April 22nd, 2012 by Oh! Kpop
Royal Asiatic Society explores Korea’s hidden depths
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An excursion at Deoksugung (photo courtesy of RASKB member Tom Coyner)
For over a century, the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch has gathered various foreign residents of Korea — missionaries, diplomats, Peace Corps volunteers, and various other adventurers.
Today, the RASKB offers a variety of activities to its members and the general public, including Korean Studies lectures, excursions within the city or to the far reaches of the Korean Peninsula, and special interest groups in photography and Korean literature.
“At heart, the RASKB is dedicated to sharing Korea’s culture and history”, says Jennifer Flinn, RASKB secretary. “We work to help bring greater public knowledge of this country’s amazing past and present so that more people will learn about and enjoy all Korea has to offer”.
The current president is Brother Anthony, a member of the Taizé Community, a French monastic order. He first came to Korea in 1980 at the invitation of Cardinal Kim, the former Archbishop of Seoul, and became a naturalized Korean citizen in 1994 under the Korean name An Sonjae. He became acquainted with the RASKB in the late ’90s after he began translating Korean poetry and was invited to lecture about his work.
Brother Anthony in his office
“It was at the end of a certain period of its history around the turn of the century”, recalls Brother Anthony of his early days. “In the old days you had dozens of missionaries who were born here, third-generation Underwoods and people like this. They were the kind of generation who were used to the idea of being members of an organization where you pay a subscription and you’re a member”.
According to Brother Anthony, the RASKB is the oldest Korean Studies organization in the world, and its annual journal, Transactions, is by far the oldest periodical on the topic. “Yet we’re not really strictly academic”, he says. “We go back further to when it started as a kind of gentlemen’s club, with members each doing their research in some aspect of Korea then presenting it as a paper and publishing the paper”.
He can trace the history of the RASKB back to the early days, when it opened as a local branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, the UK’s oldest learned society in the field of Asian Studies. Prior to establishing its Korean branch, it had branches in India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Japan, and Malaysia. The Korea branch (RASKB) had its first meeting in Seoul on June 16, 1900, attended by 17 men, all except four of whom were missionaries.
These foreign missionaries had come to the country to spread Christianity, and ended up founding and running everything from schools and hospitals to printing presses and newspapers, as they explored the very unfamiliar culture around them. Influential members included Dr. Horace Allen, founder of Korea’s first hospital, and Horace G Underwood, founder of what is today called Yonsei University. Most of these men were friends of King Gojong, and Underwood’s wife had been the personal physician to the queen before her assassination. The society met and published papers until 1903, when they went on a break until 1911.
From left: Horace Allen, Horace G Underwood, Horace H Underwood (images courtesy of the RASKB website
In those days, Korea was coming to terms with the greater modern world, and many foreign residents of Korea believed Japan had the power to usher in a new era of Korean modernity and prosperity.
“They reckoned that Japan was a good thing because it was headed in the right direction, talking our language”, explains Brother Anthony. “Then it very quickly became obvious that that wasn’t the real story, and Japan started to do things that showed that they were not friends of Korea, not going to let Koreans be Korean anymore”. Although the RASKB invited three Japanese lecturers to events in 1911, the doors quickly slammed shut as the realities of annexation set in, and by 1919 when the March 1 Movement began, most foreign residents opposed annexation, notably Underwood’s son, Horace H Underwood.
The RASKB remained active until 1941, when all remaining foreigners from non-Axis countries were detained and repatriated. The society reformed in 1957, while the country was still recovering from the Korean War.
“That’s when it really became what it is now”, says Brother Anthony, “a kind of social organization offering people lectures and tours so that people could get to know Korea better”.
In this era though, rather than missionaries, RASKB events were largely attended by Peace Corps volunteers. “That’s how Americans came into contact with Korea and learnt Korean”, says Brother Anthony. “There are people here now people teaching in Seogang who were here at that time as Peace Corps who remember that”.
One of Brother Anthony’s favorite moments in the society’s history came in October 1960, when newly-elected President Yun Bo-seon invited the members to a banquet on the upper floor of Gyeonghoeru, a pavilion on the grounds of Gyeongbokgung. The members were dined and entertained by traditional palace court music.
“That was our sort of moment of glory”, recounts Brother Anthony, “that and tours where you had three buses, the American Ambassador, German ambassador, other ambassadors, 300 members, all going to visit a temple”.
These days, the RASKB still offers excursions, but attendance isn’t what it used to be. “It’s so easy to move about Korea now”, Brother Anthony says. “You’ve got guidebooks, everything’s in English, people speak English, you’ve got KTX, and people drive”.
Instead, the excursions focus on giving participants a unique experience, going off the beaten path and exploring Korea more in depth, and they are led by guides who are knowledgeable about the destinations.
Each year, Brother Anthony leads an excursion to Jirisan, the mountain separating the Gyeongsang and Jeolla regions of Korea’s south, where they participate in harvesting and preparing Korean tea. “It’s a unique opportunity for people”, he says. “You know, you can’t do this actually hands-on tea picking, tea drying then tea tasting usually”.
Members sift through tea leaves on the 2011 excursion to Jirisan (photo courtesy of Brother Anthony).
“We’re much more interested in providing people with an enjoyable and enriching experience than hurrying on to the next tourist spot”, explains Flinn, who also leads tours regularly. “Having lived in Gyeongsangbuk-do (North Gyeongsang Province) and traveled extensively around the rest of the country, I’ve also had the pleasure of leading several tours. My favorites are to Andong and Gyeongju, where I lived many years ago, but I’m very excited to lead some new tours later this year to Tsushima/Daemado and Goseong to see dinosaur sites”.
These days, the lectures are the bulk of the RASKB’s activities. “Our principal activities are biweekly lectures on Korean Studies topics, including everything from gender in K-pop to North Korean politics to Joseon pottery”, says Flinn. Lectures are commonly given by non-members, chosen by Brother Anthony among “people who float into my horizon”. Last week’s lecture was by Russian scholar Andrei Lankov, titled “What does China want in North Korea, and what can be done about this?”
A performance by Badaksori Group at the RASKB in 2011 (photo courtesy of Jennifer Flinn).
The RASKB is also active in publishing and selling books, including rare volumes on Korean poetry, architecture, art, culture, literature, politics, and more. Another common annual tradition is the summer garden party, held at the residence of either the American or British ambassador. “This is a fantastic opportunity for members to socialize, dine, and be entertained”, says Flinn.
We’re basically a very open group of people who are interested in learning more about Korea and sharing in the country’s rich heritage and culture”, says Flinn. “Newcomers can expect to find a really wide variety of interests and occupations represented, but we’re always very friendly!”
“Some are more interested in old Korea, some are interested in new Korea, but we all get on very well together”, says Brother Anthony. “The main thing I think is to be interested in Korea and seeing that it has hidden depths”.
Members of the RASKB come from all walks of life, hailing mainly from North America, Europe, and Korea. Many of the members are long-term foreign residents, such as Robert Fouser of Seoul National University, Joseon architecture expert Peter Bartholomew, and bookseller/blogger Robert Koehler, who runs the online bookstore Seoul Selections and the popular blog the Marmot’s Hole.
The RASKB holds biweekly lectures every other Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Somerset Hotel near Anguk Station. Everyone is welcome to attend, and membership is not mandatory. For more information about lectures, excursions, and other programs offered by the RASKB, visit http://www.raskb.com.
By Jon Dunbar