The Dynamics of Knowledge Circulation

Cases from Korea

by Eun-Jeung Lee (Volume editor) Marion Eggert (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 264 Pages
Series: Research on Korea, Volume 5


The book is about the evolution and transformation of knowledge and knowledge systems in the context of cultural contact. The articles take Korea as an example and deal with the configuration, dissemination and consolidation of knowledge in certain contexts of the past and present. Combining philological and social scientific approaches, this book is the result of a joint research project of the Korean Studies institutes at Freie Universität Berlin and Ruhr University Bochum pursued between 2009 and 2014.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Marion Eggert, Eun-Jeung Lee - Introduction
  • Part I. Configurations
  • Marion Eggert - Pak Chi-wŏn, Ch’oe Han-gi and Early Modern Transformations of Conceptions of Knowledge in Korea
  • Eun-Jeung Lee - Dreaming of a Strong State: The Notion of the State in the Works of Yu Kil-Chun
  • Jörg Plassen - Some remarks on the Notions of “Freedom” (chayu) and “Love” (sarang) in Manhae Han Yong-un’s (1879–1944) Nim-ŭi ch’immuk
  • Eric J. Ballbach - Framing an Enemy? A Comparative Analysis of the Media Framing of North Korea
  • Part II. Dissemination
  • Thorsten Traulsen - The Rise of the Text Style ‘Vernacular Explication’ (ŏnhae) in Early Chosŏn Korea, 1392–1598 - Diglossia, Canon, and Hermeneutics -
  • Myung In Yu - The Idiom Jiuyunmeng and the Novel Kuunmong: The Circulation of Motifs Related to the Yunmeng Marsh in China and Korea
  • Dennis Wuerthner - On premodern transformations and modern evaluations of Kuunmong
  • Daniela Claus - Hallyu in Germany
  • Part III. Consolidation
  • Florian Pölking - Technical Knowledge among High Officials in the Late Chosŏn Dynasty – Ŭigwe (儀軌) as Conduit for Construction Expertise?
  • Hannes B. Mosler - Translations of constitutional ideas: the genesis of the ‘Free Democratic Basic Order’ in Germany, Korea, and Taiwan

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Cultural transfer processes, as well as the evolution and transformation of knowledge and knowledge systems, have been productive and rapidly growing fields of inquiry within cultural studies during the recent decades. This volume – and the whole series of which it is part – aim at combining these research trends and making them fruitful for Korean Studies, while at the same time demonstrating the richness of material that Korean culture offers for studies along these lines.

From 2009 to 2014, the Korean Studies institutes at Freie Universität Berlin and Ruhr Universität Bochum have jointly conducted a project on “Knowledge Circulation and the Dynamics of Transformation”, generously supported by the Academy of Korean Studies, of which our volume series is the result. Our guiding assumption was that the paradigms of knowledge circulation and transformation are valuable tools for analyzing the past and present of Korean culture and society in due consideration both of its entanglements with and embeddedness in regional and global history, and of the peculiarities and specific dynamics of national and local developments.1 The concept of knowledge we employed in this endeavor is an open and inclusive one, i.e. not tied to criteria of truth or even of social validity, since cognitive contents, abilities and tools that are not widely shared can also evince transformative powers. In a series of conferences, we have combined forces with international colleagues to stake out several areas of the vast field opened up by this theme: We have asked about the spatial and social preconditions and constraints of knowledge circulation and their effects on the latter’s outcome, taking our examples from pre-modern Korean cultural history (Eggert/Siegmund/Würthner 2014); about the transformations that items and areas of knowledge undergo in the transfer process, making use of the heuristic metaphor of “translation” and concentrating on the field of law and politics in contemporary Korea ← 7 | 8 → (Lee/Mosler 2015); and about the integration of new knowledge and the cognitive and social effects concomitant to the absorption, dissemination, adaptation or discarding of knowledge, again with a focus on pre-modern Korea (Eggert/Pölking, forthcoming). The volume at hand traverses these fields, eras and approaches, presenting samples of studies that have been undertaken in Berlin and Bochum within the framework of the joint project. One of its main characteristics is therefore that it combines research in the social sciences and in the humanities, demonstrating the diversity of methodological approaches with which questions about the transformative powers of knowledge circulation can be tackled. Indeed, only a high diversity of approaches can do justice to the variety and complexity of the questions involved.

By and large, these questions can be sorted along the lines of an imagined sequence of transfer processes, where we could heuristically distinguish between the transport of knowledge, its appropriation and consequent transformation, and its integration into its new social and epistemic contexts. This was indeed the underlying logic of our conference (and volume) series. The present volume employs the same trinity, but in a slightly different conceptualization and in a reshuffled order – not only, but also in order to avoid reproducing a linear notion of a process which we maintain is far more adequately described as circulation, even though it does not necessarily entail any direct reciprocity in the exchange of knowledge and carriers of knowledge.

We start out with questions about the epistemic configurations that condition knowledge exchange and that are in turn affected by the latter: Which intellectual preconditions incite the seeking out of new knowledge? What is knowledge itself understood to be, and what impact do notions of knowledge or values attached to certain kinds of knowledge have on its circulation? How are these notions and values in turn affected by engagement with new items and new kinds of knowledge? How do travelling concepts change in their new surroundings, and to what degree do they carry with themselves elements of their original context that cannot easily be disassociated and have (more or less sublime) effects of their own on epistemic configuration? And how do given epistemic frameworks filter and shape the influx and spread of information? ← 8 | 9 →

As this last question illustrates if its relevance is acknowledged, such (re-)configurations of knowledge are not only the result of but also a driving factor behind processes of knowledge dissemination, to which the second part of the volume is dedicated. Questions about social groups as the carriers of knowledge and the driving factors in knowledge dissemination are paramount here. Which actors can be identified in dissemination processes, and what are their interests? To what extent does shared knowledge – or shared interest in certain kinds of knowledge – produce such groups and shape them into social actors to begin with? A next group of questions concerns the media in which dissemination takes place. How do changing media and, in their wake, different structures of availability shape the transfer of knowledge, and how do they affect the knowledge “contents”? What role do (genre-specific) expectations of media consumers play in the circulation and adaptation of knowledge?

Finally, the volume turns to questions around the consolidation of knowledge. By this, we understand processes of institutionalization (and other forms of granting continuity) of knowledge, the ways in which knowledge “settles” into communities by proliferating and being handed on within given groups, and its interplay with normativity, e.g. the development of normative functions that often accompanies the consolidation of knowledge. Of course, the knowledge thus seemingly fixed will be transformed, in more or less subtle ways, by this very process, and new transfers, re-appropriations and reconfigurations will be set into motion.

The individual contributions

Part I, “Configurations”, opens with an article by Marion Eggert which unpacks some of the implications of the “circulation” paradigm for the understanding of knowledge change and juxtaposes them with grander narratives of epistemic change. As a test case, two intellectual heroes (in modern perspective) of the late Chosŏn period, Pak Chiwŏn and Ch’oe Han’gi, are interrogated about their respective conceptions of knowledge, learning, and truth; it is argued that their peculiar contributions to Korean intellectual history in this field can be seen as different types of reaction to greatly intensified knowledge circulation (which both of them actively sought out and engaged in); therefore, similarities of their outlook and stances with ← 9 | 10 → those en vogue in the early 20th century may not provide good reasons to regard the two great scholars as trailblazers of modernity. Rather, they may be cherished for their creative, and in some ways still useful, answers to the epistemological challenges of rapid knowledge circulation.

Eun-Jeung Lee’s contribution on the late 19th-century scholar and statesman Yu Kil-chun scrutinizes the reconfiguration of knowledge on the grass-roots level of a specific concept by inquiring into the notion of “state” in Yu’s writings. Her analysis, which moves on a synchronic as well as on a diachronic level, shows that the understanding of the “state” that Yu developed over time blended Social Darwinist ideas current at the time with traditional Confucian conceptions of the state. At the same time, it becomes apparent that a concept like that of “state” cannot and does not change in isolation; not only concepts closely related to “state” like those of “rule”, “leadership”, “law” etc. are part of a web of significations that changes structures as soon as one thread is pulled, but also seemingly farther removed notions like “humanity”. By pointing out how Yu’s political thought avoided certain pitfalls of colonial discourse current at the time, the article demonstrates the creativity engendered by situations of rapid knowledge change.

In his readings of Han Yongun’s Nim-ŭi ch’immuk against contemporaneous discourses on the new concepts of “freedom” and “love”, Jörg Plassen engages with questions about the resilience of basic worldviews or religious convictions in the face of knowledge change, arguing that Han Yongun’s use of the terms chayu (“freedom”) and p’yŏngdŭng (“equality”) complies only on the surface level with the politically charged “modern” notions while in fact relating more deeply to their Buddhist implications. Similarly, Han’s treatment of love as metaphor, in line with the example set by Tagore, makes use of a contemporaneous discourse in order to point to what he regards as timeless truth. A brief excursion into Schema Theory demonstrates the latter’s explanatory power.

A different, but related theory – Framing Analysis – is used by Eric Ballbach in his study of the ways in which the media present information on North Korea. He compares the treatment of a number of high-profile incidents having occurred between 2005 and 2010 in selected daily newspapers and magazines. As a result, he is able to identify five (mostly negative) distinct frames under which North Korean politics and society are usually presented. These frames are widely shared outside North Korea, even ← 10 | 11 → though, astonishingly, the use of negative frames is more common with liberal Western media than with conservative South Korean ones. The article thus nicely illustrates that configurations of knowledge – as mental frames certainly are – can also be objects of knowledge circulation.

Part II on “Dissemination” starts with an article by Thorsten Traulsen reflecting on one of the most incisive innovations in terms of media of knowledge circulation: the invention of the Korean script. By looking closely at the actors who made use of the script for knowledge dissemination in the form of vernacular translations (ŏnhae) during the first centuries after the invention, and at the choices these actors made and the aims they pursued, Traulsen is able to identify three distinct stages of ŏnhae production between 1444 and the end of the 16th century. Taking into account the perceived need of the literati to leave the primacy of Chinese erudition intact, he arrives at a model of a “three-dimensional field of dynamics” that may be of typological interest to studies of related processes in other cultures.

Turning from the macro- to a micro-level of observation, the following article by Myoung In Yu discusses the idiom jiuyunmeng/kuunmong (literally nine-cloud-dream) that formed the title of the famous 17th-century novel by Kim Manjung. Through meticulous source compilation and analysis, he shows what Kim’s contemporaries will have understood by the phrase, namely something like “immensity” (of desire, ambition, etc.). In addition to making valuable contributions to the interpretation of Kuunmong the novel, the article not only offers insights into the conduits through which literary knowledge such as motifs and expressions was channeled to Korea (Su Shi being a major node among the connections between the literary spheres of the mainland and the peninsula), but, in touching upon the reasons why the novel’s title is no longer understood, makes visible the limits that the dissemination/continuation of knowledge can experience on ideological grounds.

That Kuunmong can serve as example for an actual circulation (in the narrow material sense) of literary contents between China and Korea is demonstrated by the following article, Dennis Würthner’s contribution on re-writings or “hypertexts” of Kuunmong, one among which may have been produced in China – the enigmatic Kuun’gi (or Kuullu, in another version). This mid-19th-century novel, written in the Chinese vernacular (baihua), enlarges Kim Manjung’s text through countless quotes and adaptations from Chinese novels (and a few obviously original passages), a method of ← 11 | 12 → composition that results in a huge pastiche that can serve as perfect illustration of the inadequacy of national borders as methodological precondition or analytical tool in the study of pre-modern literature in East Asia.

The section is brought to a close with Daniela Claus’ study on a contemporary phenomenon: the consumption of Korean pop culture (“Korean wave”) in Germany. Surprising similarities with the preceding topic emerge: Popular culture (among which we can count Kuun’gi) easily transcends national borders or cultural demarcations, even while being used for purposes of soft power or cultural self-esteem. The circulations of cultural knowledge set in motion by hunger for novelty are, however, often short lived and their results easily forgotten.

Part III, “Consolidation”, consists of two articles. Florian Pölking looks at an area of knowledge for which documentation is severely lacking for Chosŏn times: technical knowledge concerning the construction of buildings. Pölking tries to determine who in the Ministry of Works, and in the temporary bureaus set up for larger royal construction projects, actually possessed the necessary technical knowledge, given that high offices were obviously filled without any consideration of technical qualifications. Using the ŭigwe usually documenting larger projects as a relevant source, he finds that the (lower-class) carriers of this knowledge are indeed noted, but in pejorative ways. Knowledge circulated, but its carriers were kept in place.

The final article by Hannes Mosler, a study in comparative constitutional law, deals with the process by which the formula of “free democratic basic order”, coined for the German Basic law in 1949, has become part of the constitutions of Taiwan and the Republic of Korea. In a close analysis of the genesis of the constitutions in question, he identifies similarities in the driving force behind the creation/inclusion of the formula (a kind of legitimation crisis of pre-existing institutions), the pre-conditions for the circulation of this particular formula (the existence of “translators”, both linguistically and in terms of educational background), and in its legal mechanism, but finds differences in political function due to the specific historical contexts of the introduction of the formula. His study thus illustrates how items of knowledge can “settle down” in their new surroundings, with – in effect – quite different amalgams of seemingly similar factors being the result.

The studies assembled in this volume thus traverse a wide field; it is hoped, however, that taken together, they convey the potentials of studying ← 12 | 13 → Korea in the light of the larger flows of intellectual and material culture that have shaped its history and present, and will be able to enliven discussion on the methodologies that need to be employed in the study of a subject that by definition knows no boundaries. In our endeavors so far, we have learned much not only from discussions among the comparatively large group of scholars at our two institutions who engaged in the project, but also profited greatly from the wisdom of colleagues who generously shared their time, their expertise and their scholarly findings with us. Beyond the scholars who contributed to our series of volumes listed below, we would therefore like to thank those who joined our discussions at the respective conferences: Judit Árokay, Antonetta Bruno, Vladimir Glomb, Han Hyŏngjo, Charlotte Horlyck, Catherine Jami, Jang Sokman, Kim Daeyeol, John Lie, Vladimir Tikhonov, and Yu Chang-hŭi. We gratefully acknowledge the generous support of the Academy of Korean Studies, without which the project would of course not have been possible. Finally, special gratitude is due to Eun-ju Bährisch for her editorial work on this volume.

Marion Eggert, Eun-Jeung Lee


Eggert, Marion/Siegmund, Felix/Würther, Dennis, eds. (2014): Space and Location in the Circulation of Knowledge (1400–1800). Korea and Beyond. Frankfurt am Main et al.: Peter Lang.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Cultural Change Korean History Korean Thought Korean Language
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 264 pp., 6 b/w fig., 19 tables

Biographical notes

Eun-Jeung Lee (Volume editor) Marion Eggert (Volume editor)

Eun-Jeung Lee is Professor for Korean Studies at Freie Universität Berlin with a research focus on politics and history of political ideas. Marion Eggert is Professor for Korean Studies at the Ruhr University Bochum with a research focus on Korean literary and intellectual history.


Title: The Dynamics of Knowledge Circulation
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266 pages