Korea and East Asia in Global History, 1840-2000



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Korea and East Asia in Global History, 1840-2000
Project description

The overarching aim of the project will be to assess the place, role, and impact of Korea and East Asia in the processes of global integration between 1840 and the present. In what ways were the social and cultural transformations in Korea, China, and Japan shaped by global conjunctures? What was the role of Europe and the United States in this context? How important were, on the other hand, connections within Asia? How can we describe the geographies of engagement that emerged as a consequence of economic, political and cultural integration? What was the place of Korea in a map of globalization – and how did the globalization process impact on Korea, and on East Asia? We will be dealing with these issues not on a national level, but for the region of East Asia, and in a global perspective.


The work of the project will focus on the following four areas of research:

  • Empires and colonies: The history of modern Korea and East Asia was fundamentally shaped by the experience of empire. The impact of Western imperialism, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, transformed the trajectories of East Asian polities and was a crucial factor that reached deep into Chinese, Korean, and Japanese societies. It triggered a variety of responses in which social actors operated under the pressures of an imperial order, but were also able to use it as resources for their own claims. At the same time, East Asia became the site of Japan’s colonial expansion that was ideologically cloaked as “anti-imperialist” but was built, nonetheless, on asymmetries of domination, cultural hegemony, and economic exploitation. In what ways, we will ask, was the experience of modernity in Korea and East Asia mediated by the structures of these competing colonialisms?

  • Cultural translations: The emergence of modernity in Korea and East Asia has entailed a complex set of cultural transformations and reconfigurations. To an extent, these processes developed under the hegemony of Western modernity. At the same time, historical actors employed, and continue to do so, cultural resources germane to the national and regional context in Korea, Japan, and China. Historical actors were thus able to draw on traditions of Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism as well as on Confucian thinking, religious traditions, local millenarianism and social practices. We will reconstruct the dynamics of these processes of adaptation and appropriation that were frequently accompanied by alternative and competing claims to universality.

  • Capitalism, Labor, Migration: East Asia’s incorporation into the global order since the mid-nineteenth century was driven by, and in many ways structured by, the economic integration that linked not only trade circuits, but also production, capital, and labor markets globally. This process had broad ramifications, both within Korea, Japan, and China, and for the world. In the context of the laboratory, we intend to engage with two issues in particular. One deals with the specific regional dynamic of capitalist development in East Asia, both before and under the conditions of colonialism; the other with the impact of increasing cross-border migration, triggered both by the emergence of global markets and also by imperialist force.

  • Regionalism in East Asia: The integration of East Asia brought about, and constituted, new forms of integration in the region. Some of these links built on earlier ties and patterns of exchange. In important ways, however, these earlier ties were reworked and transformed under the impact of globalization. We will ask, therefore, to what extent the incorporation into a global order went hand in hand with, and produced, the emergence of East Asia as a regional arena. We will focus, by way of example, on four main issues: a) the emergence of the ideology of Pan-Asianism that was employed by (mainly Japanese) colonial ideologues, but could also be appropriated elsewhere and turned into a cosmopolitan and anti-imperialist strategy; b) Cultures of the Cold War. The guiding question will be how the Cold War was culturally shaped and, vice versa, shaped culture during the Cold War. The focus will be on the US-occupation and/or liberation of Japan and Korea, the impact of the Korean war, and the significance of the subsequent political and ideological division of East Asia and particularly Korea; c) War and memory, as East Asia was a major site of conflict in World War II. We will ask, specifically, to what extent memory debates about the war were conducted, and are negotiated today, on a transnational level; d) regionalization in East Asia since the 1990s, and in particular since the Asian Financial Crisis 1997, as a specific form of regional concentration under the aegis of globalization. We will ask, in particular, to what extent the current forms of regionalization hark back to, and rely on, the longer history of interactions in East Asia.



Four Research Themes
1. Empires and colonies

The history of modern Korea, and of East Asia in general, was fundamentally shaped by the experience of empire. To a large extent, the development of modern Korea, China, and Japan was structured by the impact of the imperialist order of the world. Any account of the trajectories of the region must take the imperial asymmetries of the geopolitical order as its point of departure. This should not lead, however, to mechanistic and monolithic accounts of imperialist imposition and exploitation. Instead, the focus must be on the various and multifaceted ways in which social actors articulated their claims and concerns under averse structural conditions, and on the different and overdetermined strategies negotiated under these conditions.

In the case of East Asia, the history of colonialism and empire was complicated in various ways, and these complexities render further study particularly fruitful and fascinating. Four levels of analysis, in particular, deserve attention: ´

1) Overlapping imperialisms. The modernization efforts in China, Korea, and Japan were driven by the need to come to terms with a changing geopolitical situation, as was manifest, at the latest, after the Opium War of 1840, and the landing of Commodore Perry in Japan in 1853. To a large extent, the efforts of national elites to reform their societies were oriented within this framework. It allowed for a variety of responses in which social actors operated under the pressures of the imperial order, but were also able to use it as resources for their own claims. At the same time, East Asia became the site of Japan’s colonial expansion. This posed particular challenges for historical actors, particularly in China and Korea, as they had to negotiate these overlapping, and frequently competing, imperialism and their impact on local society.

2) Internal colonialism: Outward colonialism went hand in hand with strategies of “internal colonialism”. This is particularly obvious in the case of Japan in which the incorporation of Hokkaidô and the Ryûkyû islands was both the prelude to the modernization project and to the imperialist expansion. But “internal colonialism” also refers to the general modernization project “from above” in which political elites in Japan, Korea and China – themselves under the colonizing gaze of the Western powers – subjected what they perceived as a backward, rural population to a politics of “civilization and enlightenment” (bunmei kaika, munmyông kaehwa). East Asian modernity evolved with a largely unacknowledged “colonial unconscious”.

3) Colony and Metropole: Under the influence of postcolonial studies, the traditional boundaries between metropole and colony, colonizer and colonized have increasingly been questioned. One of the principal tenets of this approach is the attempt to overcome the colonial dichotomies and to see both metropole and colony as one analytic field, as Ann Laura Stoler, Frederick Cooper, Antoinette Burton or Catherine Hall, among others, have argued. This implies to abandon the one-way-street paradigm of previous studies that looked for effects of the colonial encounter solely on the periphery. This notion of reciprocal impact is particularly relevant for the Japanese case, and for relationships between Japanese intervention in Korea and parts of China with Japanese history. For many Japanese politicians, military officers and reform-minded intellectuals, the colonies appeared as a form of laboratory in which modernizing technologies could be tested before being applied at home: urban planning and educational systems, sanitary measures and politics of hygiene, agricultural reform and new forms of production under conditions of capitalism. Manchuria, in particular, in the 1930s emerged, in the eyes of colonial planners, as one enormous testing ground in which not only forms of colonial exploitation were practiced, but rather divergent and competing visions of a specific form of Japanese modernity was tested and explored.


2. Cultural translations

The emergence of modernity in East Asia has entailed a complex set of cultural transformations and reconfigurations. To an extent, these processes developed under the hegemony of Western modernity. At the same time, historical actors employed, and continue to do so, cultural resources germane to the national and regional context in Korea, Japan, and China. Historical actors were thus able to draw on traditions of Enlightenment rationalism and liberalism as well as on Confucian thinking, religious traditions, local millenarianism and social practices. We will look specifically into the long and complex history of cross-border translation and appropriation of ideas and concepts, of institutions and disciplinary systems of knowledge. One of the aims of this research will be to ask whether these processes of translation and appropriation helped bring about alternative and competing claims to universality.

So far, historians have followed three paths in their quest to understand, and come to terms with, cultural history in a transnational perspective. First, they have been concerned with the birth of modernity in Western Europe, which was then, according to this reading, diffused around the globe. Within this strand of interpretations, the cultural ingredients of Western modernity are seen as beneficial, and as necessary, for the modernization of societies in East Asia. This was a history of translations from Europe into other contexts, and a history of adaptations, imitation, appropriation and frequently of partial readings and misunderstandings. The focus is therefore on the ways in which social actors made use of, translated, and appropriated the cultural premises of modernity. This prevalent paradigm is based on a logic of repetition, deferral, time lags, and derivation.

The second interpretation, by contrast, is based on a radically critical view of the cultural tenets of the modern West. The spread of Western notions of time, of religion, of the individual of liberalism, of the public and the private, and so forth is seen not as emancipatory but as deprivation. This is the idea that the forceful and also violent spread of Western cosmologies needs to be interpreted as a form of cultural imperialism that had the potential to destroy alternative cultural orders.

Third: In recent years, however, the European claim to originality, to exclusive authorship of the culture of modernity, has been called into question. Instead, historians have begun to look for parallels and analogies, for autochthonous processes of rationalization that did not depend on, but led to similar results as, developments in Europe. This quest forms part of a larger scholarly debate on the origins of modernity. It was born out of a desire to challenge diffusionist notions of modernization, and to acknowledge the social dynamics in many societies before the encounter with the West. The aim was to replace older notions of traditional societies and “people without history” with a broader understanding of the multifaceted “early modernities”.

We will build on the scholarship produced within these three paradigms, but will also aim to challenge it. We are not only interested to know what influences arrived where and when, how far ideas traveled and what forms of cultural misunderstanding shaped their reception and impact. From a global history vantage point, it is less instructive to search for alleged origins than to focus instead on the moments in which ideas became a powerful point of reference. This shifts our attention from a quest for origins to the concrete conditions under which cultural elites in East Asia invoked the authority of “Western culture” (for examples, see Sartori 2008; Hill 2009). We therefore ask how different social actors and groups referred to the ideas from abroad with competing and frequently contradictory intentions. We are also interested in the way in which cultural resources from East Asia were employed, resuscitated, and fused with ideas from the West. Finally, it will be important to keep in mind that the particular trajectory of appropriation can only be understood when seen in the context of larger power relationships in a world structured by capitalism and imperialism.


3. Capitalism, Labor, Migration

East Asia’s incorporation into the global order since the mid-nineteenth century was driven by, and in many ways structured by, the economic integration that linked not only trade circuits, but also production, capital, and labor markets globally. This process had broad ramifications, both within Korea, Japan, and China, and for the world. It is important to keep these structural developments in mind when assessing the impact of imperialism, social transformation, and cultural entanglements. In the context of the laboratory, we intend to engage with two issues in particular. One deals with the specific regional dynamic of capitalist development in East Asia, the other with the impact of increasing cross-border migration triggered by the emergence of global markets.

1) History of Capitalism: The specificities of capitalism in East Asia have been the object of extended debates in recent years. The emergence of a market economy and the interaction between states and markets in modern Japan, South Korea, and China have helped bring about substantially different models of economic development and reforms due to their unique institutional settings, and cultural and sociopolitical contexts. The peculiarities of an East Asian developmental model have elicited a broad literature. In this context, we will be less concerned with these contemporary debates and rather look into the genealogies of the present, and into the longer history of capitalist production and labor in East Asia. In particular, we will inquire, how one can assess the relevance and impulse of “capitalism from within” (David Howell), that is structures within Korea, China and Japan that fed, since the mid-nineteenth century, into the emerging capitalist order in East Asia? This refers to the “sprouts of capitalism”-debate about indigenous and local roots of capitalism in pre-modern East Asia; but it also refers to the development of regional structures of production, consumption and exchange that can be seen not as the product of longer regional continuities, but rather as a particular response to the asymmetrical integration into global systems.

2) Colonial Modernity: This leads immediately to the question as to what extent processes of modernization and the development of economic growth in East Asia were implicated by, and can be disentangled from, the history of colonialism. This is clearly an issue that is not confined to the economic dimension. Here the main questions will be: In what ways have colonial structures – formal and informal imperialism of the Western powers, and the Japanese empire in East Asia – influenced, stifled, and served as a catalyst for the transformation into capitalist societies? In what ways were the postwar experiences of high growth, in South Korea and Japan in particular, premised upon and a product of the “laboratory” of the colonial situation, not least in Manchuria? In the background of these issues is the larger problematic that concerns the extent to which the postwar experience of modernity (in South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Manchuria in particular) was predicated on the earlier experience of colonialism – or whether there was a fundamental disjuncture between modernization and colonial rule.

3) Labor and Migration: The globalization process and economic integration since the nineteenth century triggered massive migration flows across national, regional, and cultural borders. Indeed, cross-border mobility was one of the central links that connected the states of East Asia to one another, but also to other regions such as South East Asia and the Americas. To be sure, migration within East Asia had a longer history, even if policies of regulated and restricted foreign relations made movements a difficult endeavor. But the integration of capitalist markets – of goods, capital, and also labor – deeply transformed the patterns and structures of migration. The effects of this cross-border mobility – of Chinese to South East Asia, of Japanese to Hawaii, of Koreans to Manchuria, to give only a few examples – were manifold and shaped the trajectory of East Asian societies. Among the questions we would like to pursue are: How did these processes help incorporate East Asia into the structures of capitalist integration? What was the role of forced migration under colonialism? Did the mobility of workers also imply the movement of different notions of work? How did Asian migration help bring about the modern regime of mobility, identification, and border control? What was the impact of diaspora communities on their countries of origin, politically, economically, and socially?
4. Regionalism in East Asia

The integration of East Asia brought about, and constituted, new forms of integration in the region. Scholars have recently argued that in many ways, the notion of “Asia” itself is a product of the process of globalization in the nineteenth century. To be sure: Some of these links built on earlier ties and patterns of exchange – on trade networks in the region, on common cultural points of reference, on political regulations of interaction. In important ways, however, these earlier ties were reworked and transformed under the impact of globalization. The integration of the world goes hand in hand with processes of fragmentation and the reconfiguration of difference. In the process, the privileged role of the nation states gives way to new ways of regional concentration. We will ask, therefore, to what extent the incorporation into a global order went hand in hand with, and produced, the emergence of East Asia as a regional arena. It is important to note, in this context, that different actors and social groups within each country have articulated these new contexts in different and contested ways. Moreover, viewed from China, Taiwan, Japan or Korea, the dynamics of East Asian regionalism look very different. When talking about the emergence of regionalism within East Asia, then, it will be important to keep the positionality of interpretations and perspectives in mind.

We will focus, by way of example, on four main issues and “moments” of East Asian regionalism:

1) Pan-Asianism: the emergence of the ideology of Pan-Asianism that was employed by (mainly Japanese) colonial ideologues, but was also appropriated on the ground by political actors in Korea, China and Japan, and turned into an anti-imperialist strategy. Pan-Asianism was one of the political strategies to challenge the hegemonic imperialist order. The core of Pan-Asianist initiatives was their insistence on a cultural difference that could not be subsumed by the paradigm of development with its linear understanding of time. Thus, they sought alternative routes toward modernization, the dynamics of which could not be calculated on the basis of their difference from the western European blueprint.

These alternative visions were more than simply expressions of anti-Western fundamentalism or a retreat from the globalized world. Rather, they must be seen both as part of and as a reaction to the process of globalization around 1900. The goal of politically reorganizing the world into regional blocs and the cultural skepticism towards the project of "Westernization" were also the product of alternative ways of conceiving space that took global interconnectedness under asymmetric power relationships into account. Thus, ideas of "Asia" developed that were both trans-religious and trans-national. At the turn of the century, pan-Asianists such as Okakura Tenshin who were attempting to bring together the Asian nations had emphasized their common Buddhist tradition. But increasingly, voices could be heard for whom "Asia" did not primarily mean the ideal of a common civilization defined by cultural heritage, but was the expression of a geopolitically informed global consciousness. Their common (although differing) historical experience of subaltern integration into an imperialist world order became more important for the formation of cross-regional identities than their religious and cultural heritage.

We will be particularly interested in individuals, neighborhood associations, social groups, and transnational associations that developed, and propagated forms of regional cohesion and consciousness beyond, and frequently challenging, the hegemonic imperial orders. These movements were active on different levels, from local contexts to larger transnational networks. They shared an emphasis on cultural particularity that was proposed as an alternative to the prevalent (Western) modes of global governance; at the same time, anti-imperialist thought linked to rising Asian nationalism was seeking to build an alternative conception of the region. These intellectual proponents of an “Other Asia” evoked earlier linkages between their societies, even though their notions of “Asia” were premised on and enabled by contemporary imperialist technologies and modes of regional integration.

2) Cultures of the Cold War: The Cold War era shaped the political, economic, social and cultural geographies of Korea and East Asia, where the multiple facets of the Cold War were experienced and negotiated from its very beginning, and in particular form. Korea was a crucial site in these processes, both shaping and shaped by the forces of the bipolar world. The division of Korea, the Korean War and subsequent political, cultural and ideological conflicts emblematically embody the fragmentations that characterized the global Cold War. The Korean case allows studying this global process on a local level.

In particular, we will ask for the resonances between cultural practices/forms and the Cold War: what was the influence of the Cold War on the realm of culture and, vice versa, how was the Cold War shaped and modified by cultural patterns? In what ways were these patterns linked to larger transnational dynamics? How did the continuous presence of a military occupation force with its own transnational infrastructure and network in East Asia mold forms of the public sphere (e.g. protest, diplomacy, consensus, etc.) in Korea, and also in Japan? Within South Korea, what was the role of comparisons with similar situations, in particular the analogy with divided Germany? In what ways was cultural production and public discourse in South Korea connected to networks and social movements in the global South, beyond the major powers of East and West? In general, we will focus on the way in which the military presence of the United States and other transnational links impacted on the economic, social and cultural development in Korea, extending also to issues of gender relations and racism, literature and music, fashion and changing household economies.

3) War and Memory: East Asia was a major site of conflict in World War II, and the war has produced very specific patterns of trans-border connections. But this history is not over in 1945; on the contrary, it is still very much with us. Concomitant with the process of globalization, the East Asian context has assumed an increasing relevance in appropriations of the past. The fundamental transformation of the field of memory in contemporary societies is not only due to internal developments, to the effects of traumatization, or to the results of a process of coming to terms with the past. Rather, the dynamics of memory need to be situated in the shifting geopolitical context since the 1990s that opened up spaces for new actors, concerns, and perspectives.

Since then, contestations of public memory have increasingly played out transnationally. Important examples include the debate about forced prostitution (the so-called “comfort women”) in wartime Japan and East Asia; the debate about the Kogoryo dynasty; the International Women’s War Crimes Tribunal in Tokyo in 2000; the protests in Seoul and Beijing against publication of nationalist history textbooks in Japan; and the current transnational textbook negotiations between Chinese, Korean, and Japanese historians. For an understanding of the dynamics of integration in East Asia, these issues are of crucial importance.

Transnationality, however, does not necessarily imply a unified perspective. Quite to the contrary: the terrain of memory was highly contested, and individuals and groups had competing if not conflicting concerns, agendas, and perspectives. Civil society in South Korea, for example, typically represented the “comfort women” – to take that example – as the victims of imperialism and thus created a larger frame of reference for a problematic that otherwise might have been marginalized as a mere “women’s issue”. Human rights activists and international lawyers in the West, on the other hand, articulated the problem in a language that referred to “sex slaves” because their main concern was to remove legal impunity for state-sanctioned sexual violence against women. Activists in the Asian diasporas, and in Japan, pursued the issue differently again, and frequently adapted the terminology and rhetoric of their publications to the situation and context. This diversity was one reason for their impact, for no single locus of engagement could have generated as effective a public presence as these crisscrossing networks of commitment.

In the context of the project, we are particularly interested in the following analytical questions: a) Has the transnational production of memory contributed to the emergence of regional commonalities, and of shared memories? Or have conflictual discussions led, on the contrary, to further fragmentation, and to the emphasis on difference? b) To what extent are the debates about memory in Korea, China, and Japan driven by, and generated by, transnational networks of actors? Have they generated new forms of interaction and commitment? What is the relationship to the strategies of government-led interaction? c) In what ways were debates in East Asia also linked to larger contexts? How did the influence of the United States, and the dynamics of capitalist integration, impact on memory production in East Asia?

4) Post-Cold War Regionalization in East Asia: Since the 1990s, and in particular since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997, regionalism has re-emerged in East Asia as a specific form of regional concentration under the aegis of globalization. This may appear, at first sight, like a paradox. As an integrated system, global capitalism seems to have undermined all existing boundaries, and consequently markets, actors and commodity flows are no longer confined by territorial units. As a result, the traditional binary models – such as centre and periphery, or colonizer and colonized – have lost much of their explanatory potential and have yielded to notions of power and global space that are no longer structured by borders and dichotomies.

Instead of juxtaposing globalism and regionalism, however, it is important to recognize that global integration and the emergence of regional structures have gone hand in hand. Processes of globalization have not led to the emergence of a unified and homogenous world, but have been accompanied by fragmentation and the constitution of difference. The current forms of regionalism – that are by no means confined to East Asia but can also be witnessed in Europe or the Americas – therefore need to be seen as an integral component of contemporary globalization, and not as an obstacle to interaction. In the present historical juncture, regionalisms mediate between the eroding of national autonomy and the deterritorializing of capitalism to reterritorialize transnational capital. Similar phenomena can be observed elsewhere – as in Europe or the Americas. The formation of new regionalisms – be it as commercial blocks, as supra-national political entities, or defined in cultural terms as “civilizations” – must be seen as one of the crucial phenomena of the reconfiguration of territoriality under conditions of global entanglements.



We seek to better understand the dynamics of these multifaceted trajectories of regionalism. We will ask, in particular, to what extent the current forms of regionalization hark back to, and rely on, the longer history of interactions in East Asia. To what extent are interpretations of the past conducive, or inimical, to political projects of regional integration? In what ways are elements of the shared/entangled past a resource, and an object, of current cultural interactions and of popular culture? Can intra-regional trade flows be grasped within long-term structures and continuities? In a comparative framework, how do these processes, and appropriations of the past in the context of strategies of regionalism, differ in Korea, China, and Japan?



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