Bargains at SOAS publishing workshop

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It’s always worth turning up to an event when you know that book publishers are present. Brill, Saffron and Global Oriental were all present at the SOAS Korean publishing workshop on Monday. With Saffron selling their catalogue at half price on the night, and Global Oriental discounting everything to £20 (including the collected BAKS papers, list price £95), there were plenty of bargains to be had, and I managed to cancel a few items off my Amazon wishlist as well as purchase a couple of books I headn’t been tracking.

Selected writings of Han YongunThe event was partly to celebrate the launch of the Selected Writings of Han Yongun, which was done in style, with plenteous wine and nibbles plus a traditional dance from Lee Chul Jin, who performed in Trafalgar Square the week before. He will be based at SOAS for the next six months.

The launch and conference was a who’s who of Korean studies, a great way of networking and hearing the gossip. Jane Portal, for example, was present, and people were speculating as to who was going to take on her Korean responsibilities at the British Museum now she’s off to Boston.

My day job got in the way of attending the full conference, but I managed to hear most of Vladimir Tikhonov discussing the merits and demerits of available Korean history textbooks available in English. None were thought to be totally ideal, with the standard work, Korea Old and New, lacking a little in regional perspective, while other more recent works in English did not take into account the latest historical research available in Korean. Tikhonov suggested that a new text book was needed, reflecting all the latest research, maybe written by a number of different scholars. But in discussion afterwards there weren’t any volunteers to write a chapter.

A similar problem was identified by Charlotte Horlyck, who reviewed the available literature on Korean art history in English – a rather short list compared with the wealth of information and different viewpoints available in English on Chinese and Japanese art. This means that any Westerner who is serious about studying Korean art history has to learn Korean: if restricted solely to western texts a student could potentially find the subject “boring” because more or less the same artefacts are discussed in more or less the same way in many of the texts.

Some of the texts available were catalogues linked to exhibitions of Korean art in the West. Dr Horlyck gave a useful summary of recent opportunities to view Korean artefacts: earlier exhibitions gave a broad overview of the Korean art world:

  • A touring show in the US in 1979-1981: 5,000 Years of Korean Art.
  • In 1984 came Treasures from Korea: Art through 5000 years at the British Museum
  • In 1998 the Met published Arts of Korea to coincide with the opening of their permanent Korean gallery
  • Korea – die alten Koenigreiche showed in Munich and Zurich in 1999.

More specialist exhibitions followed in 2003:

  • The (New York) Japan Society’s Transmitting the Forms of Divinity: Early Buddhist Art from Korea and Japan, and
  • Goryeo Dynasty: Korea’s age of enlightenment at the Museum of Asian Art in San Francisco.

All these exhibitions produced catalogues – most of them now only available on the second hand market, though the Met’s magisterial Arts of Korea is readily available. The British Museum and the V&A have also published books to accompany their permanent collections – respectively Jane Portal’s Korea: Art and Archaeology and Beth McKillop’s Korean Art and Design. Portal’s book has unexpectedly ended up as a text book in one US school: she gets the occasional complaint that the book wasn’t written with one chapter for each week of a term.

After the slightly gloomy picture painted in the lecture theatre, it was good to see the books available in the foyer. Saffron’s translation of Lee Dongju’s The Beauty of Old Korean Paintings and Francis Mullany’s Symbolism in Korean Ink Brush Painting from Global Oriental didn’t stay on the display table for long.

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