It’s Tuesday, September 10th, 2019, and
today I’m on page 78 of The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea. If the French became “French” in the 1880s, when did Koreans become “Korean”? In asking
this question, I must emphasize that Korea, perhaps as early as the Koryŏ period, had
far more linguistic and cultural unity than did prerevolutionary France.
There were, however, significant linguistic and cultural differences among the various
provinces in Korea. Even more important than these regional (lateral)
differences, status distinction between yangban, chungin (middle people), commoners, and ch’ŏnmin
(base people) had created horizontal lines of cultural cleavage in which each status
group had its own idiom, norms, and social role. It can be argued, for example, that Confucianism “belonged” to the ruling (yangban) class
in the sense that it served to underscore, legitimize, and make authoritative the different
worlds inhabited by the horizontally segregated layers in premodern Korean society.
As Carter Eckert notes, prior to the late nineteenth century, “there was little, if
any, feeling of loyalty toward the abstract concept of ‘Korea’ as a nation-state,
or toward fellow inhabitants of the peninsula as ‘Koreans.’
Far more meaningful at the time, in addition to a sense of loyalty to the king, were the
attachments of Koreans to their village or region, and above all to their clan, lineage,
and immediate and extended family. The Korean elite in particular would have
found the idea of nationalism not only strange but also uncivilized.
Since at least the seventh century the ruling classes in Korea had thought of themselves
in cultural terms less as Koreans than as members of a larger cosmopolitan civilization
centered on China. … To live outside the realm of Chinese culture was, for the Korean
elite, to live as a barbarian.” What are you reading today?