Intellectuals in Between

Koreans in a Changing World, 1850 to 1945

by Marion Eggert (Author) Eun-Jeung Lee (Author) Vladimir Tikhonov (Author)
Monographs 184 Pages
Series: Research on Korea, Volume 11


During the decades around 1900, Koreans experienced a world falling apart and the need to quickly build a new one. Intellectuals naturally took centre stage in this era of epistemic paradigm change. This book is devoted to the study of the life and ideas of some of these intellectuals, focussing on how they dealt with the challenges of their times. Where did their respective moral and intellectual stances lead them, and what were the social, economic, and political constraints that bounded their trajectories? Their life stories provide micro-historical insights into a period that has been formative for modern and contemporary Korea, and illustrate the intellectual ferment inherent in an era of crisis and transition.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction (Marion Eggert)
  • A New Place in the World: Ch’oe Han-gi’s (1803–1875) Encyclopaedic Endeavour for Epistemic Restructuring (Marion Eggert)
  • Seeking for Agency in Troubled Times: Pak Ŭn-sik (Marion Eggert)
  • Yun Ch’i-ho: An Intellectual in a Time of Transformation (Eun-Jeung Lee)
  • “Fight Fire with Fire”: Sin Ch’ae-ho (1880–1936) and his Anti-Colonial Social Darwinist Nationalism (Vladimir Tikhonov)
  • Hŏ Chŏng-suk: An Intellectual Who Broke the Mold of Custom and Fought for a New Society (Eun-Jeung Lee & Vladimir Tikhonov)
  • Pak In-dŏk: Female Intellectual In-Between – A New Woman Born in 1896 (Eun-Jeung Lee)
  • Bibliography
  • Series Index

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Marion Eggert


The question “why study Korea”, with which Western researchers of Korean culture had long been confronted, has been largely silenced since South Korea’s cultural production rose to global prominence in recent years. But good reasons to grant attention to Korea abounded even before a larger segment of the population in North America and Europe took notice. One of these is Korea’s compressed modernity, i.e. the speed with which Korea developed from a tradition-bound backwater of history into one of the most dynamic modern nations. This rapid development has been most pronounced in the decades between 1960 and 1990, but its roots can be traced back to the period when Korea was propelled into modernity: the so-called “enlightenment” (kaehwagi, late nineteenth century until 1910) and the colonial period (ilche kangjŏmgi, 1910–1945). From the latter part of the 19th century onwards, Korea had to cope with the combined forces of imperialism, capitalism, and technological innovation which washed over it and forcefully brought about the breakdown of the world order as it had been known in Chosŏn. Finding itself wedged between the waning power of a once-hegemonic China with its age-old claims to superior culture, an encroaching West firmly believing in its “civilizational mission”, and a rising Japan seeing itself as the new leader of the East Asian world, Korea had to not only balance these forces in order to secure its survival as a national entity (which eventually failed), but also redefine and reconfigure itself culturally. During these decades, a century or more ago, Koreans experienced a world falling apart and the need to quickly adapt and build a new one. It is obvious that lessons for today may be learned from this historical experience, in which intellectuals naturally took centre stage.

This book is devoted to the study of the life and ideas of some of these intellectuals, with a view to how they dealt with the challenges of their times. When, and prompted by what, did they perceive the need to adapt to a changing world? How did they conceptualize and envision the crises of their times and the developments ahead? What were the hard decisions ←7 | 8→they had to make, and how — based on which goals and values — did they go about making these decisions? Where did their respective moral and intellectual stances lead them, and what were the social, economic, and political constraints that bounded their trajectories?

We have selected five noteworthy persons active during the enlightenment and colonial periods, all born in the half-century between 1859 and 1908, three men and two women, and have added as a first chapter a study of perhaps the most remarkable precursor of the enlightenment movement. Although they can by no means count as “representative” of the educated elite of the 19th and early 20th century as a whole, together they cover a sizeable segment of the gamut of possible reactions and approaches to the great paradigm changes of their times.

Ch’oe Han-gi, with whom the volume starts, lived just prior to the era when these changes began to make themselves felt; he died a year before the fateful opening of Korea to international markets by its treaty with Japan (“Kanghwa treaty”, 1876) set the stage for the great upheavals witnessed during the following decades. The social, political, and economic developments during Ch’oe Han-gi’s lifetime still largely followed traditional patterns. And yet, Ch’oe Han-gi not only witnessed but also promoted change on another level — epistemic change. With a clarity shared by few if any of his contemporaries, he perceived that the new knowledge from the West which dribbled in from China through Chinese-language publications (mostly by Western missionaries) brought with it the necessity to rethink the world. Since no political pressure was yet attached to this new knowledge, Ch’oe Han-gi understood the epistemic challenge solely in terms of opportunity; he enthusiastically made use of the new impulses for creating his own philosophy, a very future-oriented philosophy of change. Within our volume, Ch’oe Han-gi is therefore representative of the character type of the “early adopter”. Like other early adopters, he can be — and was — criticized for a surplus of optimism; his total lack of doubt that the world would evolve towards the better, that reason would outdo misguided beliefs, that cultures would live in harmony, and that the human mind would master technology and not the other way round, appear naïve from today’s perspective. And yet, had he not been a rather solitary phenomenon during his lifetime, a voice in the wilderness that started to be heard by his contemporaries only shortly ←8 | 9→before his death, Chosŏn society might have been much better prepared for facing the crises to come, if only due to a sharpened awareness of the need to transform. His example thus is illustrative of the (at least epistemological) chances presenting themselves to and through those who are ready to seriously engage with the first harbingers of existential changes.

In contrast to Ch’oe Han-gi, Pak Ŭn-sik, to whom our second chapter is devoted, took a long time before letting the new times touch his mindset, but then he responded with a wide variety of approaches — intellectually as a writer, educator, and historian, but also as a would-be religious leader, an activist, and a politician. Half a century younger than Ch’oe Han-gi, he belonged to a generation that could still afford to ignore the rapid changes of their times for a long stretch of their lives. Pak Ŭn-sik himself was over forty and had largely led a life of study and contemplation when at last he threw in his lot with the reform-minded intellectuals who attempted to safeguard Korea from the imminent loss of agency and, eventually, sovereignty. Once he had decided on which stance to take, Pak Ŭn-sik devoted himself fully to the task, using as best as he could the resources he had as member of the Confucian-educated elite. For the sake of doing his utmost for the future lot of Korea, he left the country after its annexation by Japan and worked in China for the national cause, dying shortly after he had been elected President of the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea in Shanghai. The courageous choices he made and his patriotic zeal have rendered him an untainted hero in modern Korean history. And yet, memory of him seems not quite alive; he is best remembered for the histories he wrote, rather than for the thought behind his actions. One of the reasons behind the somewhat faded image of this energetic man in the public mind may be that the hard choices he made were, at the same time, a way to evade rather than solve the dilemma of how to align his Confucian convictions with the demands of a modern world that had little use for them. In loyalty for his country, he found the vanishing point of these contradictory demands.

The protagonist of our third chapter, Yun Ch’i-ho, although Pak Ŭn-sik’s junior by just six years, was confronted with the conflicts of value and worldview brought about by the onslaught of modernity much earlier in life than the latter. While Pak Ŭn-sik entered the ideological struggles of the turn of the century at a mature age, Yun Ch’i-ho found himself catapulted ←9 | 10→into a liminal space between tradition and modernity at 16 years of age when he went to Japan as one of the first Korean students abroad. As a grandson of a concubine and thus of somewhat tainted yangban status, the young Yun Ch’i-ho may have also socially felt to exist in an in-between position. It is thus little wonder that Yun Ch’i-ho became an “early adopter” of Western civilization, including Christianity, even though he never lost his critical distance. While Pak Ŭn-sik tended to regard modernity in the guise of new knowledge and technology, general education, and a certain social mainstreaming primarily as means for assuring or re-achieving Korean political independence, the foremost goal for Yun Ch’i-ho was to help foster a new, stronger civilization in Korea. There was thus little reason for him not to let himself be co-opted by the Japanese colonial government. Although, as is shown in the respective chapter, his mindset can to a certain extent be explained by Confucian traditions, loyalty to these traditions had no value as such for him. What counted was the Korean individual’s place in an imagined hierarchy of civilizations, a ladder that had to be climbed at all costs, even at the cost of national sovereignty. In that sense, Yun Ch’i-ho, rather than being a turncoat, remained fully true to himself. It is conceivable that in a future which — for the sake of human survival, or for other reasons — foregoes organization in nation-states, evaluation of this intellectual may once more change radically, foregrounding his sharp powers of observation and his keen, un-nostalgic embracing of change rather than his lack of allegiance to the Korean cause.

In contradistinction to both Pak Ŭn-sik and Yun Ch’i-ho, Sin Ch’ae-ho’s undivided loyalty belonged to the nation-state as such, i.e. to political freedom; neither civilization nor (Confucian) culture were of primary value to him. This enabled him to keep free both of political cooptation by the Japanese and of superficial mimicry of the West. It also led him towards taking a heroic stance, deeply imbued by the Social Darwinist trends of the time, which in its unabated worship of physicality, power, and, ultimately, national-interest egoism, is most illustrative of early 20th century Korean masculinist nationalism, or nationalist masculinism.

This new ideology, which affected almost all reform-minded male intellectuals (albeit not always as strongly as Sin Ch’ae-ho), relegated women to the place of supportive wife and wise educator of her children even while touting the liberation of women as a precondition for building ←10 | 11→a competitive nation-state. The lives of the two women with whose accounts this volume closes exemplify the manifold struggles women had to undergo once they wished to deviate from this narrow path, but also the new opportunities that nevertheless presented themselves to the courageous and enterprising. Both Pak In-dŏk and Hŏ Chŏng-suk had the privilege of having a parent who fervently believed in their daughter’s right to education and to a self-determined course of life. In Pak In-dŏk’s case, it was her widowed mother who, having herself chosen the economically harder road of independence from her husband’s family after he died, propelled her daughter onto the way towards higher education and bemoaned Pak In-dŏk’s youthful (and later corrected) choice of marriage over a career; in Hŏ Chŏng-suk’s case, her father, a well-known lawyer and anti-colonial activist, not only saw to his only child’s education and early career as a journalist, but backed her up morally and financially when she bore children by two different men, one prior to and the other out of wedlock. Without this respective support, the astonishing activities both women unfolded would have been quite unthinkable, as the examples of less fortunate “new women” of the colonial era demonstrate. Their life trajectories thus help to map the space in between tradition and modernity which women of their era occupied — a space they helped to widen as they explored and traversed its boundaries. Crossing borders was, indeed, vital for going forward on their own way for both women: Both sojourned in the US at critical junctures of their early years.

Despite all these parallels, the two women took rather different courses in life. Hŏ Chŏng-suk, having grown up in an affluent household and continuing to profit from the wealth and connections of her father, became an activist in the socialist movement and fought for women’s causes in conjunction with class struggle, while Pak In-dŏk, who had experienced financial difficulties in her childhood, chose the more conservative and personally less demanding path of seeking women’s liberation through education. Like other great propagators of female education in colonial times, such as Kim Hal-lan of Ewha University, Pak In-dŏk was thus induced to collaborate with the Japanese colonial government. Meanwhile, Hŏ Chŏng-suk fought in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army against Japanese imperialist aggression. After the division of Korea, Pak and Hŏ willingly collaborated with the Southern and Northern regimes, respectively; ←11 | 12→both women who had fought so much for female liberation ended up as affirmative supporters of illiberal political systems.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (January)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 184 pp.

Biographical notes

Marion Eggert (Author) Eun-Jeung Lee (Author) Vladimir Tikhonov (Author)

Marion Eggert teaches Korean Studies at Ruhr University Bochum, Germany. Her research interests focus on Korean intellectual and literary history, including the history of knowledge, the intersection of traditions, and the formation of subjectivities. Eun-Jeung Lee is Professor for Korean Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses are intercultural history of political ideas, political theory, transformation of systems, German unification, Korean politics and culture. Vladimir Tikhonov teaches Korean and general East Asian Studies at Oslo University, Norway. His research interests are focused on modern and contemporary intellectual history and the history of social and political movements in Korea, with particular emphasis on nationalism and socialism.


Title: Intellectuals in Between