- The Power of the Brush: Epistolary Practices in Chosŏn Korea by Hwisang Cho
Hwisang Cho’s The Power of the Brush is a welcome addition to a series of publications regarding textual culture in Chosŏn Korea that have recently come out in English. By focusing on the “epistolary revolution,” the explosive increase in the sheer number of letters and the development of epistolary networks starting in the sixteenth century, the book reconstructs how letter writing became an indispensable textual practice in philosophical, social, and political interactions. It challenges the presumption regarding the epistolary genre as a mode of private, bilateral, and mundane communication, instead highlighting the centrality of epistolary writing in generating significant transformations in domestic exchange, knowledge production, social intercourse, and political participation in the late Chosŏn period.
The book’s argument foregrounds its redefinition of the epistolary genre. On the one hand, Cho widens the scope of the epistolary genre, the flexibility and adaptability of which is evidenced by diverse usages, functions, and meanings in the Chosŏn context in accord with a variety of cultural, social, and political factors. Instead of being confined to a standardized or commercialized form, the epistolary genre in the late Chosŏn period manifested itself in a variety of forms, such as spiral letters, circular letters, and joint memorials, and served both communicative (between sender and receiver) and noncommunicative (addressing academic scrutiny and sociopolitical agendas) functions. It thus did not necessarily adhere to a preset format but constantly negotiated preexisting cultural norms and political power relationships, thereby exercising “epistolary self-reflexivity.” On the other hand, Cho demonstrates that the mode of letter writing exercised control over the meaning of texts. The intrinsic capabilities of the epistolary genre, such as initiating interpersonal connection, cementing a sense of community, and evoking the importance of every practice, added another layer of meaning to the messages conveyed by the letter form and caused the domains of private communication and public writing to converge in an intricate fashion.
The Power of the Brush consists of six chapters with a prologue and epilogue. Chapter 1 introduces the background of the epistolary revolution that began in the mid-sixteenth century and explains how the invention of the vernacular Korean script precipitated the surge in letter writing and the multiplicity of its material forms across gender and class distinctions. Chapter 2 centers on spiral letters, a unique Korean phenomenon, which defied the lineal textual layout by rotating the given page to generate spiral forms and incorporated [End Page 226] bodily movement and cognitive process into its form. This type of letter emerged as a vernacular textual style associated only with nonofficial settings to serve diverse purposes of self-fashioning. Chapter 3 discusses the elevation of letters as a central academic genre. In focusing on the endeavor of Yi Hwang (1502–1571) to shape letters as the most effective genre for Neo-Confucian studies, the chapter reconstructs Chosŏn male elites’ attempt to redefine their identity as the authentic inheritors of orthodox Neo-Confucianism by embracing letters as academic texts. Chapter 4 traces Yi Hwang’s local academy movement and its ramifications to show how letters served as a medium for building local academy networks and fostering the new identity of nonofficial local Confucian scholars as a legitimate political community. Chapter 5 explores the social epistolary genre in such forms as circular letters (t’ongmun), court newsletters (chobo), and memorials (sangso). It discusses their role in enhancing dyadic connections between local literati groups, improving rural elites’ ability to disseminate political information to wider audiences, and providing opportunities for their political participation. Chapter 6 focuses on the ways in which the collective writing of political epistles, such as circular letters and joint memorials, integrated the discourse of kongnon (public and impartial opinion) and political activism of local scholars. Local elites’ delivery of political epistles, often involving contentious public performances, shaped the distinctive ways the state and those elites interacted and negotiated.
Throughout the chapters, it is clear that the epistolary writing that flourished...