Nationalism and the Samguk sagi’s Problematic Representation of Early Korean History—another largely unacknowledged elephant in the rooms of power

Jonathan Best, Professor Emeritus
Wesleyan University

It is becoming increasingly apparent to historians and archaeologists alike that the twelfth-century Samguk sagi’s datings for many of its early entries, especially in the Paekche Annals and the Silla Annals, are problematic. The problematic character of the dates ascribed to these entries is primarily due to the combined effect of two factors: the appropriation of the official imperial Chinese historiographic model by the Samguk sagi’s editors coupled with their acceptance of the impossibly early first-century BCE foundation dates that tradition credited to Silla and Paekche in particular. This combination of factors resulted in the creation of a chronologically grossly inflated, and therefore ahistoric, representation of the early Korean past. The Samguk sagi’s representation of Korea’s ancient history has, however, become essentially regarded as sacrosanct by both postwar Korean governments, and this manifestation of officially endorsed and underwritten nationalism has become even more pronounced in recent years as is regrettably evident from such things as the current textbook controversy in South Korea.

I will begin my presentation by briefly demonstrating how the employment of the historiographic model used in China’s so-called “dynastic histories” in the compiling of the Samguk sagi as a royally ordered history of the three previous dynasties necessitated the extensive antedating of accounts from the few peninsular records that survived from the Three Kingdoms and Unified Silla periods. I will then turn to my understanding of the causes and endemic structural supports for—and the deleterious effects of—the persistence in postwar Korea of a largely literal acceptance of the Samguk sagi’s representation of early peninsular history. I intend to illustrate this point with, in part, the example of the interpretation of some archaeological finds included in the exhibition, “Silla, Korea’s Golden Kingdom,” recently held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (November 2013–February 2014).

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.

The Case of the Art and Archaeology of Koguryo and Palhae as the World Cultural Heritage

Ah-Rim Park, Professor
Sookmyung Women’s University
Visiting Professor, University of Pennsylvania

Koguryo and Palhae history would be an interesting case study for understanding how ancient Korea interacted with neighboring empires such as Chinese and nomadic empires. In addition, the historical and cultural heritages from Koguryo and Palhae have received an intensive attention since the nomination of Koguryo capitals and wall painting tombs as the World Cultural Heritage in UNESCO in 2004. How these ancient Korean history and culture have been perceived by the international communities and by Korean people in the process of historical contesting on the identity of Koguryo and Palhae proposes us an interesting question to explore the internationalist discourses about Korean history. In this paper, first, I shall argue about the interaction with Chinese and nomadic empires shown in the cultural heritage of Koguryo and Palhae, especially about the wall painting tombs to see how Koguryo and Palhae appropriated and modified Eurasian cultures within their cultural contexts. Next, I will address the issue of how we can understand the significance of the cultural heritages of Koguryo and Palhae in the context of universal cultural values as the World Cultural Heritage.

Sinographic Nationalism: Cho So-ang’s Sino-Korean Writing in Republican China

Songyeol Han, Ph. D. Candidate
Department of East Asian Studies, Princeton University

This paper looks at how the nation was contested and negotiated in Sino-Korean writings on Korean history. I focus on Cho So-ang’s (1887–1958) writings in Chinese in the 1930s to see how Cho negotiated the legitimacy of Korea’s anticolonial struggle.

The Korean nationalist movement faced new challenges in the 1930s. In addition to the nationalists’ ideological struggle against socialism, Japan’s expansion in Manchuria and the establishment of Manchukuo seriously questioned the political position of Korean residents in China as well as Korean nationalism. Confronted with the crisis of Korean nationalism, Cho So-ang transformed textual authenticity to textual legitimacy in his book Korean Literary World (hanguo wenyuan, 1932). As diplomat of the Korean exile government and ideologue of the Korean independence party, Cho relied on the authenticity of Korea’s past distilled through the evidential studies in the 18th century in order to find evidence of Korea’s true national identity to reclaim Korea’s rightful place in the modern colonizing world. While the textual criticism enabled Cho to create an anthology of Korea’s genuine voice from the past, the Sino-centric worldview embedded in the source troubled 20th-century nationalists.

The third part examines Cho’s Sino-Korean nationalism in the book and Chinese reception to it. By excavating and refining the genealogy of Sino-Korean relations, Cho constructed a history of Sino-Korean alliance and converted it into political legitimacy of anti-imperialistic struggle on the eve of the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). A Chinese local newspaper resonated Cho’s effort to transform Korean history with an anti-colonial war. Arranging the review with the Korean anthology alongside memorial poems of the recent Hongkew Bombing Incident by Korean patriot Yun Pong-gil, Dagong bao, echoed Cho’s historico-political writing.