It is difficult to be aware of one’s milieu, the water in which one swims. But this is what Kim Chang-hoon is trying to do for Korean readers. Kim, the Research Director of the Research Institute for the Future of Minjok, presents a book review, but it reads more like a historical survey of eurocentrism and its cousins imperialism, colonialism, Orientalism, and racism. Critiques of the way Eurocentrism influences the Asian and Korean intellectual spheres are nothing new. But any reminder that popular intellectuals such as Mill, Locke, and Marx were products of their time and place can provide some distance from their thoughts and resulting ideologies. Kim also puts forward an interesting take on the mid-1990s, when the idea of nationalism was frowned upon as postmodernism swept through.
One could take issue with Kim’s use of the term minjok, which is commonly translated as people or nation. To resist Eurocentrism and assert national autonomy, Kim suggests nationalism (minjok-jui) as a solution—a nation-centrism to oppose Euro-centrism. Kim proposes nationalism as really the only option against the threats of the hegemonic West. The term minjok, however, carries the idea of ethnicity or race, and minjok-jui might be translated as ethnic nationalism. What Kim does not consider in this article is that there is a danger of ethnic nationalism becoming an exclusivist and essentialist ideology akin to assertion of racist ethnic superiority. A further look into the history of Korea’s nationalism would clarify this concept in the Korean context.
Are Korean academia and Korean society mired in eurocentrism? Is nationalism the answer? Is there a third way? What about South Korea’s national identity in relation to North Korea? Keep a look out for more articles on these questions.
This opinion piece is brought to you in partnership with Pressian.
The organization I work for is the Research Institute for the Future of the Minjok (Korean people). Occasionally when I tell people where I work, they tilt their heads, like they’re thinking to themselves, “Minjok sounds too outdated for this century.” At least in the world of intellectual discourse, the word is treated as a relic of the past. Much time has passed since the word disappeared from the Korean name of the Writers Association of Korea, the nation’s main literature body.
Perhaps people think that it is too out of left field when they hear that Eurocentrism is the problem. This is because many intellectuals, never mind laypeople, have themselves been brainwashed(?) by it. Just as fish accept the resistance of the water that surrounds them, so do intellectuals view Eurocentrism as part of the refined knowledge of an enlightened society. As a result they are completely unaware that their “independent” thoughts are products of Eurocentrism. This is why Eurocentrism is to be feared. When your objectivity is already not objective, how can the grounds for the intellect of intellectuals be valid? Most intellectuals do not even consider an escaping Eurocentrism. This is because their cognitive framework is based on the modern Enlightenment which was in turn greatly influenced by Eurocentrism.
Has the term minjok become awkward because Korean society has advanced? In my opinion, it is not that Korean society has matured and moved on. The disappearance of the term from common discourse is not a sign of the soundness of Korean society but a mark of ruin. Was the loss of minjok our own, voluntary decision? There is a philosopher who puts the decline of the term down to Korean society’s mental addiction to Eurocentrism. He is Kang Chul Ku, former professor of history at Ewha Womans University. In his book History and Ideology (published by Dragon Publishing), Kang traces the genealogy of Eurocentrism, which is rooted in the field of archaeology.
What is Eurocentrism? Kang summarizes it thus: It is the attitude of regarding Europe as the center of the world. In other words, it is the value, attitude, thought, and furthermore ideological orientation of arguing for the uniqueness and superiority of the European civilization. Would it not be natural for Asians to be Asia-centered and Africans to be Africa-centered? It is not. Eurocentrism not only regards Europe as important but also strategically neglects all others. Eurocentrism comprises European exceptionalism and Orientalism.
European exceptionalism is something like this: “Europe developed the concept of economic development as a European invention through the advancement of private property rights, established autonomous cities to secure corporate activities and civil liberties, and created political freedom as it became impossible to maintain a centralized and authoritarian monarchy due to regional and religious divisions. Moreover, the rapid development of agriculture in the medieval era was something that the world had not experienced since the Neolithic Era.” What does it matter to us whether Europe is proud of itself or not? The problem is that European exceptionalism is always accompanied by Orientalism. Orientalism refers to the idea that there is no development, no enlightenment, no human rights in non-European regions. What is scary about Orientalism is that it dominates not only the thoughts of Westerners but also of non-Westerners. Westerners are not the only people who feel for the cavalry rather than the American Indians in cowboy films. Non-Westerners joined in watching the bombing of Baghdad from the perspective of Westerners, as if watching something in a video game. Even non-Westerners grow up aware of the backwardness of non-Westerners. Some might say that this thought is outdated. Then what about the issues in Yemen, which came to the fore with the increasing number of Yemeni refugees coming to Jeju Island? The Yemeni problem is not an internal conflict. Saudi Arabia’s invasion and blockade of Yemen is at the heart of the Yemeni crisis. Saudi Arabia has strong support from its key allies—the United Kingdom and the United States. Yet, instead of criticizing Saudi Arabia, or the UK and the US, which are supporting the Saudis, we are only criticizing the Yemenis.
Historical studies played a vital role in the establishment of Eurocentrism in academia. Kang criticizes such history, saying that we “have become hostages to the historical perception created by Westerners by accepting [Eurocentrism] without criticism.” It is ironic that historical studies played a leading role in promoting Eurocentric ideology because modern history has made a great effort to secure objectivity. In order to make history a discipline, Leopold von Ranke, a German historian and the founder of modern history, asserted that history should eliminate subjective elements wherever possible and be objective. Since Ranke, historical studies have been developed under the guise of objectivity, but historical narratives have been influenced by the prejudices of individual historians. Even Ranke was not free from the criticism that he “mythologized nation and ethnic groups (minjok) to justify the authoritarian and oppressive aspects of the German state and society in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” When the man who pioneered modern history on the basis of objectivity was himself not free from prejudice and ideology, it is perhaps safe to ignore the skewed perspectives of less prestigious historians.
Archaeology emerges when you begin to trace the trajectory of Eurocentrism. Ludwig Wilser, a German archaeologist, asserted that Germans, who originated from Scandinavia, were destined to rule the world. Another archaeologist, Gustaf Kossinna, likewise attempted to prove the superiority of the German race through archaeology. Even Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered Troy, was relieved that “Trojans were Aryans.” Vere Gordon Childe, known for the neolithic revolution, attempted to explain the power that uniquely grounds European civilization. He asserted that the independence and creativity unique to Europe appeared during the Bronze Age. Comparing the Minoan and Mesopotamian civilizations, Childe explained that in the Bronze Age metal workers from Europe (Minoa) were able to express their creativity because they were free, unlike the metal workers from the Orient (Mesopotamia). He unabashedly claimed that the white people were psychologically superior to other races from the Bronze Age under the guise of academic scholarship.
Eurocentrism, which began from archaeology, also attempted to exercise a monopoly over the Greek civilization. Kang points out that “for about a millennium from the last years of the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages, Europe had been all but cut off from the Greek culture”. When Thomas Aquinas brought Aristotle into his philosophy, he had to brace himself for criticism. Kang explains that this was because Aristotle was considered to belong to the Arab world rather than the Christian world. So how was that connection made in Eurocentrism?
Kang explains the link this way: even until the late eighteenth century, educated Western Europeans believed that their culture was Roman and Christian, and therefore unrelated to Ancient Greece, which was considered heathen. However, this perception changed when Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German art critic from the late eighteenth century, aroused passion for Greece through art criticism. Praising Greek art for “noble simplicity and quiet sublimity”, he identified Greece as the origin of European civilization. His admiration for Greece was a source of inspiration for many European educators of the time, including first-rate intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder, and Hegel. In this way, Greece came to be seen as the origin of Europe.
With Greece promoted as the origin of Europe, the dichotomy of the civilized Hellenes and uncivilized barbaroi that the Greeks created was revived in the modern era to distinguish between Europeans and non-Europeans. According to Kang, this dichotomous structure was established “in the process of the creation of the European identity in the Enlightenment Period in the eighteenth century and its expansion into the ancient history.” Most Western political ideologies can be traced back to Greece. Europeans have boasted of their Greek democracy and Greek humanism to non-Europeans. But was Greece European? Martin Bernall, professor at Cornell University, argued against this generally accepted idea.
The publication of his book Black Athena in 1987 created a huge sensation in the intellectual community. The title suggested that Athena’s godhood was rooted in Egypt, and the book discussed the influence of Egypt and Phoenicia. Bernal also challenged the theory that the Greek civilization developed spontaneously. Ancient Greeks did not hide the fact that their culture was greatly influenced by other countries and civilizations. It was only modern Europeans who did not recognize these external influences and saw the Greek civilization as a civilization that arose on its own. Europeans have clung to Greece obsessively. Emphasizing Greek beauty, Greek democracy, and Greek creativity, they argued that these characteristics of Greece were handed down only to Europe. Bernal’s work therefore shook to the core the 200-year-effort to establish the superiority of Greek civilization and Europe’s ownership of it.
Eurocentrism is scary is because it uses humanism to disguise European desires. Then what should they make of the underdeveloped non-European regions? Voices of conscience in the West, like John Stuart Mill, asserted that the West should assist the non-West. According to ‘Hypocritical’ John Stuart Mill?: An Excuse for Paternal Imperialism, written by Suh Byung Hoon, professor at Soongsil University, Mill was an outstanding British intellectual who argued for “good” imperialsm. Mill justified imperialistic intervention as being for the benefit of the colonized. His good friend Tocqueville criticized Mill’s argument as hypocrisy. In his paper John Stuart Mill’s Liberalism and Imperialism, Park Dong Chun, professor at Chonbuk National University, wrote: “It is inevitably true that Mill considered the the political capacity of Indians to be lower than that of the English or the Irish, and acted with the belief that Enlightened liberalist Britons with good intentions like himself had a role in leading Enlightenment in India.”
As per Tocqueville’s judgment, what distinguishes British imperialism is not its qualities but the incessancy with which it reminds others that its actions were rooted in good intentions. Italian scholar Giovanni Arrighi expects that the United States will not be able to maintain its hegemony in the world as long as the British did for an interesting reason: Britain had a pot of honey—India—while the United States has nothing comparable. In World War I, 1.3 million Indian soldiers fought for the British. India was a “giving tree” to Great Britain. Yet the British argued that they ruled India for the benefit of Indians. Tocqueville, who criticized Mill, was actually no different. According to Suh Byung Hoon’s paper titled Childish Imperialism, while Tocqueville praised American democracy he also argued that France should establish colonies in Africa. He was also for turning Algeria into a French colony. Enlightenment thinker Locke thought similiarly. Locke’s The Second Treatise of Civil Government was what was used to justify the British takeover of Native American land. Locke argued that since labor was more important than land, people who fenced and cultivated the land should have ownership of it rather than Native Americans who did not work it. This became the standard argument for British imperialists.
Even the great thinkers could not avoid Eurocentrism. Hegel advocated imperialism: “The spiritsof other nations have no right over the absolute authority of the [ruling race] that leads the development of the world spirit.” Initially, even Marx, the friend of the oppressed, thought that colonialism, since it leads to capitalism, was an opportunity in the progress of historical evolution. Weber explained that capitalistic modernization was a result of reasonable and ethical choices made by wealth-accumulating Protestants. Is capitalism a special blessing that only the Protestants can bring? When East Asia developed, people began to take interest in Confucian capitalism. Thanks to India, which is rapidly developing, it has become time for Hindu capitalism, and, thanks to Malaysia and Indonesia, Islamic capitalism has come to the fore. Even first-rate intellectuals do not doubt their belief that Europe is special. This belief is wrapped up as theories and spread in the discourse market.
The power that blinded intellectuals like Mill, Tocqueville, and Locke, and made them affirm colonial rule was the dichotomy that “Europe is civilized while non-Europe is barbaric.” The dichotomy practiced by the Greeks (civilized Hellenes and uncivilized barbaroi) combined with Eurocentric history and is still powerful as ever. Intellectuals are confident that they will not be taken captive by such an idea but it is not easy to escape it. Among the top French intellectuals, Sartre was the only one who indicated that France was not a mere victim of World War II but an aggressor who colonized Algeria. Even the French Communist Party which led the Resistance movement remained silent about France’s colonization. Were there intellectuals who opposed the West’s interventions in Yugoslavia and Kosovo? You can count them with one finger: Kojin Karatani criticized Habermas for supporting the West’s airstrikes on Kosovo solely on the basis of public consensus. Such is the caliber of the world leading intellectuals that Korean intellectuals adore.
Kang Chul Ku points out that Eurocentrism is not just a simple theory. “Eurocentric Western history is more than a simple theory. It is a massive belief system made up of testimonies about facts and theories that explain them.” It is not easy to escape Eurocentrism even if an intellectual resolves to, since doing so requires a review of most of intellectual theories to which intellectuals subscribe. Eurocentrism based on the dichotomy discussed above ultimately develops into racism. Kang criticizes racism as the “theory that played the most important role in European countries expanding their power across the world and killing, enslaving, and extorting the people of other continents for the past 500 years.” What specific kind of work does racism perform? Racism justifies the uneven distribution of resources in society as well as the inequality of wealth, authority, and privilege. Has the world gotten rid of racism? The reason this world has been unable to overcome racism since entering the era of colonialism is that it is structured with layers of inequality. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek explores the secrets of the Congolese civil war in his book The New Class Struggle. Zizek explains that the worst tragedy of the late twentieth century which resulted in the death of four million people was not triggered by a problem from within the country. He asserts that the Congolese civil war was a proxy war between France and the United States which wanted a monopoly over five minerals. The world steps up and makes a fuss about the death of a few white men as though it was an attack on humanity, while the death of millions in the Third World is ignored, dismissed as a result of their “primitive nature”. It is extremely convenient to turn people into unpeople since there is no need to feel for their sufferings. Racism is a tool that turns people into unpeople.
The dichotomy of civilized and barbaric developed into racism and evolved into Peripheral Theory, which even glamorizes colonialism. Whether it is John Atkinson Hobson or Vladmir Lenin, the gist of the usual theory on imperialism is that imperialism expanded due to the internal necessity of ‘central’ empires. Central countries led imperialism and are therefore responsible for it. But then a theory that opposed the accepted common sense came to the fore. Proposed by J. A. Gallagher and R. E. Robinson, the Peripheral Theory argues that the changes in political situations in non-European countries were the main drivers for imperialism, rather than the economic and political elements within Europe. In other words, this theory argues that non-Europeans provided the cause for colonization. Here is one of the examples Gallagher and Robinson discussed: In 1881, the nationalist revolt led by Urabi Pasha jeopardized Egypt’s cooperative relationship with Great Britain and prompted Great Britain to “inevitably” conquer the country in order to protect the Suez Canal and speculative capital. This theory is similar to the reason put forth by the Japanese military when they invaded Korea to “protect the Japanese citizens in Korea” when the country was in turmoil due to the Donghak Peasant Rebellion. This perverted theory which puts blame on the pretty woman who was raped rather than the rapist is proposed under the disguise of an academic theory. Similar logic is applied to Africa and Qing China: bad imperialism is a problem, but ultimately it was the non-Europeans who provided the reason for imperialists to colonize them. And as a result the blame for imperialism is shifted to non-Europeans.
How can non-Europeans stand up to Eurocentrism? Eurocentrism can only be opposed with nationalism. The power to restrict Eurocentrism comes from nationalism, a protective principle used by people of non-European nations. Let us take a look at Korea. Korea is a society in which nationalism is going extinct—its embers lighting up only during football games. Minjok persists as a sentiment but as an ideology it is fast disappearing. For nationalism to gain strength it needs to circulate as intellectual discourse. Just as Confucianism vanished with the disappearance of distribution channels for Confucian knowledge, so is nationalism going extinct with the disappearance of its discourse channels.
Postmodernism, which swept the world after the mid-1990s, frowned on all ideologies. Its main target of attack was nationalism. But when nationalism was under attack, was the world a fair place and was Western military interventionism receding? Nothing of the sort. From Yugoslavia to Congo, Iraq, and Libya, the world grew ever more unfair, and the West’s military intervention intensified. So why did nationalism in particular become a problem in Korea? In context of the Korean Peninsula at the time, North Korea was cut off from the rest of the world and the country was going completely broke, while the South Korean middle class was collapsing due to the Asian financial crisis. Nationalism should not have been ridiculed just when it was needed most.
Europe’s modernism and non-Europe’s backwardness are not self-evident truth. When you look at Naito Konan’s theory on post-Song modernity, whether modernism began in the West or in the East becomes a confusing question. According to Konan, the Song dynasty (960–1279), which was pushed out from the Northern Jin dynasty, marked the beginning of modernity. Why? The Song dynasty adopted a provincial system in place of its feudal system and abolished aristocracy. It adopted a civil examination system to select capable bureaucrats and developed a market economy. According to the Song modernity theory, the Song dynasty was a nation state. Despite what many Europeans think, non-Europe was not uncivilized or barbaric.
The ultimate goal of Eurocentrism is to excuse Europe for imperialism and colonization. Kang explains, “In this sense, colonialism is not just something of the past. It is ongoing and will continue to torment the people of the Third World for a long time to come. This is the reason we need to remain attentive to the topic of colonialism and strengthen our critical response.”