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  • Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1894–1945 by Kyung Moon Hwang
  • Yumi Moon
Rationalizing Korea: The Rise of the Modern State, 1894–1945 by Kyung Moon Hwang. Oakland: University of California Press, 2015. Pp. xvii + 395. $75.00 cloth, $34.95 paper, $34.95 e-book.

Recent works on colonial Korea have illuminated important aspects of the colonial state, such as its industrial and financial policies for promoting wartime capitalism,1 the role of Japanese settlers in mediating between the colonial government and Korean elites,2 and the state’s spatial transformation of Seoul into a colonial city.3 However, the colonial state itself has not been a main focus of investigation in these studies. Rationalizing Korea aims at filling this gap in the historiography and offers a comprehensive overview of the colonial state’s ideologies, its institutional development, and its multifaceted practices of “rationalizing” Korean society and molding Koreans as the state’s “citizens” or subjects. Through this overview, Kyung Moon Hwang sets forth several meaningful hypotheses that deserve further debate vis-à-vis the rise of a modern state in Korea.

According to Rationalizing Korea, the rise of a modern state experienced a burst of speed during the late nineteenth century and arrived in mature form at the end of the colonial period. In this chronology, the colonial state is not characterized as a rupture from the late Chosŏn state but rather as something that was built accumulatively based on the latter’s practices of rationalizing the Confucian bureaucracy and society, especially during the Kabo Reform (1894–95) and the Korean Empire (1897–1910). Hwang analyzes the colonial government as a modern phenomenon without emphasizing the specificity of governing in a colonial situation. In other words, Hwang considers the rationalizing trend of Korean governance as transcending the transfer of sovereignty from Koreans to Japanese, partially due [End Page 207] to a theoretical position heavily influenced by a Weberian notion of modernity.

Hwang defines the growth of the modern state as a “rationalizing process” in which a state balances its drive to modernize itself and society with the necessity to accommodate “its counterparts,” which Hwang deems “tradition, customs, or even superstition” (p. 7). The late Chosŏn state’s rationalizing projects were limited in scope and capacity, yet their legacies were durable enough to influence the colonial state’s subsequent practices for governing Korea. Hwang asserts that the colonial state shared some symbolic and discursive practices with the Kabo Reform and the Korean Empire, and such parallels appeared in different forms and practices at various stages during colonial rule. For instance, appropriating the discourse of a “better government” introduced during the Kabo Reform, the colonial government legitimized authority over Koreans by claiming the connection between legitimacy and performance and the “instrumental rationality” of its administration. Hwang defines this ideology and “rationalization” of the colonial government as a “process of managerial legitimation” (p. 9) and argues that this rationalizing process remained central to the discursive and institutional practices of the colonial state at least until its radical shift to wartime mobilization during the late 1930s.

Within such a general framework, Hwang divides his analysis into part 1 (chapters 1–3) on the rationalization of the state structure and part 2 (chapters 4–8) on the state’s practices for rationalizing society. Chapter 1 investigates legal and institutional changes in the late nineteenth-century Korean state, the protectorate, and the formal colonial government, and it detects the establishment of a modern bureaucratic structure in the central administration. Chapter 2 uses quantitative data on government budgets and revenue bases to propose that the state structure began to expand in local society from the 1920s. Hwang identifies this expansion with the increasing autonomy of provincial governments after the March First Movement in 1919. He argues that such provincial autonomy and expansion upheld the state’s intense wartime mobilization of society during the 1930s. Chapter 3 examines ideological and symbolic practices that legitimized the modern state’s existence and authority. As mentioned earlier, performance, either in internal reform or in external security, became the hallmark of a legitimate state during the time between the Kabo Reform and the [End...


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