[KS] Percival Lowell and Collecting

Frank Hoffmann hoffmann at koreanstudies.com
Wed Apr 22 19:33:56 EDT 2015

Hyung Il Pai wrote:
> Yes, the elite in Tokugawa Japan also collected along the lines of 
> **the same** kinds of objects such as 금석문, bronzes, unusual looking 
> stones and jades ( kiseki), calligraphy, seals and the collectors esp 
> in Kyoto got together to circulate their catalogues and show off 
> their collections.

Hyung Il, with "the same" (marked above) do you refer to Korea? The 
same as in earlier centuries in Korea? I believe that the point made 
was just the opposite: yes, there certainly are largely overlapping 
areas, no question, but as was pointed out the Japanese often 
"collected" very personal items (see Jonathan Best's note and example). 
You also mention that there was "no centralized storage or exhibition 
system in Japan till the early 1880s" -- yes, but that distracts us 
from the real question, I think. Collecting and storing "valuable 
items" was by no means a centrally organized or centralized system, it 
was something every household would do on its own. The systems of 
exhibition and collecting AFTER the opening of Japan -- of "art" -- 
then began to follow the model of 19th century Paris (and that was then 
again introduced by the Japanese in Korea). So, that does not get us 
much further with this question.

I think there are several other issues that all contribute to the big 
difference there (of WHAT was collected, HOW it was stored, and the 
DEGREE/INTENSITY of collecting -- which classes, etc.) between Korea 
and Japan (I exclude China for now). All is interrelated, but I think 
we might look at these issues:
The status, education, and the economic situation of artisans in Japan 
vs. Korea (which, of course, directly interrelates to the entire 
political and social structure of society at any given time), is 
essential in getting to an answer. Horace G. Underwood, a century ago, 
and certainly not a specialist on arts and crafts, made the point that 
(during the late Chosŏn period) Korean artisans were dirt poor and 
would only follow the EXACT instructions of their commissioners, thus 
any sort of creative engagement was discouraged and crippled. (So, this 
is neither the scholar artists nor the professional artists at court he 
speaks about but craftsmen, artisans.) Another point he made is that 
the general "apathy" and what Western travelers and residents would 
perceive to be "laziness" of Koreans (the travelogues are full of such 
remarks) would be the result of a dysfunctional and abusive 
bureaucratic system that discourages the accumulation of wealth. 
Accumulating wealth was a dangerous undertaking, he pointed out, as 
those who tried regularly ended up in the county jail, while their 
riches were sacked in by whoever was the yangban official running the 
show. Thus far Underwood, who was certainly not a Marxist or a student 
of Max Weber, but he clearly looked for political and economic reasons 
to explain the absence of qualitatively high artistic production and 
the existence of an art and crafts market that was in no way comparable 
to the blloming, vivid one in Japan. Now, that only explains some (!) 
of the issues -- a tiny, very broad taste of it, actually -- during the 
turn of the century. But I would argue that for the earlier periods, if 
we look at collecting or the absence thereof, and the 'storage' issue 
as a technical issue related to that, the answers must certainly relate 
to socioeconomic conditions as well. These days I do see some Korean 
studies coming out on such issues -- Maya listed one earlier -- and 
that is wonderful! 

These are complex issues that sure cannot be dealt with in a few short 
paragraphs. I would just wish that those making references to and 
discussing and publishing issues like the collection of art and crafts 
would more honestly and directly **mark** the areas that we simply do 
NOT yet have a really good, solid understanding about -- rather than 
looking up the Webster to find nonchalant but meaningless terms to fill 
the gap, which I see happening most of the time. 


Frank Hoffmann

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