Independence Club: Decenter China, Elevate Korea

Formed in the spring of 1896, the Independence Club (Tongnip hyŏphoe) … began a campaign to petition the king to rename the kingdom the Empire of the Great Han (TaeHan Cheguk) in order to make more explicit Korea’s independence from China; in addition, the club urged Kojong to adopt the title of emperor (hwangje) in place of king (wang) in order to assume equal nominal status with the Chinese and Japanese emperors. Kojong, who had left Russian protection in July 1897, granted their wish; he took the title emperor and declared the first year of his new reign era Kwangmu (Illustrious Strength) in a coronation ceremony in October of 1897. The club also raised funds to erect a monumental arch, Independence Gate (Tongnipmun), on the site of the Gate of Welcoming Imperial Grace (Yŏng’unmun), where the Chosŏn kings had officially welcomed envoys from China. This project expanded to remake the former Chinese diplomatic residence, the Hall of Cherishing China (Mohwagwan), into a public meeting place renamed Independence Hall (Tongnipgwan), which they then surrounded with a public park. These were popular projects both at court and with the Seoul public, and they ended formally the usage of the now, in nationalist terms, humiliating tributary language of past Korea–China relations.

The club charted a course for a movement that encompassed public education, the creation of a national newspaper, and the beginning of language reform, all projects that anticipated the gradual emergence of a new public sphere in Korea. The club’s newspaper was the vehicle for realizing, at least in part, all of these goals. The Independent used the vernacular script han’gŭl, which had been invented in the fifteenth century during the reign of one of Chosŏn’s most revered monarchs, Sejong the Great. From that time Classical Chinese had continued to be the official written language of the court and elite communication, but han’gŭl was used for didactic tracts published for the peasantry and for popular translations of Confucian and Buddhist texts. The proliferation of novels written in han’gŭl in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries had solidified its nonofficial use in society.

The Independent‘s use of han’gŭl was a deliberate statement about national cultural unity and linguistic identity. Editorials in the paper decried the use of Classical Chinese as the official language of government and literary language of the yangban. In a scathing editorial on the national language, Chu Sigyŏng (1876–1914), a young member who later became the founder of the modern vernacular movement, asserted that perfecting and spreading the use of han’gŭl was the principle means for “ending the habit of aristocratic cultural slavery to Chinese culture.” This widened the attack begun against symbolic arches and imperial nomenclature on what the club perceived to be a slavish subordination of Korean elites to Chinese culture in general. This nationalist attack against elite identification with China began the process of transforming the very language used to describe Korean–Chinese relations. The term sadae (to serve the great) had heretofore simply described the old ritual relationship between Korea and China. But Chu turned it into an epithet that denounced subservience or toadyism to foreign culture in general. Subsequently, sadae and its various forms, sadaejuŭi (the doctrine or “ism” of subservience) or sadae ŭisik (a consciousness or mentality of subservience) became a trope for antinational sentiments or subservience to things foreign. In postcolonial and divided Korea this terminology still lingers in political and cultural discourse.

The gradual decentering of China in the Korean worldview had begun the redefinition of Korea as a nation-state, but moving Korean cultural identity away from any reference to China was neither an easy nor happy task. While Korea’s participation within the cosmopolitan East Asian world order had made sense in a Sino-centric world order, within the particularistic logic of nationalism it was an anathema. This logic assumed that nations were the building blocks of the global order, with each claiming a distinct culture, history, and identity as a society. In East Asia the neologism used to represent the concept of nation—minjok in Korean—had been in use for at least thirty years before Koreans actually began to think and write about their society in such particularistic terms. The Chinese characters for minjok—min (people) and jok (family)—lend a unique quality to the term itself; so combined, these characters carry strong racial/ethnic and genealogical connotations. To this day, because of American stress on legal citizenship, an identity potentially open to all races and ethnicities because the United States is a nation of immigrants, Americans are surprised by the racial/familial emphasis carried within Korean national identity. In the period between 1905 and 1910, the first explorations of the evolution and character of the Korean minjok began to appear in calls for the rethinking of Korea’s history.

A young editorial writer for the Korea Daily News, a man now celebrated as Korea’s pioneering nationalist historian, Sin Ch’aeho, became one of the first to advocate writing a new, minjok-centered history for the nation. In “A New Reading of Korean History,”‘ a serialized essay published in 1908 by the Korea Daily News, Sin reread Korean history as a story of the Korean people (minjok), not its state (kukka) or its ruling family (wangjok). He attacked the tradition of Confucian historiography with its moral judgments of good and bad kings and its emphasis on the fortunes of the state. What was needed, according to Sin, was an account of the minjok from its earliest moments and of its contact and competition with its neighbors. In this view history became a story to bind together the people who comprised the national subject; the purpose of history was to celebrate the triumphs of the minjok and mourn its defeats, and to account for the evolution of its unique culture and identity into the present. Sin’s “New Reading” emphasized the ethnic/racial difference of the Koreans from their neighbors by locating the origins of the Korean race in 2333 B.C. in the person of a mythological progenitor Tan’gun. Thus Sin reoriented Korean history as a story of a single people that was distinct from China or any other neighboring group. By locating the beginning of Korean history with Tan’gun, Sin sought to invalidate the Sino-centric myth of Korea’s civilization being founded by a migrating Chinese official, Kija, a tale that had been in favor during the Confucianized Chosŏn period.

SOURCE: Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History, by Michael E. Robinson (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2007), pp. 23-24, 27-28


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