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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The State and Identity Construction in Chosǒn Korea

  • Author(s): Hur, Joon
  • Advisor(s): Duncan, John B
  • et al.

This dissertation examines whether, among Koreans in the premodern period, there existed a shared collective identity that could be utilized by modernizing nationalists and that significantly informed the nature of nationalism in twentieth century Korea. The specific time this dissertation delves into is the period of the Chosǒn dynasty (1392-1910), especially the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which are believed to be the most important period of Korea’s institutional and philosophical systemization. Examining the reciprocal interactions among Chosǒn people and their accompanying political and intellectual debates, this dissertation explores how the government’s state-building project, generally understood as Korea’s Confucianization in existing studies, contributed to the construction of a shared collective identity among the constituent social groups of Chosǒn.

This dissertation consists of four chapters. Chapter One delves into ritual debates such as the debates on the sacrifice to Heaven during the early Chosǒn period in which the Chosǒn elite should refer to their state’s history and tradition to support their arguments. Chapter Two deals with the tension between Korea’s socio-cultural heritage and the new cultural and institutional tendencies accompanied by the influx of Neo-Confucianism in the late fifteenth century. Chapter Three examines how the elite’s efforts to transmit their core values to the non-elite influenced the construction of people’s sense of belonging to a larger collectivity whose members shared the same social and cultural values. The final chapter discusses how the non-elite in Chosǒn reacted to the elite’s guidance and how they reinterpreted the values the elite emphasized. This chapter leads to the conclusion that the systemization of rituals and institutions where various social groups of Chosǒn people could reciprocally interact contributed to the construction of a certain Koreanness

By putting more emphasis on Korea’s historical and cultural context, this dissertation suggests that Korea had its own process of change, constructing a distinctive political and social entity which is different from but not inferior to Western nation-states. Also, questioning dangerous generalizations about “Asian” or “Confucian” cultures, this dissertation posits that Korea and other Asian cultures should be seen not as backwaters outside the mainstream of world history but rather as representative examples of the historical processes of nation formation.

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