[KS] James Palais

gkl1 at columbia.edu gkl1 at columbia.edu
Sun Aug 13 15:10:43 EDT 2006

   The passing of James B. Palais is a major loss for the field of
Korean Studies in the United States. Though not wholly unexpected
given his protracted illness over the last couple of years, his
death still comes as a blow. Long the professor of Korean history
at the University of Washington, he leaves a bereft family, dozens
of students now working in the field both here and in Korea, and
many stunned colleagues and admirers around the world.
   Jim was as well known for his feisty personality and marvelous
sense of humor as he was for his teaching, his many important
publications, and his leadership in the field. He was one of those
people not inclined, as the expression goes, to suffer fools,
although that characterization might be unkind and inappropriate
for many innocent students who, looking for an easy course and
finding that he had little patience for those who did not work hard
and take Korean history seriously, were redeemed in the end by his
obvious sincerity and their own change of heart. Still, some
couldn’t measure up. As was said with nice balance in the Korea
Times obituary already posted, “Many failed under him, but those
who completed his courses know how warm-hearted he was.”
   Jim’s Harvard dissertation and first major publication, <Politics
and Policy in Traditional Korea> (Harvard Univ. Press, 1975) focused
on the political and institutional history of the Taewongun era, in
the course of which “traditional Korea” more or less came to an
end. Until Jim’s book, western readers had only the dilettantish
and superficial anecdotal coverage of the Taewongun that had come
out of the late 19th century “yasa” discourse. After it, one could
not only understand the underlying social and economic realities
that the Taewongun had to face but also gain a superb introduction
to the history and development of the earlier dynastic structures.
   The work by which Jim will be remembered for a long time to come,
<Confucian Statecraft and Korean Institutions: Yu Hyongwon and the
Late Choson dynasty> (Univ. of Washington Press, 1996), went deeply
into those structures, covering issues of class, education, slavery,
land reform, taxation, commercial development, military
organization, the monetary system, and many other facets of Choson
dynasty life. On the one hand it is a superb exercise in
intellectual history, focusing on the institutional thought of one
of Korea’s greatest Sirhak scholars, Yu Hyongwon (1622-1673), as
well as on the Korean and Chinese sources of that thought; on the
other it is a thorough Palaisian inquiry into all of Korea’s
traditional governing institutions, especially of the Choson period
but not infrequently providing appropriate Silla and Koryo
background as well. Although in Korea Yu remains one of the most
widely read and admired Sirhak scholars, I doubt that anyone,
whether in Korea or out, has ever read Yu Hyongwon as thoroughly or
penetrated his thought as deeply as Jim did. Some may disagree with
this or that of his judgments, but the price of overturning them is
to do as much work as he did on this book—all four pounds and nearly
1300 pages of it. The same can be said about his many other articles
and reviews, some of them of daunting length.
	Between these two major works, Jim researched and wrote the report
<Human Rights in Korea>, published by Asia Watch in 1986. Apart
from a short chapter by Bruce Cumings on North Korea and the
preface, the entire book was Jim’s and dealt with South Korea and
its military regimes during the quarter of a century beginning in
1961. Although this was a work of scholarship, it was also one of
advocacy. It reflected one of his other sides—his strongly held
values and his willingness to engage human rights and ethics
issues, in Korea and elsewhere. Sadly, during the period covered by
this report, there was no lack of egregious rights abuses in Korea
to report on. Given that basic fact, Jim adhered to the same
ethical concerns in refusing to accept Korean financial support
either for his own research or for the Korean Studies program of
his university. Some in the field, like myself, differed with him
on this in various degrees, but no one doubted Jim’s complete
sincerity in adhering to his principles. With Jim, there was never
any doubt as to where he stood on any issue, and he never lost the
respect of his critics or held any grudges against them.
   I first met Jim in 1963 while visiting Harvard. We were not far
apart in age or in the circumstances--strictly matters of
fate--under which we separately happened to decide on Korean
Studies as a career. Neither of us were in the founding generation
of our field; indeed if anyone could claim to be the founder of
“Korean Studies in the United States,” both of us, then and now,
would have acknowledged Jim's mentor, the late Prof. Ed Wagner, in
that role. (I’m sure Jim would have been quite embarrassed at the
Korea Times headline laying that mantle on himself.) Although Jim
and I came from different programs (I from Berkeley), we were in
one respect “tongch’ang” in that we did our dissertation research
in Seoul at the same time in the early mid 60s. We would talk and
debate Korean history issues up to the brim of many a curfew before
one of us had to quickly jump in a taxi so that we could be off the
streets before the witching hour of 10 p.m. We both had our young
families with us in Seoul and enjoyed many good times together. In
later years we would find ourselves participating in the same
commitees and conferences and generally kept in touch.

   All of Korean Studies will be the poorer for Jim's loss, but
especially the field of pre-modern Korean history, which nowadays
has a hard time attracting students. It is understandable that many
are now drawn to the study of Korea because of its modernity and the
intellectual challenge as well as the sheer excitement of studying
it. There's no doubt as to the validity of this phenomenon. But
some are also disattracted to more traditional studies by the
difficulty of the source material and particularly by the necessity
to learn classical Chinese. And some perhaps find the traditional
Korean mindset and its relationship with Chinese culture
uninteresting if not actually shameful from a nationalist point of
view. Both Jim and I frequently encountered these attitudes, which
we regarded as serious misunderstandings.
   Jim's loss hits the premodern Korean field the hardest. Yet
anyone who reads his work will see in his engagement with the
entire community of today's Korean intellectuals and
historians--just look at all those footnote citations!--an
appreciation of the inescapable involvement of modern minds if we
are to truly understand the past and our own modernity. The past is
not fixed in stone, but changes as each successive modernity
reexamines it, discovering new problems and new responses and
enriching the living generation. Korea is not a bunch of periods,
but a continuum that has endured for thousands of years. There are
riches worth studying all across that span, and all of them are
important for the identity of modern Korea. It's important not to
always focus on the end of things.
   The community of those who knew and loved Jim Palis is not small.
His loss is a tremendous blow to our field, and to me a personal one
as well.

Gari Ledyard

Quoting Baker Don <ubcdbaker at hotmail.com>:

> I just received the sad news from the University of Washington
> that James
> Palais passed away today. It's a great loss to our field. I'm
> sure in a day
> or two somehow will send out an email obituary with details of
> his
> scholarly accomplishments.In the meantime, let me just say that
> it is not
> only his scholarship that will be missed. Those of us who were
> lucky enough
> to get to know Jim and work with him knew what a wonderful sense
> of humor
> he had. He also was a dedicated teacher of graduate students,
> determined to
> push his students to do the best they were capable of but doing
> so with a
> smile rather than a verbal whip. All of us who worked under him
> can say we
> have not only lost a mentor, we have also lost a friend.
> Sincerely,
> Don Baker
> Associate Professor,
> Department of Asian Studies
> Director, Centre for Korean Research
> University of British Columbia
> Vancouver, Canada V6T 1Z2
> dbaker at interchange.ubc.ca
> >From: "Michael Allen" <allenm at byuh.edu>
> >Reply-To: Korean Studies Discussion List
> <koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>
> >To: <koreanstudies at koreaweb.ws>
> >Subject: Re: [KS] Sin Ch'aeho and Taejonggyo
> >Date: Wed, 02 Aug 2006 19:30:32 -1000
> >
> >Hi Richard (and anyone else interested),
> >
> >I didn't reply to your original query because I am smack in the
> middle
> >of a major relocation (to Dubai), and simply didn't have time to
> make
> >the more extended response I would like to.   But the very short
> version
> >is that I have seen references to Sin Ch'aeho's reputed
> affiliation with
> >Taejonggyo in more than one Korean secondary source.  It is a
> highly
> >problematic claim, however, the deeper you delve into Sin's
> thinking,
> >and especially into the complex migrations in his thinking over
> time.
> >(For all I know, the same may be true if you delve more deeply
> than I
> >have into Taejonggyo.)  As others have pointed out, however, it
> is not
> >difficult to see why adepts of Taejonggyo would be interested in
> >claiming Sin as one of their own--and the tendency may be even
> more
> >pronounced after 1971 (the date of the book you mentioned), when
> Sin's
> >own reputation in Korea received new life in the name of a new
> Park-era
> >agenda.
> >
> >I discuss this a bit in the book I am finishing, but
> unfortunately for
> >the current discussion most of my material is in boxes right
> now, making
> >the move ahead of me.  Stay tuned . . .
> >
> >Michael Allen
> >
> > >>> rick_mcbride17 at hotmail.com 07/28/06 12:08 PM >>>
> >I would like the thank the participants for their stimulating
> discussion
> >of
> >my question regarding the relationship between Sin Ch'aeho and
> >Taejonggyo.
> >Let me explain here the background behind my asking the
> question, which
> >may
> >add a further level of complexity to the issues that have been
> >discussed.
> >
> >One of the referrees of my article titled "Silla Buddhism and
> the
> >Hwarang
> >segi Manuscripts," which will be published in Korean Studies 31
> >(forthcoming, 2007) introduced me to an interesting source:
> Taejonggyo
> >ChonggyOng Chongsa PyOnsu WiwOnhoe, ed.  <<Taejonggyo chunggwang
> >yuksimnyOnsa>> (Seoul:  Taejonggyo Chongbonsa, 1971 [Tan'gi
> 4428]).
> >
> >This 60 year history of Taejonggyo is interesting because it
> contains a
> >biography of Pak Ch'anghwa (1889/1895-1962), the reputed
> author/copyist
> >of
> >the Hwarang segi manuscripts on pages 865-867.    Pak Ch'anghwa
> is
> >usually
> >said to have been born in 1889 but this biographical account
> says he was
> >
> >born in 1895.  It refers to his working for the Japanese
> government in
> >the
> >1930s and early 1940s and records his death in 1962.  Most
> importantly
> >it
> >says that he joined Taejonggyo in 1949.   No Korean source on
> the
> >Hwarang
> >segi manuscripts mentions Pak's affiliation with Taejonggyo.
> When I
> >attended the "Iryon and the Samguk yusa" conference sponsored by
> the
> >Iryonhak Yon'guwon and the Academy of Korean Studies last week,
> my
> >colleagues in Silla history were impressed by this
> information--they had
> >
> >never known such a connection existed.
> >
> >In pointing out this source, the referee indicated that Pak's
> >affiliation
> >with Taejonggyo hints at some important things:  "[I]t is not
> fully
> >implausible that he may have cherished an interest for this
> nationalist
> >religion already in the colonial days.  However, unlike such
> >Taejonggyo-affiliated historians as famous Sin Ch'aeho, Pak
> emphasized
> >Silla, and not KoguryO, as the Korean nation's presumed
> 'spiritual
> >origin.'"
> >   The referee went on to encourage me to provide additional
> biographical
> >
> >information on Pak Ch'anhwa.  I did not do it in this paper but
> plan to
> >spend much more time on this in another article I have in
> progress on
> >the
> >significance of the Hwarang segi manuscripts.
> >
> >This is the reason for my inquiry about Sin Ch'aeho and
> Taejonggyo.
> >I've
> >read some of Sin's works, such as his biography of Ulchi
> MundOk--but I
> >never
> >heard of his affiliation with Taejonggyo before.  It appears
> that Sin's
> >connections to Taejonggyo are problematic indeed.  In perusing
> the more
> >than
> >1000 page (handwritten) Taejonggyo history I did not find any
> >biographical
> >listing for Sin Ch'aeho--so at least in 1971, Taejonggyo did not
> claim
> >him
> >as a member or adept.  Then again, since there is no index I
> have not
> >exhausted the information in this book.  However, many of you
> have
> >suggested
> >compelling reasons why Taejonggyo adepts may have been
> influenced by
> >him.
> >
> >Best
> >Richard McBride
> >Post-doctoral Fellow in Korean Studies and Buddhist Studies
> >Washington University in St. Louis
> >
> >_________________________________________________________________
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> >
> >
> >

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