Now I Can Stop Thinking About Korean History, Because I’ve Got It All Figured Out
Because I have come up with a metaphor that’s so simplistic and attractive to me that it is guaranteed to color my views of everything I learn from here on out about the Choson period.
Here’s the story: I’m a regular guy, insofar as I like to come up with simplistic ways of understanding huge, complex issues about which I know little. In fact, this urge to fool myself into believing I understand that which I do not is so strong that when I manage to find a metaphor, slogan or glib phrase that sums up an understanding of something that’s catchy enough and makes enough sense on the surface, I find myself unable to think outside this box.
(I would say, as a sidebar, that the most commonly heard glib slogan thrown around when talking about Korea is ‘Neo-Confucianism’. Whenever you hear anybody talking about the effects or influences of ‘Neo-Confucianism’ on modern Korea it is safe to assume that they don’t know what they are talking about.)
I’ve been reading several books on Korean history for the Seminar in Korean History course I’m taking at Yonsei. Although I am familiar with the broad outline of the history of Korea, my knowledge is relatively shallow. Thus the stage is set for an overly simplistic metaphor to sweep in and impose itself on my view of Korean history.
One of the central questions of Korean history is ‘Was the Choson state stagnant?’ This question is important because the first modern historians who looked at Korea, who were Japanese, claimed that Choson was stagnant and that that fact justified their annexation of Korea in the early 20th century. How does one answer the question of whether Choson was stagnant without much actual knowledge about the period or even a clear idea of what is meant by the word ‘stagnant’ in this context? The only answer is to use the perfect metaphor.
My classmates suggested several good metaphors that seemed to cover almost everything. I suggested a spinning top, a lotto machine, one of those cheese graters with the four faces that have different grating surfaces on each face, and a game of volleyball. I think the best one suggested overall was that of ‘percolation’ rather than progress. That one explained the bounded social mobility of the Choson period handily, but it failed to explain who Choson failed to modernize with the speed with which Japan did so.
Japan, of course, underwent a series of destabilizing structural changes and a series of different state structures, and various competing parties welcomed a certain degree of modernization in their own interests while Choson appears to most historians to be relatively resistant to change. I struck upon the idea that perhaps Choson’s ultimate failure actually lies in its striking on a stable, ‘good enough’ structure relatively early. And then the greatest metaphor ever occurred to me.
The Choson dynasty is ActiveX.
Think about it: Choson established a stable government and social system relatively early on which, regardless of its flaws and merits, did such an adequate job of satisfying most people’s needs that the costs of replacing, overthrowing or improving upon it outweighed the perceived benefits. People simply worked inside the system, which was good enough not to make any one group both angry enough and powerful enough to pose a threat to its continuing existence.
The Korean government imposed ActiveX as the standard. It works alright with Internet Explorer. It’s not secure, but it seems secure enough. It resists change because it works alright, and more importantly it suits the Financial Supervisory Service and politicians more than it harms online retailers and internet users, who are doing alright despite it.
And that’s the lesson here. When things are alright, they’re not great. When things are good enough, there is little incentive to make them better. Dissatisfaction, the harder to satisfy the better, is what pushes things forward.
(Watch me pull it all back around now.)
The great flaw of Neo-Confucian statecraft is that it works. When every meaningful element of society is either satisfied or weakened to the point where its satisfaction is irrelevant, there is no motivating drive on the whole. The Choson period was full of people striving to improve their own lot in life, and the net effect of it was a whole lot of nothing, not because of a lack of talent, skill or will, but because of a surplus of means of satisfying ambitions which were in the end pretty pointless. My professor quotes Korean historian Ed Wagner as saying that one thing that never ceases to amaze is the propensity of Koreans to develop means of displaying status, whether it be education, scholarship (not the same thing), luxury goods, real estate, plastic surgery, and on and on. The problem, as I see it, is that the surfeit of means of satisfying ambitions which were, in the end, essentially worthless leaves a society with nothing but a bunch of accomplished failures.
It also occurs to me that modern Korea may be alright, because a lot of the things that have become modern status symbols, (industry and technology, for example) have a much stronger element of progress than past status symbols like Confucian scholarship, which appears to have been a 500 year dead end and a drain of the best minds on the peninsula.