The 1930s witnessed a number of important developments in the intellectual life of Korea, which was under Japanese colonial rule at the time (1910-1945). Amidst the nascent growth of modern-type academia, Korean Studies attracted huge interest, as Korean intelligentsia attempted to counter the Orientalist assumptions of Japanese colonialist scholarship. This paper focuses on one concrete case of intellectual contention, namely regarding the attempts of 1930s Korean Marxists to interpret the iconoclastic, non-orthodox Sirhak Confucians of Joseon Korea (1392-1910) as precursors of modernity and critics of “feudalism.” Special emphasis is put on the Marxist reinterpretations of Dasan Jeong Yagyong 茶山丁若鏞 (1762-1836), who was regarded as an adept of Western learning, a pioneer of modernity and the foremost antagonist of Joseon Dynasty’s “feudal system.” These interpretations were further deepened in both North and South Korea after the 1950s: nationalistic scholars on both sides of the Korean divide made Dasan, in fact a staunch conservative unwilling even to contemplate any loosening of Joseon’s slavery system, into a proto-democrat and a champion of societal equalitarianism. The present paper argues that the pre-1945 Marxists were “modernising” Dasan in much more careful way than the post-1945 nationalist scholarship in both Koreas. However, their presentist take on Dasan, combined with a disregard of Joseon realities and a focus on the global picture of Western advances and Korea’s assumed indigenous responses to them, did in fact constitute an act of epistemic violence which contributed to the nationalist nurturing of the historical myths in both Korean states after 1945.
2. Dasan of the Nationalists, Dasan of the Marxists
3. In Place of Conclusion: beyond the Modernisation of Dasan and Sirhak