Han Yongun: Questioning a monk’s nation-building project

More details about this Friday’s seminar at SOAS

Friday, January 29th, 5pm, room G50 (main building)
Jung-Shim Lee, Leiden University
Han Yongun’s posthumous novel Death: Questioning a monk’s nation-building project


This paper will explore how a Korean monk Han Yongun produced Confucian-inspired nation-building ideas in his novel Death (죽음, 1924). Han Yongun (韓龍雲, 1879-1944) is Korea’s most recognized and renowned Buddhist, nationalist and poet active during the colonial period. In today’s Korea in which colonial history becomes, as Yonson Ahn (2008) calls, a “site of contestation” and a controversial issue as it is deeply entangled with contemporary political tensions inside and outside the country, this historical person plays an important role specially in the process of de-colonization, re-nationalisation, and globalization. He is assumed as one of a very few colonial intellectuals who demonstrated a pure form of nationalism characterized by anti-Japanese resistance, non-compromising and non-collaborative attitudes toward the colonial authorities. It is popularly believed that his nationalism could remain just and undaunted thanks to its grounding in profound Buddhist philosophy. His literary products are often high evaluated on account of its intimacy with his lofty Buddhism and ardent national spirit.

Was Han Yongun in actuality such a faultless national hero? Is there nothing we can critically think about? Was his idea of nationalism purely original without being contaminated by ideological streams of the outside world? Was his Buddhism subservient to the national ideals and goals without any problem? As scholars such as Seungsook Moon (1998) suggest, a vision of nationalism is no such thing as a settled homogenous whole but a process “to build a unified and independent community, distinguished from others…depending upon who produces the ideas about a nation and how to build it.” Recently, some scholars have begun to critically examine how Han’s nationalism was formed and developed, in particular, under the strong influence of a Chinese thinker Liang Qichao, disproving its attribute of originality. In line with their critical approaches, I will argue that Han’s literary texts, in particular this posthumously published novel Death, can be new and alternative sources which inform us the untold side of his vision for nation-building: constructing a nation based upon the Confucian view of womanhood and gender roles. With this, I will challenge the conventional view of his Buddhist nationalism and its characteristics of purity, originality and anti-colonial resistance. I will emphasize how Han shared identity building not only with male Korean nationalists but also with colonizer and reproduced a same sort of control and violence over the colonized women as in colonialism.

Speaker Bio:

Jung-Shim Lee is a PhD Candidate who is finishing her dissertation on “Buddhist authors in colonial Korea.” Her research interest is the intimate relationship of colonial history, religion and literature. Regarding Buddhist writers and their literary texts as historical actors and alternative historical sources respectively, she examines how literature and religion created multilayered sociopolitical experiences and voices from colonial Korea which the conventional historical narrative failed to notice. Controversial issues such as historical memories, nation-building process, wartime collaboration, gender and re-invention of tradition are brought into discussion. Recently, she is working as a research assistant for the AKS sponsored research project of “History as a social process” in the Centre for Korean studies, Leiden University. As her selected publications: “Wŏnhyo taesa: the hidden transcript of a Buddhist novel” in One Hundred Years of Change: Korean Religion and Literature in the 20th Century. KAREC Discussion Paper Vol.6, No.7, 2005; “Fifteenth-century history and Buddhist approaches to colonial landscape in Hong Sayong’s writings from the early 1920s” in Korea in the Middle- Korean Studies and Area Studies: Essays in Honour of Boudewijn Walraven. Ed. Remco E. Breuker. Leiden: Research School CNWS, 2007; “New for old: Kim Ir-yǒp’s Buddhist stories in the age of yǒnae” in ArOr (Archiv orientálni)Vol.76/2008.

(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.

One thought on “Han Yongun: Questioning a monk’s nation-building project

  1. Brief notes from the talk, which probably involve getting hold of the wrong end of several sticks:

    Han Yongun was the most renowned Buddhist nationalist poet of the colonial period. He was jailed for his involvement in the March 1st movement, and composed his famous poetry cycle “Silence of my love” while in prison. His novel “Death” was written in 1924 after his release from prison.

    At its centre is the concept of Free Love (Yeonae, where, among other things, a woman can choose the man she marries) – a notion new to colonial Korea of the 1920s.

    The plot involves a love triangle: Yŏngok, a female student; Chongch’ŏl, an educated intellectual; and Sŏngyŏl, a rich married man. Sŏngyŏl’s objective is to get Yŏngok to be his concubine. He speaks in “New Woman” clichés, using phrases such as “Flame of Love” (the title of a contemporary book about the “New Woman”) and “chastity is fluid” (chastity being something that can start afresh with each new relationship): his view is that “love transcends all” – particularly the fact that he is married.

    But Han Yongun criticises this viewpoint as being decadent and sees the “student concubine” (Yŏhaksaeng ch’ŏp) as a shallow, self-indulgent figure who is chasing money.

    Han Yongun, a Buddhist, seems to reinvent the Confucian concept of female chastity, in which the view of Love is something that is given by men and received by women. The unchaste woman is seen as unreliable (the unchaste woman in the novel has a loose tongue and ends up betraying the network of patriots); and will end life in misery because of her lack of chastity. Instead, love for love’s sake should become love for the sake of the nation – a more Confucian concept – in which the loving relationship is intended to nurture the future heroes of the nation.

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