Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

“Nonorientable” Nonsense — Review of Kim Sang-yil’s ‘Hanism: Korean Concept of Ultimacy’ and ‘Hanism as Korean Mind’

By unlucky chance I was living in Seoul when that fat old man started dancing. Soon anyone still young enough to enjoy such a thing was in on it. Street corners, train stations and shopping centres fast became improvised dance studios — drop a head of broccoli in your shopping cart and groove your way down the aisle toward the next thing on your list. Everybody was trying it and no one seemed much ashamed… nor proud. Gangnam Style was just another catchy song, with low-hanging choreography; and Psy just another middle-of-the-road singer.

Then suddenly the energy began to shift. Old men would want to talk about it between lazy sets at the gym, sensible business women would angle and force it into conversations at cafes, and politicians fell over themselves for a microphone and for ways to show that they cared all along, as if each night — when the tie came off and the kids were finished with their homework — your average parliamentarian would line up his family and hop around the living room to a highly sexualised song about an older man chasing younger girls.

What changed? What made those once unimpressed Koreans fall in love? The realisation that other people were also in love. Gangnam Style was rushing up the American music charts, then the British, the Australian…

Looking outside of themselves for themselves is something that Koreans have become oddly comfortable with (Koreans today still derive much of their national identity from anti-Japanese sentiment, dating back to the days of colonialization). Whether it is music or film or literature or food or dance or fashion, the barometer for Korean domestic success — the thing that pushes someone or something to stardom — is always the adoration of foreign audiences; a unique, and unembarrassed, revelry in the exportation of culture.

So what should we make of the fact that there is something as “deeply rooted in the Korean mind as is Yahweh for the Jewish mind”, something that everyone talks about, that all manner of behaviour and attitude and temperament is explained away by, a reference that is always easy to find, always close to hand, so automatic that it is never questioned and always applicable, and yet search as you may there is a strange absence of English language books on the subject.

How can something be so important, such a “unique” and defining characteristic of Korean life and identity, and yet there be no one writing about it — at least not in the hopes of finding a new, foreign audience? Well Kim Sang-yil has tried… and what a disaster it is! But he has made the effort, so perhaps we ought to as well.

He makes a bold start: everything that has ever been said about Han previously, by anyone, no matter how unconnected, dissimilar or even contradictory, is all true!

At the same time, Han is an emotion, an illness, a personality trait; something inherited, something genetic, spiritual, learnt, felt; something physical, metaphysical, psychological, subconscious; it is a resentment, a sadness, a grief, a pain, an unease, a nausea; historical, sociological, cultural, individual; isolated, transferable, fluid, permanent…

Yes, take a breath, this is going to be exhausting!

Once his intentions are clear enough, Kim quickly transitions to a history lesson, and things get messy right away. He wants us to believe that Koreans — as a contiguous people — were trundling around the Palaeolithic peninsula 30,690 years ago, forging tools and sculpting pottery. The precision of that date ought to be concerning enough, but Kim isn’t really trying to be accurate here, rather he is hoping that you don’t notice, nor understand, the game he is playing.

This “original Korean ethnic group” are what we now call the “Dong-i”, or as Kim translates it: “Eastern people”. This isn’t correct! Dong-i was a Chinese term that was used to refer to non-Chinese people, and so as you might expect — considering the era — it translates not to “Eastern people” but to “Eastern barbarian”.

This may not seem significant, but small errors of scholarship begin to add up here. Without any supporting evidence Kim then tells us despite the obvious mixing of cultures and ethnicities at play (Dong-i referred to a much larger ethnic and geographical group beyond the Korean peninsula, including Manchuria and the Japanese isles), neither the Chinese nor the surrounding populations had any “effect on the formation of ethnic culture there.”

The swamp that Kim dives into here has such a pained methodology to it, and such a history of complete failure, that it is more often than not referred to today in the same tones that are otherwise saved for the moon landing, flat Earth, or Bigfoot conspiracy theorists. The ‘scholarship’ that Kim is buttressing his argument on here — of a Korean Dong-i lineage — is more easily recognisable in academic circles as the ‘Dong-i conflation’ or the ‘Dong-i fallacy’.

He gets it all horribly wrong, but why is Kim talking about history at all?

It begins to make sense when he starts dropping in unprepared and unexplained statements to brick-in the fragile ends of that pseudo-history: “scholars all agree that the uniqueness of the Korean mind and mentality”…“expressed in Han philosophy”…“they are called by others as Han philosophers”. These come out of blue sky — without lead-in, argument, structure, or explanation. And watching it happen, in all its shameless intent, quickly becomes a deeply uncomfortable experience, as Kim seems to believe that to make something true it only needs to be said out loud.

Like a proud mother impatiently waiting to see her unborn child, Kim loses patience and signals early to his reader why he is behaving this way, and what he is trying to build toward: “Therefore, the nonorientable Dong-i culture…”. All that historical strain, and embarrassing ‘scholarship’, was just so that he could find a way to introduce — and backdate — the term ‘nonorientable’.

But first there is another tenuous swamp that Kim Sang-yil wants us to join him in: philology. It starts and finishes like this: 8000 years ago ethnic Koreans were using the word “gadanagan” which is “believed to be the parent-word for Han”. Questions naturally come fast for the average reader. How are we sure that this is the parent-word? But if so, then how are we sure that the meaning has remained the same? How do we know that “gadanagan” was used 8000 years ago considering that no such written evidence exists? And just who is it that ‘believes’ “gadanagan” to be Han’s parent-word?

Well if our author knows any of these answers, he doesn’t feel it important to tell his audience.

It gets messier still. 6000 years after inception, it is, we are told, during the Iron Age that Han is first used in its now refined and modern look. Without any records of this, how do we know it to be true? Again, we are not told! Hyperventilating now, Kim introduces the Samguk Yusa. Translating to “Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms”, there might be some faint hope in the reader at this point that we could finally get an explanation for that Iron Age dating.

But no!

Instead what we get is a shallow and incomplete primer for the Dangun Myth, and the claim that — through this fairy tale about a god marrying a bear on a famous mountain — we can find a new origin of Hanfrom Sumerian words”. Around this stage the language and the ‘scholarship’ breaks down almost entirely, as paragraph after paragraph, and claim after claim, are linked and justified in these tones: “I believe that…”, “is quite similar to…”, “It seems that…”, “I think that…”, “some consider…”, “others consider…”, “in other words…”, “I also presume…”.

All of this sweat and effort is Kim’s long way of dragging us back to what Han is today, and what, if anything, is its philosophical content. And he starts here, with a list of his own current, and acceptable, definitions of the word: “1. great, 2. east, 3.bright, 4. oneness, 5. unification, 6. people, 7. old, 8. wholeness, 9. beginning, 10. Han people, 11. white, 12. light, 13. high, 14. sameness, 15. manyness, 16. sky or heaven, 17. long, 18. great leader, 19. up, 20. king, 21. perfect, 22. inclusiveness.” It can be suitably used as a “noun, adjective, adverb, suffix and prefix”.

If any of this strikes you as a problem, well you are not Kim’s audience!

Because then, suddenly, as if he has forgotten his own list, Kim starts to talk only about Han as “one and many”, and with an attack on Western philosophers and Western philosophies (without actually listing any): “Western philosophers find it difficult to harmonize the One with the Many and they finally draw the line between them”. Koreans, or rather Korean Buddhism, or rather still a single Korean monk (Seng-lang), has the answer he wants; “harmonizing” the two concepts into an “emptiness”.

Already past his depth — choking on mud and water — Kim decides to paddle-out a little further. He drags up yet another definition of Han, this time meaning “approximately”, and pulls this clumsy magic trick: “approximately is analogous to the Heisenberg’s [sic] Uncertain Principle” and so “the Korean mind has been dominated by the Uncertainty Principle”. It is safe to assume that by this stage that any reasonable person still hanging around would have finally had enough, thrown the book across the room, and walked away.

And a wise choice that would be, because Kim is still only just warming up!

Dangun comes back, as does the Dong-i, and the Samguk Yusa, then it’s on to discussions about ancient fortune telling techniques, Korean dance, Korean clothing, the Korean alphabet, and even the anatomy of animals, as if this would all become a lot clearer to someone who just had the good sense to spend some time “examining the hooves of that cow”.

What Kim is trying to say is that Han is like a “Moebius strip” — a flat band that is created by first twisting the surface and then connecting the ends together. From here it has no obvious front, back, inner edge, or outer edge. It is “nonorientable”. And that’s it, right there — every Korean has their own definition, and everyone seems confused, because Han is, in fact, all things and everything, at the same time!

As Kim settles back in his chair, arms folded behind his head, comfortable and happy with this effort, I imagine many more Koreans are shifting nervously in theirs. This is philosophy — be it “Han philosophy” or “Hanism” — and within philosophy disagreement is not only expected, but also welcomed. And so if Koreans are at odds about what Han is, then this is a problem; but also a problem that can be solved. It shouldn’t need saying, but, however, if Han is everything, then it is also nothing. Start using, for example, the word ‘stressed’ to describe ‘relaxed’ and what happens is not the building of a richer tapestry of meaning, but the hollowing-out of both terms.

Scratch any cultural surface in Korea and you will find someone throwing the word Han at you, with a well-practiced automatism. What is more likely than nonorientablity as an answer to this, is a simple and very human hope to be special. In terms of computation and fungibility, language is universal. So when something defies translation, it can only be a failure of the translator.

The raw truth of Han is probably much less glamourous still. It is untranslatable because, and only because, Koreans don’t actually want it translated. Because Koreans don’t want to admit that — whatever it is — it isn’t unique to them. Just as they, as people, aren’t unique either; just as scuffed, shallow and unimportant as the rest of us.

At the end of the Japanese colonial period, Koreans were left with two unpleasant, and retroactive humiliations to reckon with. Not only had they failed near-completely to defend themselves or put-up any real resistance, but there was also the huge number of documented collaborators and everyday Koreans who meekly assimilated (choosing to speak Japanese in their homes, seeking to be educated within Japanese Universities for Japanese jobs, or freely joining the Japanese police and military). To tackle this stigma, post-colonial Koreans have made a desperate national sport out of distinguishing themselves as culturally, historically, and racially unique.

If you have your doubts about this, or of the place of Han within it, then let Kim Sang-yil convince you otherwise with “the concrete example of the male Korean trousers”. Whereas Western trousers have seams and folds and are designed with a front and a back, Korean traditional trousers — we are told in detail — have none of this luxury, with loose cylindrical legs and an amorphous crotch. So they are reversible. And so clearly, at least for Kim, another illustration of nonorientable Han philosophy at work.

No wonder his book is out of print!

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