Carter J Eckert / Ki-baik Lee / Young Ick Lew / Michael Robinson / Edward W Wagner
(Ilchokak Publishers, for Korea Institute, Harvard University, 1990)
An ambitious book which aims in the space of 400 pages to encapsulate Korea’s history from Palaeolithic times up until 1990.
In a book of this nature it is inevitable that, at times, the narrative cannot convey in enough detail some of the key factors driving Korean history. For example, a greater flavour of the factors underlying the factionalism in the Korean court between the North & South, Noron & Soron factions would have been welcome. To a western reader it’s hard to understand why seemingly arid debates about whether Yi or Chi is more important should have political significance1.
Similarly more time spend describing the constant land problems would have been welcome.
A welcome feature of the book is a description of the artistic and cultural achievements at each point in Korea’s history. A minor irritation is the lack of footnotes, however: it would for example have been useful when mentioning major artworks to say where they are on display.
An interesting omission from the book is any treatment of the DPRK. Indeed the Korean War itself only merits just over two pages. Post 1953, this book is the history of South Korea. Kim Il Sung merits four mentions, the latest of which relates to 1946.
It seems churlish to criticise a book of this nature for lack of detail. It is a well-written and well-balanced account. It provides the bare bones of Korea’s history, letting the reader decide which bits he wants to investigate in more detail. And it’s always better to come away from a book wishing for more, rather than resenting the time one has spent reading it.
- but maybe to a Confucian the political importance of beliefs about papal infallibility or otherwise would be similarly puzzling