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Book review: The Dawn of Modern Korea

Lankov: The Dawn of Modern KoreaAndrei Lankov – The Dawn of Modern Korea
EunHaeng NaMu publishing, 2008

This entertaining book has, paradoxically, taken me a devil of a long time to finish. That’s not because it’s difficult. It’s because it’s the opposite.

The book is co-branded with a series of articles that Andrei Lankov has been writing for the Korea Times since 2002. Very interesting articles lasting on average three or four pages. The sort of feature article it’s a pleasure to read on a lazy weekend, if you can find it the the pull-out section among the glossy advertisements. But these are individual articles none the less, with very little joining them together.

The book could have done with some editorial oversight – twice in the same article were are told that Seoul’s first large-scale electricity generating plant was located near Dongdaemun, while in two consecutive articles we are reminded that Seoul changed hands four times during the course of the Korean war. These lapses suggests that we are only meant to read the book one article at a time, and with around 100 chapters in the book, that’s going to take a while.

The collection is ideal for the bedside table, or, dare one say, for the smallest room in the house, because more than two articles at once is too much. It’s even unsuitable for reading on the tube, because after three stops you want to read something else.

That’s not to say the book is dull. Far from it. There are fascinating little snippets of information: how King Kojong used the telephone as a way to take part in rituals to commemorate his deceased consort without leaving the comfort of his palace; how the stigma attached to young women smoking in public is a relatively recent phenomenon. All sorts of little factoids which will enhance your understanding of modern Korea. And the popularist style of writing (rather too many jolly exclamation marks for a broadsheet audience) belies the wealth of research and learning that underlies each and every article. If you’ve mastered this book, you are well on the way to being Korean twentieth century history pub quiz champion.

As the title suggests, the book focuses on 20th century social developments, and does it in handy nibble-sized pieces. When was the first Chinese restaurant opened? When did women start getting paid employment? When was the last tiger hunt? These and more are all discussed in a user-friendly way. The articles are roughly in chronological order, so that we start with the arrival of Christianity and finish with a discussion of migrant workers.

Not to be read from cover to cover, but one to be opened at random and enjoyed for 5 minutes or so at a time. Recommended.


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