Review of Asian Studies



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SCHOLARLY NOTES

JACK LONDON’S SYMPATHETIC PORTRAIT OF KOREA1

Daniel A. Métraux Mary Baldwin College
     Korea, long known as the “Hermit Kingdom,” has a long, proud and distinguished cultural history, but by the late nineteenth century it was a very weak and backward state totally dependent on a vastly weakened China for its protection and livelihood.  When the West began its late 1800s drive to control the whole of Asia and a recently modernized Meiji Japan joined the imperialist clique, Korea sought to protect itself by hiding from the rest of the world.  While most of the major powers were content to largely ignore Korea, two of its closest neighbors, Japan and Russia, both coveted the Korean Peninsula and soon became engaged in the first major conflict of the twentieth century to see which of them would end up controlling it. 
            Western journalists rushed to Japan to cover the conflict.  One of these reporters was a highly successful novelist, Jack London (1876-1916) who represented the Hearst newspapers in the United States.  By sheer determination London became the premier American journalist reporting the early stages of the Russo-Japanese War.   Ignoring regulations imposed by the Japanese military forbidding Western journalists access to the Tokyo’s military on the Asian mainland, London sneaked into Korea and followed the Japanese army from early February through June 1904 as it marched through the Hermit Kingdom to its encounter with Russian forces entrenched in Manchuria along the Yalu River. London sent 22 dispatches and many photographs to the Hearst newspapers.  Since there was little military action to report until later that spring, London, a very gifted ethnological observer, focused much of his attention on what he saw in Korea.  He made many comments on Korean society, culture, and politics, much of it very negative in tone.  Any reader without any knowledge of Korea would come away with a very negative view of Korea based on what she/he read in London’s work.
            As a student of Korean history and culture, the goal of this reseasrch is to analyze London’s portrayal of Korea to determine the validity and accuracy of London’s writing and photography.  Would I the reader in 1904-1905 come away with a realistic conception of what Jack London was saying about Korea at that time?  Was London biased against Korea and Koreans or was he reflecting reality?  Did London show any racial prejudice against the Koreans and how accurate were his comparisons between Chinese, Japanese and Korean civilizations at that time?
Before the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) there was very little written in the West about Korea. Homer B. Hulbert’s 1906 The Passing of Korea provides a remarkably in-depth view of traditional Korea, but it probably had a limited readership. Isabella Bird’s 1889 Korea and Her Neighbors gives a vivid picture of every day life in Korea and was read by London during or after his sojourn there. There were a few other noteworthy books, but the general public had no concrete view of Korea. London’s extensive feature writing about Korea reached a wide audience and most probably planted a view of Korea in the minds of many of his readers.



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