Critique of Between Dreams And Reality: The Military Examination in Late Choson Korea, 1600-1894

Below is a critique I’ve just written on Eugene Park’s Between Dreams And Reality: The Military Examination in Late Choson Korea, 1600-1894 that I’ve written for my Seminar in Korean History class.   Comments are welcome.

Eugene Park’s Between Dreams and Reality does a serviceable job of presenting the findings of Park’s research into the rosters of military examination passers from different periods in the Choson state, as well as presenting a general overview of the scholarship done to date on the Choson-era examination systems. Where Park fails is in his conclusion, in which he abruptly presents theories and ideas which bear little relation to the rest of the book and which he is unable to convincingly link to his findings. More grievously, one of Park’s central arguments is both flawed and completely unsupported.

Park’s claims that the military examination performed a dual function of providing military leadership and satisfying the desire for status among a growing populace of upwardly mobile non-yangban is generally well supported. Park states that the state alternated between periods of increasing legal restrictions on commoner participation and periods during which these restrictions were loosened. He attempts to explain this by invoking William Sewell’s journal article “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency and Transformation” [here’s a handy little summary of that article for the curious] to explain the degree to which the state allowed nonelites to compete in the military examination. On page 180 Park writes, “If nothing else, the state recognized, to an extent, the enhanced social status of upwardly mobile nonelites, so long as no new group could marshal enough resources around an alternative vision, or set of schemas.”

The invocation of this theory in light of the evidence previously represented is jarring. Park has at this point in the book done an effective job of arguing that there were limited opportunities for nonelites to rise in the military establishment by passing the military examination. Although the book cites examples of recent military examination graduates going to Seoul to seek appointments and causing incidents of drunken hooliganism while there, there is no evidence given to support the idea that the openness of the military examination system was in any meaningful way dictated by the desire of those in control of the central government to prevent a rival faction from appearing. Park could have mentioned the drop in military passers from P’yongan province after the Hong Kyongnae Rebellion to support this argument, but given the extraordinary nature of that event even that evidence would seem particularly weak. After all, what government would continue rewarding the martial achievements of a province which had been all-too-easily led to a broadly popular rebellion in the recent past? More effective evidence could have been given in the form of records showing a reduction in the number of military examinations given or a change in legislation in regions suspected of harboring elements that threatened the central government’s power, but it’s simply not there in Park’s book.

Continuing to operate under the Sewell rubric, Park makes the claim that Choson had a deep state structure which helped the state exercise its power “through more subtle means of moral persuasion” than the neighboring Qing state and Tokugawa shogunate. This is brought up to explain the fact that even nineteenth century rebels and rioters did not contemplate overthrow of the system, rather they believed that they were acting within the existing state structure to right perceived wrongs in execution, rather than systemic problems. At this point one is forced to ask the question: although Park clearly paints the picture of a military examination system participated in by both yangban and nonelites, he gives no evidence to indicate that there was widespread dissatisfaction among nonelites who failed to obtain an office as a result of their passing the military examination. Does this indicate a deep state structure, or does it indicate that the majority of nonelites took the exam fully aware that it was not a viable path to a career in the military?

Park then attempts to explain the high level of nonelite examination participation in terms of his understanding of Pierre Bourdieu‘s concept of hysteresis. Park’s definition of hysteresis is “the search by status-conscious social upstarts for diplomas or certificates that no longer function as vital credentials for the old elite”. Simply reading this definition presents a number of problems with Park’s argument. Did the hongp’ae (diploma) ever function as a vital credential for the old elite? Park himself proves that yangban status does not come from the attainment of certificates. In that case, we may set our sights slightly lower and define elite, for this purpose, as high status non-yangban. Did the hongp’ae function as a vital credential for this ‘elite’ at some point, but cease to function as such since then? Clearly the answer is no, that among the high status non-yangban passing the military examination never lost its utility as a credential.

For my own part, I feel that Park has misread the government’s repeated attempts to calibrate access to the military examination by viewing it in terms of the yangban. Each time the question of barring from the exam the low-born, those performing certain menial jobs, and other marginal figures in Choson society, Park reads this as an attempt by the yangban to preserve the integrity of the examination for themselves. However, Park also convincingly argues that the yangban retained their status regardless of whether they passed the military examination. The group for whom these restrictions are most salient is the high status non-yangban who are likely candidates to pass the test. These are the people whose status can be significantly improved by passing, and for whom the exclusivity of the test is the most relevant. I interpret these periodic restrictions of access to the examination not as efforts to protect the integrity of the degree from commoners, but as attempts to increase or maintain the status boost received by non-yangban military examination graduates.

Park’s reading of Bourdieu is particularly perplexing when one considers that Bourdieu presents various types of capital that people are able to mobilize in their social relations within a multidimensional social space. While Park makes token efforts to discuss the social value of the military examination degree in and of itself, he fails to identify the status of military examination graduate without office as a significant potential form of social or cultural capital. Instead, Park persists in pushing the concept of self-imposed unemployment, asserting without citation (other than a parting apocryphal tale about Park Chung-hee’s father) that military examination passers would rather abstain from work to their own financial detriment than employ themselves in a manner they viewed as unbefitting such an accomplished individual.

Park fails to marshal any evidence that this is the case. His assertion appears to be based on the paucity of evidence as to the careers of military examination graduates without office. There are several possible explanations for the actions of the nonelite test takers that Park fails to even consider. Passing the examination itself was clearly a great honor, warranting the publication of gazettes, feasts, and the employment of musical accompaniment and fanfare for the graduate. Is it inconceivable that the honor associated with passing would have a number of difficult to quantify benefits for nonelites other than office holding and relief from taxation? Park never considers that exemption from taxation may have been reason enough for taking the examination, but I suspect that due to the reported amount of effort required to pass the test it’s probably not unreasonable to rule this out.

Park makes perfunctory efforts to link the military examination system to the sclerotic nature of the Choson military in the nineteenth century, the eventual demise of the Choson state and, stupidly, the rise of Park Chung-hee in the early 1960s. This to me reveals Park’s unstated major premise and I think the great flaw of this book. Park assumes, and never stops assuming, that non-yangban test takers primarily took the test wanting and/or expecting a career in the military, and that this led to lifelong frustration among the examination graduates not receiving office. Park operates from this perspective without presenting any evidence to back this assumption until the final page of the book, in the form of contested, conflicting, unsupported reports that Pak Songbin, the father of President Park Chung-hee, was a military examination graduate whose inability to obtain an office led to his downfall. While this anecdote is illustrative in that it tells us how Eugene Park formed the assumptions that he brought with him into his study, it does nothing to expand our own understanding of the status of the military examination in late Choson society.

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~ by Joshing on March 20, 2010.

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