More about the project

The objective of the proposed research is to compile a coherent, full history of the introduction and early development of Social Darwinism in Korea, primarily between the early 1880s and 1910, although the subsequent developments during the Japanese colonial period will be partly covered as well. I aim at presenting a systematic picture of:

  1. how the Social Darwinist thought was first introduced to the members of the radical reformist group through either Japanese interpretations (such were the cases of Kim Okkyun and Pak Yǒnghyo) or the original works by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Edward Morse (1838-1925), as it happened in the cases of Korea’s first regular students who went to Japan and USA, respectively Yu Kiljun (1856-1914) and Yun Ch’iho (1865-1945),
  2. how its popularization by early nationalist media, notably Tongnip Sinmun (The Independent: 1896-1899) began in the 1890s,
  3. how the understanding of Social Darwinist doctrines in the 1900s Korea (especially between 1904 and 1910) was decisively influenced by the way Liang Qichao (1873-1929) interpreted it in his enormously influential texts,
  • how Social Darwinist postulates came by 1910 to form a basic framework of Korean reformist intelligentsia’s new worldview, taking the structural place of the older Neo-Confucian tenets and often making paradoxical symbioses with Christian or Buddhist belief systems,
    5.and, last but not least, how pre-colonial and colonial intellectuals wrestled with the Social Darwinist paradigm, either adjusting their religious beliefs to it (case of Yi Kwangsu) or trying to relativize and overcome it by interpreting their religion in the light of modern anti-establishmentarian ideologies (case of Han Yongun’s “Buddhist Socialism”).

    All in all, I aim at drawing a complete picture of how a group of Korea’s reformist intellectuals became first aware of Social Darwinism, how European, American, Japanese and Chinese (primarily, Liang Qichao’s) versions of Social Darwinist thought were appropriated and used in the particular Korean contexts, and how the dominance of Social Darwinism was first questioned by certain “heterodox” modernists, who attempted to synthesize the radical Western trends with either Buddhism (Han Yongun) or Confucianism (Pyǒn Yǒngman). The history of the early stages of introduction and development of Social Darwinism in Korea I am planning, should attempt to answer the following most important questions:
  • While the popularity of Social Darwinism in the countries of the capitalist “core” and, from early 1880s, with a significant part of modernist elites of the regional center of capitalist development, namely Japan, as well, was undoubtedly a decisive factor in arousing tremendous interest towards Social Darwinist visions of society on the part of Korean modernizing elite, the readiness with which Korean reformists either abandoned Confucianism completely in the favor of a somewhat paradoxical combination of Social Darwinism and Christianity (Yun Ch’iho, Yi Sǔngman, An Ch’angho), or attempted to adjust Confucian rhetoric to the basic Social Darwinist framework (Yu Kiljun, Pak Ǔnsik) still may well astonish a researcher. Looked upon closer, the Social Darwinist “fervor” among the reformists of the country commonly regarded at that point as a bastion of Neo-Confucian conservatism seems to be a combination of several overlapping factors. Painful awareness of the precariousness of Korea’s international position in the age of imperialist predations being the initial shock, which usually led to a Social Darwinist “conversion” (as Korea was perceived as a next victim in the worldwide “struggle for survival”), then Social Darwinist emphasis upon personal “fitness” (as opposed to an inherited status) appealed to those traditionally discriminated as hailing from North-Western regions (Pak Ǔnsik, An Ch’angho), offspring of the concubines (Yun Ch’iho) or members of the less powerful yangban lineages dwarfed by Yǒhǔng Mins and their allies (Yu Kiljun, Yi Sǔngman). In addition to this sort of personal appeal to the “semi-peripheral” groups of the late Chosǒn ruling class, Social Darwinism seemed also to look persuasive because it was regarded as all-embracing, all-explaining teaching as Neo-Confucianism before. The question is: how all these diverse stimuli were combined and interconnected in the each individual case of the modern Korean Social Darwinist intellectuals? In this respect, I plan to take the cases of Yun Ch’iho, Yu Kiljun, Yi Sǔngman, An Ch’angho and Pak Ǔnsik, as well as Han Yongun and Yi Kwangsu, for special scrutiny.
  • While it is undoubted that the first Korean intellectuals to be influenced by Social Darwinism before the early 1900s were a numerically small group of cultural intermediaries with a privilege of directly accessing Western or/and Japanese materials, the efforts were made from the very beginning to popularize the new creed. Yu Kiljun, for example, wrote his first Social Darwinist treatise, Kyǒngjaengnon (On Competition: 1883), in mixed script (Korean with heavy use of Chinese characters), so as to circulate it as wide as possible. Although Yu Kiljun – under house arrest in 1885-1892 and under surveillance until 1894 – was in no position to begin a serious popularization of his ideas, the job was soon undertaken by the Tongnip Sinmun, which published, among other Social Darwinist-related accounts, some of the first ever descriptions of the “racial geography” of the world in Korea. A particular synthesis of Christian propagation and Social Darwinist logic developed by the Tongnip Sinmun - it proclaimed Korea’s Christianization the only reliable guarantee of its “survival” – seems to have influenced deeply the motivations of many Christian converts from among the middle educated strata of Korean society later in the 1900s, as conversion was seen now as a supreme patriotic act. And finally, after 1904-5 the popular Social Darwinist writings by Liang Qichao (both in original classical Chinese and Korean translations) and his Korean followers (notably, Pak Ǔnsik, Sin Ch’aeho and Chang Chiyǒn) used in school textbooks and carried in modern media (newspapers and journals) reached a genuinely wide public: given the custom of the collective reading of newspapers (they were usually recited by a literate member of community to his illiterate neighbors), the combined circulation of about 16700 copies of the main nationalist papers (Taehan Maeil Sinbo: 11373 copies, Hwangsǒng Sinmun: 3300 copies, Cheguk Sinmun: 2057 copies – data for 1908) meant a possible penetration to around 200-300 thousands of urban and rural dwellers. The questions are: how was this popularized Social Darwinism received and accepted by the masses of semi-privileged and non-privileged members of Korean society embedded as they were in the Confucian perceptions of the world? How did it coexist with the traditional Confucian frameworks? What were the differences in the understanding of Social Darwinist theses between the yangbans and non-yangbans, natives of Southern/metropolitan areas and the traditionally discriminated Northerners, men and women? I will attempt to explore the reactions “from below” to Social Darwinism – the issue of agency of its “rank-and-file” recipients – utilizing to the fullest the readers’ contributions to newspapers (kisǒ) and the descriptive materials in the contemporary media.
  • Broad as it was, the Social Darwinist paradigm allowed for a variety of explanations, and for often contradictory political or religious conclusions. While some Social Darwinists opted for an Asianist interpretation of the “struggle for survival”, posing “Yellows” against “Whites” (Yun Ch’iho, An Chunggǔn), others eschewed the temptations of simplistic racialist/racist explanations (An Ch’angho) – Christians (Protestants and Catholics) being found, interestingly, on both sides. While many were by 1910 close to despair about Korea’s ability to “survive” independently and viewed Korea’s demise as more or less inescapable (Yun Ch’iho, Yu Kiljun), others believed either in gradualist “regeneration of Korean race” (An Ch’angho) or even in military struggle for independence (Pak Yongman, Sin Ch’aeho). While some looked to Christianity for the hope of Korea’s “survival” (Yun Ch’iho, Yu Kiljun, An Ch’angho, An Chunggǔn, Kim Ku, Yi Sǔngman), others chose to view the modern indigenous religions (Taejonggyo, Ch’ǒndogyo) as the vessels for “national spirit” in the time of troubles (Sin Ch’aeho, Pak Ǔnsik, Yang Hanmuk, O Sech’ang). The questions are: what motivated the diverse political or religious choices by the fellow believers in the “law of survival of the fittest”? May it be surmised that stronger Confucian background could be a reason for a nationalist, Social Darwinist intellectual to search for a hope for “national regeneration” in indigenous religions rather than Christianity? May it be assumed that a stronger exposure towards the original Social Darwinist texts and Christianity, in combination with higher inherited and personal status, could lead some of the Southern/metropolitan intellectuals of yangban ancestry to a grudging acceptance of the “inescapability” of the Japanese yoke (Yun Ch’iho, Yu Kiljun), while Christian, English-speaking and Social Darwinism-inspired Southerners of humbler background (poorer yangbans, etc.) and Northerners opted relatively easier for the active anti-colonial struggle in exile, including the preparations to an anti-Japanese war (Kim Kyusik, Yǒ Unhyǒng, An Ch’angho, Pak Yongman, Yang Kit’ak)? I am going to attempt to answer those and other questions with the use of personal literary collections, media materials, Japanese police documents, and missionary recollections.



Published May 20, 2010 1:53 PM - Last modified May 20, 2010 1:55 PM