Friday, February 17, 2012

Foreigners' perspective on Joseon of Korea

It's hard to believe, but foreigners were actually traveling and working here in the backward Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).

A recent book chronicles the experiences and views of foreigners on Joseon and its people from the beginning of the kingdom until its demise due to Japanese’s occupation.

The Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies (KIKS) has released a publication on the history of the Joseon Kingdom, this time centering on foreigners' experience in the country. The book also has rare pictures of daily life taken by them, as well as postcards and maps from the time.

"Foreigners' Journeys in Joseon," compiled by the KIKS, contains essays from various researchers of one of the humanities institutes at Seoul National University. The institute is named after a royal library called “Gyujanggak,” established in 1776 by King Jeongjo at Changdeok Palace. The book is an outcome of the institute’s “Humanities Korea” project, which aims at producing easy literature on Joseon Kingdom life and culture.

“The focus of this book is Joseon’s relationship with people from the outside world,” KIKS researcher Lee Sue-jin writes in the introduction. “After 1884, Joseon started to open its doors and people with various jobs entered the kingdom. Since then, the people of Joseon started to encounter diplomats, clergymen, journalists, entrepreneurs, doctors, military men, scholars, photographers and merchants from outside the country.”

The book is a rare documentation of detailed responses to life and travel in Korea by foreigners from all walks of life and various countries.

Some remarks are generous, but some can be scathing.

Jack London (1876-1916), an adventurer-writer who chronicled Asian wars, spent four months here around the time the Joseon Kingdom was losing its sovereignty to Japan and expressed his disdain in articles, books and essays about the Korean people.

He described the people of Joseon as “weak and lazy" and "overly curious," as he was constantly being stared at on the streets. One can imagine that the presence of a Westerner must have been quite scandalous during those times.

London’s 1904 essay, “The Yellow Peril” wrote; “The Korean is the perfect type of inefficiency ― of utter worthlessness.”

Before the 17th century, most foreigners here were from Japan and China. Chinese officials were frequent visitors to Joseon.

After Japan took over, the foreign presence grew as many scholars and writers entered Korea for the purpose of researching Japan’s occupation.

One of the important roles of "Foreigners' Journeys in Joseon" is that it introduces past significant publications by foreigners.

One of the most comprehensive of such books is by Italian naval officer Carlo Rossetti, who wrote “Corea Coreani” at the beginning of the 1900s written in Italian. It has been translated only into French : "La Coree et les Coreens" (2002). The 477-page book covers all aspects of Joseon life, history, economics, court affairs, fashion and geography, and Japanese’s influence on the kingdom with photographs.

It is interesting that one of the most comprehensive researches on the Joseon Kingdom’s cultural legacy was produced by a Japanese architect.

Sekino Tadashi (1868-1935), an architect trained at the Tokyo Imperial University, put together a 15-book series on Joseon’s culture as a result of 30 years travel and research. From 1902-1934, the architect traveled throughout the country and took numerous photographs. His books contain more than 6,000 photographs of Korea during this time.

"Foreigners' Journeys in Joseon" is an outcome of the institute’s “Humanities Korea” project, which aims at producing easy literature on the kingdom’s life and culture.

The book is, in general, an interesting read particularly for those interested in Korea’s history. It would have been more useful if the book carried copies of letters or articles that foreigners wrote.

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