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Conference Report: Modern Encounters and Mutual Perceptions

HMS Alceste, Basil Hall's vesselThanks to Grace Koh for organising the joint CKS / BAKS half day at SOAS on Wednesday. An interesting sharing of papers, with UK-based academics presenting papers on the British encounters with Korea, and Seoul based academics providing the opposite view.

We started with early views of Western civilization as viewed from Korea through their tributary missions to China. Shin Il-cheol discussed the account by Kang Hobu of an embassy to Beijing originally written in 1727 and then re-published in 1839 with additional commentary by the author’s great-grandson. The account contains passages on Western learning introduced to China by the Jesuits, and therefore provides insights into Korean attitudes to this learning over that period.

Kang Hobu showed an open-mindedness towards Western astronomy and the calendar, but what struck him most was the realism in the Western-style paintings

To me, while ghouls appeared to have embedded themselves in the images of persons found in the paintings, the animals also seemed to be possessed by some kind of evil spirits

As western powers began to encroach eastwards in the 19th century, attitudes became more sceptical. Cho Yang-won‘s paper described the account of an embassy to Beijing in 1832, which followed the alarming appearance of a British ship, the Lord Amherst, in Korean waters demanding a commercial treaty. Admiration of western technology – particularly navigation technology – is again expressed. But Cho also pointed out that many other accounts of the time stressed the Western exploitation of China:

Such reports also pointed out how Qing had been losing thousands of silver coins every year as a results of the fact that Western merchants, rather than engaging in the barter of goods, were simply selling their wares within the Chinese market in exchange for silver coins, a practice which caused a serious run on Chinas’ supply of silver currency.

Both of the accounts also touch on Korean views on Christianity. Kang, without having the luxury of immersing himself in theological college, views the Christian life through Eastern eyes:

The doctrine of this religion is based on the notion of purity in that it emphasises the need to make efforts to remove desire and greed and to find the right path so as to become a mountain god. This religion appears for the most part to be a combination of the principles of Mountain Taoism and Buddhism.

But in the 1832 embassy, the author was reluctant to visit a church:

The Choson and Chinese governments have prohibited us from coming into contact with Western Learning. Having heard that their religion possesses the power to make people delusional, I did not even attempt to fix my eyes on or step into this particular space.

Back in Korea, the catholic persecutions in 1791 (the Chinsan Incident) and 1801 (the Hwang Sayong Silk Letter incident) signaled a rejection of Western Learning, which explains the frosty reception awaiting Basil Hall and his colleagues in 1816. James Grayson‘s paper provided some of Hall’s family background, locating Hall as a product the Scottish Enlightenment, son of Sir James Hall who

was one of the most important and creative scientific thinkers and researchers of his time making major contributions to the development of the modern science of geology.

Basil shared his father’s scientific interests, and his account of the voyage to Choson “provides the earliest Western description of the geology of Korea”. Grace Koh‘s paper focused more on passages of Hall’s book dealing with interaction with the natives:

These people have a proud sort of carriage, with an air of composure and indifference about them, and an absence of curiosity which struck us as being very remarkable.

An extended version of Koh’s paper is available online at the AKS and is a fascinating read. Both Koh and Grayson highlighted the unfortunate lack of preparation by the British explorers, arriving in Korea without anyone who could speak or read the language. Elaborate sign language was sometimes but not always effective, and Koh records how Hall envied the natural ability of the common sailors somehow to get on with the locals more easily that the officers.

Kim Seung-u followed with an analysis of a kasa (narrative poem) written about a 1902 diplomatic mission to London to attend the enthronement of Edward VII. London’s busy streets are reported, amazingly, as not having an ounce of dirt. And here’s an impression of the reception at Buckhingham Palace:

Five and six hundred beauties / bloom their flowers
They must be from fairy tales / or queens of yaochiyuan
Their beautiful scents stimulate noses / and astonish the eye
At the doors of the rooms on each floor / thunderous music springs out
Magnificence and splendor / can this be heaven on earth?

Jo Yoong-hee then focused on a late Victorian account of two British travellers in Korea. Embarrassingly, all they seemed to be interested in was shooting a few tigers, and got annoyed when Johnny Foreigner seemed too scared to take them hunting. Not all Brits abroad are good ambassadors for their nation. (See link at the bottom of this post for an interesting article on Korean tigers).

The last session of the day discussed materials which reflected Korean soul-searching as their country seemed powerless to respond to the encroachment of Western and Japanese imperialism. Kim Yun-hee presented Kim Hanhong’s travel kasa, an account of his lengthy peregrinations in 1903-1908. His admiration of the way of life in the United States – he made it to San Francisco – is tinged with regret that “his own country never got the opportunity to achieve such advancements as it lost its sovereignty just as it started to open its doors to the outside world”:

Vexatious, the loss of national sovereignty in the year of Ulsa /
Abolishment of diplomatic legations
Whom can I appeal to / overcome with deep grief and resentment
In a hurry to pack my luggage / must board at night and reach my next destination.

Lee Hyung-dae then analysed the writings in Korean Enlightenment period newspapers, which reflected the different attitudes to modernising Korea. In the 1880s the general thrust seemed to be in favour of introducing Western technologies, which brought with them military strength, but retaining Eastern ways, while the 1890s seemed to favour wholesale adoption of western ways, including political systems and cultures.

I am always amazed and grateful that these events are free and open to all, and thanks are due to the sponsors for this. Particularly useful were the very high quality translations of the Korean papers which were provided, and we were all appreciative of the consideration of the Korean scholars in presenting their papers in English. For the record, the conference programme is set out below.

Modern Encounters: Mutual Perceptions of Chosŏn Korea and the West as Reflected in Literature of the 19th and Early 20th Centuries

A One-Day Workshop jointly organised by the Centre of Korean Studies, SOAS & The British Association for Korean Studies

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

1-1.15pm Welcome and Opening Remarks

SESSION 1 — Early 19th Century Korean Encounters with the West: Travel Accounts by Chosŏn Envoys in China

1.15-1.45pm Dr Ik-Cheol Shin (Academy of Korean Studies)
Chosŏn literati’s understanding of ‘Western Learning’ in the 19th century based on Kang Hobu’s Sangbongnok

1.45-2.15pm Mr Yang-won Cho (Academy of Korean Studies)
Chosŏn literati’s perceptions of the West in the early 19th century as reflected in Kim Kyŏngsŏn’s Yŏnwŏn chikji.

SESSION 2 — Early 19th Century British Encounter with Chosŏn Korea: Basil Hall’s Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Corea (1818)

2.15-2.45pm Professor James H. Grayson (University of Sheffield)
Basil Hall’s Account of a Voyage of Discovery: The value of a British naval officer’s account of travels in the seas of Eastern Asia in 1816

2.45-3.15pm Ms Grace Koh (SOAS, University of London)
British perceptions of Chosŏn Korea as reflected in Basil Hall’s Account of a Voyage

3.15-3.45pm Coffee Break

SESSION 3 — Late 19th Century Encounters: Mutual Perceptions of Korea and Great Britain as Reflected in Travel Literature

3.45-4.15pm Dr Yoong-Hee Jo (Academy of Korean Studies)
Travel accounts of two Britons in Chosŏn Korea in the late 19th century: A. E. J. Cavendish’s Korea and the Sacred White Mountain

4.15-4.45pm Mr Seung-u Kim (Korea University)
Travel account of a Korean envoy in London: Yi Chongung’s Sŏyu kyŏnmunnok

SESSION 4 — Early 20th Century Korean Reactions to Foreign Encounters: Perceptions and Literary Modes

4.45-5.15pm Ms Yun-Hee Kim (Korea University)
Provincial literati’s perceptions of the West as reflected in the Haeyuga

5.15pm-5.45pm Dr Hyung-dae Lee (Korea University)
Perceptions of Western civilization and literary modes of expression in newspapers of the Korean Enlightenment period: Editorials and poems published in the Tongnip shinmun and Taehan maeil shinbo

5.45-6.00pm Closing Remarks


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