The Origins of Korean Folklore Scholarship

The purpose of this blog post is to be a summary of the article written by Roger L. Janelli entitled The Origins of Korean Folklore Scholarship. As folklore is an important part of the cultural heritage of every country, it is not surprising that Korean folklore scholarship has emerged. The features of the modern South Korean folklore scholarship have been influenced by historical events and foreign powers over the Korean peninsula.

Scholars have displayed great concern for the existence of South Korean folklore has appeared in the last two decades as more folklore museums and research centers are dedicated for this topic (Janelli, 2016, 24). Considering Richard M. Dorson’s perspective (qtd. in Janelli, 25), the Korean folklore studies are predominantly ‘nationalistic’, but following a comparison with the Japanese folklore, some scholars noted that there are similarities between the two of them.

Similarities may exist even in the research style due to the fact that Korean folklore study has appeared during the time when Korea was a Japanese colony, more specifically in the 1920s. Moreover, the scholars who established the grounds for Korean folklore had studied in Japan (25).

The idea that Korean folklore scholarship began during the colonial period has been denied by In Kwon-hwan who justified the existence of Korean folklore since the 17th and 18th centuries through his writings of the Practical Learning School and also argued the fact the Japanese folklore followed the early development of European folklore. In order to support his claim, In Kwon-hwan attributed the study of Korean folklore only to the Practical Learning School, eliminating foreign influences. Scholars recognized the fact that the Practical Learning School played an important role in the formation of the Korean folklore scholarship in the second part of the 20th century.

Scholars demonstrated that nationalism has little impact on folklore research and that it simply interacts with other elements, so that it could form another discipline. By eliminating such elements, the analysis of In Kwon-hwan lost a part of its credibility (27).

During the colonial period, many restrictions were imposed on Koreans, but they became less strict between the March First Movement and World War II. It was during this time that Cultural Nationalism was born, an instrument for new culture, which included Korean traditions and Western values (30). But for this to happen, a thorough research of the folk Korean tradition was needed which was not influenced by other foreign cultures. And thus, Cultural Nationalists became highly interested in Korean history and language.

Ch’oe Nam-son or Yi Nung-hwa dedicated their writings for topics such as shamanism, Korean mythology, the history of Korean shamanism, Korean Buddishm, Christianity or Taoism, so that they could strengthen  the image of nationalism in their country. The involvement of the authors was of usage in proving the uniqueness of Korean culture and identity (34). By choosing shamanism as a traditional element to symbolize the Korean identify, the Cho’oe and Yi were praised by other scholars since their Chinese counterparts selected oral literature. Even today, shamanism is an important characteristic of the national identity in South Korea and this might be the reason why it enjoys such a high popularity.

Son Chin-t’ae’s writings on Korean folklore is more extensive compared to the previous authors due to the fact that his research was not restricted to folklore, but it also included folktales, shaman’s songs, folk beliefs and ritual practices, material culture, customs. By analyzing this from a historical point of view, Son employed archaeological data and linguistic particularities to determine to origins of the Korean people (36).

In conclusion, the Korean folklore studies commenced at the beginning of the 20th century and it was disrupted during the World War II. The interest for folklore reappeared in the late 1950s.



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