[A Reader`s View] Ancient Goguryeo Kingdom

On campus last week, I ran into a group of students who were returning from a rally opposing China`s claim to the ancient Goguryeo kingdom and its artistic legacy. (37 B.C.-668 A.D.) What touched me were their anxious faces when they asked what I thought of the Chinese claim that Goguryeo was a former Chinese province. "It`s absurd." I told them. "A fantastic daydream appropriate to the big and bold posturing of the Chinese propaganda machine." I assured them that when something is presented in a large and bold way, it is designed for a specific purpose. What specific purpose, they wanted to know. "Who knows what China`s political motivation is," I said, adding it could be to create discord and fear, to flex its muscles as a future powerhouse, to grab land, or achieve Asian domination. "Don`t infer too much from the historical evidence the Chinese government claimed to have amassed," I told them. "Governments frequently manipulate the truth." It appears that China is trying to alter its course of history to reflect the way they think it ought to have happened. It used to be the Japanese who were known for their predatory instincts. When they needed space, they just took it, and the Chinese know this better than anyone else. But China is no different from the Western countries and the Japanese that tried to crush its great civilization long ago. Take for example, Tibet. They invaded Tibet in 1949, blew up their temples, killed thousands of people, and have systematically stamped out Tibetan culture and history. Their human rights record in that country is dismal even as they pretend that Tibetan society has been reconstructed and has achieved a higher standard of living. In Tibet today, how much food your family has to eat depends on whether you believe in Buddha or the Communist Party.

It wasn`t that long after their invasion of Tibet, too, that the Chinese were on Korean soil, fighting and killing South Koreans. To normalize diplomatic relations with China, in 1992 the South Korea government cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and more recently refused an entry visa to the Dali Lama.

One would think that generous feelings and gestures would be flowing effortlessly from China to the South Korean people. There can be no merit in seriously damaging a country`s historical identity. How can you attempt to debunk a country`s history and expect them to be on friendly terms with you? Of course, historical facts are sometimes debatable, and Korean and Chinese historians would deeply disagree on many things if together they reviewed this particular contested period of history. But as in any historical research, there would be large tracts of the historical record that neither side would dispute. Therefore, it is very important that academic exchanges between both countries take place before the issue becomes even more politically contentious.

Over great distances of time civilization has imperceptibly shaped each person`s identity. It is bound up in a myriad of fluid connections that extends into the future and the past. It is continuous, unstoppable, distinctive and recognizable. It is the kimchi you eat, the Great Wall you visit, the shape of the buildings, and the language you speak. It is in your blood, your bones, and in your soul. It is your tradition, and when it is threatened, the clash of civilizations echoes through the centuries, through the weight of the past, and to the future where people will rise up with the strength of their vast traditional loyalties to defend it.

The writer teaches at Ewha Womans University. - Ed.

By Susan Oak

(Korea Herald 2004-9-7)