Postcolonialists’ Criticism of the Eurocentric Nature of Korean History

Postnationalists’ Criticism of Nation and Nationalist Historiography

In the 1990s, scholars in Western history, accepting Western critiques of the concept of nation by, for example, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawn, argued that nation is an invention of the nineteenth century rather than an enduring reality. The prevalent notion of the nation as a historical ‘reality’ was dismantled and the manipulative nature of nationalism was attacked. The limit of national history was proclaimed.

Jee-Huyn Im (1994: 118), scholar in Western history, argued that Korean nationalist historiography of both the progressives (minjung historiography) and the conservatives has been preoccupied with the notion of nation (minjok) as a transhistorical, inherent entity. Intensive, often sophisticated theoretical debates on Korean nationalism, nation and national (nationalist) historiography have occurred (Im et al., 2001; Seo, 2001; Seo et al., 1992; Yang, 2005). Scholars and educators in nationalist historiography generally argued that nation, nationalism, and national history in Korea have different orientations from those of the West. Ei-Sik Seo (2001) insisted that the Korean nation and national consciousness are not modern products but can be traced back to premodern times.

Jee-Hyun Im (1994) acknowledged that Korean nationalist historiography fulfilled its role in the colonial era. However, he claimed that after liberation, due to the North-South Korean division system, nationalism had lost its positive, resisting features and had become the leverage to legitimize authoritarian political regimes as it had in Europe (Im, 1994). He insisted that the concept of national history must be replaced by ‘border history (studies on border zones)’ and ‘transnational history’ because national history differentiates and isolates ‘we’ from ‘other,’ which would inevitably become confrontational (Im, 2005).

Meanwhile, postnational scholars called for historic pluralism, recognizing the significance of general categories such as gender, class, and region in exploring the historical and social processes that construct these identities. Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson (Shin & Robinson, 1999: 15), scholars in Korean studies, argued that ‘the notion of the nation was not an immutable given, despite Korea’s long history of maintaining a unified political community,’ and that ‘because the frame of nation limits an analysis of multi-layered structure, complex power relations and a dynamic process of identity formation, the nation should be included in the analytic categories, equal to the other categories.’

Postnational and transnational scholars also denounced the Korean internal development theory to be the same nationalist enterprise as the Japanese, no more than an attempt to impose the Western model of history on the Korean case. For several decades, Korean historians have made great efforts to ‘correct’ the Japanese colonialist historiography of Korean history. However, this Korean historiography countering colonialist historiography, due to its nationalist paradigm and its standards in defining modernity and progress, was criticized as being overshadowed by the Eurocentric, colonialist discourse. Henry Em (1997: 195, recited from Park, 1999: 323), Korean history scholar, elaborated on the flaws of the theory of internal development as follows:

First, because even the development of capitalism in England was discussed as a contingent process, it is meaningless to attempt to prove that a capitalism similar to that which arose in England was also beginning to sprout during Joseon society. The colonialist historical perspective, which uses the development of capitalism as a gauge to measure a nation’s superiority or inferiority, must be reexamined. ... Second, the discourses of modernity and progress that were forcibly imposed through imperialism are still operating as the basis for indigenous development theory, which sets out to critique the colonial historical perspective.

Tack-Hyun Kim (2000), scholar in postcolonial theory, also contended that at the level of metanarrative, the Korean nationalist historiography is the same as the Japanese Orientalist perspective. He argued that it mirrors European history and modernity as did Indian nationalist historiography. Em (cited from Park, 1999: 323) pointed out:

Korean nationalist discourse possesses a dilemma shared by the nationalist discourses of other third world countries: to resist colonial rule, they are using the language of the colonizers, such as the concepts of modernity and progress. As a result, while they are trying to resist the oppressors, they are in effect imitating the colonizers and following their standards.

Eurocentric historiography and Japanese colonial historiography are homologous in their intellectual premise of ‘modernity.’ The Korean internal development theory, to challenge the colonial claim, also accepted the premise of

‘modernity’ on which colonial domination was based. The theory determined the generality and the particularity of Korean history in Eurocentric terms.

This attitude toward modernity was forced upon Korea by the very nature of the project of national historiography. However, it was not to emulate the vernacular history scholarship of Europe but to recognize South Korea’s needs to emerge from a colonial past to rebuild the nation, to create economic growth and democratic progress, and to achieve unification of the divided nation that made historians construct Korean nationalist historiographies. They zealously mobilized their heterogeneous nationalist imagination in reading the theories seemingly ‘universal’ and appropriated and transformed them, but the critics focused on the nationalist historiography’s confinement within the singular, ‘general’ trajectory of historical progress.

Em (1997) believed that colonial legacy could only be overcome when the myth and the oppressiveness of this imposed ‘modernity’ have been exposed. Some scholars with a postnational historiography perspective suggested constructing another Korean modernity in collaboration with traditional Korean interaction with European modernity and Japanese colonialism, applying the concept of ‘colonial modernity’ (Shin & Robinson, 1999; Yoon, 2006). They suggested that the ambivalence of coloniality and modernity during the colonial period be explored. They focused on socio-cultural transformation as Korea encountered modernity through Japan. However, the theory of colonial modernity, a variation from ‘normal’ development, never transcends the Eurocentric premise of ‘modernity.’

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