Archive to revive 1907 Korea
While I was finalizing my dissertation in November 2017, UNESCO decided to list on the Memory of the World Register the very documentary archives I had been researching — the National Debt Redemption Movement Archives. Those thousands of historical records, handwritten letters and newspaper articles from 1907 to 1910 attest to the first nationwide voluntary fundraising movement by the Korean people.
To briefly explain the backdrop of this civil movement, Korea had long been slowly usurped of her sovereign rights, mainly to Japan, since the 1870s by interfering Japanese advisers, while China, America and Russia were also competing to claim their portion of interest in this waning kingdom.
The period of the Korean Empire from 1897 to 1910 hit Korean society with a paralyzing force on all dimensions. Forced to open the nation by treaties with other countries, through negotiations handled by foreign advisers and interpreters, the royal court and government officials alike were lost, suspicious and divided among themselves.
On the other hand, foreign books, religions and alien cultures came in, shaking the intellectual cadre and patriotic leaders. Social movements emerged to enlighten the compatriots, opening schools to educate youngsters and organizing women to awaken them.
My research found that publishers and the press played key roles in ushering in social changes in all strata of society, including housewives who could not read traditional books written in classical Chinese.
Obviously, the inscription of the archives I was researching on the UNESCO Memory of the World was a coincidence and truly unplanned good fortune that befell my future. Especially so, as the Korean government and the city of Daegu had begun taking action to build a state-of-the-art digital online and offline multi-function library-archive-museum to entertain visitors from in and outside Korea.
I feel as if I am the very person destined to do this job, for two reasons. Firstly, my research of this documentary heritage differs from a traditional history scholar. Rather, I hope to compile and reorganize all the data and research results available and further explore meaningful relationships among the elements contained in those records.
By subjectively building them into a semantically structured digital archive, I hope new relationships among the people, events, literature, organizations and locations can be revealed so that they can be utilized as components for representing the past in the present time and space.
Secondly, researchers in traditional domains such as Korean history, political science, economics, women’s studies and international relations usually focus their study within the framework of their area. When we deal with an event that occurred on the Korean Peninsula, it is naturally considered as belonging to Korean history.
Such a scholarly approach emphasizes the National Debt Redemption Movement as an “unprecedented, historically significant, voluntary movement of the Korean people.” It was the patriotic act of all Koreans — from the king on the top to the beggars and even butchers, who were regarded as the lowest class. Some Koreans living in Japan, Hawaii, America and Russia also joined the campaign, but research is missing for those outside the peninsula, including the northern half of Korea. In general, the narratives are over-simplified.
“Hyperconnected World” will be a most important concept in my proposal for the digital Debt Redemption Movement Archive. Technically, there should be no barrier between Daegu and Jeju, for example, or between Korea and Zimbabwe, or between Seoul and Pyongyang of course.
Language should also not be a hindrance. At least English speakers will be able to enjoy full access to the content, which will be accompanied by helpful commentaries.
By checking out the content of the archive either inside the physical library-archive-museum facility or on your smartphone, visitors will learn about how, before the fall of the Korean Empire, there were dramatic deals behind the scenes during the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. And schoolchildren will learn that for the first time in history Korea was introduced to the outside world in full force by those foreign war correspondents who rushed to Korea to cover the Russo-Japanese War in 1904.
The most successful history representation, in my view, is to bring people back to the point in time and place of history.