Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Suh Ji-moon Lecture: "The Korean Yangban and the British Gentleman Compared"

Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, Seoul
Professor Suh Ji-moon Lecture
Resident's Lounge (Second Floor)
(Image Borrowed from Royal Asiatic Society)

This announcement is already old hat to anyone who reads The Marmot's Hole (and what expat in Korea doesn't?), but I'll post it anyway since I'm under the figurative weather and metaphorically snowed in by my students' final essays.

Besides, Suh Ji-moon -- literature scholar and literary translator -- is a colleague of mine at Korea University, as well as being a friend, so I'm obligated by Korea's Confucian ethics to pull strings for those with whom I have connections.

Not that I have many strings in my hands...

Anyway ... the lecture is slated for 7:30 this evening (i.e., Tuesday, December 12, 2006) and will take place in Seoul at the Somerset Palace's Resident's Lounge (2nd floor) under the auspices of the Royal Asiatic Society.

The lecture's full title reads: "The Korean Yangban and the British Gentleman Compared: Their genealogy, function, and codes of conduct." Here's the RAS summary:

The Chosun Dynasty's yangban, or the literati, and the British 'gentlemen,' are two outstanding examples of the successful institutionalization of mankind's common aspiration for the ideal human being. Both the yangban and the gentleman had as their basic qualification high moral standards and refined personal conduct. And their role in their respective society was to uphold the structure of their society and ensure their continuation through their moral and cultural guardianship of the ignorant and ignoble masses.

Both the yangban and the gentleman can boast a long lineage going back more than 2,000 years. The gentleman may be said to be a collateral descendant of the Greek and Germanic 'heroes' and the medieval knights. The yangban can claim to be the direct heir of the "junzi," the figure of moral perfection powerfully enunciated by Confucius. Both the yangban and the gentleman had to be highly cultivated and embodiments of perfect decorum to maintain their distinctive social identity and to justify their prerogatives.

Needless to point out, very few of the yangban and the gentlemen were able to (or even strove to) attain the moral and cultural perfection that they claimed as their distinctive mark, and their reason for being was often called into question.

In the case of the British gentleman, most of whom had the wherewithal of comfortable existence and were uninvolved in politics, their crimes were mostly limited to personal misconduct, and the class as a whole did serve as a stabilizing force amid the turmoil of the agricultural and the industrial revolutions. On the other hand, the yangbans, most of whom had insufficient economic means for independence and could not escape involvement in politics, ended up as deadly oppressors of the masses and cannot be exonerated from blame for the demise of the Chosun Dynasty.

As I noted at the Marmot's Hole, Suh Ji-moon a very thorough scholar and very careful, so I expect that her talk will be detailed and insightful. Unfortunately, I cannot attend, for I've other duties to attend to.

However, she spoke about this topic over lunch with my wife and me earlier in the semester, so I've already heard a bit, and it conforms with the summary above. She's also previously discussed with me her interest in systems detailing moral perfection, which the summary also goes on to note:
Tonight's lecture reflects her almost lifelong interest in mankind's aspiration for moral perfection and the success and failure of the institutionalization of the idea of government by the virtuous.
I'll have to ask her sometime how far these interests extend. One of the the current threats to global security stems from the drive for 'moral' perfection on the part of Islamist radicals who believe that without a worldwide Caliphate based on a rigorous application of Shariah, the perfect purity enjoined by Allah cannot be attained.

More quietist practices aiming at perfect religious purity exist, of course, such as in the Medieval Jewish mystical practices, e.g., the Zohar, about which one can read in Elliot R. Wolfson's article "Light through Darkness: The Ideal of Human Perfection in the Zohar," in the Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 81, No. 1 (Jan., 1988), pp. 73-95.

But I'm getting rather far from the topic at hand. If anyone attends Professor Suh Ji-moon's lecture, I'd be grateful for a report.


At 6:20 PM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

"She's also previously discussed with me her interest in systems detailing moral perfection..."

Have you perchance read Mencius and Aquinas: Theories of Virtue and Conceptions of Courage by Lee H. Yearley? Interesting comparative study.


At 6:30 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

No, I've never even heard of it, which shows just how limited I am. I really know far too little about Eastern thought.

Jeffery Hodges

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