- A Family of No Prominence: The Descendants of Pak Tŏkhwa and the Birth of Modern Korea by Eugene Y. Park
In the context of the twenty-first century when most Koreans do not remember their close ancestors, A Family of No Prominence is unique in tracing one family’s history over some four hundred years, from the late sixteenth century to the present, along with the transformations that family members underwent in terms of their identities. It is all the more remarkable that the family under microscopic investigation belonged to the category of chungin 中人 during the late Chosŏn dynasty, for most works on Chosŏn social history focus on yangban 兩班, the ruling elite of that era.1 It is rare even for a work on the yangban status group to cover such a long period of time in revealing the ebb and flow of a family. Moreover, Eugene Y. Park does not simply reconstruct a family’s history buried under elite-centered history writing but illuminates “the construction of a usable past” (p. 4) practiced at the level of nonelite members of the society as they went [End Page 506] through epochal social changes, especially from the late nineteenth century on. One of the key contributions of this book is that it highlights the agency of a nonprivileged family and its members in the making of “the descent group narratives that crystallized in early modern Korea” (p. 4).
The author is rightfully critical of existing studies of chungin that are typically confined to the following popular themes: chungin’s function as technical specialists and their contributions in cultural spheres during the late Chosŏn; their rather quick adaptation to Western culture, enabling them to place themselves in bureaucracy politics, and business during Korea’s imperial period and Japanese colonial period; and their traits as pro-Japanese collaborators. In contrast, Park seeks to provide a nuanced understanding of chungin and their lives by situating them in the context of social changes during late Chosŏn and modern Korea and, most importantly, by using meticulous detective work to portray their individual selves, life experiences, and practices. The book largely provides a chronological narrative, from the mid-Chosŏn apical ancestor of the Miryang Pak 密陽朴 family under scrutiny in chapter 1 to the “vignettes” covering the Japanese colonial period in chapter 6. Park introduces fourteen generations of family members, as well as other chungin families related to the Paks by marriage.
As the author makes clear, the Paks in this study are none other than his own patrilineal ancestors, descending from Pak Tŏkhwa 朴德華 (1590-?), whose identity as a seventeenth-century person is nothing if not obscure. Two pages of Miryang Pak genealogies (pp. 20-21) clearly show no entry for Tŏkhwa in the 1873 edition, side by side with the sudden appearance of his name in the 1924 edition. As Park explains later, “between 1873 and 1924, the family made its way into an officially recognized Miryang Pak genealogy” (p. 77). The genealogical ambiguity of Tŏkhwa’s identity drives Park to prodigious efforts, as he peels of layers of doubtful genealogical records and mines various digitized historical sources to better understand the state of the Paks over the last four hundred years—a process that enables readers to immerse themselves in his detective work of revealing Tŏkhwa and his descendants’ real and hypothetical identities.
The author sees the single-line succession of the first four generations after Tŏkhwa as a marker of a family on the rise. Indeed, the [End Page 507] stories of the Paks’ transformation from ordinary commoners during the seventeenth century to wealthy commoners during the eighteenth century (chap. 2), and from commoner ranks to capital chungin during the nineteenth century (chap. 3) are nothing short of fascinating. For upward social mobility the Paks, who were originally lower-level army officers, subscribed to such strategies as purchasing official ranks and titles; seeking marriage partners...