- In the Service of His Korean Majesty: William Nelson Lovatt, the Pusan Customs, and Sino-Korean Relations, 1876–1888 by Wayne Patterson
Patterson’s short monograph presents, contextualizes and analyzes the correspondence of William Nelson Lovatt, an American customs officer stationed in Pusan in the 1880s, and his family. The letters feature both personal and professional content, covering everything from mundane daily events to critical historical incidents, and the career trajectory of Lovatt as he moves from the customs office in Shanghai to one newly established in Pusan. By shifting focus away from the political epicenter in the royal capital, Patterson’s narrative provides a rather refreshing view of Korea at the time, depicting the daily events of the peripheral, but by no means insignificant, southern port city. While it is primarily biographical in nature, the author carefully links this narrative to the greater political dynamics on the Korean peninsula and in East Asia.
The content of the book can be roughly divided into two categories. On the one hand, it is a personalized account of the Lovatts’ daily life in Pusan. Here perhaps what is most striking, considering the locale, is the distinct lack of Korean characters. The Lovatts’ social and business interactions are mainly with foreigners, most of which are Japanese. Pusan is, after all, a city dominated by Japanese trade—a “microcosm of Japan,” as Patterson writes (44). What is also notable is the general dissatisfaction the Lovatts display with their circumstances. They describe socializing with the Japanese, for example, as burdensome, disliking sitting on the floor and eating unfamiliar foods (74). This situation is [End Page 97] only compounded by the fact that the “Western community” is decidedly small, and thus they find themselves the victims of boredom and loneliness (67). Meanwhile, what little they do have to say about Korea and Koreans tends to be negative. Lovatt observes “lawlessness” and “lack of technological development” (73). As with other foreign accounts at the time, moreover, he notes the “shiftlessness” of the Korean people, though he interprets this as an inevitable result of the exploitative social structure: “The people have been tyrannized until they have no enterprise to do work for themselves” (81). The Lovatts’ experience in Pusan, then, can be summed up as mainly Japanese and rather unpleasant, with what little contact with Koreans generally colored by negative perceptions.
On the other hand, the book is also a historical account of the 1880s, also known as the “Chinese decade,” in which Chinese influence over Korean affairs reached its apex. The greatest strength of the book, in fact, lies in the manner in which Patterson links the Lovatts’ epistolary musings with the greater regional geopolitical dynamics. Lovatt’s employment is the result of his association with the German Paul Georg von Möllendorf, himself appointed by the agent of Chinese power on the peninsula, Li Hung-chang. East Asian foreign affairs thus frequently feature in Lovatt’s letters. He keenly follows the Sino-French War in 1884, for instance, considering its effect on trade and the position of the Chinese. More locally, the Kapsin coup, taking place in the same year, works in his favor as the Chinese gain the decisive upper hand over the Japanese. But his connections with the Chinese are later undermined when Möllendorf backs the Russian bid for power in Korea—Möllendorf’s dismissal ultimately leads to Lovatt’s as well.
If links between biographical content and geopolitical dynamics serve as the book’s greatest strength, however, it is when these links are not so apparent that the book tends to lose momentum. Indeed, some discussions verge on the overly mundane if not trivial. One might be interested to know the Lovatts’ daily diet, for instance (incidentally it did not seem to consist of anything too outlandish: fish, chicken, eggs etc.), but perhaps can do without descriptions of household insects and molding wood (50–51). Meanwhile, there are other times when the attempt to...