- Korea Between Empires, 1895-1919
In Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argued that a "last wave" of nationalisms erupted in the 1890s, particularly in colonial territories, at a time when the nation state had become an "international norm" and national community could be conceived in more complex ways than before. In this provocative new study Andre Schmid examines how intellectuals of the Korean "patriotic enlightenment movement" began to re-imagine their own society as a national community at precisely this historical moment, and like Anderson, he insists that the "invention" of the Korean nation did not take place in a cultural and intellectual vacuum but drew on influences from the outside world. He portrays the Korean enlightenment intellectuals grappling with the same issues as other "colonial intellectuals" who faced the onslaught of "global imperialism."
Schmid uses the pages of the new vernacular press as his archive. Newspaper circulation was small, and editors constantly complained that no one was listening to them, but Schmid argues that the press was a powerful machine for the production and diffusion of nationalist discourse. Combing through newspaper advertisements, letters, essays, poetry, and fiction as well as editorials, [End Page 311] he uncovers a debate over diverse and often contradictory visions of the nation that attempted to come to terms with "the capitalist modernity that supported an international system based on the nation state" (p. 257). These visions, however, defined Korea not simply against an intrusive and threatening "capitalist" West but against China and Japan, the neighboring "empires" of the book's title.
What set off the debate over national identity was the Sino-Japanese War. The outcome of the conflict created the same sense of crisis in Korea that it did in China. At first, debate focused on the urgent need to reform Korea so that it could achieve the historical stage of "civilization and enlightenment" (munmyŏng kaehwa) based on "new knowledge" (sinhak) from the outside world. The enlightenment intellectuals mobilized the West as a "superior Other" to justify reform, but they defined the difference between Korea and the West as one of timing not of essence: that the Westerners had reached the stage of "civilization" before everyone else did not mean that others could not reach it too.
Like the reform discourse in late Ch'ing China, the debate over national identity in Korea paralleled a discourse that emerged two decades earlier in Japan. One of Schmid's central (and perhaps most provocative) arguments is that "Korean self-knowledge in this period can not be separated from the Japanese production of knowledge about Korea" (p. 13). The Korean enlightenment intellectuals often cloaked themselves in the authority of Japanese expertise. We even find the Tongnip sinmun citing the wisdom of Ito Hirobumi, of all people, on the importance of universal education for national building (p. 106). This was not simply because the Japanese had invented a vocabulary to describe "civilization" or that they produced new kinds of knowledge about Korea (e.g., statistics) but also because Japan provided a model of a country that had become "civilized" without being "white"—and was so recognized by the Westerners
Conversely, Schmid argues, the defeat of China in the Sino-Japanese War led to a "decentering" of China as cultural, intellectual, or political model. By the turn of the century, China had been reduced from an ecumene to a country, and the universalism of the "Confucian worldview" had been supplanted by the universalism of "capitalist modernity." Just as the Korean court declared its political independence from China by converting Korea to an "empire" like its neighbors, the enlightenment intellectuals declared their cultural and intellectual independence by turning China into an object of scorn. It was a country that lacked everything they sought in their quest for "civilization." Ironically, the flaws they found in the Chinese—corruption, lawlessness, filth, indolence, and the like—were exactly the same as those the Japanese simultaneously found in Korea and that earlier the Westerners had found in the Japanese. In short, the enlightenment intellectuals fully...