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The Conceptualization of Qing-Era (1644–1911) Chinese Literature in Nineteenth Century Chosŏn (1392–1910) Korea

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image of Frontiers of Literary Studies in China

In a poem composed in 1832, the Chosŏn-Korean polymath Chŏng Yagyong (1762–1836) declared his fidelity towards Confucian literary principles. Chŏng’s poem was a product of an elite education, and in both form and content, it embodied the ideals of the Chosŏn elite: written in classical Chinese rather than Korean, it was an expression of cultural self-confidence. From the point of view of nationalism and its emphasis on vernaculars, it seems strange to define oneself through a cosmopolitan written language. But Chŏng was no nationalist. He was a Confucian conservative, and the sense of distinction and difference that animated Chŏng’s poem was Confucian and literary. His articulation of such ideals manifested unease over the erosion of Confucian literary values in China and the prospect of the same occurring in Chosŏn under Chinese influence. The source of that influence was books imported from China. What Chŏng was reacting against was, at root, the commodification of literature and all that had entailed in Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) China. Although such concerns had grown increasingly urgent a half-century before, they had a long pedigree in Chosŏn, stretching back to debates that had arisen in relation to Ming China and the principal emblem of the commodification of literature: commercial bookstores. This paper examines some of the principal differences between Chinese and Korean literary cultures that were embodied in Chŏng. It therefore begins with a brief overview of Chŏng and his poem, before turning to a discussion of some key sociopolitical and intellectual features that distinguished Chosŏn’s literary culture from that of China. Sixteenth-century attitudes towards bookstores are discussed to contextualize subsequent worries over Chinese books, with special attention given to the historical and historiographical dimensions of the question, before concluding with an assessment of the final moments of direct Chinese literary influence in Korea.


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