So many things to talk about, so little time – but also what a perfect opportunity, what with the public discourse in Korea focusing on race, blood, nationality, and claims of belonging. So, despite the potential for carpal tunneling myself out of doing the other work I'm supposed to be doing, I'm gonna post away here.
First off, I should remind ya'll where I'm coming from with this issue and why it holds so much of my interest. I'm a doctoral candidate in the Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, presently working on – albeit not quickly enough – my doctoral dissertation. I'm presently stuck between working for a living and making time to finally slay the beast, something I'm going to really re-tackle once I settle my schedule in March. The title of the diss, which is actually partially fleshed out after a few conference presentations and a few inspired bouts of writing and research over the last two years, is "Justifying the Nation: Race and the Discourse of Koreanness in Post-Development South Korea." In it, I deal with the history of the notion of "race" as it is specific to Asia, as well as how this topic is constructed in the 1980's and 1990's.
Without boring you to tears, let me get right to the point: in the West, the discourse about race has largely been argued through "genes." Hence, we have the "eugenics" movement and its main boosters in Western Europe and the United States, racist arguments that misapplied Darwin's biological theory to human societies in overtly genetic terms, or the extreme racial ideology that undergirded National Socialism in Germany. Central to this Western discourse about race are genes, their relationships to character traits, or social "fitness" in Social Darwinist model. Notions of "purity" are genetic and concomitant with the notion that the "race" will suffer dilution, degradation, and degeneration.
Now, the East – specifically and inevitably, I am speaking about Japan – was picking up on racist Western social theory, but interpreting and applying it in its own unique way. Most of the works from the West that anyone Korea (and to a lesser extent, China) was reading was first translated into Japanese frmo the original language before then being translated from Japanese into Korean. Many books were also translated directly into Chinese as well, which were also then translated into Korean. Here's the kicker and the ultimate historical irony: it can safely be asserted that all of what Koreans "knew" about race and its relationship to the nation were a mix of Western notions as they were largely filtered through Japan, or what one could call Japanese ideas in themselves.
In fact, even the very notion of "minjok" (민족) – which in Korean is used to alternatively mean "people" or "race" or "ethnicity" all at the same time, and is analogous to the German term "Volk" – did not exist before just about 1900 (which you can learn more about from Andre Schmid's amazingly helpful book Korea Between Empires) when the Chinese term "民族" (민족) started being applied to the newly formed Japanese idea of a society-as-extended-family. The Chinese characters as they appeared together had never been used to refer to the Korean people specifically, in the way that it is used today. When you historicize the concept (one which most Korean people extends back to the mythical 5,000 years when bears, caves, and garlic supposedly created the "Korean people"), it usually breaks down under scrutiny, as they do in just about any society that has created such false social constructions. Many Koreans and Japanese think their own countries to be exceptional cases – and many Westerners buy into these countries' self-orientalized myth of their' "true" racial "purity" – but these two countries are no more racially or culturally "pure" than is American culture, which is an amalgam of so many more distinct cultures that came together with the force and violence that characterizes American history.
Korean notions of society organized into overlapping concentric circles of patriarchal spheres of authority is inescapably Japanese; authority figures of increasing and overlapping power in Japan could be described roughly as traveling up from father, teacher (commander), emperor. When Korea gained its "independence" in 1948, conceptually, the only difference was replacing "emperor" with "president." There is also much irony to be found in the fact that the distinction between "emperor" and "president" became a fairly academic one through much of Korea's modern history. The facts that emperor-president Pak Chung hee was trained by the Japanese and served in that country's military as a low-grade officer and felt as comfortable speaking Japanese as he did Korean simply raise the level of irony to the point of nearly comedic sublimity.
Indeed, not many people take issue with Japan's putative influence on the infrastructure of the Korean economy (jaebeol/zaibatsu), Japanese-style management and authority structures, the school system, academic disciplines, etc. One can see the concrete influence of the mixture of Japanese occupation even against the new influence of American cultural and economic power– for better or for worse, people tend to walk on the left and drive on the right, and the #1 line subway still runs with tracks on the left due to it being still hooked up to the Korean railway system, which was built by largely Japanese companies, even as the subway lines that came after #1 all run according to American-style public transportation sensibilities.
The examples are endless; my point is that it should be of little wonder to note that, in addition to physical, economic, and political structures that take their cues from Japan, that metal structures too find their origins in Japanese thinking. I am not saying that Koreans are Japanese; only the most simple-minded reductionist would actually read that interpretation out of this post. I am merely saying that the tools for conceptualizing the national self are the same, even though the specific content of Korean nationalism and identity are, of course, historically specific and different. The containers are the same, but the juice is different. That is the nature of the intimate relationship between Japan and Korea.
Now, here's where it gets interesting, as well as relevant to the present discussion. Down to the smallest detail, Korean notions about blood and resultant notions of a greater, national consanguinity (which means people sharing a common ancestor according to shared bloodlines) are also Japanese. Take the "harmless" notion that blood type and character traits are associated (a myth that is shared, you might coincidentally, only in East Asian countries that were or are heavily influenced by Japan) – that one has a particularly easy origin, as the Japanese anthropologist Takeji Furukawa published in a series of papers called "The Study of Temperament Through Blood Type" as part of the then-ongoing imperial project to classify the native Ainu as racially (consanguinally) inferior. Just like the construction of genetic notions of "degeneracy" and dilution and the construction of America's "one drop" rule of blackness, the very categorizations of race and all its inner workings come out of an effort to dominate. Categorization almost never comes without hierarchicalization – and when it comes to human tribal groups, religions, or ethnicities (all of which are far easier types of clearly constructed, yet "real" groups to classify), race is no different.
Koreans – or Japanese – are about as racially "pure" as I am. The only difference is that I don't have a category created that defines people like me as a "pure type." It's a circular argument: I'm "pure" because I'm descended from "pure" people, whom I defined only recently as "pure." It's as useless and meaningless as the American broad categorization of "black" – despite fact that all my parents are share genetic traits with so-called "whites" since the slave ships, all my ancestors are "black." So the definition stretches from Colin Powell to Wesley Snipes, from Mariah Carey to Whoopie Goldberg. So the "pure" body is defined and concretized – to the point that the big, blue birthmark that is really part and parcel of East Asian genes in general – get called "foreign", an impure leftover on the "pure" Korean body: the 몽골반점, or "Mongolian birthmark."
So you get people debating about the purity of the Korean culture, nation, and "race," and actually have that argument extended to comparison with other racial and national groups. After the 1980's, you catch Korean intellectuals referring to Korea's racial purity as the reason the economy does so well and Nigeria doesn't. The seemingly insignificant fact of decades of economic aid packages from the United States and Japan that amounted to billions of dollars in the forms of loans and outright grants suddenly fades from even the most hardcore economist's explanation, as does the fact of America's umbrella of direct military protection.
So prominent economists assert such things, or even go on to predict (during the early 1990's), as Song Byeong Nak of Seoul National University did, that Korea was destined to overtake Japan as an economic competitor because the dictates of Koreans' greater amount of racial purity made this an inevitability. Don't believe he said it? Check out his book (in Korean) The Economy and Mythology of the Korean People. I have a copy of that book (경제와 한국인의 신화), but the only thing I could find online for you to peruse is "한국인의 신화 일본을 앞선다," which seems to be an excerpt from the book dealing with the Japan argument. Koreans, being as they are decended from superior, northern Asian racial stock, are essentially better anyway, than the 왜놈 (wae-barbarians) that became the shorter, stubbier, savage Japanese people.
Or you could check out Yi O-Ryeong's wildly racist and Korean supremacist chapter from a children's book – ahem – Mommy, I'm Korean, Aren't I? In this whopper, the author argues that humanity's origins are indeed found in Africa, but that some of the smarter, better people left the inferior ones to "live in mud huts" in the "jungle" and started on the "Great Migration" north; these people became lighter in complexion as they went "up," and became the more advanced Europeans. But there were some who wanted more, so they packed their bags and went to the East, where they became even greater, and even extended over to the Americas, as recent research has borne out. But Yi goes on to assert that "everyone, from the tip of South America to East Asia" is part of the superior Asian race, and he links the facts of negative racial traits to the present conditions of Africa and the poorer countries in the Americas, as strongly as he links the successes of Koreans getting perfect scores on the SAT's to their inherent, pure, superiority.
And these are best-sellers, people. One – Song Byeong Nak – is a recognized academic, the other – Yi O-Ryoeng – is taken less seriously outside of the world of literature, but is fairly characterized as Korea's most famous and prolific public intellectual. In other words, a lot of everyday people buy their many books and nod "mmm hmm's" and "ahhhh, that makes sense" while reading their words on the subway, lunch break at work, or before going to bed.
And that's before even getting to the architect of Korean historiography and arguably, the shape of modern Korean identity itself – Shin Chae Ho. The first to really link nation, history, and race together to write a truly Korean history, he was also an arch-racist in that he believed the assumptions of Social Darwinism and other race-based notions of nation to be as true as Darwin's explanation of the differentiation of finches, and built a competitive, proud nationalism to get Korea to the top (quoting from Michael Robinson quoting Shin):
"The nation is an organic body formed out of the spirit of the people. If we disregard nations which have descended through a pure blood line and consider only those which have brought together various tribes in a complex mixture, still there must be always at their center a particular privileged tribe which dominates them. Such a people can be called a nation. If, like sand scattered about on a plate, one people from the west, and still others gather from the north and south and the viewpoints of these people's leaders differ from those of our own, then there cannot be firm government under one chief and a single community cannot be fully established. Under there conditions how can we discuss the question of building a nation?"
Shin, like many Chinese and Japanese intellectuals channeling Western racist sociology, history, and anthropology around the turn of the past century, assumed the fact of the inferiority of certain races in the world, the need to dominate them and not be in turn dominated, and that this is all inherent in the genes – which Asia sort of molded into a more blood-based model. Whichever – in the end, Shin fully supported and gave endless accolades to the Japanese for taking Taiwan from the Chinese and then colonizing it. Most of the Korean Enlightenment intellectuals were fully aboard the Japanese imperial project before the hungry, colonizing eye started looking at Korea as a target, instead of a potential junior partner.
With the latent – and overt – assumptions about race extant in Korean national culture from the beginning, which is then topped with racist American media images from the 1950's, combined with the bitter cocktail of sour grape and envy that is created from having been a potential willing partner cum colonized victim of the Japanese, combined with being essentially indebted to an all-new colonial "master" – is it any wonder that Korean notions of nation, race, and identity itself are notoriously fractured and conflicted?
In any case, at this point, I think I've adequately prefaced the problematic quote from the JoongAng Daily editorial, listed below. The editorial is indeed also printed (probably originally) in Korean, but in the seeming sea of web pages floating around my Bookmarks and History lists, I seem to have lost track of it. Note the assumption of the fact of Korean blood's "purity" and the suggestion that we need to just deemphasize that fact a bit more. It also partially pathologizes the victim here, such that we "normal" Koreans should "treat the social and psychological distress of mixed blood Koreans" and make room for their "peculiar nature." I will give the benefit of the doubt and write off the "peculiar" word choice as the probably unfortunate artifact of poor translation of "색다른" or "특수한" – which would be something more neutral and closer to "particularly special" in reference to mixed-blood Korean's circumstances.
In any case, armed with a bit of the background knowledge above and combined with stuff you all bring to the table, I invite you to do a critical deconstruction of the piece below. And as extra credit homework, leave it as a comment!
Korean society is excited about the success story of U.S. football star Hines Ward and his Korean mother. However, we wonder whether the mother and son could have been so successful had they lived in Korea, which is concealing its embarrassing habit of discrimination against mixed blood people.
Kim Young-hee, Ward's mother, had to immigrate to the United States because her own family in Korea turned their backs on her. The son and mother faced a cold treatment in Korean-American society after moving to the United States. "It was discrimination by Korean people that I felt was the most difficult to overcome," Ms. Kim said tearfully in an interview.
According to a support group of mixed blood people, about 35,000 such people are living in Korea, but there is no accurate figure. This is an example of Korea's indifference to these people.
Until now, we have overly emphasized the significance of our homogeneous society and have had too much pride about our pure blood tradition. But that does not mean much in this era of globalization.
Discrimination against mixed blood people is destined to bring about problems in our society. Mixed blood children often become outsiders at schools. Foreign mothers who are not fluent in Korean have difficulty helping their children study. After being pushed out from Korea's education system, mixed blood people will be stuck in a vicious cycle of unemployment and poverty. As this population grows, they will become the cause of social conflicts and we will have to face undesirable troubles.
It is time to establish a cultural foundation on which Korean children and mixed blood children will be able to mingle naturally.
The government should provide a system to treat the social and psychological distress of mixed blood Koreans.
Their peculiar nature should be taken into account when providing employment; a welfare policy to help them escape from poverty is also a must. Schools should provide education on the culture of diversity in which different ethic groups can live together.
The most important thing is our awareness of ethnic diversity.
Unless we change our thinking, no policy ― no matter how good ― will work. We should open our minds and hold their hands to raise the second and the third Hines Ward in Korea.