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In Session: Coping with Abundance: Categories of Knowledge in Early Modern East Asia
2: Many Faces of Encyclopedism: Observations on the Yusŏ of Chosŏn Korea (1392–1910)
Monday, March 22, 2021
10:00am – 11:30am EDT
Young Kyun Oh
Arizona State University, United States
In Chosŏn Korea, anxiety over knowledge came in multiple waves. It came from the surge of new things to know; through new and expanded ways and paths of knowledge transmission from shifting cultural centers; as well as from new views on knowledge and things worthy of knowing. Indeed, numerous titles classified as yusŏ (leishu) were written domestically in Chosŏn since the sixteenth century, the number of which grew rather explosively to approximately 150 (not counting those imported from China) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Instead of asking blindly what categories were used in Chosŏn yusŏ in comparison to those of China or Japan, I observe first in this study three kinds of yusŏ production: yusŏ for learning (Confucian) cultural literacy, for collecting undocumented or new objects of knowledge, and for curating existing knowledge. These three purposes of yusŏ may be reiterated into three literary activities of reading, writing, and rewriting. Observing these phenomena, I highlight some immediately noticeable aspects of early modern encyclopedism in Korea, such as the practical motivations behind yusŏ, the transition from quotation to definition, cognizance of the new and the local, specialization of material objects, and reaction to the old order—which in one way or another led to the breakdown of the traditional knowledge chain (lianhuan/yŏnhwan) that once stood for an interconnected, systematic, and secure order of the world.