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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The indigenous beauty that is Korea and the real meat extract: thoughts on the cultural ways of Korea from Orientalist to scientific imagination

Alain Delissen

Texte intégral

1February 2006

2Let us feast our eyes on the picture for a while. The freshness of lavender blue, marshmallow pink, almond green; these distant fuzziness à la Vinci from where the enigmatic square towers of a fortified castle emerge; the Art Nouveau dividing line that echoes a fortifying dry broth; the daring cut of the frills and flounces under a bobble hat reflecting the curve of patched-up roofs under the tuft of persimmon trees. Let us marvel at its stunning effect before centring on the first words of its caption.

“In Korea – Seoul. Seoul, Hang-Tching in Chinese, which is situated at the bottom of a valley, has been the capital of Korea since 1392. The city stretches over 5 kilometres in length and 4.5 kilometres in width. Like Chinese cities it is surrounded by a wall 4 to 8 metres high, with 4 big and 4 small gates. With the exception of the 2 main roads, Seoul only has narrow and dirty lanes; there are no remarkable constructions, except maybe the imperial castle and the ruins of an old pagoda.
One could regret that the female Korean beauty flashing so strongly on this Liebig card dating back to 1904 still seems to defy the explanation. In a six-card series, there is one on “women’s sport” (sic) to make the dark continent even darker: “The favourite game of Korean women, who usually lead a secluded life, is the pogo-stick jump […] During popular feasts and other occasions, passionate fights take place during the pogo-stick jump, followed by the distribution of prizes for the winners.”


4Founded in Germany in the initial days of food chemistry, Liebig, having released this Korean card series in five languages has branches in America. Today, in addition to being a product of global commercial success that feeds an socio-cultural history genre (the chromo-advertisements and their frantic collectors), it has become common practice and almost expected to relate this kind of image to the act of “orientalising” at best, and at worst, to the orientalist.

5All the expected features of an unbranded product of the exotic condensing and displacing certain credible (well-informed or even accurate) elements can therefore be easily found there in order to parade the “other” that is ascribed to the “rural fantasy” genre, in the name of diverse aesthetics: high-quality escorts, Diafoirus witch doctors of the street corners, unpronounceable exotic names, rural settings with celebrations. In short, all this pretty “folklore” that Michel de Certeau had rightly named “the beauty of the dead”.

6Similarly, a constitutive matrix of Europe’s view of Korea can be found, which consists of two very simple proposals. The first repeatedly appears on the back of six chromos: Korea is China (to a lesser extent): less imposing, less beautiful and not as good. So much so that, to fulfil expectations of that which is exotic, we must in fact “lay it on thick” with paint, gaily coloured people, frills and flounces, hence these “passionate fights” of women jumping straight out of the gynaecium.

7The second proposal, which is implicit, is that everyone thought that in 1904, Japan would win the war. The fate of a world caught up in the bloody fights between white Russia and yellow Japan hinges on Korea. Behind the pastel tones, we can deduce the first act of the famous “clash of civilisations”, where the Korean peninsula is seen as a geopolitical animal. There are two versions of this: a bridge state image here (that takes everything from China and gives it to Japan); a buffer state there (poor Korea, too far away from God, too close to China and Japan) and still critical in terms of global security.

8It would be wrong to mock; to believe that we, ordinary French people and Westerners, from all walks of life, are intellectually more refined and morally wiser than our barbarian great-grandfathers starved of meat extract. We will not have to wait for a long time for the small talk on the TV in the bar in 2006 for (South) Korea to be like Japan, but to a lesser extent: less modern, less sophisticated, not as good; while (North) Korea cannot be anything other than a terrifying armada, a disturbing “rogue state” that should be taken by storm.

9Thanks to Korea, however, a certain stability, far from forcing us into a post-modern mourning (hopeless Western orientalism) – and a tendency to repeat interpretations – enables us to perceive better what has so clearly changed in our imagination of the world. A greyish and monotonous image without appeal and even vaguely disturbing has been substituted with a colourful and heterogeneous, mysterious and attractive form of the exotic: Metropolis against the chromos.

10Fascination and nostalgia of a world of pink and green childhood freshness buried forever under the adult dullness of the sweatshop state, sprawling cities, military dictatorship, teargas, chilling suicides, novels on social suffering, violent films and thundering nationalist speeches – feelings of pity and morbidness that distance us from the real Korea, that which is full of life and which lives by substituting the mnemonic tragedies of the 21st century for the ethnographical fantasy of the 19th century. Dark exoticism.

11It would be advisable to study the history of this decisive change, not from the point of view of its setting, but rather its tone, to find moments of this decisive change and its causes. It is therefore considered important that the Koreans were never more than the passive subject of the Liebig commercial cards that were neither designed nor distributed in the country. To go a step further in our interpretation, they must be related to postcards, Kisan cards, for example, sold in 1900 in Seoul to Western travellers. From this, an important fact was deduced; in 2006, Korea and the Koreans were projecting and manipulating their own image(s) on the world’s screens, with included self-orientalism.

12What use is Korea and its images then? Perhaps, in the field of research on Asia, it is to reopen our too naturally closed minds, while we are too comfortably reassured by the language-nations of our work and “departments”. Without suffering from dehydration, the limits of our scientific imagination cannot keep lagging behind a region where goods and ideas, tourists and fashion have been making the national borders more porous for a decade now. In the overhyped term of a North-East Asian “hub”, bridge-Korea and buffer-Korea turn into crossroads-Korea, where Hermes lives.

13This is how Sinologists are discovering Korea late in life and how experts on Japan are finally setting foot in the country. At the same time, a new generation of students are emerging as being “bilingual of countries in Asia”. Not so much for discovering a less palatable version of their academic field in Seoul, nor, like in 1904, to allocate places and give good marks to those on the cragged path of social Darwinism, but to discover a point of view (breathing space and distance) from which their “object” takes on a strangely renewed meaning. Although comparative studies have long been clumsy and badly organised for forcing the East and West to be linked without a common denominator, it is finding a form of intellectual efficiency in Seoul.

14A last and lingering thought: what if North-East Asia (to begin with) could find meaning in the fact that its centre lies in Korea, a country just as ambitious as unpretentious in terms of its capacity, to become a hegemony?

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