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Marginality and Subversion in Korea: The Hong Kyŏngnae Rebellion of 1812 (review)
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Why did a pair of geomancers, a wealthy post-station slave, and two poor yangban organize and lead an uprising to overthrow the Chosŏn dynasty in the early nineteenth century? This question forms the core of Marginality and Subversion in Korea, which like many other studies on rebellions, putsches, and revolutions, whether in Korea or beyond, focuses on the question of origins—what causes people to rise up against governing powers? In this particular case, Sun Joo Kim places the Hong Kyŏngnae Rebellion of 1812 under her felicitous historical gaze, offering scholars of late Chosŏn history and comparative popular uprisings the first English-language monograph of this storied uprising.

In January 1812, with Hong Kyŏngnae as their leader, a group of rebels attacked the magistrate's office in a northern county in P'yongan province. This uprising was not a simple food or rent riot. Hong and his fellow conspirators had spent months developing a more ambitious plan: they sought to replace the dynasty that had been ruling the peninsula for well over four centuries. The rebels quickly gained control of key counties in the Ch'ŏngbuk region, terrifying the court with what constituted a rare challenge of Chosŏn power, before government troops forced them to retreat behind the substantial defensive walls of Chŏngju. After four months of siege, government forces managed to dig a tunnel under the city walls and set gunpowder charges beneath the fortifications. The resultant explosion collapsed a portion of the wall, ending the siege—and the nearly five-month-long uprising.

Yet the subsequent execution of Hong Kyŏngnae did not end the popular appeal of the uprising. For years afterward, rumors that he escaped continued to circulate, bedeviling the attempts of the central court to pacify the area. His posthumous appeal also offers one explanation for why the uprising continues to this day to appear in South Korean popular historical memory, as evidenced by the publication earlier this decade of a five-volume novel based on Hong that became a bestseller and was transformed into a television drama.

The rebellion also occupies a prominent place in Korean-language historiography of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a key moment in the decline of the dynasty. As the common now-almost-textbook argument goes, it was the inability of the state to deal with the root causes of the 1812 rebellion that led later generations to turn against the state, especially in the keynote years of 1862 and 1894. The Hong Kyŏngnae Rebellion has been interpreted, in short, as the beginning of a crescendo of uprisings culminating in the Tonghak peasant movement. Although this view has united many disparate schools of historiography, since the 1980s historians emphasizing the popular nature of these rebellions—an aggrieved and alienated population moving against the privileges of state officials and yangban elites—have dominated interpretations of these events.

Less interested than these earlier historians in contextualizing the rebellion within a narrative of dynastic decline, Sun Joo Kim keeps her historical analysis focused tightly on the rebellion itself and its causes. Yet she is interested in setting herself against this dominant historical interpretation by offering a more regional approach to the event, what she refers to as the "sub-national subjectivity" (p. 11) of the north. This disaggregation of the nation is to be welcomed in a field that, with few exceptions, tends to overlook regional issues in the premodern and much of the modern period. In unpacking the nation, Kim does more than merely examine what happened in one specific region. Rather, she cites regionalism—or more specifically anti-P'yŏngan sentiment—as the primary, if certainly not sole, variable in explaining the multiple origins of the uprising.

This is not a wholly new argument. Many other scholars in Korea have long included anti-northern discrimination as a factor in their narratives of Hong's uprising. Yet usually their accounts second regionalism to the popular resentment that is seen underlying the actions of the participants. Marginality and Subversion in Korea reverses this equation, offering a convincing argument of the central role played by regional discrimination among the leadership of...