Under Review, Under Review, Under Review

In academia, the process of being “under review” seems never quite to come to an end, and this is a very state in which to be, because “review” is another way of saying “in communication with.”

At some point in the next month or two, I hope to share an update on my own “scholarly statistics” with blog readers, but in the meantime, a few relevant materials have come into my sightlines which first demand a bit of review.

Sun Joo Kim, ed.  The Northern Region of Korea: History Identity, and Culture.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010.

As part of a formidable series edited by the UW’s Clark Sorenson, this title makes remarkable inroads into contextualizing northern Korea, seeking regional and historical patterns of distinctiveness that predate the (obscuring) trauma of 1945.

Kwon Naehyun’s essay (“Chosun-Qing Relations and the Society of Pyongan Province during the Late Chosun Period,” pp. 37-61) provides a suprising amount of diplomatic data which highlights the importance of Uiju and its surrounding province to Sino-Korean relations in the 1800s.  This essay begins with a glancing but revealing discussion of P’yongan province’s importance to frontier defense against nomadic invasions by the Later Jin (1616-1636; e.g., the forerunners of the Qing dynasty).  The province had tremendous burdens as a defense garrison, but — in a theme which has become a commonplace in modern South Korean society — “these very burdens also presented opportunities for regional economic growth” (p. 37).  Trade and commerce were vital opportunities for the creation of new elites on the periphery at the outset of the Qing-Chosun relationship.

However, as Kwon points out, P’yongan elites were typically discriminated against by “the central elite in the capital” (p. 38).  Fortunately, Kwon puts this data to good use by portending rebellions in the province in the late 1800s.

If F.W. Mote’s immense tome Imperial China were insufficient fodder for an entire lifetime of lectures and reflections about Qing foreign policy on the northern frontier, Kwon’s essay brings us events from the Korean perspective.  Korean relations with the Manchus were poor in the 1610s and 20s, during which time the nomad-king Nurhaci was establishing a capital in Shenyang and eyeing a leap over the Great Wall of China, and seeking to tie off any possiblity of future war with Chosun. As everyone today seems to advocate, and as Nurhaci seemed to understand, clearly the way to prevent future war with any power on the Korean peninsula is to intimidate the bejeezus out of the powerful Koreans.  As Kwon writes, “Chosun’s relations with the Manchus were based on disdain, distrust, and military confrontation” (p. 38).

The importance of Korea to the Manchu rulers during the process of invading and consolidating power in Beijing can be seen in the fact that the Manchus sent more envoys to Seoul than anywhere else, often for purposes of surveillance, in the period from 1636-1644.

This pattern of activist relations was curtailed as Chosun Korea was thereafter given free rein to strengthen its own defenses; by the mid-18th century, diplomatic missions were less frequent and transitioned into peaceful mode.

Kwon describes how the pacification of the Sino-Korean relationship in this era changed the defensive construction of the northern tier of Korean provinces.  When the Manchus were rising up as a regional power in what is today Jilin province, Chosun strategists had originally forseen that Hamgyong province would be the conduit for an invasion over the Tumen River; this calculus changed, and defense allocations with it, when the Manchus evidently turned their focus southward toward China (p. 39).

For someone like myself who is presently embroiled in a research project looking into cross-border aid between China and North Korea during the Chinese civil war (1945-1949), other facts are of even greater interest.  It appears that in the Ming dynasty defense against the Manchu invasion, a Ming general named Mao Wenlong and his two divisions were stationed in P’yongan province, but this did not prevent “two Manchu armies” from ripping through Uiju and on toward Seoul, leaving destruction in their wake (p. 39).

Kwon describes how Qing envoys would spend an average of nearly a month in P’yongan province during their progresses between the Chinese and Korean capitals, indicating the area’s importance in terms of cultural exchange and, again, trade (pp. 39-41).  A cascade of slightly numbing economic data follows, but one is interested to know that merchants in Seoul and Uiju didn’t take long to find out that Chinese markets greatly valued red ginseng (hongsam), and that this commodity, as it does today, formed a pillar of exchange across the frontier (p. 52).

Tatiana Gabroussenko, Soldiers on the Cultural Front: Developments in the Early History of North Korean Literature and Literary Policy (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2010). 

This book is so very interesting that it gets a video review, perhaps tomorrow.  A fascinating dissertation that made the transition — perhaps a leap? — rather well into book form, much in the mold of B.R. Myers’ Han Sorya and North Korean Literature, an excerpt of whose “Jackals” translation was being read aloud by a friend even as I typed these words.  

Werner G. Hahn, Postwar Soviet Politics: The Fall of Zhdanov and the Defeat of Moderation, 1946-53 (London: Cornell University Press, 1982). 

This text presents a revisionist view of Zhdanov as — yes — a cultural moderate.  I don’t know if I can swallow this thing, as each bite has a tendency to break off teeth.  Far more useful thus far, if a bit speculative, in thinking about Zhdanov and his possible impact on North Korean cultural policy is Alfred J. Rieber’s work Zhdanov in Finland (Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, No. 1107, University of Pittsburgh, 1995).

Next on the list is a slightly beastly text which elicits a great deal of guilt on my part to gaze at.  Why so?  Like the latest big Shostakovich biographies, and a hammering compliation of musicological essays by the inimitable Richard Taruskin, the beast is yet fully unread.  But, in an act of faith that it shall become, one day soon, “under review,” I shall cite it nevertheless, blank space underneath promising future scribbles:

Kees Boterbloem, The Life and Times of Andrei Zhdanov, 1896-1948 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004).  

Andrei Zhdanov



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