Korean Historiography

A nationalist by the name Shin Ch’ae-ho in his 1908 work set forth the first and most influential historical narrative, which equates Korean history with the history of the Korean nation. He portrays Korea as a country where the strong survive and the weak perish. He adopted a novel way of telling what the Confucian historians had already known. His historical work utilizes a new code to produce new structures of meaning that is quite different from that found in histories that were written in the chronicle style and the biography style (Cumings 43).

Confucian historiography constituted itself not as a separate discipline, but as a part of a large body of knowledge of the government. The function of this history was to serve as a mirror and a repository of knowledge that would actually enable the ruler and his bureaucrats to act morally and ethically in the present.

It was with this political intention that Shin Ch’ae-ho wrote Toksha shillom for emerging general public trying to trace Korea’s ethnic and cultural origins as far back as possible to a geographical area that extend far beyond the Korean peninsula.

Shin Ch’ae-ho also affirmed a discrete and separate ethnicity for the Korean people that originated with Tan-gun and actually run down through puyo. His aim was actually to sabotage weak and limited conceptions of Korea’s national space. The confrontations over territorial access, such as resource concessions to foreign powers, extraterritoriality, circulation of foreign currencies, and unregulated Japanese immigration, had already undermined the inherited conceptions of territorial authority. Shin Ch’ae-ho’s became the first in the long line of Korean history writing that actually welded the Manchurian connection to create a nationalist history that revealed in the stateliness of a prehistoric past.

Divergent program of these writings

Korean nationalist has a diverging opinion about nationalism; some condemn nationalism and nationalist historiography, while others defend it. Some see nationalism as a rational attempt by the weak and underprivileged people of the world to achieve autonomy and liberty, while others see nationalism as one of Europe’s most pernicious exports whose inexorable consequence has been extermination of the sovereignty (Cumings 43).

In his later anarchist writings, Shin tried to construct a new collective subjectivity capable of challenging the modernist program which he saw as exploitative, brutal and oppressive This had earlier been a result of propagation discourses of Korean identity that started from both the Korean nationalist movement and the Japanese colonial state, and stemmed from the inevitability to nationalize Korea. Compelled to deny any constructive role of Koreans, the Japanese colonialist followed a strategy of forced assimilation. Under the ‘Nisen Ittai’, the Japanese eliminated the use of Korean in school instruction. The Koreans were required to attend Shinto ceremonies. They were also forced to adapt Japanese surnames.

Korean nationalist exemplifies both democratic (liberating) and oppressive propensities. All these propensities manifest themselves most directly in the writings of Korean nationalist historiography.

The Korean nationalism resisted the degrading allegation of Japanese colonialist historiography, and actually helped to create a modern form of a civil society in Korea. This nationalism also unveils the deepening of egalitarianism by overwhelming heterogeneity and discontinuity in the Korean history.

Before that Korea was colonized by Japan in order to achieve political liberation and to reclaim dignity and trustworthiness. Nationalists such as Shin Ch’ae-ho actually wanted to arouse, mobilize and unite the entire Korean population. In the place of loyalty to the king, attachment to the village, clan, and family and in the place of hierarchic rank differences among the middle people. Nationalism in Korea strived to redirect people’s loyalty towards a new, all-embracing identity of Koreans as an exceptional ethnic group. Shin Ch’ae-ho’s accused the Kim Pu-shik’s of the deletion of the Manchuria from the Korean history and his reconceptualization of state history as the history of the Korean nation. The identification of the minjok as a subject of an evolutionary history marked the watershed in the modern Korean intellectual history.

The Japanese colonialism was constructive equally to the colonizer and the colonized (Dils & Ann 12). Coercion, censorship and probation were some of the ways that the colonial rule was established. This made the Japanese initiate new regulations and controls over the emancipation of Korean identity. This was initiated in the newspaper editorials and school curriculum programs. The Korean nationalist historians in competition with the Japanese colonial state were occupied in the project of recuperating, or producing a self-sufficient Korean subjectivity.

The Korean historians emphasize more on language, culture, and lineage, at the neglect of political and economic aspects. These aspects are vague from conventional and ultra-nationalist position. Although they have recently made an effort to shed this kind of tendency, they are still as a whole enmeshed in it.

Within Korea, there has been criticism predominantly raised by scholars of western history, for example Kil Hyon-mo criticizes the Korean nationalism. Kil sees Korean nationalist historiography as the nationalism characteristic of underdeveloped countries. Although Kil admits that this brand of Korean nationalism was unavoidable during the time of Japanese aggression in the past, he argues that since historical conditions are now very different, the nature of nationalism must also change so as to put down conservative, reactionary, mythical, closed and backward-looking ideology. New nationalism ideologies are such as rational, universal, open and forward looking.

He also contends that Korean historiography has to change from closed to open nationalism. More full-scale criticism from scholars of western history has been raised through Im Chi-hyon. He attacks the Korean historians and their nationalist tendency. He states that Korean historiography incorporates a colonial experience and the specificity of the system of division. According to Yang Pyong-u, he sharply criticizes nationalist historiography itself. He sees nationalist historians as having thrown themselves into the study of history from the standpoint of participation in the reality through scholarship.

The western scholars consider historical narration by the nationalists to have a political task of awakening and mobilizing their fellow countrymen. They also state that the Korean historiography incorporates experiences and specificity of the system of division through its historical narration which is grounded on the consciousness of practical, contemporary problems. This has more potential to unintentionally lead history into the realm of myth.

Furthermore, they argue that the sound relationship between the ideological world view and epistemological value of historical consciousness has been destroyed in the result, and excessive historical understanding prevented the development of objectivity. The practical orientation and epistemological horizons of researchers of Korean history seem to be locked into nationalism in spite of their keen consciousness and sincere efforts against this issue.

Similarity between these Writings

The spread of studies on the Korean identity, which emanated from both the Korean nationalist movement and the Japanese colonial state, slowed from the necessity to nationalize for both the Koreans and the Japanese. This necessity of producing Korean subjects was prompted by the development of the global nation-state system (Stokstad 34).

The historiography portrays that the Japanese and the Koreans shared common ethnic origins and Japanese colonization of Korea represented the restoration of ancient ties. In their conceptual frame-up of pursuit of the origin of Korean nation, the inhabitants of Korean peninsula and Manicaria were in centered view of ancient Korea-Japan relations.

In trying to compete and survive in the nation state system, both Korean and the colonial state nationalists’ movement and organizations had to study, standardize and thus reinvent almost everything we now associate with the Korean nation.

Despite the Korean nationalism, Japanese colonial officials and western missionaries had divergent programs, where some common grounds existed (Condra 98). They all accept the nation state as the normal or natural form of political community. The assumption that the nation is the only legitimate form of priority, the historian helps uphold the illusion of the nation’s necessary and unilinear advancement. During the 1960 and 1970 most historians worked towards the development of nationalist historiography. Considerable number of scholars in South Korea advocated for a Marxist historiography.

Politically, the historians also acknowledged that there would always be a ‘self’ and the ‘other’ entities where most people in South Korea saw themselves as the self, and the people from North Korea as the other (Tucker & Jinwung 89). The historians believed that in order to achieve political independence, the North and South Koreans had to see themselves as self and the colonizer as the other. Nationalist historiography has been the most representative historical perspective since the foundation of the modern Korean historiography at the end of the nineteenth century. Korean nationalists shared a similar discourse similar to that of the Japanese that they were using the language of the colonizers. They used concepts of modernity and progress of which concepts were being used by the Japanese colonialists.

Both the Japanese colonial state and Korean nationalists were researching and writing Korean history preserving and interpreting Korean customs and religious practices (Korean History 41). The two groups of historians were also laboring to create a standard Korean language.

Shared Fundamental Tenets

In the colonialist historiography that was written by both Japanese and Korean historians, a justification for Japanese control over Korea is provided (Carey 56). Koreans are depicted as lacking the capacity for autonomous development or a progressive spirit. Therefore, due to this inherent deficiencies Japan was left with no choice but to lead Korea in modern civilization.

There was a steady spread of discourses concerning Korean identity emanating from Japanese colonial state itself including studies of Korean history, language, geography, customs and religion.

These writings were actually used to educate academic officials in the art of government. This history writing had an earnest ethical function of assigning commendation or denunciation. Although both official and private histories did exist, they were both written by bureaucrats for the other bureaucrats (those holding office and those aspiring to hold one).

The historical writings in Korean outline were more on Confucianism, which emphasized on love for humanity, peace and justice that was largely influenced by the traditional culture of China. Furthermore, justice and righteousness that marked the relations between sovereignity and subjects is a fundamental principle that is exemplified by these writings.


The writing of the Korean history was done by both official and private nationalists. Private histories were sometimes free of some of the restraints that inhibited official’s historiography. However, because the authors were either potential or actual office holders, there was a very strong similarity in the outlook between the private historiography and official historiography as depicted by the above similarity.

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