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In Session: New Architects of Empire: Reconfiguring Sovereignty and Authority in Nineteenth-Century East Asia
4: Cosmopolitan Memories, Vernacular Visions: Sovereignty and Linguistic Modernity in Nineteenth-Century Chosŏn
Tuesday, March 23, 2021
12:00pm – 1:30pm EDT
Washington University in St. Louis, United States
In the 1880s and 1890s a new generation of Chosŏn dynasty scholar-officials, trained in the Classics but informed by modern knowledge and inspired by experience abroad, came to prominence. Chief among them was Yu Kilchun (兪吉濬, 1856-1914), who studied under the influential Fukuzawa Yukichi (福澤諭吉), became the first Korean to study in the United States and wrote a record of his experiences upon return, the enlightenment tome Things Seen and Heard in Travels to the West (西遊見聞).
While previous research has highlighted the influence of this book in spreading knowledge of the West in the largely isolated Chosŏn, Yu's chosen method of composition was equally groundbreaking: a mixed-script medium employing sinographs within a syntactically Korean sentence. This was the harbinger of a revolution in Korean writing that would slough off nearly two millennia of precedent within a generation. Despite the swiftness of this change, it did not amount to a clean break with the cosmopolitan tradition, but rather a reconfiguration of premodern linguistic practices for nationalistic purposes.
This paper argues that this and subsequent "linguistic modernization" represented a second wave of vernacularization, one that utilized the linguistic tools of the first wave following the invention of the alphabet, 諺文, in 1444, retrofitted with the discourse of sovereignty and nationalism characterizing Chosŏn's emergent independence. This leap to vernacular composition offered a blueprint for rapid progression toward further vernacularization, even while the nascent nationalism that helped to trigger it awaited another generation and a decade of Japanese colonialism before exhibiting fuller expression.