UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Traditional scholar-officials on the wings of modern law and statecraft : the Taedong hakhoe and its vision for the Korean ruling class in the final years of the Taehan Empire, 1907-1909 Park, Young Woo


The Taedong hakhoe (Scholarly Society of the Great East) was an organization active from 1907 to 1909, founded by a group of politically elite, Confucian-educated scholar-officials with the grand objective of mobilizing Confucian literati across Korea to propel the traditional order of knowledge—or the so-called “old learning”—back into the realm of “usefulness” in early-twentieth-century Korea. The Taedong hakhoe has been uncritically cast as a pro-Japanese collaborator in modern scholarship, which caricatures it as a puppet created and controlled by colonial interests. This study argues that the organization displayed greater initiative of its own than previously acknowledged, behaving rather like a political activist; that is, it rendered assessments of the present and future of the traditional ruling class that it sought to represent—namely, the scholar-officials and Confucian literati—and made discursive claims and practical adjustments to preserve the political hegemony that the elite class had built and enjoyed since the Chosŏn dynasty’s (1392-1897) foundation. Perceiving the rise of the “new learning”—modern, specialized knowledge and practices from the West—and the deteriorating relevance of the old learning in the political discourse of early-twentieth-century Korea as a critical threat to the traditional ruling class’s survival, the Taedong hakhoe actively promoted in the pages of its organ, the Taedong hakhoe wŏlbo (Taedong Hakhoe Monthly), the “usefulness” of Confucian erudition and Literary Sinitic (hanmun) in the project of civilization. It also strove to forge an equivalence between traditional Confucian statecraft and modern statecraft, thereby justifying the literati’s continued presence atop the changing sociopolitical hierarchy. Furthermore, the organization attempted to equip the literati with expertise in modern statecraft, operating the Taedong Specialized School (Taedong chŏnmun hakkyo), a private school that taught highly specialized and technical courses on law and politics to students exclusively from literati families. If the ruling elites of Chosŏn can be characterized as an “aristocratic/bureaucratic” class whose political power was sustained by the balance of hereditary aristocracy and Confucian meritocracy, what the Taedong hakhoe envisioned for the scholar-officials of modern Korea can be characterized as an “aristocratic/bureaucratic/technocratic” ruling class whose legitimacy would derive additionally from expertise in modern statecraft.

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