- Establishing a Pluralist Society in Medieval Korea, 918–1170: History, Ideology, and Identity in the Koryŏ Dynasty by Remco E. Breuker
In this penetrating study of broad scope, Remco Breuker addresses the complicated issues of political and social identity during the early period of the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392), a time of flux on the Korean peninsula, when survival within the complex multistate system of East Asia required a degree of flexibility. Not only does Breuker offer a fascinating study of a period of Korean history that is rarely addressed in English, he attempts to transcend existing scholarship in Korea in an effort to problematize many of the basic assumptions and approaches that tend to guide such scholarship, showing that a shift in perspective reveals a much richer range of interpretive possibilities than is typically recognized. Breuker begins with the fact that historians seek patterns in disparate and typically contradictory pools of data, and from this chaos paint a kind of orderly picture of past societies that often reflect very modern concepts and sensitivities. The scholarly work in Korea that is relevant to the time period in question, Breuker maintains, employs analytical devices that impose arbitrary dichotomies on the source materials, and in the process of imposing order on the data, they obscure the many contradictions and variations that would otherwise have rendered simple interpretations untenable. Breuker further maintains, and capably demonstrates in his study, that it is this very lack of neatness in the data that best describes the nature of the polity and society of early Koryŏ.
This study considers the role of origin myths in historiography and (to a degree) ethnogenesis on the Korean peninsula and makes a case for viewing the early Koryŏ polity and society as pluralistic in [End Page 161] constitution. Pluralism in Breuker’s usage means that identity cannot be defined in simplistic (monistic) terms and that there are contradictions and variations in how the past is defined; pluralism gives rise to flexibility that can be usefully employed in diplomacy, domestic politics, and government in times of rapid change. Breuker maintains that the concept of pluralism was recognized in early Koryŏ; here he is guided by the relevant work of William James and, particularly, Paul Feyerabend.1 Breuker moreover makes the extraordinary claims that this concept was consciously exploited and that, in this aspect, Koryŏ was very rare among medieval states. The study is expansive in its coverage, so here I focus on Breuker’s general argument and outline some of the more interesting aspects of his study. This work is quite significant in that it challenges existing scholarship by offering a new perspective on old debates, but in the process it presents ideas that seem designed to provoke and stimulate academic discussion. I therefore conclude by pointing out some areas of the author’s argument that I find both problematic and interesting.
Names are of critical significance in identity formation, as they help to define the boundaries of a people or a polity, so it is fitting that Breuker begins the first part of his book with an extended analysis of this issue. He points out that the name Koryŏ was rarely used within Koryŏ to refer to the state or its people. Instead the term Three Han, or Samhan 三韓, was employed. Breuker shows that the intended referent changed during the early Koryŏ period to indicate the historical Samhan polities, the Later Three Kingdoms, and a “supradynastic” entity that existed in the past, present, and future of the Koryŏ polity.2 This transcendent entity seems to be akin to what Anthony Smith intends by the term ethnie (though Breuker does not expand on this concept) and certainly relates to the formation of group identity.3 The choice of “Samhan” is therefore significant. The fact that this single term was [End Page 162] used in different ways depending upon the needs of the day illustrates the pluralist nature of the Koryŏ polity.
Equally important in identity formation...