The Colonial Trap: Nationalist Bias and the Allure of Pseudohistory

Mark E. Byington, Project Director
Early Korea Project, Harvard University

Interpretations of the ancient past in Korea today are frequently informed by the colonial experience of the twentieth century, and it is fair to say that this is more the case for general populations than for scholars of history. This paper will explore how the specifics of the twentieth century colonial experience affect how certain aspects of Korea’s remote past are understood and interpreted, particularly with regard to areas that reflect unrealistic nationalist perspective. Among the historical issues most readily subject to a skewed interpretation are those that touch upon ancient influence from China or Japan, either in the form of colonization or as cultural adaptations, or that reflect upon the perceived antiquity of the Korean nation. Issues explored in this study include the historicity and location of the ancient state of Chosŏn and the Han Chinese commanderies that succeeded it, the nature of the earliest written histories of the Korean peninsula, and the debates concerning the Samhan polities and the formation of the early states in the southern part of the peninsula. Particular attention in this regard will be paid to how these issues have recently been treated among the non-academic populations in Korea in the form of nationalistically determined pseudohistoric views of the Korean past. The results of this study point to the need for a more critical approach to the basic sources, both textual and material, for understanding the remote past in Korea, and a deliberate and sustained detachment from known and demonstrable biases associated with ethnic and national identity.

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