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Book Review: 朝鮮半島漢學史

November 16, 2009

I picked up this book a month ago and just finished reading it. As part of an ongoing, pretty ambitious Sinological History Series, this book is supposed to cover Korean sinological studies since the dawn of Korean history:


The title of the book is very misleading. It is not really a book about the history of sinological studies in Korea, rather the bulk of the book dedicates to the impact of the Chinese culture on Korea in areas such as literature, religion (Buddhism and Taoism) and philosophy (Neo-confucianism) etc. Albeit a very informative and fascinating read, they have little to do with sinological studies. The documentation of sinological study in Korea did not emerge until Chapter 4, which covers the works of many contemporary Korean China scholars on mostly Chinese literature.

The author of the book, Liu Shengli, seems to be under the false impression that any work done in Chinese (whether before or after the invention of Hangul) in Korea can somehow be considered under the realm of “sinological study”. Korea and Vietnam are inarguably the two most Sinicized countries where many cultural elements vastly resembled those of China. That doesn’t mean the studies of those cultural elements (poetry, calligraphy, philosophy etc.) fall under the realm of sinological study. If I am writing a poem about Korea in English that is reminiscent of Shakespeare (I wouldn’t even dare to try), should it be considered “a study of British literature”? I don’t think so.

The preface of the book, which is a summary of a conversation between the author and his Korean friend Prof. 이지유 is completely off-topic and unnecessary. Several times the author gave away his Sinocentric views as he seemed to gloat over Korea’s historic obsession with 사대주의 (Actually it didn’t officially start until the Chosun Dynasty, Koryo Dynasty was nowhere as interested in 사대 as Chosun, it often found itself playing Song off against Liao/Jin and vice versa). To add insult to injury, the author had no choice but to let himself succumb to official propaganda: He writes off Koguryo as a Chinese “regional kingdom”.  

Overall a good and very informative read for anyone who is interested in Korean history and culture. Sinologists please look elsewhere.

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