KoreanTV: drama to history to …

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One thing that makes modern TV viewing different from the purely escapist entertainment of twenty years ago is access to the internet. Watching productions from another country has me constantly wondering things about language, culture and history. Sometimes, it can take me quite a while to get through an episode when I pause to look something up and get lost on a deep dive into the net. Its also prompting book purchases for further study.

Recently, I bought “Korean History in Maps” by Michael Shin. #Korean TV is full of sageuks (dramas in historical settings.) Its fun to try and figure out what is being accurately represented and what is not. Either way, it leads to me learning about Korean history. I soon learned that I needed maps and timelines.

Being from a relatively new country, we are only taught that our history began in the mid-1700s, thanks to settler colonialism. It is a bit more challenging to grasp the complex  history of a people who maintain a connection to all those who have ever lived there. Hominids have been on the Korean peninsula for about 200,000 years. There is a Paleolithic era, a Neolithic era, a Bronze Age era and so forth.  Modern Korea is considered a continuation of this civilization, though many configurations of polities have manifested throughout that timeline. Some areas have been invaded, conquered, and colonized by different non-Korean entities throughout this long history. I have hope for a reunited and independent Korea because their history tells us that they always liberate themselves, in the end, even if it takes over 200 years. Outside influences have impacted Korean, but there is a fierce preservation of their own culture and identity. When they tell stories of Old Joseon (beginning about 7th century BCE), they are speaking of their own history. They feel connected to it.

In the U.S., we look at historic maps and are only shown the gradual expansion of states on this land mass. Its fairly linear. We are completely disconnected from the people who have lived here since before the European invasion. For us, history is only about when the boundary lines shifted westward. Meanwhile, North and South Korea combined are about equal in land mass to the state of Idaho, but it takes 150 pages filled with maps to give you an basic introduction to their history.

Its fascinating. There is so much for me to learn. I knew almost nothing about pre-WWII Korea before watching Korean dramas. I’m glad I didn’t pick Chinese TV!

No matter how different the particulars of a culture or civilization, one can notice some universal commonalities, along the way. Perhaps its clearer to say, one can wonder about some commonalities and develop questions about the human species.

Here is one of those casual observations, from today:

I was watching a sageuk, “Kim Su Ro” that was set in the 1st century CE. All the political power struggles were centered around who controlled iron works. The nature of the controlling entity defined whether the state would be more or less egalitarian and more or less military. The controller of the forge might force more weapons and armor production and leave farmers without tools. They might distribute their products evenly amongst everyone in exchange for the goods that their workers needed to survive, or they could seek profit and only sell to the highest bidder, leading to wealth inequality. These were the themes in this sageuk.
What I noticed, was the conflict between production of agricultural tools and arms. Cultivation led to the early emergence of political power over control of food stores. I had known of this analysis before. What I saw here was that the development of agricultural tools went hand in hand with development of weaponry. Those willing to employ the weapons always won out in the end. Thus, we have a globe of militarized states controlling just about everything.

Then I read this:

“The development of agricultural techniques also provided an impetus for the centralization of political power, as the state monopolized the manufacture of iron tools, mobilized labor for large-scale public works, and expanded the area of land under cultivation.” – “Korean History in Maps” pg 17
In this story, this small egalitarian state managed to maintain its autonomy, while being violently threatened from many directions. Its an odd telling of a band of people who accomplished this goal via an anti-authoritarian movement, but is celebrating, in the end, the installment of their first monarchy. A few politically-minded folk were convinced that having a monarchy, with a state military force, was the only way to fend off invading states.

In history, the state in the story did exist, but didn’t last long after enthroning a king. They simply became a more “threatening” target to the other states. It also seems that almost all technological development may begin with a benign or beneficial intent and is then applied to political power wielding.

It begs the question of whether humans are able to develop technology without applying it to political power wielding. If not, is it a good thing to be developing technology, at all? Maybe the human race, all the other species and the planet itself would be better off if we had remained non-agricultural and didn’t ever develop cities and states and tools.
We’re not going back barring some apocalypse which forces us to. I know one can name benefits such as longer lives, etc.. Still, in the historic view, those might be selfish personal benefits but do not serve the species or the planet, well. Wondering about this doesn’t mean having expectations of reversal. It can mean pushing us to be more considered and discerning moving forward.

Thoughts all prompted by watching a cheezy Korean sageuk with some entertaining hairdos and hilarious facial expressions which reminded me of silent movies. Never underestimate the potential sparks that can be ignited by seemingly vapid entertainment.

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