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  • The Korean Buddhist Empire: A Transnational History, 1910–1945 by Hwansoo Ilmee Kim
  • Erik Hammerstrom
Hwansoo Ilmee Kim, The Korean Buddhist Empire: A Transnational History, 1910–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2018. xi, 344 pp. US$45 (hb). ISBN 978-0-674-98719-7

The study of Chinese Buddhism during the first half of the twentieth century has, until the last decade or so, been dominated by the question of “revival.” In both Anglophone and Sinophone studies, the concept of revival has underpinned much of what has been written. The study of early twentieth-century Korean Buddhism has in the same manner been dominated by a single issue: Japanese colonialism. Just as scholars of Chinese Buddhism have mostly moved beyond the question of whether or not the modernization of Buddhism during the Republican Era (1912–1949) constituted a revival, a growing number of scholars of Korean Buddhism have begun to nuance their discussion of the impact of the Japanese colonial regime. In this excellent book, Hwanoo Ilmee Kim moves beyond the exclusive and simplistic binaries commonly employed in earlier scholarship that viewed every interaction as between an oppressive colonial power versus a pristine and resisting native Buddhism, which sought to define every actor as either a collaborator or a patriot. Instead, Kim joins the small but growing list of scholars who see more complexity, and he has produced a work that will be of great interest not only to Korean specialists, but to all those who study Buddhist modernism in East Asia.

As Kim states in his conclusion, his primary argument in this work is that “the Korean Buddhism of the colonial era can be best understood from a transnational perspective, as the material culture, practice, and institutional and religious identity of colonial Korean Buddhism developed through interactions with global ideas and forces” (p. 276). Even though they were colonial subjects, he argues that Korean Buddhists’ contact with transnational discourses and ideas changed how they practiced Buddhism, and how they conceived of their Korean and Buddhist identities. Kim is aware that transnationalism is a fraught term, and he takes pains to explain that he prefers the term to “internationalism.” The latter indicates institutional and/or state level activity between national units, whereas “transnationalism” encompasses a wider range of activities and does not depend on rigid national identity, or state-level action. Kim’s views on this are hardly controversial, as it has been well documented that a self-conscious pan-Asian Buddhist identity was already spreading throughout Asia by the start of the twentieth century. What is noteworthy about this book is the clear way in which Kim links this phenomenon to the formation of Korean Buddhism in the twentieth century. In particular, Kim argues that transnationalism shaped the development of three discourses: Korean Buddhist [End Page 133] nationalism, a drive toward (Foucaultian) governmentality within Korean Buddhism, and an emphasis on propagation.

The book is organized thematically, rather than strictly chronologically, and Kim weaves his analysis of these three discourses throughout the book’s six chapters, each of which focuses on a single case study. Chapter 1 discusses the woodblocks of the Koryǒ Canon, from which full printings were made twice (in 1915, and again in 1937) at the behest of colonial authorities. Kim examines the various meanings ascribed to this canon by Korean Buddhists, who were not uniform in their attitudes, and by various Japanese actors. Influenced as much by native Buddhist notions of the veneration of scripture as by the emerging European and Asian emphasis on textual studies, Korean Buddhists came to view the canon nationalistically, as emblematic of the importance and uniqueness of Korean Buddhism. In chapter 2, Kim explains the origins of modern Buddha’s Birthday Festivals that began in Korea in 1928 with the support of Japanese and Korean Buddhists, as well as the colonial government. With roots in the traditional Korean Lantern Festival, the Sri Lankan Buddhist revival, and the Young Men’s Buddhist Association of Japan, this festival served the differing ends of those involved, but was envisioned by all as a mass social event that could unify the Korean public.

The next two chapters are...


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