How a Chinese scholar created a ‘saintly’ U.S.

Home > Culture > Arts & Design

print dictionary print

How a Chinese scholar created a ‘saintly’ U.S.

When I first lived in Seoul in the early 1990s, foreign meant American.
Kids in Songsan-dong, where I used to live, would shout “Miguk saram [American)!” as I walked to work; I got asked how old I was in “American age” and young people wanted to learn “American English.”
I quickly learned the phrase “Yonguk saram imnida (I’m British)!”
I thought this fixation with America had started with the Korean War in the 1950s. After all, thousands of U.S. troops fought here, and thousands more remain.
But Young Ick Lew’s recent publication, “Early Korean Encounters with the United States and Japan,” says the complex relationship between the two countries lies further back in the realms of history.
More precisely, Lew argues that a pamphlet written more than 130 years ago by a Chinese diplomat called Huang Zunxian (1848-1905) might account for why Korea at the end of the 19th century placed so much hope on help from Washington.
In his pamphlet, Huang, a counselor to the Chinese legation in Tokyo, describes America as the “wealthiest country in the world, with a high degree of cultural sophistication and a reputation for supporting the causes of weak nations,” according to Lew, a historian at Yonsei University.
Huang also makes positive references to Protestantism as a “civilizing force,” bestowing a “saintly” image on the United States. He advised Korea to “remain friendly with China, strengthen ties with Japan, and form an alliance with the United States,” writes Lew.
King Gojong, in particular, was convinced that America would help his country modernize and provide protection against the mighty imperial powers of the late 19th century.
Lew backs this up with a well-known anecdote that Gojong allegedly “danced for joy” when he heard that Lucius H. Foote had arrived in Korea in May 1883 as the first American minister here.
It’s reasonable to conclude that Huang’s pamphlet has something to do with Gojong’s jig.
Lew’s book, published this year by the Royal Asiatic Society in Korea, is a collection of six essays on late 19th century Korea. In his preface, Lew says the essays are revised conference papers and keynote addresses dating back three decades.
To be honest, the prospect of reading conference material and keynote talks makes me want to cover my head with a large pillow and go to sleep.
I expected a dry text, one that I would start reading with great enthusiasm, but cease reading by the middle of the first chapter.
Not so.
These essays are highly engaging and read with a sense of urgency, location and character. I was swept along with Lew’s enthusiasm for the personalities of the day, especially in the chapter “American Advisors in Korea, 1885-1894: Anatomy of Failure.”
Lew writes, “some of these men [the advisors] were outright ‘ugly Americans’ equipped with no professional competence or sense of responsibility equal to their task.”
Edmund H. Cummins and John G. Lee were hired as military advisors but “almost immediately made conscious efforts to make nuisances of themselves.” Apparently, they spent their salaries supporting a “heavy drinking habit.”
Chapter 3 argues that “non-religious considerations” influenced the appreciation or rejection of Christianity in Korea and that Korean Protestantism should be seen as part of an “unfolding drama of Korean-American relations.”
Chapters 4 and 5 look at Korean responses to Japanese challenges between 1870 and 1910 and examines Japan’s role in the evolution of Korean-American relations. The last chapter looks at the contributions of Western scholars to this period.
I liked the overall production of the book. It’s meticulous, thoroughly referenced and well copy edited.
The grainy black-and-white photo on the cover is also very apt and speaks volumes about this period.
Dressed in hanbok, Min Yong-ik, So Kwang-bom and Hong Yong-sik grimace with tension alongside a pasty-faced American. They are the core members of the first Korean diplomatic mission to the United States in 1883, and the men’s clothes highlight the daunting gulf between the two nations.
The American, Percival Lowell, is an interesting figure. As the “Secretary and Counsellor” on the mission, he later found fame as the astronomer who founded the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Lowell also tried to convince others that he’d spotted canals on Mars.
For more information about Lew’s book, visit

Early Korean Encounters with the United States and Japan

Author: Young Ick Lew
Genre: History
Publisher: Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch

By Michael Gibb Features Editor []
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)