When I was young, there’s an old guy in our neighborhood who was rumored to have a colorful life–a farmer turned bandit, a bandit turned soldier turned small business owner. He’s been to Russia and several other countries for business and had some beautiful souvenirs on display, which were covered under a piece of embroidered silk. However whenever children asked him for stories, he said the most boring thing–he’s the worst storyteller. And this is what I always feel about human history–it has wonderful stories but it’s the worst storyteller.
Probably because history is not often told in terms of stories, but rather it’s an endless rambling of general descriptions, in which all the flavors of stories are sacrificed for other considerations.
“A Brief History of Korea” by Michael J Seth is a book with two long subtitles: “Isolation, War, Despotism and Revival” and “The Fascinating Story of a Resilient But Divided People”. It has the general signature of a well accepted history book. It is overall very readable and at various points it is actually funny. And I am very grateful that the author only mentions once in passing about the “Eastern Despotism” and he says it so very discreetly that one can’t be upset about it. I dislike the term intensely, which makes one feel that people in the East is genetically wired to accept despots as leaders and enjoy their lives under dictatorships. If anything, Korea’s history is a testimony to the contrary. Throughout the last one thousand years, they have fought valiantly against despotic empires one after another that are five to ten times their size. I am sure they will fight equally well to be united and democratic in the not too distant future.
Here I gathered some stories from the book that I think are interesting.
1. Koreans think they are shrimps among whales because they have been fighting with China’s Sui and Tang Dynasty, the forest people of Khitan living in Eastern Siberia, the powerful Jerchens kingdom, the mighty Mongolians in the 12th century, the Manchus, and the Japanese empire for about a hundred years before WWII.
2. the Buddhist King
Beop of Baekje (reigning AD 599–600) was the 29th king of Baekje, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. He became so devout that he banned the killing of all animals, and ordered the release of all domestic animals, the destruction of hunting weapons. Not surprisingly, his reign was short.
3. The Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1910)
It is nice to be a man in the Joseon Dynasty, but it is not so good for a woman. The free mingling of men and women before this dynasty was abolished and women were told to make themselves as scarce as possible. This dynasty tried to be more Confucius than Confucius himself and wanted to be really virtues. And one virtue being upheld as the sacred rule was separating men and women–at the height of such an enthusiasm, men and women have to come and go from different entrances. Also on the streets, there were hours for men and hours for women.
4. From 1876 to 1945
It’s a period of losing their independence and becoming a colony of Japan. It sounds so familiar as it happens in many countries in Asia. The dynastic government tried its best to stop outside people from coming to their shores–there were fights, there were restrictions, and there were ways to give people a hard time, but nothing could stop the tide of the history.
5. War and Division 1945 to 1953
The power vacuum at the end of WWII was the real cause of many of Asia’s problems, compounded by the bad economy and food shortage. The British Empire was disintegrating; the Americans didn’t have enough man power for such a vast region. Syng-man Rhee, the first president after the 1945 was corrupt and incompetent, but there’s no other man available for the job. Other qualified Korean men were all collaborators to the Japanese occupation army that people hated them. At least Syng-man Rhee spent most of his time in the U.S. before 1945 and had a reputation of being above the fray. He has no political skills other than strongman suppression; no interest in any real issues other than keeping himself in power. And South Korea was going to suffer from one bad leader to another until the 1980s.
6. North Korea
I am currently reading this portion. I am surprised to learn that there are about a quarter million North Koreans currently living secretly in China ever since the great famine struck North Korea during the 1990s. These people have to be very resourceful in order to avoid police detection and eke out a living for themselves. Let’s pray for them to be safe. I am not very religious, but there are occasions, for which I feel the strong urge of praying. Let’s wish good things happen to the brave and hard working people of Korea and let’s wish unification, democracy, freedom, prosperity is in the near future.
I am still reading the last three chapters. I recommend this book if you want to know something about Korean history.