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Korea in World History by Donald N. Clark. (review)

From: Journal of Korean Studies
Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 166-168 | 10.1353/jks.2013.0009

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

For a long time, those who teach surveys in Asian or world history have had very few choices when it came to integrating Korea into their courses. Written in the 1970s and 1980s, often on the basis of older scholarship, the main English language textbooks in Korean history were mostly developmentalist, nationalist, and focused primarily on elite politics. As the outward face of the field, these textbooks presented interested nonspecialists with all the important facts but in a narrative and a language, often that of translators that did not necessarily encourage curiosity. The old Korean history textbooks made little use of the insights of social history, gender studies, and cultural history, to say nothing of developments in environmental history, for example. In the last decade, the situation has changed quite a bit with the publication of a number of new textbooks, all offering, if not radically different, at least seriously augmented and improved narratives. Writing in the textbook genre, however, authors generally stick to telling their stories and do not venture into discussions of historiography or methodology. It is in this context that Donald N. Clark’s Korea in World History presents us with an attempt to tie the narrative of major events and relevant processes together with an awareness of what doing so means to historians and others.

For those who teach multiple national histories in a single semester and struggle to find material that is introductory, instructive, and concise, the size of the book matters a great deal. Korea in World History has six short chapters of about ten pages each. If this were not enough evidence of knowing one’s audience, the author delivers user-friendly prose and presentation. He begins by introducing readers to the relevance of Korea and its history to the United States and the world and peppers his narrative with references to processes like immigration (Korean diaspora) which are familiar to most Americans. After that, he carefully weaves Korea into familiar big events and developments from the making and unmaking of the Japanese Empire to the Korean War and beyond, making sure to discuss issues of contemporary relevance such as North Korean society and politics.

While the modern period receives most of his attention, Clark provides ways of thinking about premodern Korea, from prehistoric times to the end of the Chosŏn Dynasty (1392–1910). In a single chapter that condenses thousands of years of history, he distills salient features of the major kingdoms and dynasties that ruled in the peninsula. Clark identifies long-term trends and makes analytical interventions to characterize the nature of political, economic, and cultural change. For example, rather than simply noting a change in dynasties from the rule of the Three Kingdoms—Koguryŏ, Silla, and Paekche—to that of the Chosŏn Dynasty, Clark sees “a long-term shift in power and organization from the local lords and landowners of the late Silla and Koryŏ periods to a true central government supported and staffed by members of a Confucian-oriented bureaucratic class” (p. 22). Without having to agree with all of his assertions, the result of such an analytical stance is that the book is well structured and allows the reader to retain information better than would a linear narrative of political events or a description of institutions and practices.

Reading the book, it is clear that Clark is genuinely interested in underlying historiographic and methodological issues. One good example of this is the way he addresses the Tan’gun myth, the Korean foundation story, which has been a pillar in nationalist historiography. He discusses relevant archeological studies to distinguish the historical approach of the past from the efforts to articulate communal identity (p. 13). Another example is Clark’s treatment of the question of the existence and character of socioeconomic change in Korea from the nineteenth century on. Here the author shows that this question is related to Japanese colonialism and has served to explain Korea’s loss of independence in 1910 and Japan’s introduction of modern methods to the country. Clark sees that there was “change within tradition” in precolonial times and that Korean society had a well-established, self-sufficient agricultural economy organized around...



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