The intellectual history side of my research examines medieval Korea with the early twentieth-century situation in mind. Among the many possible topics, I focus on invented traditions, historical memory, Confucianism, center/province dynamics, and connections and comparisons with China. I pursue these topics with the aim of advancing a new frame of reference intended to replace the legacies of Cold War-era modernization theory. Some early thoughts on this topic is articulated in my guest editor’s introduction to the June 2019 issue of Seoul Journal of Korean Studies.
My projects aim for multilayered explanations. I define Korea not by the coastal boundaries of the peninsula but in a way that considers regional variations, points of contact with the outside world, and overseas settlements. I approach history in a way that rejects the stark premodern/modern divide and ruminates on the legacies of immediate as well as distant pasts.
These methodological choices were made to put forward historical narratives of East Asia, with a Korea focus, that speak to the early twenty-first century arrangement in this intriguing and highly strategic part of the world. At present, South Korea is China’s fourth largest and China is South Korea’s largest trade partner, overtaking the role that Japan and the United States used to play in the peninsula. National identity continues to matter not for its relationship to modernity, industrialization, and nation-building, but in an environment marked by population aging, low birth rate, and the influx of migrant workers. South Korea, befitting its recent and unexpected transformation from a low-wage manufacturing economy to a leader in technology sectors, boasts large repositories of digitized heritage sources. Mindful of this new order of things, my projects aim to let the study of medieval and early modern eras enrich our understanding of today, and, in turn, also try to advance new types of historical inquiry enabled by modern digital technologies.
My book manuscript in progress, Genealogies of the Past: Confucian Nativism and Invented Traditions in Medieval Korea, articulates this approach to Korean intellectual history. This project, based on my doctoral dissertation, explains the length at which the medieval Koreans went to abstract the Confucian tradition from its sacred connection with “China” and “Chineseness”. To explain this feat in which only a handful of societies and cultures managed to succeed, I pay close attention to a body of Chinese canonical writings representing guwen neoclassical Confucian thought within the context of Korea’s domestic challenges that prompted the adoption of this set of ideas. Despite having developed in a non-Korean context, guwen Confucianism from eleventh-century China provided the medieval Koreans with distinctive social and political theories about governance, economic planning, individuality, social hierarchy, staff recruitment, and high culture. In an unstable world where the dynastic and noble houses struggled with weak sources of legitimacy, medieval Korean monarchs and statesmen openly drew from a range of traditions from within and outside the peninsula in a quest to establish a new aristocratic order based on the enforcement of norms by social practice, rather than legislation. However, the eventual success of guwen Confucianism out of all possible options was predicated upon the obfuscation of the outside origins of Confucian ideas through repeated inventions of tradition and traditional values. Thus, a focal point in my study is the construction of a new native identity based on a genealogy of dynastic states going back to an imagined ancient realm located next to China.