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Trends in studies of modern Korean history in South Korea Kwang-rin Lee SOGANG UNIVERSITY RECENT scholarship has considerably revised the previous understanding of Korean history. In particular, there have been striking changes in the understanding of modern Korean history. In the past, the history of modern Korea was thought to have been characterized by stagnancy revealing no evidence of any indigenous developments . Such a misunderstanding of history deserves some explanation . After the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, Koreans, including historians, were inclined to regard their modern history as a disgrace. Thus historians tended to devote themselves wholly to the study of ancient history, in which they expected to find Korea's past glory, in order to compensate for feelings of national dishonor. Meanwhile, Japanese scholars, under government sponsorship, conducted research on the history of modern Korea in a way that reconstructed the historical facts to match Japan's colonial policy. They came up with negative conclusions regarding basic historical facts, because they followed their stereotyped notion that the history of Korea was characterized by stagnancy and heteronomy. They emphasized factionalism and neglected the positive aspects of Korea's development. In the late 1950s a group of Korean scholars emerged to challenge the traditional view of modern history. These scholars, young and well trained, were daring in their efforts to correct historical distortions. ? Discussions of the starting point of the history of modern Korea reflect the results of recent scholarship. It is commonly thought that Korea's modern history started in 1876 when the first modern treaty was concluded between Korea and Japan. Lately, some bold opinions have 58LEE been proposed to refute this view. New assumptions were presented in a symposium on historical periods of Korean history, held in December 1967 under the auspices of the Association of Korean Economic History. Controversy surrounded the assertion that the origin of modern history can be traced to the late eighteenth century. This claim is supported by the fact that capitalism germinated in the late eighteenth century and gave rise to changes within the traditional socioeconomic system. According to this view, this era is supposed to have oriented Korea toward a modern society. Some objected to this idea on the ground that Korean society in the late eighteenth century obviously lacked the development of a bourgeois or middle class. On the other hand, some emphasized the 1890s because this period seems to be "modern" insofar as the middle class, deeply rooted in society , appeared to assume a social role, as manifested in the Tonghak (Eastern learning) movement, Kabo reform, Independence Club, popular education, and business enterprises. Although the definition of the term "modern" in the case of Korea still remains a disputed point, most scholars tend to uphold the view favoring the 1890s. The late eighteenth century did not witness the beginning of modern history. However, current studies are deeply interested in this era and point to developing processes in every aspect of society. This period may well be regarded as a transition period between the medieval and the modern. Before discussing the modern era, it will be useful to introduce some studies concerned with this transitional period. ?? Scholars have focused great concern on agriculture, commerce, and handicrafts. As far as agriculture is concerned, the two-volume Chosön hugi nongöpsa yön'gu (Studies of the history of agriculture in the late Yi dynasty) by Professor Yong-söp Kim is worthy of close attention. These writings touch upon such matters as rural economy, social fluctuation, changes in agricultural management, and ideas about agriculture. Some of Kim's findings throw new light on the previously alleged stagnation of agriculture during the late Yi dynasty. He points out that there have been technological improvements in agriculture since the seventeenth century. Examples are the introduction of rice transplantation and two-crop farming, resulting in increases in agricultural production. According to Kim's studies of land ownership and social stratification in the rural community, based on his analysis of land surveys, large private estates appeared which were owned by a small number of the rich, who were in some cases aristocrats (or yangban) and in other cases commoners . This change replaced the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-1529
Print ISSN
0145-840X
Pages
pp. 57-65
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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