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Reviewed by:
  • Everlasting Flower: A History of Korea
  • Michael J. Seth (bio)
Everlasting Flower: A History of Korea, by Keith Pratt. London: Reaktion Books, 2006. 320 pp. $34.95 cloth.

Keith Pratt's book is a narrative history of Korea from Neolithic to contemporary times. It is a welcomed effort, since there is a need for a one-volume survey of Korean history written for non-Koreans that does not neglect the pre-modern period. Everlasting Flower surveys the political and social history of Korea dealing with topics such as the unification of much of the peninsula under Silla, the establishment of the Koryŏ state, the Mongol invasions, the Imjin Waeran, the "opening" of Korea, the division, the Korean War, and the construction of highly divergent societies in North and South Korea. There are nine chapters: the first four cover before 1800 and last four since 1864.

This book differs markedly from the several other surveys available in its major emphasis on cultural history. In his preface Pratt says that he had wanted to subtitle the book "The Role of Culture in the Evolution of Modern Korea." Drop the word "modern" and this would be an aptly descriptive title. The focus is on "culture" chiefly in the traditional sense of the art, architecture, music, literature, and various forms of aesthetic expression by the elites, although popular culture is not neglected. This emphasis on culture and the skillful ways the author uses culture to understand the development of a distinctive Korean society makes this book quite different from most general histories. Considerable space is given to Korea's artistic heritage in the narrative parts of each chapter. There are thirty-two illustrated boxed essays devoted to artworks, architecture, music, and various cultural objects as well as individual artists. These [End Page 82] are one of the most attractive features of Pratt's book and take up 60 of the 279 pages of the main text. They can be read on their own as succinct essays on Korea's cultural heritage.

A secondary theme is how modern Koreans have appropriated elements of their past to construct a modern national identity. Pratt makes it clear that nationalist passions run strong among almost all Koreans today and have often distorted their views of the past. Throughout the text he introduces the historiographical debates and the symbolic importance given in modern times to the people, events, and achievements of the past. This is a useful aspect of the book, especially to those who have some basic familiarity with Korean history or culture but not enough to fully understand or appreciate just how important these historical issues are to contemporary Koreans. While Pratt points out the distortions of history caused by viewing the past from a modern nationalist perspective, sometimes he himself is a bit guilty of projecting modern Korean identities into the past. One may challenge, for instance, the statement that Korea under the Koryŏ "began to experience the demands of nationhood" (p. 114). In general, however, his judgments on the past are sound, balanced, and often insightful.

Pratt often engages the reader by putting himself in the narrative. He presents his own personal observations and experiences, including visits to museums and places of historical importance, to frame his inquiry into the past. For example, the Silla period is introduced with a travelog of the author's visits to modern Kyŏngju that effectively incorporates his two themes of Korea's enduring cultural heritage and the selective use of the past to create a modern national identity. Later in the text, he introduces the Korean War with his visit to the National War Memorial of Korea. For a discussion of twelfth-century Korea he presents a long discussion of the observations of the Song visitor Xu Jing. Pratt also uses analogies between past and present, and between developments in Korea and in other parts of the world, to elucidate the past. He compares the violent factional disputes of Chosŏn with the bloodthirsty religious-based politics of Tudor and Stuart England. The reigns of Yŏngjo and Chŏngjo are set in the "golden period for monarchy worldwide" (p. 139), and Queen Min is compared...


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