Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919

Korean Studies Review recently posted a review by Michael Finch of Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919, by Andre Schmid (Columbia U. Press, 2002), which reminds us how much Korea followed Japanese models of modernization before, during, and after it was colonized by Japan.

In his introduction Schmid discusses the major themes to be covered in the book: namely, the role of newspapers in defining the nation, Korea’s disengagement from its traditional orientation toward China, the centrality of ‘capitalist modernity’ to both Korean nationalism and Japanese colonialist thought, the importance of Sin Ch’aeho’s “ethnic definition of the nation” as minjok, (p. 16) and the way in which the parameters and frameworks of nationalist discourse in Korean newspapers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to influence the debate on Korean nationalism today.

The opening chapter, “The Universal Winds of Civilization,” examines the concept of munmyông kaehwa (“civilization and enlightenment”). Schmid’s choice of the year 1895 as a starting point for his study is significant in that this year saw the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War and China’s official renunciation of its suzerain status over Korea in the Treaty of Shimonoseki (17 April 1895)….

Along with the rise of Korean nationalism came a rising sense of East Asian racial solidarity as defined by the term Pan-Asianism, which saw East Asia as united by the common threat of Western imperialist intrusion into the region. In this world view, held by many of the reformists including the Protestant reformer Yun Ch’iho, Japan was cast in the role of defender of the East and was even supported by the Hwangsông sinmun during the Russo-Japanese War–although as the Korean capital was effectively under the control of Japan during this period, it may to some extent have been coerced into adopting this pro-Japanese line. With the signing of the Japanese-Korean Treaty of Protection in 1905, however, all illusion evaporated. As Schmid makes clear in this chapter, a naivety toward Japanese intentions appears to have been a major weakness of the proponents of munmyông kaehwa, many of whom owed an intellectual debt to Japanese reformist thinkers such as Fukuzawa Yukichi. The ambivalent attitude of the Hwangsông sinmun toward Japan made it a target for the pro-Japanese organization, the Ilchinhoe on the one hand, and anti-Japanese nationalists on the other. The Taehan maeil sinbo, on the other hand, under the ownership of Ernest Bethell, a British citizen protected by extraterritoriality, was exempt from Japanese censorship and was consequently able to adopt a more consistent anti-Japanese stance in its editorials.

Chapter 3 “Engaging a Civilizing Japan” examines the extensive intellectual interaction between Korea and Japan that underlay the developing confrontation of Japanese colonial expansion and rising Korean nationalism. Although munmyông kaehwa had its roots in the West, Japan was its mediator in East Asia. As Schmid points out, “‘The West and Japan’ emerged as standard expressions for the top rungs of the civilizing hierarchy.” (p. 107) It was from Japan that the early reformers who had initiated the Kapsin Coup (1884) drew inspiration and support, and it was to Japan that increasing numbers of Korean students went for a ‘modern’ education. As evidence of the strong link between the reformist movement in Japan and Korea, Schmid brings our attention to the similarities between Yu Kilchun’s Sôyu kyônmun and Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Seiyô jiji (Conditions of the West) and the fact that Yu’s seminal work was also subsidized and published by Fukuzawa. (pp. 110-111)

The wholesale acceptance of the values of munmyông kaehwa in Korea during this period also gave rise to the anomaly of Korean reformers espousing colonial expansion as evidence of superior civilization and enlightenment. Although these reformers were not unaware that Korea might itself fall prey to the colonial expansion of another power, in general they exhorted their fellow countrymen to participate in the reform project so that Korea would escape this fate and be counted amongst the civilized nations of the world. It was only after the signing of the Treaty of Protection that solidarity with other colonized countries such as India began to be expressed.

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