February 20, 2017

Engaging in Korean Studies through non-Korea courses – blog by John G. Grisafi

Students interested in studying Korea may think that Penn has a relatively small number of courses on Korea – aside from language courses – when compared to China or Japan. There are certain semesters in which more courses are offered than in others and there appears to be rise in the number of variety of courses on Korea offered at Penn (which will hopefully continue) but it is still likely that many students feel there the opportunities to be limited. Fortunately, in my time at Penn I have found opportunities to engage in Korean Studies in courses that are not specifically focused on Korea.

There are, in my experience, a few different ways to categorize courses in terms of how their content relates to Korean Studies as well as how you as a student can choose to engage with them. I can organize the courses I have taken (and which are applicable to this topic) into three categories based on relevance of content to Korean Studies. In addition to that, many courses offer a variety of opportunities to more specifically engage with Korean Studies through choices made by the students regarding assignments.

The first of my three categories is courses which provide knowledge relevant to and sometimes concerning Korea through the study of cultures or topics which intersect with Korea. Examples include the introductory survey courses on China (EALC 001) and Japan (EALC 002). In addition to the fact that Korea or events that historically involved Korea may be discussed in the course, these introductory courses in China and Japan are, in my opinion, necessary for scholars of Korea in acquiring basic knowledge of the nations and cultures neighboring Korea and which have had significant influence and impact upon Korea.

The second category is that of more advanced courses such as China and the World: Modern Times (HIST 394), The Politics of Shinto (EALC 253). Each of these courses teaches much about a topic relevant to Korea but not specifically about Korea and only occasionally or briefly makes reference to Korea. HIST 394, taught by Dr. Arthur Waldron, provides much content on China and its relations with the world in the twentieth century. This information provides historical and cultural context relevant to Korea as well concepts and theories applicable to Korean Studies. Additionally, the course content occasionally directly discusses interactions with Korea. EALC 253, taught by Dr. Jolyon Thomas, teaches much about topics which do affect Korea from time to time historically, particularly in the period of Japanese colonization of Korea. I will say more about both of these courses below.

The third category is courses which have some portion focusing on to Korea as part of a larger curriculum about multiple countries or regions or repeatedly discuss Korea as part of region or theme. Examples include Global History of Communism (HIST 202), Sects in Violence in East Asia (EALC 207/607), and Cross-Cultural Relations in Ancient East Asia (EALC 140/540). HIST 202, taught by Dr. Alex Hazanov, discusses Communism in East Asia, including Korea for a portion of the course. This course also has elements of the second category in that an understanding of Communism and its history is quite useful for understanding Communism in context of Korea. EALC 140/540, taught by Dr. Yoko Nishimura, focuses on the study of ancient East Asian cultures, including linguistics, genetics, written records, and material culture such as pottery and other artifacts. Interaction of people and states is a major theme of this course and it provides much knowledge on early Korean history and also familiarizes students with the different types of evidence and methods through which this period can by studied. I cannot yet explain much about the Korea-related content of EALC 207/607, taught by Dr. Thomas, as I am still taking that course but I do know one of the assigned books (Laurel Kendall, Shamans, Nostalgias, and the IMF) is about contemporary South Korea.

I have additionally been able to further engage in the study of Korea beyond the material directly taught by the instructors of the courses by, when relevant and within reason, choosing a research topic pertaining to Korea. I have done this so far in four courses which were not specifically Korea content courses: HIST 394 (China and the World), HIST 202 (Global History of Communism), EALC 140/540 (Cross-Cultural Relations of Ancient East Asia), and EALC 253 (Politics of Shinto). In HIST 394, my final paper discussed China’s role in the Korean War with an emphasis on China’s objectives and strategy. This allowed to me examine the war and China’s participation through a China-centered approach rather than the Korea or Western-centered approaches with which I was previously more familiar. In HIST 202, my research paper was on the “Soviet-based Korean Communist Movement beyond Kim Il Sung.” This paper allowed me to explore the history of Korean Communist groups before and beyond Kim Il Sung’s Partisan faction and the impacts of Soviet and Comintern policies on these groups. In EALC 140/540, I wrote my final paper on the Proto-Three Kingdoms Period of Korea, examining the historiography and adding a geographic analysis. A project that has personally been especially intellectual and academically rewarding for me, though, is the one that began in EALC 253. For that course, I wrote a research paper on Shinto in Colonial Korea. That paper led to my participation in Dr. Thomas’s Shinto Symposium here at Penn in September 2016, where I presented my work alongside classmates as well as professors from various institutions.

That final example, I think, demonstrates a particular benefit of engaging in Korean Studies in courses covering a range of topics. By studying Korea through varying approaches and in context of different topics, we as scholars of Korea can learn more and discover novel ways to study and discuss Korea. Additionally, I have found that my professors typically appreciate having scholars of different specialization in their courses and incorporating their own interests into the class discussions and assignments. This is not to say that a scholar of Korea should always be thinking only about Korea, but rather that we should be mindful of connections between fields and subjects of study as well as opportunities for new research and discourse related to our respective interests.

February 15, 2017

Dr. Hyun Jae Yoo – reflections by John Grisafi

Dr. Hyun Jae Yoo, Research Fellow of Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University and visiting scholar in the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies, gave a lecture on Tuesday, January 31, 2017 as part of the Korean Studies Colloquium. He spoke about “Circulation of Coins in East Asia: 1650-1800.”

The first Kim Program lecture of the Spring 2017 semester, “Circulation of Coins in East Asia: 1650-1800,” was given by Hyun Jae Yoo, a research fellow of the Kyujanggak Institute for Korean Studies at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar in Penn’s Kim Program in Korean Studies. Introducing Yoo, Dr. Eugene Park, director of the Kim Program, explained that this talk was somewhat out of the ordinary for two reasons. The first was that it is relatively uncommon to hear a talk on the economic history of early modern Korea. Second was that it is also relatively rare to have a talk by a speaker from a non-Anglophone country comfortable enough speaking English to give such a lecture.

Yoo began his lecture by reviewing some of the history of currency. He explained that traditionally, barter systems were acceptable for conducting trade when there was a “double coincidence of wants.” But when this is lacking, it is necessary to have some sort of medium of exchange. This, according to Yoo, is the commonly-held theory for explaining the origin of coins. He then noted how some forms of currency have intrinsic value (for example, the material value of the metal in a coin) while other forms have designated value, which is usually indicated on the currency and must be backed up by a government or other entity for that value to have meaning. Early forms of metallic money in East Asia were not necessarily coins and came in various shapes, including what is known as “knife money” in Korea, roughly dagger-shaped pieces of bronze.
The design and composition of coins was also a topic of Yoo’s lecture. Coins in East Asia in this period were composed primarily of copper (60-70%) in an alloy with zinc (20-30%) and contained a negligible amount of lead. The process began with refinement of copper ore and then the melting of the copper before molding it into shape. The government of Chosŏn (1392-1910) Korea produced two types of coins this way. Round coins were intended for domestic use while ingots were used for foreign trade. Korean coins at this time were stamped with characters which read “ever-normal circulating treasure,” signifying the status of the coins as legal tender for circulation regardless of date (unlike contemporary Chinese coins, which were stamped with the name of the imperial era in which they were minted).
But the primary objective of Yoo’s talk was answering the following question: “Why did East Asian countries mint coins despite such high costs of production?” (Yoo’s emphasis). According to Yoo, the value of a coin was not very high when factoring in the refining procedure, which was difficult and time-consuming for the government. The most expensive part of making coins, though, was the metal itself. Yoo said that the cost of raw materials made up 69% of the production cost of coins. Despite, or perhaps because of, the cost, coins were relatively uncommon in Chosŏn Korea. In the late 17th and early 19th centuries, there was, according to Yoo, a scarcity of metal coinage in Korea. Coins were thus not used in the majority of private transactions in when barter would suffice.
Why then, did Chosŏn Korea produce the coins? Yoo argues the most important usage of coinage in East Asia, particularly in Korea, was fiscal policy, to regulate prices in the economy or to issue currency to commoners and relieve economic hardship. Specifically, he explained that the exchange rate for silver to coins (that is, the amount of silver the government would pay out for coins) was significantly lower than that of either China or Japan. This allowed the government to make a profit off coinage, a practice known as seignorage. Thus, the state’s motivation for minting coins was not to so much to provide a medium of exchange for everyday economics, but so the that the government could influence trade and the economy.