Internet as time machine: Introducing Joseon era scholars to the cyber-hip

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Internet as time machine: Introducing Joseon era scholars to the cyber-hip

With over a quarter of South Koreans building mini homepages on Cyworld, it’s no surprise that the Web service has begun channeling the country’s dead ancestors.
Scientists, politicians and philosophers from the 18th century have been the first to float into 21th century cyberspace. On the personal blog of Park Ji-won (1737-1805), the literary figure who satirized the yangban, or noblemen, he writes, “Why not let yangban become thieves when they don’t work to make money,” quoting from his work, “Heosaeng-jeon.” Yi Ik (1681-1763), the first Korean astronomer to postulate the rotation of the Earth, remembers to add that all are equal when he is greeting on the Internet.
Internet users don’t seem to mind that they’re actually chatting with university professors, not ghosts, when they visit the personal Web sites of these historical figures. The sites were set up to encourage young people to become more interested in the latter part of the Joseon era when Confucian scholars shifted their studies to pragmatism after exposure to Western countries. This trend began at the end of the 17th century and reached its climax during the reign of King Jeongjo in the 18th century. Books from China and the West were imported, larger farming tools were invented, roads were planned systematically and a monetary system was emphasized.
“The idea of linking the Joseon scholars to the young generation through Cyworld occurred to me as I noticed that almost all of my students have a Cyworld I.D.,” said Lee Jong-tae, a history professor at Kookmin University and the voice behind Park Ji-won’s blog.
“In less than a week, I think I have about 150 new ‘1-chons’ on my list,” he said using Cyworld slang for close friends. [Chon refers to the degree of relation between relatives. Literally, 1-chon describes a husband-wife or parent-child relationship.]
On the site for Jeong Yak-yong, a philosopher who argued for an egalitarian society in the Joseon era, his “mini-me” personal icon is dressed in traditional hanbok and makes cute animated greetings ― just like Cyworld profiles for living people.
When visitors leave a message on Mr. Jeong’s personal board, the late scholar leaves a reply, sometime whimsically adding that he is sad that students these days do not study Joseon history like they used to.
That might change given the enthusiastic response of Kim Seong-sil. “This is so cool,” says Ms. Kim, a Cyworld member who added Jeong Yak-yong’s Cyworld nickname to her “1-chon” list.
“It is fun because I am talking to a person right out of a history textbook,” said Park Seon-yeong, another Cyworld user.
From a mere 150 visits per day when the service first started earlier last week, site visitors doubled within a week, said Kim Yeong-jung, a leader of Sin Gyu Jang Gak, an organization that studies Joseon history and promoted the “Joseon scholars on Cyworld” concept. The Gyeonggi Province Cultural Foundation also supported the plan, saying most of the scholars from the 18th century were born in what is now Gyeonggi province.
There are also blogs for Jeong Yak-jeon (1758-1816), a biologist who described 155 kinds of marine creatures in his work “Jasaneobo,” and King Jeongjo (1752-1800), who is known for compiling “Tangpyeongchaek,” which set a standard for fairly employing government officials.
New arrivals to Cyworld are expected to include Yi Sun-shin, the Joseon admiral who defeated Japanese fleets in a naval war, and King Sejong, the creator of hangul.


by Lee Min-a

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