The Korean peasants’ revolt

Anyone who has read Yi Mun-yol’s popular book The Poet may be interested in a new book which sets out the historical background. In Yi’s fictional biography, the poet Kim Sakkat is ostracised from society, condemned to life as a vagabond, because of his grandfather’s actions during the peasants’ revolt in Northest Korea in 1812. From the publisher’s website:

Marginality and Subversion in Korea

by Sun Joo Kim

Marginality and SubversionIn the history of Korea, the nineteenth century is often considered an age of popular rebellions. Scholarly approaches have typically pointed to these rebellions as evidence of the progressive direction of the period, often using the theory of class struggle as an analytical framework. In Marginality and Subversion in Korea, Sun Joo Kim argues that a close reading of the actors and circumstances involved in one of the century’s major rebellions, the Hong Kyongnae Rebellion of 1812, leads instead to more complex conclusions.

Drawing from primary sources in Korean, Japanese, and classical Chinese, this book is the most extensive study in the English language of any of the major nineteenth-century rebellions in Korea. Whereas previous research has focused on economic and landlord-tenant tensions, suggesting that class animosity was the dominant feature in the political behaviour of peasants, Sun Joo Kim explores the role of embittered local elites in providing vital support in the early stages to spur social change that would benefit these elites as much as the peasant class. Later, however, many of these same elites would rally to the side of the state, providing military and material contributions to help put down the rebellion. Kim explains why these opportunistic elites became discontented with the state in the scramble for power, prestige, and scarce resources, and why many ultimately worked to rescue and reinforce the Choson dynasty and the Confucian ideology that would prevail for another one hundred years.

This sophisticated, groundbreaking study will be essential reading for historians and scholars of Korean studies, as well as those interested in early modern East Asia, social transformation, rebellions, and revolutions.

Review Quote:
“Kim argues convincingly that it was neither desperate peasants nor ambitious new economic forces but rather traditional local elites, frustrated by their marginalization from the centre and by government policies that threatened to undermine both their status and their financial well-being, who plotted and carried out the rebellion.” John B. Duncan, UCLA

I can’t comment on the publisher’s blurb (the Concise Britannica refers to Hong Kong-nae as a “fallen yangban”, suggesting that “embittered local elites” is not a completely new idea), but this looks like an interesting read, and it’s gone on to my ever growing wishlist.


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