The following is a translation of the sixth chapter of Part V from Yun Naehyeon’s Our Ancient History.
V – 6. What is it we [Koreans] must currently do?
If we look at our history, the early period of Old Joseon possessed a high level of culture that rivalled China and Japan, but moving down through the historical periods, the phenomenon arose of slowed development. The result was that a circumstance arose [in which] during the later [premodern] era the power of the country and level of culture were behind China, and then in the modern period it even fell behind Japan.
Various causes could be suggested for the arising of this situation but two can be given as most fundamental. One is the geographic position of our country, the other is our stance (자세) [towards] the reception of foreign culture.
East, west and south, our country is surrounded on three sides by ocean and so exchange with other countries was difficult; the natural environment of Mongolia and [Russia’s] Maritime Province connecting to [our] north and northeast by land, is inferior and so the level of culture is low and has been unable to [positively] stimulate or influence us. The place from which we could receive stimulus and influence was the Yellow River basin to the west but China was blocking it. [How could China be blocking itself??!] Consequently our development had to rely on contact with China.
In addition to this, each time we adopted a new foreign culture it was used as the ruling [legitimizing] ideology (지배논리 lit. ‘logic’) and so it came to form the culture of the upper class whilst our culture was put below it. The culture and relationship of Buddhism during the Four Kingdoms (사국시대 aka Three Kingdoms + Gaya) period was so, and the culture and relationship of Confucianism during the Joseon dynasty was so; in the modern era the culture and relationship [to] the West has [also] been thus. As a result, our [own] unique culture (우리 고유 문화) with which our [Korean] race (겨레 gyeore) lived before the influx of the foreign cultures has ended up at the very bottom of our society.
Only the commoners (서민) of low social status who struggle economically have held on to it (lit. ‘live maintaining it’). As a result, we ourselves also regard it with disdain. Consequently our culture and foreign culture have been unable to stimulate and influence one another from an equal position. That is why it has been difficult for us to create [anything] new and [our] development has inevitably been retarded (더디다).
However, our surrounding environment and circumstances is now changing favourably towards us. In ancient times, active exchange was only possible between regions joined by land. But now is different. Transport methods have developed and so it has become possible to reach anywhere in the world within a day or two. Exchange has become that fast and active.
Not only that, communication technology (시설) has developed and with the appearance of the internet it has become possible for anyone to instantly exchange information with any place in the world with the click of a button. Geographic distance is no [longer a] problem. Further, our country is one of the most advanced in the field of internet usage. Consequently the geographical problem of our country has been completely solved.
Currently, international society is racing towards complete openness. Whilst crying out ‘globalization’ economic and cultural borders are disappearing. Because communication technology is developing and international society is opening; exchange between every region of the world is becoming extremely active and fast. It is becoming an environment as though international society were a single country. For us an extremely favourable environment is being made.
However, there is a point of extreme concern. The more active and speedier the information exchange, [the more] we must have a [set of] values (가치관) and culture strong enough to match (대응) it. Only then could contact and stimulus between our culture and foreign culture be [successfully] achieved and something new creatively produced (창출). If we don’t, then we will end up engulfed (매몰) by foreign culture incoming like a flood. On this point, [we] need a history education which is [made] ‘from-our-point-of-view’ (주체적 lit. ‘of juche ‘), positive and strong. We must strive to deeply embed our values and culture into our [daily] lives (생활).
To this end, we have to correct as soon as possible [our] stance towards the reception of foreign culture which up until now has placed foreign cultures on top of our culture making them the legitimizing ideology of the ruling [class]. Our culture has inevitably lost its luster and become shabby on account of the fact that only the commoners who in former days had no social position and were financially poor, held onto our unique culture [in their] daily lives. As a result, we ourselves also have ended up regarding our culture as superficial (천박하다). We made it like that ourselves.
Now we have reached the point where we are [no longer] able to distinguish even what is our culture and what is foreign culture. For example, we [are in] a situation where we mistake Buddhist and Confucian culture as our own. We are unable to distinguish between [actual] ‘Korean culture’ (한국 문화) and ‘Korean[-seeming]’ culture (한국적 문화), that is, [between] ‘our culture’ and ‘foreign culture that has come to seem like it belongs to us’.
It makes me think of words said by Professor Hwang Byeonggi (황병기) who majors in guk’ak (국악 ‘traditional Korean music’). When having tea together at a conference we were both participating in, this is what he said whilst lamenting the insufficient awareness (인식) about our culture. Professor Hwang said that he is sometimes asked by journalists why he [chooses to be] unorthodox (외도 lit. ‘outside path’). Professor Hwang was originally a graduate of the law school at Seoul National University. They are asking why did such a person become a Korean musician and not a lawyer (법조인).
He said he can’t believe (어이가 없다) he receives such a question. Guk’ak is our music and something of ours that our body naturally absorbs from when we are young, so how can practicing Korean music be called ‘unorthodox’ (외도)?! He said he rather thinks that if there is something ‘unorthodox’ it would be having studied law when he was a university student. Because the law we learn at our universities is in actuality a Western academic subject (학문).
That there is a hierarchical relationship between our culture and foreign culture is because of the social and wealth differences between the people who posses those cultures. If genuine democracy were realized and all people became equal then culture too would become equal without hierarchy. However, in reality such a [stage] is still faraway. Differences between social position and wealth continue to exist and will do so for a long time to come; this is why there will also [continue] to be differences in education.
Consequently, whilst researching correct history (올바른 역사) and [promoting] history education, we must devote our energies to the task of searching for and establishing that which is ours [as opposed to foreign]. We must make [ourselves] realize the fact that it is not at all inferior (천박하다) compared to foreign culture, and we must strive for it to gain a place in our [daily] lives.
Intellectuals must strive: to no longer be history criminals (역사의 죄인) that value only foreign culture, in order that ours and foreign cultures can meet on an equal position, and ensure that at the centre [of such a meeting] is that which is ours. This is necessary not in order to return to the ancient era, but in order to develop towards a desirable future. (Yun 2003:188-92)
Yun Naehyeon 윤내현. 2003 (2014 5th reprint). 우리 고대사: 상상에서 현실로 (Our Ancient History: from imagination to reality). Paju, Gyeonggi province: 지식산업사. 231 pages.