Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Korea, Are You at Peace? Isabella Bishop

While still in Korea, I purchased a book, Korea's Cultural Roots, by Dr. Jon Carter Covell.  In it, she describes a "Scotswoman," Mrs. Bishop who, at the age of sixty-three (my age during that first year in Korea), traveled around Korea on her own in the 1890's. Covell recommends:  "...that the reader get a copy of this book, to contrast the pitiful conditions of life in the Hermit Kingdom of the 1890's with the bustling prosperity and modernization of today.”  After returning to the United States and pulling together some recollections of my stay in Korea, I decided to find out who this Mrs. Bishop was.  A Google search turned up several references to her and her work, including a book on Korea entitled:  Korea and her Neighbors (first published in 1897), which happened to be available in facsimile edition.

Isabella Lucy Bird Bishop was already a seasoned traveler and respected travel writer, known to most as Isabella Bird, when she undertook her two-year sojourn in Korea and nearby regions of China, Russia and Japan.  Bishop traveled into the mountainous Korean back-country under grueling conditions, and she was probably the first Western female to be seen in Korea outside its major cities.  As it happened, her travels occurred just as events were wrenching Korea from its 600-year-long, traditional Asian existence as an "independent" kingdom ruled by the Yi dynasty (although acknowledging China's suzerainty) into the turmoil of the twentieth century, a century of  subjugation, war, and occupation. Indeed, Bishop's itinerary during the last year of her journey was determined to a considerable extent by political events of the time, particularly the war between Japan and China of 1894 - 95. Ironically, that brief war was fought over which of those two nations had the right to protect Korea's independence!
As a consequence of the disastrous defeat of the Chinese in Korea and Manchuria during that war, Japan effectively took political control of Korea and subsequently (1910) annexed the country and ruled it as a Japanese colony for nearly a half century.  It was during the initial phases of this disastrous series of events, culminating in the Korean Conflict, that Isabella Bishop traveled to Korea.  Between the end of the Korean Conflict and the time I arrived in Korea, the peninsula and its people had suffered an additional half century of insult and deprivation:  artificial division of its land into two countries, domination by superpowers espousing very different ideologies, and oppression by Korean military dictators.  During those five decades, the United States has had military troops stationed on Korean soil.
Bishop and I both experienced chaos and confusion on initial contact with the totally unfamiliar Korean culture, followed by the more seasoned sense of acculturation and appreciation that comes with familiarity.  Isabella Bird Bishop was assisted in her travels in Korea primarily by missionaries and their organizations, and secondarily by British diplomatic officers.  By contrast, my sponsor was an educational institution (UMUC) under contract to U.S. Armed Forces Overseas. 
One might see parallels between nineteenth century missionary efforts to convert non-Europeans to Christianity and twentieth century military efforts to convert those same populations to "democratic" (capitalist or communist) political systems.

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