Bringing the Chosun Dynasty Back to Life

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Bringing the Chosun Dynasty Back to Life

Sex, rice and calligraphy. The three are an odd combination, but Yang Sung-jin brings them together in a historical book about the Chosun Dynasty (1392-1910). Before compiling writings for this book, Mr. Yang's original impression of this dynasty was "anarchic and male-oriented."

"My general views have changed a lot," he says now.

Mr. Yang's book is an enjoyable read. Each chapter dives straight into dramatic situations, similar to a Reader's Digest story. The book is filled with colorful details that make even the most mundane topic interesting. Rice, for example, when placed in context with bribery, famine and a rescue plan, becomes an entertaining topic.

The core reason for the book's readability is its treatment of history. In Mr. Yang's mind, history has more to do with people than with dates and places. Through the use of anecdotes the book comes alive ?doctors accidentally killing patients, rulers helping their subjects to find Mr. or Miss Right, a king engaging in heated debates with officials over paintings, and officials turning down promotions in accordance with the unwritten and self-effacing laws of Confucian society are just a few examples of the stories that will captivate the reader.

Mr. Yang writes about the Chosun Dynasty using current references, which brings the reader more in touch with a potentially alien past. In a chapter describing coronation ceremonies, he writes, "Even Michael Jackson would have failed to enliven the festivities if he had attended a coronation ceremony during the Chosun Dynasty era." A chapter on medicine opens with a reference to Viagra and contrasts the high esteem in which we hold modern day medicine with its low importance during the Chosun Dynasty.

The author treats his subject with a wide-eyed wonder that is apparent in his writings. In trying to make each topic short and sweet, some of the topics are analyzed too quickly and over generalized. When combined with the grammatical errors throughout the book, it is easy to feel skepticism. Keep in mind, though, that the author won Korea's Journalist's Award in 1999 for his thorough research and concise writing.

The seed of the book began in the mid-1990s. Mr. Yang, now a correspondent for Reuters news service in Seoul, was then a reporter for the Korea Times. His editor, Han Dong-soo, suggested Mr. Yang "shed light on the Chosun Dynasty" with a weekly series. "The idea was interesting, but demanding," Mr. Yang said. To undertake the project, he had to learn more Chinese characters and find links between the present and past.

Right about that time, the Annals of the Chosun Dynasty been put on a CD-ROM. Incidentally, the authors of the Annals were sagwans, or histographs of that period. Sagwans were the reporters of the Chosun Dynasty, specializing in recording the lives of the kings.

Mr. Yang chose a topic each week and using the CD-ROM, researched its counterpart in the Chosun Dynasty.

"Almost all political, social and cultural phenomena today has precedence in the Chosun Dynasty," he said.

Originally intended to be a short series, the installations grew to about 100 and were later compiled into "Click Into the Hermit Kingdom."

"I'm not a historian, but I had to write from the perspective of a historian," Mr. Yang said. "At times, it was a burden to me."

After the book was published in December, he said, "I feel so good about it. I never thought I'd write a book in my life."

by Joe Yong-hee

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