Wednesday, November 2, 2011

22 Flavorful Authors Serve Up a Delicious Korean Studies

‘The Pleasure of Korean Studies`
By Ju Yeong-ha et al., Humanist, 412 pages, 19,000 won

This book, were it dinner, would be a “Jeolla-style” multi-course meal. So many dishes are served up, so some might inquire, “Would not a sole palatable dish be more enjoyable?” To which the answer would come from the 22 authors who participated in writing “The Pleasure of Korean Studies.” As one reads, worries about a Korean studies cooked up with “random ingredients” recede. It`s all good as the reader gets a taste of the topics that are brought up: a multi-faceted selection, from history, culture and philosophy to traditional dwellings and K-pop.

Traditions stemming from long histories, transformed into present phenomena, are difficult to ponder. Thus, the book asks professionals the question, “What is it that is the most Korean?” and then furnishes its answers. The first entry is “The Korean Heart” by literary critic Jang Seok-ju, which somewhat blandly examines the “han (恨)” concept, the works of poet Kim Sowol, and “trot” vocalist Lee Mi-ja`s rendering of “Camellia Girl.” Yet clearly the Korean heart is comprised of a slew of dishes.

And the next portion, “Korean History” by author Nam Gyeong-tae, is fresh. Not a university lecturer, the author is free from the “one state history trapped on Korean peninsula” thought process, and thus analyzes the reason “why dogmatic upholding of one`s cause is a legacy of the past era.”

Joseon society was lead by the ruling literati class. The king governed by name, and it was this group of nobles that actually held power. While rarely visible, they were always at work behind the scenes. During power struggles one group of these elite scholar-bureaucrats would use the king`s name to purge an opposing group from power. These “severely unethical strategies (p. 229)” were common. The author notes with a sharp tongue that they were even meaner than Machiavellian power games or bloody civil war, and one cannot help but nod in agreement.

Assisting further is “Korean Thought” by Konkuk University professor Sin Byeong-ju. He demonstrates that Koreans are not all subsumed by the Confucian mind that embraces moral duty and ritual. Yi Ji-ham (pen name Tojeong), famous for his astrological text “The Secrets of Tojeong” (Tojeong bigyeol), Jo Sik (pen name Nammyeong), a Confucian scholar with sword, and others show us why they were post-Confucian. That`s right. This portion hints that not all Korean thought didn`t come out of a single cookie-cutter.

The best remains to come: “Korean Drama” by a cultural critic with innovative analytical sense, Lee Young-mi. American drama is suspenseful, Japanese drama is exaggerated, and Korean drama is haphazard, yet it is Korean. If the finessed Japanese dramas are “hard to get,” the foreshadowing American dramas are “new to the taste,” then, Korean dramas are the “brazen bunch” of the Korean Wave (hallyu), she states.

According to Lee Young-mi, “although loosely plotted, Korean dramas are stylish and easy on the eyes (p. 270).” Handsome actors and actresses frequent unexpected secret births, incurable illnesses, forbidden love, and similarly patronizing other motifs, which are a neat fit for their viewers` irrational propensities. Thus, the obvious weaknesses of Korean dramas become their salient strength. This textual inquiry into slices of Korean cultural composition gives us hope for future possibilities. This is, in fact, “the pleasure of Korean studies”;there still are a lot of topics that have yet to be explored, and authors who will contribute. We await these expectantly.

Source: Korea Focus this month issue

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