraduate reading lists for both Korean studies and
the disciplines mentioned. Importantly, the volume opens the way for
further explorations of the nexus between Korea and national identity in
the future.

Yea, Sallie 2001
Review of  _Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity_, edd. by
Hyung Il Pai and Timothy R. Tangherlini (1998)
_Korean Studies Review_ 2001, no. 14
Electronic file: http://www.iic.edu/thelist/review/ksr01-14.htm

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