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Reviewed by:
  • The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation by JaHyun Kim Haboush
  • James B. Lewis
The Great East Asian War and the Birth of the Korean Nation. By JaHyun Kim Haboush. Edited by William J. Haboush and Jisoo M. Kim. Columbia University Press, 2016. 240 pages. Hardcover $60.00/ £44.00.

In winter, as you lie by your fire after dinner, drinking wine and cracking nuts, speak thus to the wayfarer at your door: "What is your name, my friend? Where do you live? What is your age? How old were you when the Persians came?"

Xenophanes of Colophon, Fragment 22 (570–478 BCE)1 [End Page 305]

Reviewing this posthumous book is a heavy burden, because I will not have the pleasure of discussing it with the author herself. JaHyun Kim Haboush was a colleague and friend to many of us. I cherish at least two delightful memories of her: peering together through the fading light at Ch'ŏnji (the crater lake atop Mount Paektu) in 1988 and enjoying several days of spirited debate in Oxford in 2001 at an invitational conference on the East Asian War of 1592–1598. Bringing this unfinished manuscript to press was a labor of love by her close friends, her loyal students, and her widower, William J. Haboush, and we owe them our appreciation.

The East Asian War of 1592–1598 has been extensively examined in Korean and Japanese, but we have few studies in English. Even fewer studies in any language address the rhetoric of the war, or what Haboush calls the "war of words" (p. 93). One notable work on the subject is Thomas Quartermain's survey of private diaries, which examines political rhetoric about the state and tracks the development of competing identity-building processes by Chosŏn elites from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries. Another is Kim Si-dŏk's innovative comparative work on the memory of the war in literature and art. A great regret of mine is that The East Asian War, 1592–1598, my edited collection of English-language articles by leading Korean and Japanese scholars, appeared only in 2015, too late for Haboush to consult for elaboration and context to support her study.2

Haboush believes that the war created a new discursive landscape in Korea, and this is the meta-theme that holds together the five chapters of the book, which can be divided conceptually into three parts. The first part, comprising chapters 1 and 2, is about the activities of the ŭibyŏng—the "righteous army," or assemblage of irregular guerrillas, that arose to resist Hideyoshi's armies. It draws from Epistolary Korea, Haboush's 2009 compilation of Chŏson-era epistles.3 Chapters 3 and 4 constitute what can be considered the second part of the book. Focusing on royal edicts issued in the Korean vernacular, these chapters contain the volume's most original material. The third part, chapter 5, is largely an adapted version of an essay published in 2003 on tales of "dream journeys" associated with the East Asian War.4 According to the book's foreword, written by William J. Haboush, that article was modified for inclusion in the current publication by Professor Dorothy Ko of Barnard College. The Great East Asian War is best thought of in relation to these earlier works and even Haboush's study of King Yŏngjo's rhetorical fight for legitimacy.5 While the book under review explores communicative space, it also presents a polemical argument that the "Korean nation" was born during the war, with evidence drawn from the rhetorical content of missives, decrees, and edicts that circulated during wartime. My only hesitation about the book is that I cannot imagine how the historian could fail to find "nation" in wartime; the real challenge is finding "nation" in peacetime.

Searching for "national" origins can descend into a search for navels, a spurious desire to connect the present to the past and deny discontinuity. That, blessedly, is not at work here in any obvious way, although it is implicit. Finding "nation" in wartime can spring from the obsession deep within Western humanism about...


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