Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book Review: The Five Years' Crisis, 1866-1871: Korea in the Maelstrom of Western Imperialism

Title: The Five Years' Crisis, 1866-1871: Korea in the Maelstrom of Western Imperialism
Author: Yongkoo Kim
Hardcover: 170 pages
Publisher: University of Hawaii Press (November 25, 2001)
ISBN-10: 8989443016
ISBN-13: 978-8989443018

With a name like that, how can it not be a lopsided look at the opening of Korea? Despite a well-meaning disclaimer that the author "...has tried to maintain a balanced view on this unfortunate period in history by guarding against chauvinistic interpretations of Korean diplomatic history that impute all the mishaps to foreign powers, as well as against so-called colonial versions which deny the autonomous capabilities of the Korean people" this brisk 170 page book falls flat on its bold claim as is about as unbalanced as it could be in such a small amount of space. Not that early encounters with Korea from Western powers weren't decidedly all from unsavory people relatively unrepresentative of their respective countrymen in general, the book clearly takes a defensive and anti-foreign stance against foreign interaction. Earliest examples include the persecution of Catholics which prompted French intervention in 1866.

Don't let the subjectivity of the writing to lead you to think that the book isn't worth your time because it most certainly is. It's a concise read full of embedded translations of proper nouns into 한자, helpful notations and good footnotes. In its original form, the book was the first chapter of a much larger Korean language work titled "세계관 충돌과 한말외교사 1866-1882". In the current English language form, it's just enough to entice interest and provide an excellent primer for the events surrounding the eventual opening of Korea. It's a bit lacking in some details such as the details of the Oppert incident. However, regarding the curiously inept Oppert, we do learn that "Once again, the Korean government was assaulted by international predatory imperialism." (p.90) and that "this extraordinary incident was planned by hooligans who dreamt of making a fortune at one stroke, their financial backers who willingly bankrolled these hooligans, and a corrupt Catholic priest." (p.91) While I can't say that Ernst Oppert was anything less than a naive would-be thief, the rest of the book follows this slanted viewpoint hinting of piracy, nativity and western ethnocentrism. For some cases, this prejudice is warranted but it's a bit gratuitous to paint events past as a whole in this color.

Despite the obvious nationalistic stance, the book does have other minor flaws. The most curious of which is the indiscriminate abbreviation for all Western first names. For example Father Stanislas Feron reads as S. Feron. This pattern seems to be almost uniform regardless of each person's historical preference or title. The other minor issue regards another abbreviation this time in the footnote section. Supposedly long winded titles like British Documents of Foreign Affairs are reduced to BDFA possibly to save space. It's purpose is clearly lost on this reader because after each footnote, I'm left with no other choice than to return to the beginning of the book for the code breaking abbreviation guide. Hurray for brevity.

However, as far as where it counts, I feel this book, while lacking in length, stands up as credible. Professor Kim poignantly claims that "it was because of this [Oppert grave robbing] incident more than any others that the Korean government further sequestered itself from the Western world." (p.91) which I feel is more historically relevant than the usual finger-pointing inciting occurrence of the General Sherman. Furthermore, the author's inclusion of French and American sources including private letters should help give credibility to the man's work as it is indeed a well-researched book despite a few literary slaps in the Western face from time to time. It's got the content where it matters and the biasedness is easy enough to spot.

Professor Kim has produced a very readable English translation of his 2001 Korean work "세계관 충돌과 한말외교사 1866-1882" albeit in peacemeal form. It's inviting enough to pick up the second installment hinted in the conclusion of the first book; tentatively titled The Kyorin Order and Korea but was actually published as Korea and Japan: The Clash of Worldviews, 1868-1876 six years later. With the first installment's 15 dollar price tag and somewhat disappointingly lack of detail, even the extraordinarily helpful appendixes, glossary lists, Hanja-to-English definitions, world timelines and such make this one a toss-up. I'm glad I read it but you might want to spend your money elsewhere if the subject isn't your thing.

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Courtesy of Robert Neff, we recently were granted an up-close look at the grave robbery site in its present day form as well as a more fleshed out back story of the players involved.  For more on the incident and Oppert, the somewhat dated yet still accessible Korean History Project has a nice writeup. I look forward to getting into the next book.


jooyong kim said...

한국 사람보다 한국 역사를 더 많이 알고 있네요.
어떻게 그런 관심을 갖게 되었는지...?

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