"Korean Identity?" in Philosophy and Reality
At the request of a Korean friend of mine, Yoon Pyung-joong (윤평중), who teaches philosophy at Hanshin University (where I once taught English), I've recently written a somewhat general article on "Korean Identity" ("한국인은 누가 될 것인가?") and had it printed in the quarterly journal Philosophy and Reality (철학과 현실), a publication issued by the Research Institute of Philosophy and Culture (철학문화연구소), which has put out three other articles on Korean identity in the same volume, each of these three having been written by Koreans.
Some will note that the article's title in Korean differs: ("한국인은 누가 될 것인가?" = "What is a Korean to be?" (rather than "Korean Identity"). That was an editorial choice on the part of the journal. Anyone who might go to the trouble to read both the English and the Korean versions of the article itself might also notice that the former is longer. The shortened Korean version is also an 'editorial' decision -- by my wife. In translating, she shortened the parts that would be obvious to Koreans . . . so as to preclude my appearing like a fool (which might or might not have succeeded). I don't expect anyone to be greatly impressed by my views anyway, for I state what is fairly well known and offer no fine-grained analysis.
At any rate, the article follows below, and regular readers will recognize some passages from blog entries in which I worked through my thoughts.
Horace Jeffery Hodges
Ewha Womans University
In his insightful book Eccentric Culture: A Theory of Western Civilization (Europe, la voie romaine), a fascinating analysis of European cultural identity, the French philosopher Rémi Brague relates an anecdote about Ortega y Gasset. The latter had recently returned from America and was asked the reason for his return. He answered with a pun of ambiguity:
"Europa es el único continente que tiene un contenido."The Spanish word "continente" means both "continent" and "container," permitting either of two translations for Ortega's reply: "Europe is the only continent that has a content" and "Europe is the only container that has a content." He meant both, and one sees what he meant. Europe has a cultural unity that other continents lack.
Perhaps Europe's cultural unity is less impressive as a unique fact when one reflects that this continent is the artifact of an arbitrary line drawn to separate what is considered 'Europe' from what is considered 'Asia.' Looked down upon from above, Europe seems merely an Asian peninsula.
But the imaginary line exists in everyone's mind. To its west, Europe. To its east, Asia. West of the line, we find a civilization that integrated Athens and Jerusalem. East of the line, however, we find many civilizations. To be identified as "Asian" is therefore only a geographical distinction and implies nothing about one's cultural identity. Whereas a German might casually remark, "I am a European," and thereby make a recognizable statement of cultural identity, a Korean would not formulate a corresponding remark in stating, "I am an Asian."
For a Korean to offer a parallel statement of cultural identity, the formulation would have to be, "I am a Korean."
But what does that mean -- what is a Korean?
2. Eccentric Inclusions
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.
First would perhaps be Buddhism, which arrived on the Korean peninsula as early as the fourth century AD, with the monk Sundo entering the Kingdom of Goguryeo in 372 and the monk Marananta entering the Kingdom of Baekje in 384. Buddhism was slower to enter the Kingdom of Silla, where it was resisted by the upper classes until 527, when the court official Ichadon announced that he had become a Buddhist and was promptly beheaded. Legend says that Ichadon's head flew off into the distance and that milk rather than blood streamed from the body as the earth quaked, the sun grew dark, and glorious flowers rained down from the heavens. Whatever might actually have occurred that day, Ichadon's martyrdom led to acceptance of Buddhism as Silla's official religion. By the sixth century, therefore, Buddhism was well established on the peninsula, and it continued to grow in power and influence during the Unified Silla period (668-918) and the Goryeo period (918-1392). Although Buddhism explicitly encourages its adherents to seek individual enlightenment on a path toward nirvana, which can be characterized as its vertical dimension, it has also an implicitly egalitarian horizontal dimension in which Buddhists are exhorted to identify with all sentient beings, who are suffering in this illusory world of desires, and to instruct all beings in renouncing desire, which is responsible for suffering. As an otherworldly religion with implications for moral action in the temporal world, Buddhism shaped Korean metaphysics and infused Korean ethics with what the writer Lee Gwang-su (이광수) articulates as "the Buddhist philosophy of sacrificial service, treating everyone as likewise benevolent and interconnected" (The Soil). Understood in terms of its cultural influence, Buddhism brought to Korea the ethical-meditative aspect of Indian identity, albeit mediated by its passage through Central Asia and China.
Despite its longstanding power and influence, Buddhism and Buddhist values and ethics were partially eclipsed by a surgent Confucianism pressing its countervailing values and ethics with the rise of a new unified state under the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). This shift may have come suddenly, as Joseon abruptly superceded Goryeo, but Confucianism's presence on the peninsula actually went back several centuries. It seems to have entered by way of Goguryeo, but Baekje more thoroughly integrated Confucianism into its administrative system, thereby ensuring its influence on the culture. As was the case with Buddhism, Silla was last to adopt Confucianism for administrative purposes, and Goryeo inherited its use of Confucianism from Silla, but only in the Joseon period was Confucianism established as an all-encompassing system intended to displace Buddhism. For over 500 years, the Joseon government encouraged Koreans to internalize Confucian teachings on establishing harmonious relationships through the three cardinal principles and the five ethical norms (samgang-oryun). The three cardinal principles (samgang) comprise: 1) loyalty to the ruler, 2) filial piety to parents, and 3) a wife's fidelity to her husband. The five ethical norms (oryun) govern human relationships and may be listed as: 1) love between parents and children, 2) faith between rulers and people, 3) distinction between husband and wife, 4) order between elders and juniors, and 5) trust between friends. Three additional rules informed women on the obedience due to men in their lives (samjongjido): 1) obeying her father before marriage, 2) obeying her husband after marriage, and 3) obeying her sons after her husband's death. All of these principles and rules pertain without exception to relationships. All apply to direct, personal relationships -- except for the limiting case of faith and loyalty to the ruler, which can be distant and abstract. All of these direct, personal relationships are understood in hierarchical terms -- except for the limiting case of close friendships, which can offer the possibility of equality. A society organized by these Confucian duties will thus be strong in vertical obligations but weak in extended horizontal relations. Because strangers in such a society lack personal relationships, they will seek to ascertain their relative status for proper hierarchical interaction, and the at times attendant jostling for position can foster disharmonious relations. Moreover, the explicit emphasis upon maintaining harmony by observing hierarchy does not encourage a culture of open discussion despite Confucianism's admirable emphasis upon education, the latter of which has left its indelible mark upon Korean culture. Understood in terms of its cultural influence, therefore, Confucianism has brought to Korea the hierarchical aspect of Chinese identity, with its emphasis upon learning the Confucian classics and applying them toward governing the state and society.
Both Buddhism and Confucianism have profoundly shaped Korean identity, and despite their obvious differences, both agree upon at least one crucial thing: the intrinsic goodness of the human being. For Buddhism, the goodness is to be uncovered by stripping away desires. For Confucianism, the goodness is to be drawn out by encouraging proper obligations. A third great external influence upon Korean identity has come to Korea with a more negative view of human nature: Christianity. This religion initially entered Korea with the Japanese invasions of the 1590s through the Catholic commander Konishi Yukinaga, but Catholicism had no impact upon Korea at that time because the priests were not allowed to proselytize. In the early 1600s, however, Korean diplomats began returning from China with Jesuit material on Catholic theology that gained the interest of some scholars, and Christian ideas obtained an indigenous foothold without the direct influence of foreign missionaries. By 1784, Catholicism had grown enough for the diplomat Yi Sung-hun, who had been baptized in Beijing, to establish a prayer-house in Pyongyang. But the new religion of Christianity was resisted by most Confucians and even persecuted by the state and thus did not begin to make mass converts until the late nineteenth century when the Korean government began to allow Protestant missionaries into Korea in the hope of gaining Western protection. Christianity in both its Catholic and Protestant forms was associated with Western science and technology, for the early Jesuit treatises also brought the fruits of the scientific revolution and the later Protestant missions brought Western medicine and education. In Korea, therefore, Christianity was perceived as inseparable from Westernization. Not even the 35-year-long period of Japanese colonization diminished this impression despite the fact that the Japanese suppressed Christianity in favor of Shintoism and continued the 'Westernization' of Korea without the attendant Christian ideology. Perhaps Japan's policies even encouraged the opposite result, for in the post-liberation period, Christianity began its truly phenomenal growth and now accounts for roughly one-third or more of the South Korean population. The percentage of Christians in North Korea is not known, but the number is perhaps quite low -- despite the extensive Christian population prior to the Korean War -- because the North's totalitarian government has ruthlessly suppressed Christianity there. The issue of North Korea will have to be returned to later in this discussion, for the Christian influence on Korean identity mostly concerns South Korea. As already noted, Christianity holds to a more negative view of human nature than does Buddhism or Confucianism. But there is nuance here. For Christians, human nature may be fallen, but the individual person is nevertheless formed in God's image and is oriented in a vertical dimension toward God. The horizontal dimension of Christian ethics thus makes high demands but anticipates human failure unless the effort is sustained by God's hand. One particularly steep ethical expectation is that of universal love, what Lee Gwang-su describes in The Soil as the "Christian love for humanity," a love extended even to one's enemies. In social terms, this means that Christianity contributes to a society in which strangers have obligations to one another based upon an ethic of service that treats as equal every person, whether possible enemy or potential friend. The exemplar is Christ, understood as having come to serve others, even his enemies, and draw followers into a community oriented not exclusively upon its members but also outwards toward others, as if they too belonged. Understood in terms of its cultural influence, Christianity has brought to Korea an egalitarian aspect of Western identity, with an emphasis upon the responsibility -- both collective and individual -- to treat as equals the others that one encounters, even if they be strangers.
3. Ethnocentric Exclusions
In the longer run, Christianity tends to reshape society from a shame culture to a guilt culture, for the real value of an individual is found not in what others think but in what God knows. Christian influence in Korea, however, has been of significance for only a very brief time, and Confucian values continue to predominate, maintaining a society where that which matters most of all is one's hierarchical status, undergirded by honor and threatened by shame. Confucianism would thus seem to be the dominate quality in Korean identity, though the long Buddhist presence on the peninsula has left an underlying substratum, and Christianity is growing in its significance. Korean identity would therefore appear to be what Brague calls "eccentric," centered on places that -- to its own geo-cultural sphere -- are external, namely China, India, and the West. But not all is as it appears. Koreans experienced thirty-five years of Japanese colonialism, and the post-liberation period has seen an exponential rise in Korean nationalism, a surge of feeling that pervades society and infuses the political right, left, and middle. Especially North Korea has emphasized Korean nationalism of an extreme form, for what is the North's ideology of juche other than a radically nationalistic elaboration of exclusively Korean identity? Hostility to the US and Japan, and distrust toward Russia and even China characterize the North's ethnically based ideology. The North Korean case is extreme, of course, but South Korea shares some degree of the North's ethnic nationalism and still claims Korean purity of blood as the basis for this nationalism. Koreans therefore appeal to an indigenous Korean identity that would predate Western Christianity, Chinese Confucianism, and Indian Buddhism, thereby centering Korean identity in nativist ethnocentrism.
From a thirteenth-century history book by the Buddhist monk Iryeon, Samgukyusa (삼국유사), comes a story that supposedly pushes the date of Korean origins back to 2333 BC. According to this story, the Emperor of Heaven had a son, Hwanung, who requested the right to rule what would eventually be called the Korean peninsula. The request was granted, and coincident with this request, a tiger and a bear were fasting in a cave not far from where Hwanung had descended from heaven to earth and were praying to become human beings. The tiger gave up too soon, but after 100 days patiently enduring weariness and hunger, the bear became a beautiful woman whom Hwanung made his queen. This royal couple produced the child Dangun, who engendered the Korean 'race' and became the first King of Korea, ruling from his throne in what is now Pyongyang, North Korea. Probably very few modern-day Koreans accept this story literally, but most perhaps take it as figurative of actual events. Anthropologically considered, the story might plausibly be interpreted as relating the invasion of the Korean peninsula by an advanced tribe that made an alliance with a tribe whose totem animal was a bear against a tribe whose totem animal was a tiger. Even if the story is entirely invented and purely mythological, it serves as a foundational myth for the Korean people and has been interpreted by Koreans as justifying an ethnic nationalism based on purity of blood. Understood in this manner, the myth offers a vertical dimension in the descent of all Koreans from Dangun and a horizontal dimension oriented toward exclusive inclusion of all Koreans in a tightly bound society of kin.
4. Excursus: The Guest
This use of the Dangun myth might at times be extended from purity of blood to purity of thought and thereby serve as ideological counter to outside influence. As such, only a pure Korean shamanism would be truly and entirely Korean, all other ideological systems being rejected as foreign. Koreans seldom go quite so far, but an interesting case of radical exclusiveness can be found in Hwang Sok-yong's recent novel The Guest. In this novel, the character Big Grandma holds to Korea's traditional shamanistic beliefs despite her own son's conversion to Christianity, and she demands that her great-grandson accept shamanism along with other indigenous Korean beliefs, explaining:
Our ancestor, the founding father of our race, was Tan'gun. He came down from the heavens a long, long time ago. (page 40)Concerning her son's conversion to Christianity, Big Grandma angrily explains that smallpox -- which was called "the Guest" by Koreans and was believed to have its home to the west, in the southern part of China -- is a spirit identical with the Holy Spirit of Christianity:
Ever since we were children we have known that the Guest is a western disease. A barbarian disease, they call it, from a country to the west, so it's certain that it came from the land where they believe in the Western Spirit, you see? I had to send away two sons, your grandpa's two older brothers, with the Guest. So would I be overjoyed, would I be ready to believe in the Western Spirit like my one surviving son -- or would I be angry at it -- angry forever? (page 44, changes in translation mine)Big Grandma refers to the Holy Spirit as the Western Spirit and identifies it as the same spirit from the direction west of Korea that has always been known to bring smallpox. Let us look closely at Big Grandma's reasoning. Note that she calls smallpox a "western disease" (서쪽 병: seojok byeong), indicating the direction west, because it comes from a "country to the west" (서쪽 나라: seojok nara). However, when she refers to the "Western Spirit," she uses the Korean expression yanggushin (양구신 [양 (洋) + 구신]), where yang (양 [洋]) is an abbreviation of seoyang, "The West" (서양) -- and gushin (구신) is dialect for guishin (귀신), meaning "spirit" or "ghost." Thus does Big Grandma succeed in identifying the direction "west" (서쪽) with the place "The West" (서양). In giving such voice to the character Big Grandma, Hwang Sok-yong would seem to be presenting views with which he strongly identifies, for the intense ideological fervor of the Christian characters in this novel expresses itself in cruel massacres during the Korean War, as though the old smallpox spirit had returned with vengeance in a new form to infect the very minds of Koreans.
But Hwang's critique may go even deeper by playing further on the direction "west" (서쪽) and the place "The West" (서양). Anything that had come from a western direction might be understood as suspect because not indigenously Korean. Hence, Catholicism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, which like smallpox all arrived in Korea by way of China, the country to the west, would implicitly count as western diseases (서쪽 병: seojok byeong). And Protestantism, which arrived in Korea from the West (서양: seoyang), would therefore be a Western disease. By extension, Westernization itself would amount to a Western disease, whether in the guise of Japan's colonization of Korea, which accelerated Korea's pre-colonial Westernization, or even in the guise of Marxism, another Westernizing ideology. Rather than accepting all these things western (서쪽) and Western (서양), Koreans should "Believe in the God of Chosŏn," as Hwang's non-Christian character Pak Illang exhorts the Christians who are leading him off to his execution (page 195). To believe in the God of Chosŏn (조선으 하나님: chosŏn u hananim, dialect for chosŏn ui hananim) -- the God of Korea -- would apparently mean to believe in Korea's traditional God. The term hananim (하나님) for "God" in Pak's exhortation is also the term used by Protestants, but in Pak's usage, it would seem to mean the same as Big Grandma's reference to hanunim (하느님) in her insistence on remaining faithful to Korean religion:
"Here in our Chosŏn, we say the son of God is Tan'gun." (page 42)For "son of God," she uses hanunim adeol (하느님 아덜). Both terms, hananim and hanunim, appear to be longstanding Korean expressions for God and have been explained as dialectical variants. At any rate, Hwang seems to have identified them for the purpose of his central theme, the call for a return to what is traditionally, exclusively, and authentically Korean.
5. Mixed-Up Koreans
Most Koreans do not go so far as Pak Illang urges or Big Grandma demands in terms of Korean exclusiveness, though many, perhaps a majority, do still appear to hold to the purity of blood ascribed to the Dangun myth. But does this myth in fact teach 'racial' purity? The assumption seems to be that Koreans have all descended through Dangun from that original pair, Hwanung and his queen, and never mixed with other groups. Yet even if one were to grant that Koreans have not mixed with Chinese, Japanese, Mongolians, or any other non-Korean tribes over Korea's putative 5000-year history, the Dangun story is itself a tale of mixing, as Korean anthropologists have recently begun to acknowledge. Whether one takes it literally or symbolically, mixing is presupposed, for Hwanung and his queen have radically different origins -- either from a divine being and a bear-woman or from the son of an invading tribe and the daughter of an indigenous tribe. As such, Koreans are from the outset implicitly understood as a mixed people.
Broader recognition of this mixed Korean identity implicit in the Dangun story might well be needed these days because of the precipitous rise in the percentage of international marriages or gukjaegyulhon (국제결혼). Already by 2005, international couples accounted for 10 percent of all marriages for that year in South Korea, according to official government statistics, and the numbers have been rising every year due to more foreigners settling in Korea and to many Korean men seeking foreign wives, especially from such countries as China and Vietnam, but also from Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, the United States, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Russia, among others. Foreign men residing in South Korea and marrying Korean women come from such countries as Japan, China, the United States, the Philippines, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but also from other places. As these mixed marriages bear fruit, a new, undeniably mixed population will begin to emerge, generally differing in appearance from previous generations of Koreans. This process of mixing is often called "multiculturalism" by Koreans. Multiculturalism, however, exists in Korea only as a term, not as a clear and distinct concept, for it is commonly conflated with multiethnicity, as though the two terms meant the same thing. Admittedly, an ethnic group usually does carry its own culture, but no necessary connection binds ethnicity to a particular culture. This is not especially difficult to grasp, and the Korean language does have different terms for multiculturalism, damunhwajui (다문화주의), and multiethnicity, dainjong (다인종), but the latter term rarely gets used in Korea because it sounds pejorative among a people long accustomed to the assumption of Korea's blood-based ethnic superiority. Multiethnicity can hardly be a positive thing in a country that still celebrates the purity of its Korean blood. Koreans therefore prefer to use the term "multiculturalism" even when they are talking about "multiethnicity." The children of international marriages are thus referred to as multicultural children even when these children are growing up in Korea, attending Korean schools, and becoming culturally and linguistically Korean. Such children are not multicultural, but could more accurately be called multiethnic, in the limiting sense of mixed ethnicity. Korea may therefore be developing into a multiethnic society if we mean by this the ethnically mixed children who are becoming ever more numerous, but such a process will not invariably lead to multiculturalism in Korea. For a multicultural Korea to develop, large-scale immigration of entire communities settling into self-isolating enclaves and maintaining their own cultural values would have to take place, and that does not yet seem to be happening. Nor would that be a good thing for Korea if it were to happen, for the result would likely be an unworkable radical multiculturalism of the sort that currently looms in Europe.
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 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.
The question is therefore not so much "What is a Korean?" as "What is a Korean to be?"