When a PowerPoint presentation can hold your attention for almost two hours…

Dosan Seowon
Dosan Seowon in Andong, established in memory of Toegye Yi Hwang (image source)

How long is it since the time when we could go in person to a talk given by a real person in an actual physical room? I reckon it’s around 15 months. Since the beginning of March last year, Zoom has been the norm. Online talks do have advantages over a traditional lecture theatre: you can attend talks the other side of the world or bring together speakers from different time ones so that you can have conversations that would never otherwise be possible.

But when all one’s intellectual and recreational stimuli originate from the same 19 inch screen – the same screen through which you live your work life – the appeal of online cultural events eventually wears off. Which possibly explains why since the beginning of the pandemic my event write-ups have slowed to a trickle. Despite some entertaining and informative online moments moments (Poet Lee Hyemi and her translator Soje joking about handsome diving instructors, or the genuine warmth shared by Kim Kkobbi and Kim Soy in their conversation with Anton Bitel) I just haven’t felt moved to write much.

So I find myself surprised that my first event write-up for two months is about what was pretty much an online two hour PowerPoint presentation. Sounds dire? Well, not all PowerPoints are equal.

As it happens, it was the first event I had ever organised for LKL. Why? Because I wanted to attend the talk myself. This might seem odd when there’s such a glut of online talks and discussions available. But I’ve found that most online talks don’t hold my attention. That’s partly because many of them nowadays tend to be late morning to enable speakers from Korea to join. For me, that’s in the middle of the working day, and so my mind is half in work mode rather than focusing on the seminar. Another reason is that, simply, the topics haven’t grabbed me or, if they have, the pacing of the discussion, perhaps slowed down by the need for interpretation, just hasn’t held my attention with the pressure of work never far from the mind.

But David Mason’s talk on Korean Confucianism – its development in China, its adoption in Korea, snapshots of the different sages and scholars developed it and descriptions of the academy-shrines associated with them, recently listed as UNESCO world heritage – held my attention from start to finish. It helped, I suspect, that the talk was scheduled for 6:30pm, after I’d logged off from the office’s Citrix connection. (Thanks are due to David, a self-confessed night owl, for delivering the talk in the small hours of the morning from his perspective).

Anyone who has dabbled in reading generalist history books about Korea will have a passing acquaintance with some of the names involved in the development of Confucian thought, but what I needed was something to put all those names in order, highlight the changes in ideas introduced at various points in the philosophy’s history, and summarise some of the key themes. David’s talk did precisely that, providing a structure for me to organise the chronology. Along the way he provided details and anecdotes that filled in some of my knowledge gaps and explained some of those things that I didn’t realise needed explanation – for example,  the emergence of the symbols on the South Korean national flag.

Also, I’d always wondered why so many stone inscriptions in Korea are mounted on the back of a stone tortoise. While some explanations of this quirk rely on the tortoise being a symbol of longevity, Mason suggested that the inscriptions, which are also usually topped by images of dragons flying in the heavens, express the Confucian-Buddhist-Daoist trinity of Cheon-Ji-In: Earth, Heaven and Humanity. The inscription declares the human events being commemorated, while the heaven-dwelling dragons and earth-bound tortoise completes the trinity.

Mason touched on some of the key thinkers and texts in Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism – the latter’s origins being traced to a “viral” memorial written by Song dynasty scholar Han Yu (768 – 824) which protested against the pomp and ceremony attending the arrival in China of a finger-bone of the Buddha.

Unlike most Zoom seminars, I felt compelled to take notes, so that I would be able to refer to them later. In fact, I took nine pages of notes. It inspired me to want to purchase books such as Michael C Kalton’s volumes on Yi Hwang’s Ten Diagrams on Sage Learning and the Four-Seven Debate, or one of the various modern books devoted to the thinking of Dasan Jeong Yak-yong. And I wouldn’t mind attending the talk again – there was so much to take in that I need to consolidate the information.

I was not alone in my enjoyment of the talk. One attendee messaged me thus:

So much to take in but also so much knowledge I garnered. I can’t wait for the next one.

Another one wrote thus:

Thank you Philip for organising. Fascinating stuff. I look forward to news of David’s Korean Buddhism talk!

So the pressure now seems on to organise a follow-up, which might come in a couple of months. Before then, members of the British Korean Society have the opportunity to hear David talk about Korea’s UNESCO world heritage sites. Or you can organise your own talk via ToursByLocals, which is what I did.

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