A review of The Wisdom of Korea authored by Professor Chao Yi-ping.
It was the blurb on the cover which first attracted me to this book:
Over the past 2000 years, the Korean people have never given up their own cultural characteristics. They have never spiritually given in to evil forces. Most importantly of all, they have never given up hope. When they have come across the implacable force of fate, they have yet, from beginning to end, maintained hope and patience. They have put up with enormous difficulties, and developed a myriad ways to persevere to the end. This is the essence of ' hate.'
- from the Chin Ta-Zhong Collection
That sentence about hate really caught my attention.
It reminded me of something P.J. O'Rourke wrote in "Seoul Brothers": When the kid in the front row at the rally bit off the tip of his little finger and wrote, Kim Dae Jong, in blood on his fancy white ski jacket -- I think that was the first time I ever really felt like a foreign correspondent. I mean, here was something really fucking foreign.
Despite the gabble about not giving up their own cultural characteristics, that blurb was placed right below a picture of a distinctively Chinese looking temple, a shot of martial arts, and a Taoist drum with the yinyang symbol. But it is inspiring that the Koreans have never given up hope. The sentence following this one is more political slogan than history; more of an attempt at poetry than a try to convey information or meaning. As far as the essence of hate is concerned, a Taiwanese historian had pointed that out in another book and I had been suspicious. Not anymore.
The book starts off with an introduction to the history of Korea. It outlines with great sympathy the achievements of various heroic tyrants and tries to demonstrate an unbroken connection between the wisdom of Koreans in traditional times and modern times. Wisdom presumably refers to cunning and deftness in everything from negotiations with imperial China to protecting the national borders to extirpating other clans, muzzling the intelligentsia, milking businesspeople, and assassinating dissidents. Judging by the tough times that Korea had to put up with through 1987, when democracy finally arrived, the author has a point.
One gets the feeling that historically proud nationalists, like the author, and who arise from the great grandfather cultures of the Far East, have a rather limited appreciation and fondness for democracy. Like many of the region's nationalists, he's caught in a limbo between fascism and statism: with the first representing the right and the second representing the left; conservatism versus liberalism as he conceives it. Methinks he's not quite thought through this. He might be confused. But he clearly and emphatically wants some fellow border-protecting charismatic genius, a brand-new Great White Korean Hope, with a grand vision of the big picture, and no time for details like collateral damage, to pick us up and take us to glory.
And this author continues the tradition of filling in awkward gaps in historical knowledge to make history more appealing to the public. There is a repeated conflation of fact and authorial fiction, the addition of dialogue invented to make the story more populist and accessible; to convince readers that these historical figures are guys and dolls just like you and me. Mass murders, geniuses, witch-doctors, in-bred loony-tunes, etc, shared our world view. And everything happens for a simple and emotion-driven reason: honor, pride, jealousy, avarice, lust. His aim is to generate legend and folklore for (fellow) simpletons.
The last time a major American historian did this that I can recall was when Edmund Morris wrote a biography of Reagan entitled Dutch. Because Reagan was such a lummox, despite Morris buttonholing and trying to chat him up in the Great White Jail for years on end, it was simply impossible to get the man to utter more than political slogans. Beyond Reagan's dislike of talking about himself, there appears to have been Reagan's widely-reported feebleness.
..Mitterrand's judgment upon Reagan was scathing: "The man was a nonentity. A complete nonentity." - from Dying Without God: Francois Mitterrand's Meditations on Living and Dying
Morris felt he had not choice but to put his creative talents to work. He got tanned for it by the reviewers. Quite deservedly.
Another reason that historians such as Professor Chao turn to the writing of folklore instead of history is because they have nothing to add to the field. It's much easier to add simple and life-like human touches than to spit on one's hands and actually get down to the drudgery of doing one's homework. It's drudgery because for most professional historians, history is as boring today as it was back in high school. History is just another job, less exciting than driving a taxi perhaps but it pays better and provides better opportunities for laying coeds.
Alternatively, the author could have connected the dots and come up with something original. But nationalists tend not to think with their brains but rather to feel with their hearts. If he was in the habit of connecting the dots, it's much more likely that he would be an internationalist; a person who wants a borderless world.
This book also has the heavy stuffiness of the career academic hack who’s writing another publish or perish tome for a captive audience. The only people who will get to read this book in its entirety will be the publishers and a few poor students chained to their desks, required to purchase the professor's textbook on penalty of flunking.
It was also hard to avoid the conclusion that this author, a professor at Fudan University, is an academic edition of Lu Hsun's Ah-Q. The latter was a bumbling literary figure caught between Chinese traditional and contemporary values. At least one Chinese historian has suggested Ah-Q was a parody of the great national bumbler himself, Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
On the one hand, the author seems patently incapable of thinking for himself. It's much worse here given the rigidity of the national culture, where ideational sterility takes on the form of a paralytic psychosis. He has the rustic habit of repeating everything several times because he does not have the wherewithal to move from thought to thought without prodigies of mental labor. Farming culture, over thousands of years, has developed habits, mores, and traditions that are excellent for mass-producing peasants with the patience to watch cattle, plant rice, chew hay seeds, dig mulch, and otherwise be satisfied and satiated doing the same repeated farm chores day in and day out, year in and year out, till death do farmer and his chores part. This author seems to have suffered mightily as an academic and I feel certain he'd be much happier where he to be planted back on his folks farm.
To drive home my point, perhaps it's best I translate something of the professor's scholarship for you. I had to partake of forty pages of his sovereign wisdom and I'm happy to give you a homeopathic dose of it here. For those of us who work as translators, the following tail-chasing stuff seems all too familiar. This is from the last chapter I was able to get down. The chapter is entitled Peninsular Wisdom and Human Wisdom.
The histories of all peoples and nations, by definition, have all challenged their geopolitical and culturally fated histories. Even China and Japan are this way. It is not the case that it’s simply limited to the peninsula of Korea. However, when it comes to the wisdom that the Korean peninsula developed while challenging its own geopolitical and cultural fate, just what special characteristics does it display in comparison with others?
The most fundamental characteristic is its peninsular format. Korea's peninsular culture has an essence that can be described as a sort of peninsular culture. It is different from the continental culture that is representative of China's culture. It is different from the maritime culture or island culture that is representative of Japan's culture. It is right in the middle of these and intertwined with both. At the same time, it is however different from both.
As such, the traditional wisdom of the Korean peninsula, in its fundamentals, can be described as a sort of peninsular wisdom. It is a response to the basic peninsular culture. It is different from the Chinese style of continental wisdom and different from the Japanese style of maritime wisdom or island wisdom. It is caught right in between both and interacts with both. At the same time it is yet different from both.
Continental wisdom challenges continental geopolitics and cultural fate. Maritime wisdom or island wisdom challenges oceanic island geopolitical and cultural fates. Peninsular wisdom, naturally, challenges peninsular geopolitics and cultural fate.
Forty pages of this stuff. Imagine! And there's another 260 pages more.
News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.
- ► 2005 (94)