- Guest Editor’s Introduction*
This special issue of the Seoul Journal of Korean Studies invites readers to rethink the ways we divide the history of Korea from the formation of the earliest states through to the twentieth century. The established periodization scheme, based on dynastic units such as Old Chosŏn 古朝鮮 (–108 BCE), Silla 新羅 (–935 CE), Koryŏ 高麗 (918–1392), Chosŏn 朝鮮 (1392–1910), and modern and contemporary Korea (1910–the present), may be convenient, but is problematic for numerous reasons. To begin, setting regime change as the line of demarcation places the explanatory burden of epochal transformation on [End Page 1] individual political events. A war may be interpreted as an exogenous shock, but a coup does not necessarily drive the restructuring of society and culture. In fact, social, intellectual, and cultural historians of Korea already employ trans-dynastic intervals such as the late Silla–early Koryŏ period (Namal Yŏch’o 羅末麗初) or Koryŏ-Chosŏn transition. Second, dynastic periodization presupposes the a priori existence of “Korea” before the emergence of first-generation states in the Korean peninsula and southern Manchuria. Whether one accepts the modern, early modern, or medieval origins of a “Korean” collectivity and political charter, the idea of “Korea” in all its multiplicities should be taken as a product of both historical and historiographical developments. The shifting boundaries and scope of what “Korea” is at different moments needs to be taken into consideration.
Third, dynastic periodization carries the baggage of South Korea’s grand narrative of “internal development” (naejaejŏk palchŏllon 內在的發展論), which has framed the national history of Korea as consisting of dynasty-level stages of growth. Whether one espouses or challenges notions such as the sprouts of capitalism or revolutions led by small and medium landowners, there is more to the preindustrial history of Korea than the resolution of these debates; we contend that looking beyond the categorization of dynastic stages presents an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the processes of social and economic change. Fourth, the longevity of Korean dynasties reduces their utility as temporal segments. The beginning and end of the Koryŏ and Chosŏn dynasties, each of which lasted for about five hundred years, are drastically different. Early Chosŏn, for example, experienced state centralization and the maturation of the yangban 兩班 aristocracy, whereas later Chosŏn was characterized by localization and elite substratification. It is also often unclear whether “late Chosŏn” refers to the seventeenth, eighteenth, or nineteenth centuries, each of which can be interpreted as a distinct time of its own. Fifth, as indistinct labels do not provide a description of the era, dynastic periodization makes it difficult to situate Korea in world historical contexts. Our definition of early modern Korea, from circa 1500 to 1800, for example, is based on our recognition that the Chosŏn state’s expansion of local institutions and governance by brokerage shows remarkable parallels to similar practices found elsewhere in the early modern world.
For these reasons, the contributors to this volume propose reperiodizing the history of Korea in a manner that is consistent with our critical review of the empirical scholarship and our own observations, rather than fit Korean history into a preconceived mold. Our aim is to visualize Korea’s past as a collection of social processes which deal with the legacies of both the near and distant past, [End Page 2] and that inform the shaping of later times. We reframe conventions such as early, medieval, early modern, and modern to stress the need to foreground Korea’s parallels with broad patterns in world history. Our approach seeks to challenge the widespread use of dynastic divisions, that outworn legacy of Confucian historiography, and, more importantly, the temporal myopia that comes with the ongoing segregation of the so-called “premodern” and “modern” eras. Instead, we value question-driven historical inquiries that tease out connections across multiple periods, not necessarily in a linear fashion. It is our hope that our exercise will generate insights into Korea’s institution building, center/local dynamics, and culture of patronage and brokerage from long-term perspectives. In each article, we do not aim at comprehensive coverage, as our goal is not to come...