[KS] KSR 2002-10: _Colonial Modernity in Korea_, edd. by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson.

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Mon Aug 12 18:37:12 EDT 2002

_Colonial Modernity in Korea_, edd. by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson.
Harvard East Asian Monographs, no. 184, Harvard-Hallym Series on Korean
Studies. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999. xiii +
466 pages. (ISBN 0-674-14255-1, cloth; ISBN 0-674-00594-5, paper)

Reviewed by Michael Finch
Keimyung University

[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 5.2 (2002): 129-34.  _Acta
Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

_Colonial Modernity in Korea_ is a collection of twelve chapters by
thirteen different authors with an additional introduction to the
complexities of Korean colonial modernity by the editors Gi-Wook Shin and
Michael Robinson and an epilogue by Carter J. Eckert. The book is divided
into two parts, entitled "Colonial Modernity and Hegemony" and "Colonial
Modernity and Identity."  The first part covers such topics as law,
broadcasting, peasantry, labor, and telecommunications, while the second
deals with such subjects as the women's movement, colonial literature, and
nationalist historiography. The stated aim of the editors is to revitalise
studies on colonial Korea by transcending the politicised, nationalist
paradigms that have dominated historical writing in both the North and
South of the peninsula.

In the introduction the editors reject the "binary constructions" (p. 5) of
nationalist historical narratives that have produced such dichotomous
interpretations of the period as "imperialist repression versus nationalist
resistance" or "colonial development versus national development" (p. 5).
Instead they propose a new theoretical construct in which the three
variables of colonialism, nationalism, and modernity are recognised as
interacting in complex ways that do not easily fit into the black and white
interpretations of the period to which we have grown accustomed.

In the first chapter, "Modernity, Legality, and Power in Korea under
Japanese Rule," Chulwoo Lee examines the legal system introduced to Korea
by Japan. Lee presents three major themes. The first deals with the
contradictory nature of the new legal framework that implemented
"discrimination in the midst of assimilation" (p. 50). The second examines
the extension of state control over the lives of the Korean people, while
the third exposes the paradox of modern methods of state control being
employed to bolster "traditional Japanese values" (p. 51) in an attempt to
stem the tide of modernity. Lee shows how the Japanese leadership
originally justified intervention in Korea on the grounds of engaging in a
"mission of civilizing Asia" (p. 42) in emulation of the West but
subsequently changed its position to that of defending traditional
(Japanese) values against the tide of corrupting (modern) influences from
the West. Although Lee's focus on the "flogging law" is somewhat
predictable, and his conclusions do not appear to contradict more
traditional studies on this topic, the sophistication and depth of his
analysis make them that much more convincing.

In the second chapter, "Broadcasting, Cultural Hegemony, and _Colonial
Modernity in Korea_, 1924-1945," Michael Robinson provides a detailed
account of the establishment of the Ky™ngs™ng Broadcast Corporation in
Korea and its influence on cultural construction during the colonial
period. Robinson rejects the simplistic view that "Japanese radio was just
another in a series of coercive, modern technologies to further Japanese
political control and, ultimately, assimilation" (p. 53). Instead he argues
that while it cannot be denied that radio was used for the purposes of
colonial control, Koreans themselves did not remain passive recipients of
this form of modernity but also made great efforts to mold it to their own
ends. He also points out that the Korean elite itself was divided in its
views of radio as a medium of cultural maintenance on the one hand and as a
vulgarising influence on the other. Robinson's examination of radio
broadcasting in Korea exposes the paradox at the heart of Japanese colonial
policy, especially during the _bunka seiji_ (Cultural Rule) period: namely,
that by allowing limited cultural autonomy, the Government-General of Korea
both sustained and subverted "the ultimate goals of Japanese cultural
assimilation" (p. 54). It is a pity, however, that the typo "Isben" for
"Ibsen" (p. 66) in this chapter was missed in the editorial process.

In the third chapter "Colonial Corporatism: The Rural Revitalization
Campaign. 1932-1940," Gi-Wook Shin and Do-Hyun Han explore the "relations
between the colonial state and rural society in 1930s Korea" (p. 70) in the
context of the Rural Revitalization Campaign (_Nongch'on chinhžng undong_).
Shin and Han propose the model of "colonial corporatism" (p. 72) to replace
traditional views of state-society relations. They identify and point out
the limitations of the prevailing views in the historiography of this
period, which in varying ways view the relationship as one of repression
and resistance. The nationalist view is criticized for failing to recognize
that colonial policy did not produce zero-sum outcomes and that in the case
of the Rural Revitalization Campaign, the state and the peasantry benefited
at the expense of the traditional landlord class. The second view that
stresses that colonialism retained landlordism as an effective means of
control over the rural populace is shown to only hold true for the period
before the March First movement in 1919. According to Shin and Han,
subsequent colonial policy bypassed the landlord class as the
Government-General of Korea increased its direct involvement in rural
affairs. The third view of "colonial totalitarianism" (p. 74) put forward
by Gregory Henderson, in which a ruling elite is confronted by alienated
masses, is criticized as being only partially applicable to the colonial
policy of the war years. In conclusion the authors argue that the
"corporatist state-society relations" (p. 96) that emerged in both Koreas
after 1945, as exemplified by Park Chung Hee's Saemaul Movement (1971),
have their roots in the Rural Revitalization Campaign of the colonial

In the fourth chapter, "The Limits of Cultural Rule: Internationalism and
Identity in Japanese Responses to Korean Rice," Michael Schneider examines
the generally neglected topic in Korean historiography of metropolitan
attitudes toward Japan's colonisation of Korea. Schneider's study focuses
on rice production in Korea and its export to Japan with specific reference
to the Campaign to Increase Rice Production (CIRP). This topic has been
much examined as an example of cynical Japanese exploitation of Korean
resources in the name of "development," but the Japanese stance itself
toward this phenomenon has generally been ignored. Schneider brings to our
attention some important points such as the fact that Korean rice was not a
coveted commodity in Japan and that peaceful emigration to South America
was seen by the Japanese middle-class as preferable to participation in
"empire building" in Korea and Manchuria. Although Schneider upholds the
accepted views of Japanese colonial exploitation, by examining the Japanese
side of the story, he presents a more balanced and accurate account of the
complex strands of ideology and international circumstances that shaped
Cultural Rule (_bunka seiji_) in 1920s Korea.

In the fifth chapter, "Colonial Industrial Growth and the Emergence of the
Korean Working Class," Soon-Won Park reviews recent interpretations of the
Korean colonial experience. In doing so she demonstrates that Koreans were
not "mere passive recipients of modernity" (p. 131) and that despite their
lack of political participation, Koreans were active participants in the
construction of a "unique colonial modernity" (p. 131). Park goes on to
examine various complex topics such as changes in Korea's labor-power
structure, the expansion of the industrial workforce, its education, and
growth in worker consciousness. In conclusion she argues in support of the
current trend in Korean historiography on this period away from a
monolithic approach toward the recovery of the "silenced voices and ignored
subjects of the colonial period" (p. 160).

The final chapter in the first section, "Colonial Korea in Japan's Imperial
Telecommunications Network," by Daqing Yang takes a dispassionate view of
the role of telecommunications in Japanese colonial policy and brings to
light two important points. First, telecommunications not only served to
increase Japanese control but also provided opportunities, albeit unevenly
distributed, to the Koreans themselves. Second, the development of
telecommunications gave rise to increasing conflict between the Government
General of Korea and the Ministry of Communications in Japan as power was
gradually transferred from the colonial government back to the imperial
capital. Above all Yang's study reveals the pettiness, self-interest, and
intellectual poverty that lay behind the rhetoric of Japanese imperialist

Part Two, entitled "Colonial Modernity and Identity," begins with Chapter
Seven, "The Price of Legitimacy: Women and the Kžnuhoe Movement,
1927-1931," in which Kenneth Wells' examines the position of women in
colonial Korea. Focusing on the women's rights movement, the Kžnuhoe
(Friends of the Rose of Sharon), an affiliate of the united front movement,
the Sin'ganhoe (New Korea Society), Wells goes beyond the limits of
traditional nationalist studies of the period. As a consequence, his study
demonstrates the limitations of nationalist and socialist paradigms that
ignore the important issues of social self-determination and reform of
gender relations that, he argues, had been actively pursued by Korean women
since the 1890s. Furthermore, Wells makes a simple but important point,
which is relevant to all the studies in this collection, that "Koreans in
the 1920s and 1930s did not relate everything to nationalist projects, as
if there were no other reference points in their lives than the fact of
Japanese rule" (p. 197). In conclusion Wells' thoughtful and
well-researched study underlines the fact that traditional gender relations
were preserved both by nationalist and socialist men even as they pursued
their own political liberation.

In the eighth chapter, "Neither Colonial nor National: The Making of the
'New Woman' in Pak Wans™'s 'Mother's Stake 1,'" Kyeong-Hee Choi provides a
substantial study of many of the points outlined by Wells in the previous
chapter. Choi's thorough analysis of the themes of gender, colonialism, and
modernity running through Pak's novel underscores the paradoxes faced by
women in that era. The mother is shown experiencing vicarious liberation
from traditional male oppression by pushing her daughter, the narrator,
along the path of "New Womanhood" (p. 228), while the narrator responds
ambivalently to her loss of indigenous identity as she is immersed in a new
colonial culture of urban modernity. The fact that Pak's novel is
autobiographical gives it a historical basis while permitting her to
imaginatively explore the psychological position of women, who were both
suppressed by the indigenous culture while being the recipients of
quasi-liberation from the colonial culture. Pak's novel eschews focusing on
the extremes of suffering inflicted on Korean women during the war years
but instead examines the day to day struggle of a Korean mother, who tries
to realise her own dreams through her daughter. Ironically her desire for
her daughter to embrace modernity leads her to push her into colonial
subjection. These are just a few of the themes Choi highlights in a highly
illuminating chapter.

In the ninth chapter, "Interior Landscapes: Yi Kwangsu's 'The Heartless'
and the Origins of Modern Literature," Michael Shin examines the best-known
work of the "father" of modern Korean literature. Yi's ambivalence as both
a nationalist and a collaborator with the colonial government makes him a
natural point of focus in the study of this period. In his conclusion, Shin
provides an illuminating quotation from the Korean literary critic, Kim
Yunsik, concerning Koreans attitudes to Yi: "When he betrayed the _minjok_,
the reason that readers were so enraged and hurt was that they themselves
had become Yi Kwang-su. They were not criticizing Yi Kwangsu but were
criticizing, crying over, and pained at their own selves" (p. 284). The
issue of Yi's betrayal of the _minjok_ is not, however, the central concern
of Shin's examination of Yi's early career and in particular the novel
Muj™ng (The heartless). According to Shin, Yi's novel brings Korean
literature into the modern period through its discovery of "interiority"
(p. 252). Interestingly Shin identifies the novel as being set in the
period between the end of the Russo-Japanese War and the annexation of
Korea in 1910. Korea at that time still retained vestiges of independence
and at the same time was experiencing rapid modernisation. Yi was perhaps
expressing a longing for what might have been had Korea been permitted to
modernize independently and how he himself might have developed as a writer
beyond the restraints and distorting pressures of the colonial order.

In the tenth chapter, "National Identity and the Creation of the Category
'Peasant' in Colonial Korea," Clark Sorensen argues that the term "nongmin"
(peasant) as a definition of a class was developed in 1920s Korea in order
to "carve out a space for a Korean identity within an assimilative empire"
(p. 288). Sorensen demonstrates how the term _nongmin_ became increasingly
identified with Korean ethnicity during the colonial period. This trend
has, of course, persisted into the present, as Sorensen points out, with
eighty percent of Korea's intangible cultural treasures being rural rituals
and crafts. Sorensen contrasts Korean attitudes to the peasantry as "the
basis of Korean ethnicity" (p. 291) with those in China, which tended to
view the peasantry as an unenlightened mass. Sorensen astutely suggests
that this was due to the latter's relatively independent status compared
with Korea's colonial subjection. The fact that Korean modernization has
taken place under the adverse circumstances of colonialism and dependence
has certainly contributed to the sense that the modern and the urban are in
some way "un-Korean." Sorensen's exploration of this theme is wide-ranging
and thorough.

In the eleventh chapter, "In Search of Human Rights: The Paekch™ng Movement
in Colonial Korea," Jeong-Seop Kim examines "the double-edged nature of
colonial modernity, its enabling and restraining effects" (p. 312) in
relation to the group of hereditary social outcastes known as the
_paekch™ng_. Kim's study focuses on the formation of the Hy™ngp'y™ngsa, an
association formed by the _paekch™ng_ in 1923 to promote solidarity among
its members and promote the abolition of social discrimination against its
members during the colonial period. Kim cites the _paekch™ng_ experience of
colonial modernity as illustrative of the complex nature of the phenomenon.
On the one hand colonial urbanization and industrialisation undermined the
economic base of the _paekch™ng_, while on the other it provided this group
with new opportunities for association and the pursuit of human rights.

In the final chapter, "_minjok_ as a Modern and Democratic Construct: Sin
Ch'aeho's Historiography," Henry Em examines the term _minjok_, which he
defines as being "the concept of Koreans as constituting a 'nation'" (p.
336). Earlier Korean historians argued that although the term _minjok_, a
neologism created in Meiji Japan, may not have existed in Korea before the
late 1890s, what it referred to did. That is to say, the use of the term
_minjok_ marked the "discovery" of what had always existed. Em, on the
other hand, maintains that _minjok_ is a modern construct that was first
used in Korean historiography by the historian Sin Ch'aeho and was imposed
on the historical development that took place on the Korean peninsula. Em
argues, in line with many of his contemporaries, that the concept of nation
itself is a transient entity that neither existed in the past nor will
necessarily exist in the future as more pluralistic and less authoritarian
political systems develop. Em argues that Sin Ch'aeho's later anarchist
writings, focusing on _minjung_ (the unprivileged people) rather than
_minjok_, comprised a "political program that went beyond nationalism, and
a historical view that undermined the continuous, unified narrative of the
nation" (p. 361). Em concludes this perceptive and enlightening chapter
with the suggestion that it is in Sin Ch'aeho's anarchist writings that a
way forward may be found out of the impasse of "state-nationalism" (p. 361)
that emerged in North and South Korea after the Korean War.

The book concludes with an epilogue, "Exorcising Hegel's Ghosts: Toward a
Postnationalist Historiography of Korea," by Carter J Eckert. In a
stimulating essay that illumines the themes covered in previous chapters,
Eckert explores the task of the historian and argues for impartiality and
objectivity as ideals to be sought after in historical scholarship in the
face of pressures to produce history that serves the demands of nationalism
and ideology. The limitations of this review prevent a full discussion of
all the themes touched on by Eckert, but anyone wishing to embark on, or
already engaged in the study of Korean history would do well to read this

_Colonial Modernity in Korea_ is a highly successful collaborative effort
that goes a long way to broaden and diversify the scholarship in English on
the Korean colonial period. It should certainly be required reading for any
serious student of modern Korean and East Asian history. The fact that this
book is also now available in paperback will hopefully ensure that it
reaches the extensive readership that it deserves.

Finch, Michael 2002
Review of _Colonial Modernity in Korea_, edd. by Gi-Wook Shin and Michael
Robinson (1999)
Korean Studies Review_ 2002, no. 10
Electronic file: http://www.koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-10.htm

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