In a recent post, I noted that I'd been 'officially' asked to respond to the question of Korean identity, not for any expertise on my part but probably just for an outsider's perspective. In that post, I drew on the French philosopher Rémi Brague to note that a German, for example, could state "I am a European" and mean something more than geographic, whereas a Korean could not make an equivalent statement in saying, "I am an Asian," for the term "Asian" does not designate inclusion within a unified larger culture. Instead, a Korean's equivalent statement would be "I am a Korean." I then asked:
But what does that mean -- what is a Korean?In my article, currently in progress, I respond to this question by drawing further upon Brague:
Perhaps a contra-Braguean turn can help us approach an answer to this question. Brague begins his analysis of European cultural identity geographically by drawing a pair of cartographical dichotomies, a north-south axis to separate West from East and an east-west axis to separate North from South. These axes have shifted over time -- east or west and north or south -- with the vicissitudes of history, but they are understood as lines of cultural exclusion. Yet, let us initially approach the question of Korean identity in an opposite manner, as a series of inclusions, a procedure that entails surveying some rather familiar territory.I then give a potted summary concerning the 'eccentric' influence of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity in Korea before turning to the enthnocentric Korean religion of 'Dangunism'. On none of these four do I have anything original to say . . . except perhaps on the Dangun legend, where I address the ethnic mixing implicit in the story (and even on that, I'm not especially original). Nor do I have anything of particularly special insight to offer as an answer to the original question as I conclude my article:
Perhaps we should now finally return to the question with which we began our inquiry: "What is a Korean?" One is tempted to respond with platitudes. For example: a true Korean combines the universal sympathy of the Buddha and the all-encompassing love of Christ with the solemn dignity of Confucius, the teachings of all three having been grafted onto the ancient trunk of the sandalwood tree under which Dangun sat and taught. Such a nation of eccentrically centered 'Eastern Learning' (donghak) individuals would be an imagined community indeed! Granted, these four great teachers have had profound pedagogical influence in Korea, and Korea is a land that respects teachers, but their teachings do not mutually cohere. Conflict is therefore inescapable, even in a nation that highly extols harmony. Moreover, the teachings of a particular tradition are not always well-learned. We thus too often meet with the indifferent Buddhist, the hateful Christian, the arrogant Confucian, and the exclusivist 'Dangunian'. But whether we encounter the good or the bad, we begin to recognize that for better or for worse, Korea itself is rapidly changing into an even more complex, increasingly multiethnic society that contains the world.As you see, nothing surprising in this, but I figure better safe than sorry in summing up what is meant by "Korean Identity?" -- my article's provisional title.
The question is therefore not so much "What is a Korean?" as "What is a Korean to be?"
But if others want to present their own answers to this question, have at it in the comments.