Thursday, October 16, 2008

A little bit about Korea's Violent History

One of my beta readers asked me why my young adult book has so much violence. Well, the answer really goes straight back into Korea's history. Violence is the backbone of much of its history and resulted in much grief to the Korean people. In the past, Korea had been coveted by many raiding forces, from ancient Chinese dynasties, the Mongols, the Russians and the Japanese. Korean history is filled with tragedy - which explains why so many of Korean films and soap operas tend to be terribly tragic. So I thought a little bit of background into Korea's history might be interesting.

This is an icon of a Korean pavilion drawn by my talented illustrator friend, Virginia Alyn.Below is a picture of a real Korean pavilion - part of the Gyongbok palace in Seoul, Korea.

Images copyright by usag.yongsan available via and creative commons

Gyongbok means shining happiness, and the palace was built in 1395 by King Taejo, the first king of the Chosun Dynasty. Taejo was an admiral in the Koryo Army when he marched on the capital and seized power, and crowned himself the new king. Despite the fact that he overthrew the old government in a military coup, he is admired as a revolutionary who saved Korea from encroaching foreign forces (like the Mongols and the Yuan and Ming Dynasties of China) and got rid of an inept and corrupt government. While the MC in my book is also named Taejo, he is not named after this one. In fact there were three King Taejo's in Korean history and my MC is not based on any of them. He is actually based on the great King Gwangeotto of Koguryo, but Gwangeotto was not a name that rolls off the tongue very well so I went with Taejo. Anyway, I digress.

The palace didn't fare as well historically. It was destroyed during the Japanese invasion in 1592 and it wasn't until 1867 that it was restored to its former glory. It then was crime scene for the very public assassination of Queen Min by Japanese soldiers in disguise, who then ransacked the palace. Queen Min was a powerful leader, more so than her weak husband, King Gojong. She was the leading opponent keeping foreign forces from Korea, most specifically Japan. She even promoted stronger ties with Russia in an attempt to block Japanese influence in the government that had begun to spread. The Japanese saw her as one of their largest obstacles to their expansion plans.

In the early morning of October 8th, 1895, sword bearing assassins dressed in "peculiar robes" and under orders by the Japanese Minister to Korea, broke into the Queen's quarters. The palace itself was swarming with Japanese troops, holding the Korean guards back from the assassination that then occurred. The assassins killed three court ladies. Confirming that one of the women was indeed the Queen, they dragged her body into the pine forest in front of the palace's large complex and burned her body and scattered her ashes. Queen Min was only 43.

King Gojong was so overcome by his wife's murder, he went into seclusion for weeks and when he emerged, he signed a treaty with the Japanese, essentially giving them immense power over Korea. But the one thing he would not agree to was the Japanese insistence that Queen Min be stripped of her title and status and lowered to a commoner status. The King was purported to state that he would rather slit his wrists rather than disgrace his wife. It was his one act of defiance, but it came too late. Korea was no longer a free country as the Japanese occupation was only a few years away. The Japanese occupation officially began in 1910, but in reality, they were already usurping power with the Queen's death. The palace itself was majorly destroyed during the occupation with most of the 200 buildings torn down by the Japanese.

Her murder marked a period of cultural genocide, war crimes and horrors that many Koreans can never forget. While the book Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang, brought to the world's attention the horrors that the Japanese army visited on the people of Nanking, not as much world attention has focused on the plight of Korea during the occupation. Over 5 million Koreans were conscripted into the army while millions more were shipped off to Japan to work as slave laborers or comfort women (sex slaves). And even far worse, Koreans were also used as human experimentation for the Japanese army. At the time, the Japanese viewed Koreans as a sub-species of human. Lower than dogs, was what they were taught in school. To the Japanese of the time, Koreans were not human.

The Japanese government tried its best to destroy Korean culture. Japanese was the only language allowed to be spoken and taught in Korea. Anyone found speaking Korean was severely punished, if not killed. All Koreans were forced to give up their Korean names and legally take on Japanese names. Korean cultural landmarks and public monuments were defaced to extoll the virtues of the Japanese Emperor. Korean history book were confiscated and burned. Priceless Korean artifacts were stolen and shipped to Japan. In one of the terrible ironies of war, more than half of Korea's priceless cultural artifacts are not actually in Korea, but are held in Japanese museum and private collections, the victims of the rape of Korea's culture. Tombs of ancient Korean monarchs were plundered and stolen and now can be found in the private collections of Japanese collectors. In recent years, many private collectors have graciously returned some of Korea's heritage back to Korean museums, but still much more remains in Japanese hands as other so called "collectors" have donated their priceless Korean artifacts to Japanese museums.

One other remaining remnant of the Japanese occupation occurs in many maps that one finds even to this day. Look at a map, and you will see that the body of water between Korea and Japan is still referred to as the Sea of Japan. However, its true name is the East Sea. The Sea of Japan was claimed by the Japanese during its occupation period. To allow it to remain on modern day maps continues to be a terrible reminder to Korea of their dark period of foreign occupation. That's why it was so important for me to include in my map of Korea, the true historical name of the East Sea. Perhaps one day, all history books and maps will once again reestablish its true name.

Note - Please know that none of this is meant as Japan bashing but as a discussion of past historical issues only.


Anonymous said...

So much information to process, Ello, but I will remember the East Sea.

Anonymous said...

The only piece of Korean history I ever heard anything about was the division of North and South which I saw in a brilliant History Channel documentary. It's fantastic to learn all this. You sure know how to bring it to life.

The 'great imperial powers' of history have wrought terrible bloody oppressions on conquered lands. The peasant folk particularly bore the brunt of this kind of inhumanity. It continues today......

Anonymous said...

Fascinating history. Unfortunately, there isn't much land on this earth that hasn't had human blood shed over it. Whether in masses or in individuals, humans are murdered everywhere, in every concievable way. Of course, an old culture, like those of Korea and China, will have very long histories of such blood shed. Sad

Anonymous said...

Thank you for reminding us all of this history. Although the hatred caused by conflicts should not be kept alive, the lessons those conflicts teach (not the least of which are the atrocities all humans are capable of inflicting) should never be forgotten.

Anonymous said...

What a tragic history. It holds so many lessons.

I think every country is shadowed in sadness at one time or another.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Due to my being a product of American public schools I find my lack of knowledge on Asian history deplorable and your summary fascinating. I knew that just about every Asian country surrounding Japan hated it, but I had always thought that it was due to the Japanese occupations of WWII rather then something that had been going on for a lot longer.

My dearest friend is currently in Japan teaching English and attending night school to learn Korean. Her birthday is coming up and she loves history so would you recommend 'Rape of Nanking' as a good read? I'll admit that I don't want to send her anything too depressing (she's been feeling very homesick lately) so if it is sad please tell me so I can give it to her after she's been cheered up a bit.

Anonymous said...

Great little history lesson!

Much to learn from history and too much that everyone forgets.

Obviously my profession has led me to focus on the military aspects, but I've spent a lot of time studying the factors that lead to war in the first place.

One of my favorite authors (and one of the most influential on my thinking) is Sun Tzu who wrote The Art of War in the fourth century B.C.E.

Westerners do tend to overlook Asian history. Perhaps the global nature of the economy will eventually bring a little more attention and focus to the East, where almost three fifths of the world's population resides.

Anonymous said...

Hi Larramie! I know I threw out too much, huh? I'll try to whittle it down to smaller chunks of info next time!

Janey - The peasants are always the ones to suffer! I'll share another interesting story about that during the Mongolian wars next time!

Charles - You are absolutely right. The longer the civilization, the more blood was shed.

Jason - Agreed. But humanity must learn from previous mistakes. That is the only way to breed out the hatred.

Kim - absolutely! Every country has ugliness in its history.

Mimzy - me too! That is why I was so fascinated finally starting to find out about Asian history on my own. But please don't give Rape of Nanking to your friend if she is depressed! It will depress her more. I cried reading that book and walked around feeling so bad for days afterwards. If you are looking for something Japanese, one of my absolutely favorite author is Kazuo Ishiguro. I think everything he writes is brilliant and I love him, although he does touch on tragic themes also. I would also highly recommend Silk by Alessandro Baricco which is a wonderful book - and really short! If she is in Japan, why not give her American books instead that she might not be able to get as easiy out there? And as nonfiction choices go - there are so many to choose from!

Good luck!

JLK - Great to see you! I knew you would love Sun Tzu! I actually find military history fascinating. And you are right, Asian history has always been overlooked by westerners, but I don't think it can be for much longer.

Anonymous said...

I'd heard the generalshape of this, but the details are fascinating. There's really very little taught of Far Eastern history in American public schools. You have to actually search hard to find significant curriculae on Asian studies in universities too (or you did when I was in school.) I only know that, though, because a good friend got a degree in Asian Studies.

I'm basically your average ignorant American with the exception that I actually knew that Korea has been a hotbed of foreign interference/occupation and the related suffering.

Thanks for sharing this fascinating stuff!

Anonymous said...

Great history lesson, Ello. Thanks for educating me today, much of this I did not know!

Anonymous said...

excellent bit of history unknown to me, thx ello :D

Anonymous said...

See!!! I can't help but get "crangry" sometimes . . . it's genetic.

Da' Man

Anonymous said...

Mimzy, definitely do NOT give your friend the Rape of Nanjing, even though it's a stellar work, if she's depressed. The author of it later committed suicide while suffering from depression, and while depression is clinical and biological, many have speculated that her further descent was partially attributable to living for so many years with the accounts that she gathered in Nanjing.

Ello, I know that from the contemporary Korean and Japanese perspectives, the body of water is considered to be the East Sea by Koreans and the Sea of Japan by Japanese. After all, why would the Japanese call a sea to their west The East Sea. (However, Japan is to my west and people call it the Far East, so....) I had always assumed that things were always this way -- two names for the same thing. Are you saying that world maps before the Meiji and rise of Japanese nationalism (for lack of a better word) that everyone called it the East Sea? Or that just what Koreans have always called it?

Anonymous said...

Hey Paca!

This is a good question with several different layers of answers. First off, yes many ancient maps named that body of water, the East Sea and even Sea of Chosun (korea). Sea of Japan was a name that came into widespread use only with the aggressive Japanese entry into the international scene, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, even as Korea remained the hermit kingdom and China was suffering its own internal chaos. And it is interesting to sea that even in ancient Japanese maps that this sea was actually referred to as Sea of Corea or Chosun. Not Sea of Japan.

to date the controversy has lead to a change in many leading publishers maps where both names are included on the map. But there is so much more involved. Politically, Japan has encroached on international waters and pushed Korean fisherman out of historical waters. Islands are caught in the crossfire. The issue is not just about the name, but about possession and history. It is definitely a hot topic.

Anonymous said...

I've heard about some of the verbal battles concerning the islands in the sea. thanks for the info!

Told you I did Chinese history, not Korean, in my Asian Studies major.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Ellen. This is absolutely fascinating. I had absolutely no idea. I know next to nothing about Korean history. A little more, now!

Thank you. I hope you do some more posts along this vein sometime!

Anonymous said...

This history of Korea is particularly interesting.

Anonymous said...

You make history interesting!

Anonymous said...

Yes, I really feel the tension here sometimes. But I must admit recently there has been huge interest in Korean actors/actresses, TV dramas, movies, and culture in general. Even Korean language classes are very popular. I cannot wait to read you book!

Anonymous said...

It's funny how that 'violent' history sort of trickled down to modern times. Isn't there a popular saying in Korea, "Korea fighting!" No racism or anything intended, but you see a thin thread of relation to their history from that saying. :P

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