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Book review: ‘The Dawn of Modern Korea’, Jeju, South Korea

27 September 2008 No Comment
There are few countries that can match Korea’s last century of explosive social and economic expansion and modernization. In his pleasantly readable novel The Dawn of Modern Korea, Andrei Lankov covers the recent and tumultuous history of our beloved Korea. Lankov, a Russian educated in Russia, North Korea, South Korea, and Australia, brings a unique perspective to his book, not being Western or Korean, and as a long-time resident of Seoul.

The Korean royalty of the late 1800s was quick and excited to introduce Western influences that came through missionaries and travelers. Pre-colonial Korea, or, rather, the young and impulsive King Kojong, was eager to accept Western ideas and discoveries such as Christianity, electricity, radio, and telephones- seeing these means as a way to modernize and separate themselves from their Japanese and Chinese neighbors.

The first telephones were brought to Korea in 1882, only 6 years after they were invented. In 1894, the royal palace had a system installed.

“Indeed, they occasionally found some remarkable uses for the new technology. It became an excellent time-saving device which enabled them to circumvent some otherwise lengthy confucian rites…the aging [King] Kojong used the phone to take part in rituals commemorating his deceased consort instead of going to her tomb in person.”

And when Kojong died? His son, Sunjong, wailed at his tomb twice a day…over the phone!

One provocative chapter is entitled, “1970s: Policy to reduce food consumption is introduced”. The chapter outlines President Pak’s plan to reduce rice consumption, rice being a strained resource in the struggling Korea.

“The government enforced harsh austerity measures to reduce the consumption of food, and especially rice,…supported by active propaganda campaigns. As usual, the stress was on the alleged nutritional deficiencies of rice and the wonderful qualities of other foodstuffs which were suggested as substitutes.”

A basic knowledge of recent Korean history is important, but not necessary, to understanding the book. It would be wise to do a quick search on General Pak Chung Hee, the Korean war, and the Japanese annexation and colonization of Korea. Otherwise, the book is a breeze to read. It is written in short chapters to create a time line, each with a completely different theme, only being tied together by successive dates. The book starts with “1784: Christianity Arrives” as the earliest date and finishes with “1990s: Perception of Korean sex culture refined dramatically”.

Unlike many historical non-fiction books about Korea, this book is a light read, despite covering a broad spectrum of topics: from the first photos ever taken in Korea, to the first Western hospital, to when Chilsung Cider began producing the nation’s first fizzy drink, to the opening of the famous Dongdaemun market, to the first incidences of AIDS. Want to know when Koreans phased out the tradition of mock-kidnapping widows? Or how the ubiquitous coffee machine first came to Korea? This book has it. Each chapter is completely different and only a few pages long (the longest chapter being a mere 7 pages).

Unfortunately, like most books on Korean history, there is no mention of Jeju anywhere in this book. The book is entirely Seoul-centric, with a mention of Busan and Pyongyang here and there, but, since Korea’s history begins with Seoul, that is the main setting of Lankov’s work. Still, if you want to know how modern Korean economics, culture, and society exploded into being after a devastating occupation and war, this book is highly recommended.

Lankov, A. (2007). The Dawn of Modern Korea. Seoul, South Korea: EunHaeng NaMu.
Get your English books at: Jeju Book Town in Shin Jeju, www.betterworld.com, www.amazon.com, www.kyobobook.co.kr, www.seoulselection.com.

Photo ©Martin Newman

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