Senior scholars find a room of their ownOne by one, neatly dressed, elderly men file into a large, high-ceilinged room on the 20th floor of the Myongji building in downtown Seoul. The dimly lit, dark-paneled room, smelling of musty books and coffee, comes to life with chatter and laughter as the men take their places on beautiful antique sofas, smiling and greeting each other like old friends.
Welcome to what could pass for a senior Korean Mensa society ― a gathering place for older intellectuals, in which 32 of the nation’s most prominent scholars and artists, all of them 70 or older, meet to discuss the arts, literature and social issues.
“This is such a rare opportunity for people like us to meet each other regularly,” says Chung Won-shik, a former prime minister under President Roh Tae-woo, sitting by a window that provides a magnificent view of downtown Seoul and Mount Bukhan.
A towering figure in Korean politics and education, Mr. Chung’s accomplishments include having served as minister of education and culture and as chairman of the Korean Red Cross. But he is hardly the only well-known figure here.
Shaking hands with Mr. Chung is Lee Kyou-tae, a senior editorial writer at the Chosun Ilbo, folk anthropologist and writer on Korean lifestyles and traditions. Kwon Ok-yon, a renowned painter and chairman of Keumkok Museum, walks past them with biologist Cho Wan-kyoo, who is chairman of the Bioindustry Association of Korea, an honorary professor at Seoul National University and special adviser to the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute.
Next to Mr. Cho, philosopher and essayist Kim Tae-gil, who heads the National Academy of Sciences, an organization of distinguished Korean scientists and scholars, sips coffee with another academy member, Yoh Suk-kee, a prominent professor of English literature.
Mr. Yoh, a former head of the Shakespeare Association of Korea, is an honorary professor at Korea University; he was selected by local critics as one of the “20 Korean artists who shined in the 20th century” for his critiques of classical English literature and comparative studies of Korean and English-language plays.
Park Wan-suh, the only female member in the room, is an acclaimed writer whose dozens of novels, short stories and essays have garnered literary awards for the past 20 years.
The name of this club, which was established in December of 2002 with the help of the Myongji Educational Foundation, is Taepyeonggwan Giyongheoi. During the Joseon Dynasty, Taepyeonggwan was a residence for Chinese envoys on the site where the Myongji building now stands. Giyongheoi was the name of a senior intellectuals’ club in China’s Song Dynasty.
“In Korea, we’re now living in the era of youth, in which the old are alienated from society, and even the great minds are brushed off by society once they get old,” says You Young-koo, chairman of the Myongji Educational Foundation, which runs Myongji University.
“It’s society’s responsibility and calling to help the wise seniors who are still active in their intellectual work to meet together, and I’m honored to serve in that role,” says Mr. You. He says their knowledge, experience and historical sense offer “virtuous voices” for South Korea’s youth-obsessed culture.
Since Mr. You is not a prominent scholar ―and, more importantly, is not over 70 ― he is not eligible to join the club. But he says he is satisfied with serving the club members.
Mr. You, 59, became the head of the Myongji Educational Foundation in 1992, after the death of his father, You Sang-guin, who created the Christian foundation in 1948. The giant foundation currently operates eight schools, from kindergarten to college, as well as four churches, a construction company and a travel agency.
A devout Christian who is known not to drink, smoke or even play golf, Mr. You is also known for his love of antique books and his interest in Korea’s cultural heritage. He established the Graduate School for Records and Information Studies and the Department of Arts Appraisal at Myongji University in 2000.
In 1995, he opened the Myongji University-LG Yeonam Library, and two years later helped establish the National Archives and Records Service in Daejeon, which stores millions of books, documents and multimedia records from the governments of the Joseon Dynasty through the current administration. Mr. You, who studied business at Myongji University and law at Yonsei University, is also an avid map collector who hopes to create a library of antique world maps.
The intellectuals’ club began with rather simple motives: to enable scholars to meet their peers in other disciplines and have a room of their own in which to socialize.
“Where else would I be able to meet such interesting people in other fields?” exclaims one member, who says the best part is chatting and mingling with his peers, whose shared experiences stretch from Japanese colonial rule through the Korean War and the other tumultuous events of Korea’s modern history.
Providing an elegant meeting room for the scholars is one of the club’s main purposes, since many of them, no longer at the forefront of their fields, found it hard to find a place to do research and hold meetings.
“Many respected senior scholars, who haven’t had offices in downtown Seoul since their retirement and live in the suburbs, used to meet their students or reporters at hotel coffee shops or restaurants, which I found slightly unseemly,” Mr. You says. “So I decided to offer them a more dignified place to meet their acquaintances, do their work or socialize with senior scholars in other fields.”
When the foundation erected a new building with the large meeting room in 2002, the late Koh Byung-ik, a prominent historian and former Seoul National University president, and Lee O-young, a noted literary critic and former culture minister, assembled 23 charter members from diverse fields to form the club, aimed at creating a salon for the senior elites.
“We envisioned a club modeled on the French-style salon, in which intellectuals, scholars and artists of the time debated issues and exchanged their thoughts and ideas,” Mr. Chung, one of the charter members, says, referring to the gatherings of aristocrats and intellectuals in France from the 17th to 19th centuries.
The membership has since grown to 32. The club meets on the first Wednesday of each month to hear a lecture from one of the members and to hold a discussion. The topics are as varied as the members’ backgrounds: history, religion, the environment, the military, biology, painting, even dance and film.
For instance, Kim Dong-jin, 92, a well-known composer whose songs are sung by Koreans of all ages, discussed how he composed his masterpiece, “Gagopa” (I Wish I Could Leave), through the tumultuous times of Japanese colonial rule and the Korean War.
Kim Baek-bong, a renowned classical Korean dancer who developed the Korea Fan Dance, in which women twirl in a circle with colorful fans in their hands to create shifting geometrical designs, talked about the six decades she has spent reviving traditional Korean dance. And this month, Lee Kyou-tae lectured on the “identities of Koreans.”
Beginning the lecture with the statement, “An identity is a certain quality and characteristic members of each tribe share,” Mr. Lee presented his views on why Samsung Electronics dominates the world microchip market, and why Hwang Woo-suk has become a pioneer in stem cell research.
“Koreans have a highly developed palmaris longus muscle that controls hand skills, while Westerners have highly evolved plantar muscles that move the ankle, foot and toes,” he said. He said that may be why Koreans excel in “jobs that require highly delicate hand skills, such as producing microchips or separating egg cells.”
Other members, some taking notes, nod attentively as Mr. Lee explains ways to take advantage of such biological and cultural characteristics. Some members toss out questions, or enthusiastically offer ideas, until the heated discussion ends after an hour and a half.
The society has been exclusive so far, but as its actitivites expand, the lectures may be opened to the public. “We’re hoping to make this meeting like a College de France, where France’s great intellectuals regularly give lectures to the public and share their insights with ordinary people,” says Kim Chang-gyu, a history professor at Myongji University and a research fellow at the Myongji University-LG Yeonam Library, where club members can read antique and rare books for their research. The society plans to publish a book and CDs based on the lectures, he says. “Most of those lectures were just too great a resource to be limited to this circle.”
Since its inception, the society has drawn a lot of attention, prompting many well-known local figures over the age of 70 to vie to join the club, which grants lifetime membership if the existing members give their unanimous consent. But the biggest challenge for the club may lie in the very factor that helped to forge the intimate bonds among its members ― age.
“It was the most unfortunate thing that two of our members passed away last year,” says Mr. Chung, referring to historians Lee Ki-baek and Koh Byung-ik. “The time for us to go will come someday, but until then it won’t be that bad to mingle with friends and do a few good things for society, will it?”
Club’s ‘Koreanology’ library houses a wealth of rare books
The 20th floor of the Myongji building is not only a venue for the Taepyeonggwan club members, but a shrine for humanities scholars here and abroad. It houses what is believed to be the world’s largest collection of antique and rare books containing foreigners’ accounts of ancient Korea.
The seed of this library was a handful of antique Western books that Myongji Foundation chairman You Young-koo personally collected for years, before he opened Myongji University-LG Yeonam Library with the support of LG Group in 1995. Since then, the library has collected about 10,000 books pertaining to ancient Korea. All Western works published before 1950 and dealing with Korea, even minimally, were deemed eligible for the library’s “Koreanology” archive.
“Reflecting on our past is essential for a better future,” Mr. You said. “Japan collected documents for Japanology in the early 20th century, yet we lack foreigners’ accounts of ancient Korea, especially by Westerners, who achieved modernization before us.”
The library has about 20,000 documents, books and maps in about 20 languages, including French, Russian, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Latin. They were obtained from more than 1,000 antique booksellers in 18 countries, and include many rare works.
One of the oldest books in the library is “Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Death,” written in 1598 by Luis Frois, one of the first Jesuit missionaries to arrive in Japan during the 16th century. This is the only known original copy of the book, which has lively accounts of the so-called “Imjin” war that broke out between Japan and Korea in 1592.
A book of letters by Adam Schall, a German Jesuit missionary who met Crown Prince Sohyun of the Joseon Dynasty in 17th-century China, is newly discovered documentation of the first encounter between a foreign missionary and a member of the royal family of ancient Korea.
“Many foreign scholars and students of Korean studies have been asking to see our books, and some doctoral students from Oxford and Edinburgh universities visited our library themselves,” said Kim Cha-gyu, a history professor at Myongji University and a research fellow at the library.
Though the library is only open to a few scholars and Taepyeonggwan club members, much of its holdings will soon be available online, Mr. Kim said.
by Jung Ha-won