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Reviewed by:
  • Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity
  • Changzoo Song (bio)
Nationalism and the Construction of Korean Identity, edited by Hyung Il Pai and Timothy R. Tangherlini. Berkeley: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, 1998. 230 pp. $18.00 paper.

Published in 1999, this book is a collection of nine articles written by well-known Koreanologists of North America. Critical reviews of Korean nationalism have been rare so far because of the sensitivity of the issue and also because of the hegemonic status of the ideology of nationalism in Korea. Starting as an anticolonial narrative and then being consolidated throughout the postcolonial period, nationalism has been the "master narrative" in Korea. Therefore, nationalism has never been questioned or challenged on the Korean Peninsula. Rightists and leftists, conservatives and radicals, Koreans have uniformly cherished and supported the nationalist cause over others, and nationalism has been the single most important source of political and even moral legitimacy in both South and North Korea. This volume was written because "even now there are not many scholars in Korean Studies, whether on or off the Korean Peninsula, who have attempted to systematically contest any of these nationalist narratives" (p. 11).

Of course, being the master narrative does not mean that nationalism in Korea is a coherent and cohesive ideology. Rather, as many of the authors of the volume point out, there have been many interpretations of national identity, and different political forces have contested and negotiated the substance of it. The antihegemonic populist movement of the 1980s and its clash with the established ideologies revealed the contested character of Korean nationalism and national identity. This, as well as postmodern influences on history, prompted academics to pay heed to the different narratives of nation and national identity, and thus the late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed an increasing number of Koreanologists dealing with the politics of nationalism. They include Michael Robinson, Henry Em, Kenneth Wells, Nancy Abelmann, and Sheila Jager,1 among others. This volume represents this new trend of critical studies of Korean nationalist politics.

The authors of this volume deal with a wide range of nationalist politics, from the national cultural-preservation system, language, and religion to music and literature. Hyung Il Pai's article, "The Colonial Origins of Korea's Collected Past," reveals that the current artistic treasure and monument preservation system of South Korea was originally created by the Japanese colonial authorities in their efforts to study them and in turn legitimize Japan's imperial expansion into the Northeast Asian continent. She also shows how archaeological remains, and interpretations of them, were critical to the promotion of both "Japanese" and "Korean" identity and how museums have emerged as the main field for the official interpretations of national and cultural heritage (p. 16). By so doing, [End Page 143] Pai "deconstructs" Korea's postcolonial nationalist historiography in two ways: first, by dismissing boasts about Korean people's respect for national culture and, second, by denying the nationalist claim that colonial rule only destroyed Korean cultural traditions, and therefore, its identity.

Ross King's "Nationalism and Language Reform in Korea" shows how in the early twentieth century han' gul gained the status of a national writing system against the reality in which hanmun and the mixed form of hanmunhan' gul were dominant. In addition, it never was a smooth process, and there were ardent debates among pro-kungmun, pro-kukhanmun, and pro-hanmun schools. King also reveals the fictitiousness of the belief in a Korean vernacular on the long history and superiority of the Korean language. King shows how the whole debate on language at the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth century was connected to the notion of language as the very survival of the nation (p. 63). Nevertheless, history shows that language is not an essential part of national identity. For example, though the Irish lost their native Gaelic language a long time ago, their sense of nationhood was never lost.

Robert E. Buswell, Jr., shows how Korean Buddhists perceived themselves as part of Korean tradition and how Buddhism in Korea was constructed as "Korean" Buddhism in the process of nationalist imaginings in the twentieth...


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