Between Tradition and Modernity?: Understanding Government Reforms in Late Nineteenth Century Korea

Guest lecture by Dr. Holly Stephens, Japanese and Korean Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Old drawing of Korean templeThe late nineteenth century was a period of significant change within Korea, including multiple rebellions, wars, and disruptions to Korea’s established political order. In just a few short decades, Korea transformed the basis of its trade and diplomacy with China, Japan, and multiple western countries, while in the 1890s the government adopted a series of wide-ranging reforms in response to Korea’s new domestic and international pressures.

Not without reason, many accounts of this period have sought to highlight the novelty of Korea’s late-nineteenth century reform efforts, often analysing government reforms through the framework of modernity. Yet, such an approach overlooks the continuities that informed reform measures—in both the target of reform measures, such as securing additional government revenue, as well as the challenges that new policies attempted to overcome, such as longstanding understandings of the local government’s function and obligations.

This lecture will survey both the process of reform in late nineteenth-century Korea and its portrayal in historical accounts, in order to re-examine our understanding of the nineteenth century and its historical significance.