- Urban Cultural Landscapes of Colonial Korea, 1920s–1930s:Guest Editor’s Introduction
This special issue of Korean Studies includes selected articles originally presented as papers at the “Tapestry of Modernity: Urban Cultural Landscapes of Colonial Korea, 1920s–1930s: An International Interdisciplinary Conference” held at the Center for Korean Studies, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, February 16–17, 2012. The conference was part of the Center’s project to commemorate its fortieth anniversary.
The primary aim of the conference was to explore the issue of modernity, one of the most debated and contentious topics in academic discourse, especially in East Asian countries.1 In a sense, the meeting meant to participate in the growing realization of scholars of this region that a clearer and firmer grasp of modernity is a prerequisite for a proper and truthful understanding of their own countries’ national identities and cultural politics in a contemporary setting. That is, unless the whys, whats, and hows of the construction of modernity—be it cultural, socio-political, educational, literary, artistic, or otherwise—are examined and clearly understood, the appreciation of the meaning of today’s East Asian societies and their positioning in the current global world order will remain partial, inchoate, or even flawed.
Modernity, which is known to have its roots in Europe of the seventeenth century and to have spread its influence worldwide thereafter,2 is characterized by Anthony Giddens as the historical and cultural space that is “in various key respects discontinuous with the gamut of pre-modern [End Page 1] cultures and ways of life.”3 Giddens further points out that modernity signifies a radical departure from tradition in all its manifestations: “The modes of life brought into being by modernity have swept us away from all traditional types of social order, in quite unprecedented fashion. In both their extensionality and their intentionality the transformations involved in modernity are more profound than most sorts of change characteristic of prior periods.”4
These historical moments of fissure also conspicuously occurred in China, Japan, and Korea, coinciding with each country’s pursuit of a national project of enlightenment and/or modernization from the midor late nineteenth century. Yet it is crucial to bear in mind that the substance, themes, and contours of modernity varied from one country to another in East Asia. The differences in each nation’s politico-historical circumstances, existing cultural and philosophical ideologies, and the primary objectives for undertaking such endeavors played a vital role in determining the concept of the modern and the speed, urgency, content, forms, timeline, and direction of the cultural programs of modernity.
In the case of Korea especially, the production of modernity was complicated by its coloniality, and the design, pattern, and arrangement of modernity took on far more complex, idiosyncratic dimensions than in either Japan or China. The Korean version of modernity and its developmental process may occasionally overlap or parallel those of China or Japan, but more often than not, the Korean version engendered its own unique, irreproducible, and irreplaceable profiles. Even in the spheres of modernity within the Korean peninsula, depending on the time frame, regions, social classes, and even gender, different impulses, drives, and needs shaped the course of the development of modernity, whose components often were contradicting, conflicted, incompatible, and very often clashing. Therefore, it would be an accurate and productive approach to adopt the perspective that “there are multiple paths to modernity”5 in examining the categories of modernity that transpired in Korea. In this connection, it is illuminating to consider S. N. Eisenstadt’s articulation of the multiplicity of modernity, which, he informs, resulted from the appropriation and selective rejection of “the hegemony of the Western formulations of the cultural program of modernity” by non-Western elites and intellectuals.6
Based on this notion of modernity as locally diversified manifestations and multifaceted matrices—not one standardized, unvarying, and homogeneous entity and not a wholesale adoption or assimilation—the conference aimed at exploring the multi-layered arrays of Korean modernity by looking at different areas in society and culture that went through a [End Page 2] metamorphosis as Korea reinvented itself as a modern nation-state during the...