Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Review: Times Past in Korea

Title: Times Past in Korea
Author: Martin Uden 
Paperback: 371 pages
Publisher: Routledge (2009)
ISBN-13: 9780415548809

This collection of old clippings, articles, travel journals, personal correspondence and the like compose the rather thick 371 page book Times Past in Korea. What should make anyone pick up this book compiled by the British Ambassador to Korea is largely up to the reader and his or her goal. If it is one's goal to get a frank look into what foreigners were commenting on over a hundred years ago then this book is most certainly for you.

The collection is laid out like an old travelogue. Although the source materials are taken from the 1600s to almost the 1920s, the book is organized by day and month, not by year. For example, the book starts in January 1895 and then jumps to 1904, 1884, 1930 and so on. While the author explains that it is understandably impossible to lay out a perfectly balanced "one entry per day of the day" format, this does become a bit confusing as one paragraph mentions the Japanese colonial minister visiting and the next paragraph is describing a bunch of Dutchmen stranded in the Hermit Kingdom without a regard to any colonial power whatsoever. If you are familiar with your Korean history and are able to mentally switch between periods, it's not a problem. However, for the uninitiated, it's likely enough to drive you crazy.

As clearly stated, the book is not an interpretative study by any means. It's simply a collection of hard-to-find mentions of Korea from the author's extensive personal collection. Knowing this ahead of time, I was pleasantly surprised to find foreigners being just as idiotic a hundred years ago as some are today. To their credit and to balance out some of the more crude statements of ethnic superiority, there are a surprisingly large amount of modern parallels still valid today. It's almost shocking to find so many things have not changed, at least on the surface.

All in all, this book is a great addition to any Korean history book collection, if that's what you're doing - collecting. It's a bit pricey and even harder to find outside of Korea. The original publishing date is back in 2003 which might account for how hard it is to find, but even when found, roughly fifty American dollars is a lot to throw down for a glorified snapshot largely devoid of photographs and character. However, I must be honest and say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading what missionaries, diplomats, adventurous vacationers and other passerbys had to say about Korea a hundred years.

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This month, I had the privilege to attend an open lecture hosted by the Royal Asiatic Society and led by Martin Uden about his book. The ambassador was gracious enough to entertain a few questions including mine about the curious layout of the book. He talked a bit about the book and showed some of the more interesting and photographically appealing excerpts. A stand up guy all around.


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