Book in Focus
Voices on the Loss of National Independence in Korea and Vietnam, 1890-1920"/>

12th September 2022

Book in Focus
Voices on the Loss of National Independence in Korea and Vietnam, 1890-1920

Other States of Mind

By William F. Pore

This book fulfills a recognized need for a comparative study of the anticolonial movements in Korea and Vietnam, two countries which are not commonly combined within the same geopolitical and historical context. Different though these countries are in several ways, they both shared pasts that were similarly formative in molding the lives, careers, and thought of the two subjects of this book, Pak Ŭnsik of Korea and Phan Bội Châu of Vietnam, whose works have been examined to form the basis of comparison. In Southeast Asia, Vietnam has been influenced by Sinitic civilization in ways similar to Korea, to the extent that it can be considered a part of East as well as Southeast Asia. This book reveals how, under that influence, these two figures not only dealt with the realities of their time, but also how, through history, philosophy, experience, emotion, and imagination, they came to deal with their countries’ condition and to envision the future and an alternative world order that has pertinence today. However, this work should not be considered primarily a defense of Sinitic civilization. It also distinctively examines how ethics can be attached to place and how, in fact, issues that go beyond nationalism loomed large in the minds of the early generation of anticolonial activist-intellectuals. 

In Southeast Asia, Vietnam alone has been influenced by Chinese civilization to the extent that it can be considered a part of East Asia. A few years ago, having become fascinated with Vietnam’s Chinese-influenced past, I began to compare it to a similar past in Korea, with the history of which I had previously been most familiar. There is adequate scholarship on the Chinese-influenced pasts of Korea and Vietnam, though it is not of the same volume or presented in the same way. Ki-Baik Lee, Edward W. Wagner, and Michael E. Robinson on Korea, and Keith W. Taylor, Alexander B. Woodside, and David Marr on Vietnam are among those who have variously considered these separate Chinese-influenced pasts and their effects. This scholarship reveals that, even though environments outside of China often contradicted its influence—given the long time-span—material, cultural, and intellectual expressions relating to it did, indeed, develop in both states.

Among other things, under Chinese influence, both Korea and Vietnam acquired the incompletely differentiated “Three Teachings”, composed of a selectively adopted Confucianism, a diffuse or submerged Daoism, and forms of Chinese-mediated Buddhism. Within this tripartite learning, previous scholarship is particularly notable for its attention to Confucianism in nineteenth-century Korea and Vietnam. This is because it was during that century that Confucianism (or more properly Neo-Confucianism), a sure marker of the presence of Chinese influence, officially held an important place in both states. There is no doubt that this was true of Korea, since Confucianism by then had been the state philosophy for more than five hundred years, and a few of its scholars had even made interpretive contributions. It is in regard to Vietnam, however, that Confucianism has had a less assured presence and confronts the most interpretive problems. The scholars Oliver Wolters, Alexander Woodside, and, most prominently, Shawn McHale have raised valid reservations about Confucianism’s influence there. These scholars’ revisionist arguments hold that, while it is true that a Confucian presence can be historically traced in Vietnam, and that it reached a high level of official favor in the nineteenth century, its assumed depth and effect over a long time-span are questionable. Moreover, even though there are other similarities in Korea and Vietnam’s Chinese-influenced pasts—besides Confucianism—which were evident throughout their histories, when the scholarship on particular aspects of these two pasts is examined closely in parallel, the several ways in which they diverged from each other, and, of course, from China, become clear.

I determined, nevertheless, despite these and other obstacles, to devise a comparative investigation which would examine to what degree these two varying pasts may have been influential during a comparable historical period in Korea and Vietnam, and the effects those pasts may have had on similar events that unfolded during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in these geographically separated but culturally linked parts of Asia. To accomplish this, I examined the writings of two contemporary figures of the late 1800s and early 1900s, one from Korea and one from Vietnam, who were alike in background, representative of their societies, and expressive in their writings of themselves, their respective states and peoples’ conditions to the furthest extent. I settled on the specific delimiting years of 1890 to 1920. These years were chosen because they were equally significant in the lives of the protagonists selected as they were in the histories of Korea and Vietnam. As for the protagonists, there were several figures whose lives and writings might have served the same purpose, but the two which came to seem best suited to me were Pak Ŭnsik (1859-1925) of Korea and Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940) of Vietnam. Even though the lives of these two figures extended from before 1890 to beyond 1920, it was between those years that they were most productive as writers and active as anti-colonial participants, while the latter year also marked an accepted point at which conditions in Korea and Vietnam began to change.

As now historically commemorated figures in their respective states, who, along with others, served as their peoples’ spokesmen and conscience at an important time, Pak and Phan have typically been categorized as Confucians, literati, intellectuals, nationalists, anti-colonial activists, and, occasionally, as combinations of all of these. Not neglecting the appropriateness of the established categories, I also devised the identifying category voices, to convey what I came to regard as the chorus-like role that Pak and Phan’s writings served when they wrote about themselves, their societies, their states, and their times. In their role as voices, they also served as local interpreters of the global situation for their countrymen, as disseminators of information about conditions in their homelands, as narrators of their peoples and their states’ fate, and as international activists. Principally by these means, this book intends thereby to direct attention toward re-evaluating the thought and activity of representative Asian anti-colonial actors, such as Pak and Phan; doing so not only complicates the usually accepted place of these and other single-country actors, their thought, and activities during a specified time period, but also affects the interpretations of the seemingly fixed national narratives of anti-colonial struggle in East and Southeast Asia.

Perhaps the best justification for choosing Pak and Phan as the two main subjects around which to conduct my inquiry was secured when I gained a deeper understanding of them, through reading a number of their works, written mostly in Chinese, which were seemingly influenced by Liang Qichao. This was particularly apparent in their works written between 1890 and 1920, a time when they had reached maturity and had begun to write extensively about Korea and Vietnam’s respective experiences of French and Japanese colonialism. From the beginning, I cast my intention beyond simply presenting a sketch of two people, in two different places, at a similar time, in relatively similar historical circumstances. While I hoped possibly to uncover, in Pak and Phan’s works, findings beyond those already mentioned, my primary goal remained the examination of Korea and Vietnam at a significant period in their histories, when the Chinese-influenced past would likely still be reflected in their writings to some extent. In this pursuit, Pak and Phan satisfactorily represented distinctly engaged products of the Korean and Vietnamese Chinese-influenced pasts. As such, their writings are sources for better understanding the complexities of the formative thirty-year period I had designated and its impact on two separated, but interconnected, parts of Asia. Their writings, therefore, were judged to be useful in enhancing the understanding of their societies and informing about their states’ conditions at an important historical period. In the end, the similarities in Pak and Phan’s backgrounds, writing styles, cross-border wanderings, goals, and perceived comparable temperaments further convinced me of the suitability of my choices.

After deepening my understanding of Pak Ǔnsik and Phan Bội Chȃu through my initial translations of sample passages from their writings, it was possible to surmise comparative localized reactions to, and effects of, early colonial rule in Korea and Vietnam. Phan wrote about a Vietnam that had already been colonized by a Western power (France), and Pak wrote about a Korea which was falling under the control of a Westernized power (Japan). Although both were aware, to some extent, of the existence of one another and the fate of the other’s state, they never met, corresponded, or seem to have directly referred to each other. My preliminary examination of their lives and thought, nonetheless, revealed that there were a number of compelling parallels between them, and, on a larger scale, the contemporary experiences of their states. Eventually, more extensive searches for, and translations, of their works allowed me to develop and enlarge this foundation. This resulted in further insights into these two figures and provided a touchstone for comparing Korea and Vietnam during a comparable time and circumstance.

While, at first, my comparative examination of the two figures concluded that their thought and experiences at times had apparent similarities, there were, unsurprisingly, some clear variations between them. Besides being products of different autonomous states on China’s Northeastern and Southeastern peripheries, they emerged from populations with distinct cultural particulars, ethnicities, spoken languages, and lived circumstances. They were also only near contemporaries, separated in age by eight years. The subsequent wider range of translations from more of their works added not only insights and interest, but also more similarities and contrasts between them. In sum, the translations of their works formed the core for examining both the writers themselves and their separate milieus in greater detail, as well as for comparing their thought and providing an analytical basis.

Throughout his academic career, William F. Pore, PhD, has been a student of, and instructor in, East and Southeast Asian history. After a brief career with the United States Department of Defense, he taught the histories of China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam at academic institutions in America and abroad. He has presented his research in several journals and at various conferences.

 Voices on the Loss of National Independence in Korea and Vietnam, 1890-1920: Other States of Mind is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem.

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