- Korea and Japan in East Asian history: A Tripolar Approach to East Asian History
Wontack Hong's new book is a work of synthesis—albeit one with an agenda. Moreover, the 2006 publication is stated to be a "limited preview edition," which means we may see subsequent editions telling a different story, revised in light of comments on the first. This is an unusual publication strategy, but then, this is an unusual book by an unusual author.
Hong is a trained economist, retired from Seoul National University, who has applied his considerable research skills to the problem of Japan-Korea relations in the period of state formation. His previous works in English include The Relationship between Korea and Japan in the Early Period: Paekche and Yamato Wa (Ilsimsa, 1988) and Paekche of Korea and the Origin of Yamato Japan (Kudara International, 1994); the core of this new book continues this dialog. Thus, although posing as a history of northeast Asia (the tripolar region consisting of northern China, northeastern China plus Korea and Japan, and northwestern desert and steppe regions) from the Neolithic through the Qing dynasty, the real message is contained in chapters 5 to 11 (out of 15). I will comment on these middle chapters below, but as a sweeping historical work, it is difficult to find another publication that integrates so much material from across such broad swaths of time and space. Much of this is new to general English readers, precisely because the two northern regions and their effect on Chinese dynastic formation were long neglected in China scholarship—Hong's main point. For this synthesis, we therefore have Hong to thank for bringing all these disparate data to our attention (though a less skeletal index would have helped [End Page 79] readers explore the wealth of material more efficiently). I myself found chapter 13 on the political relations of the northeast Asian states in the late first millennium A.D. most useful; this is an area and time period truly neglected, whereas the desert/steppe regions have been recently receiving much scrutiny in terms of the "Manchu-Mongol-Muslim triumvirate" (Atwill 2006: 605).
The publication is unusual in its format, with each page divided into two columns: a wider outer column of text, and a narrow inner column which holds illustrations, footnotes, and primary text excerpts. The last are useful in offering a direct means of double-checking Hong's interpretations of the original sources without his filter, but one needs to read classical Chinese because they are given without translation (though discussed in the text).
One of Hong's most significant contributions is the integration of linguistic data into the history, but this raises many problems in my opinion. It is one thing to discuss the known languages of known groups, but when it comes to labeling Neolithic groups in terms of their linguistic affiliations, the data are exceeded by speculation. These assignments are then taken as fact in later discussions.
In this book, Hong has overcome one objectionable stylistic strategy that marred his earlier works: that of stringing together numerous quotations from other authors without much independent assessment or analysis. Here, Hong relies more on paraphrasing. However, he still resorts much too often to argument by assertion to prove his points. This strategy becomes increasingly irritating as he pushes his main agenda: that Yamato was conquered by Paekche in the late fourth to early fifth centuries and that Paekche established the proto-historic Yamato state. This adherence to the Horserider Theory of Japanese state formation, promulgated by Egami Namio in 1948 and enhanced by Gari Ledyard in 1975, is simply flogging a dead horse. Hong offers no new data on this problem. Instead he relies entirely on known documentary sources, asserting such things as:
Harima Fudoki includes so many anecdotes related to Homuda (Oujin) [whom Hong believes to be a Paekche prince] that one readily believes Homuda must have been the founder of the Yamato kingdom.(p. 111, my comment in brackets)
There may be a logical...