Friday, October 30, 2009

Korean Identity?

(Image from San-Shin)

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.

The question is therefore not so much "What is a Korean?" as "What is a Korean to be?"
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.

But if others want to present their own answers to this question, have at it in the comments.

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At 6:43 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When discussing any identity, let's remember that identities, like everything else, are impermanent. What distinguished a Korean 100 years ago is not the same as what distinguishes a Korean today.

At 7:35 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Agreed. For instance, 100 years ago, Christianity was negligible in Korea and had almost no influence on Korean identity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:17 AM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Felicitously written, as usual.

But I'm puzzled by your assertion that "the term 'Asian' does not designate inclusion within a larger culture." Of course, this is true if one accepts the Western definition of "Asian", which carelessly lumps together several distinct cultures. On the other hand, if one is a bit more careful and limits one's view to east Asia, then it is undeniable that there was once a fairly unified Sinitic culture prevalent in the territory now known as China that extended to Vietnam, Japan and, especially, Korea. Moreover, there were very deliberate and concerted attempts to revivify this sinitic culture in the late 19th and early 20th century, when it was perceived as being under assualt by the "west", and to resurrect it, under the banner of "Asian values" in the late 29oth and early 21st centuries.

I don't think the story is quite complete without some reference to these phenomena, especially to the collapse of the so-called East Asian world order at the end of the 19th century.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

In writing that "the term 'Asian' does not designate inclusion within a larger culture," I was arguing within the context of Ortega y Gasset's remark about Europe being the only continent with a content.

But if I were doing an analysis of civilizations, then for a Korean to state "I am a Northeast Asian" would certainly designate inclusion with Sinitic civilization -- or, at least, it would have meant this in the not-too-distant past.

I've previously done that sort of Huntingtonian analysis, but I've got a few other fish to fry in this paper on Korean identity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

PS: Sperwer, I've now tweaked the wording slightly to be more precise.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:38 AM, Blogger Horembala said...

From the perspective from religion, the oldest religion in Korea is shamanism. Buddhism was quite foreign religion until it was introduced into Korea in 372. And some shaman elements were amalgamated into Buddhism as seen in Chilsung-gak(칠성각, 七星閣) in Korean Buddhist temples.

Confucianism also came later during the three-country era of Goguryeo, Bakjae, and Shilla. Even during the strongly Confucian Joseon dynasty, kings worshiped Dangun as their ancestor. Actually, the name of the nation, Joseon originated from Dangun Joseon, which is credited to be the first established country in Korea.

Christianity has, in many ways, inculturated into shamanism. Here are interesting books on shamanistic Korean Protestantism: "Theology, Ideology, and Culture”( David Kwang-Sun Seo, 1983) in which the author argues that "Korean Protestantism has almost been reduced to a Christianized mudang religion" And another book is Shamanistic Influences in Korean Pentecostal Christianity: An Analysis (Jeremy Reynalds).

I am a Catholic and I think Catholic Church in Korea has been least influenced by shamanism because of her strong hierarchy, but even among the Catholics, occasionally I have heard that some ajummas went to mudang for fortune telling. In my opinion, it seems that shaman elements still are influential in Koreans’ life.

At 11:43 AM, Blogger Horembala said...

And here are the links of the books I mentioned: "Theology, Ideology, and Culture".  The chapter 2 Shamanism: the Religion of Han is worth to read to understand the shamanistic Korean Protestantism.  And another book, Shamanistic Influences in Korean Pentecostal Christianity: An Analysis by Jeremy Reynalds.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Peter Kim, thanks for the references and links. I'll take a look.

In my longer article, I talk about some of the things that you note, and I link shamanism with Dangun worship -- though by way of Hwang Sok-yong's novel The Guest.

If you do a search for Hwang Sok-yong on my blog, you'll find a lot on that.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:59 PM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...

working the posts backwards..

I'd just also pimp a book I've been editing..

Ehwa University is about to publish its "Korean Studies" textbook and it has a great chapter on religion that pretty much demonstrates the point that Peter Kim is making.

You absolutely can't underestimate the extent to which shamanism underlies Korean culture......

Went to Gyeongbokgung on Friday to see the "cultural event" and pretty much everything in it (e.g. Pungmul) could be directly tied to some aspect of shamanism...

At 6:58 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CM, in my Korean identity article, I probably manage to underestimate Korean shamanism.

Jeffery Hodges

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