Wednesday, September 8, 2010


While in Korea a week or so ago, I was able to see exhibits on the Great Han Empire Period (1897-1910) at both the National Palace Museum of Korea and at the Kyujanggak.

Of course you can't have an Empire without an Emperor, in this case the Kwangmu (Gwangmu) Emperor, more often known as Kojong. Technically, calling him (as the English-language Wikipedia page does) "Emperor Gojong" is inaccurate as Kojong was his royal title (or reign period) while he was king. He was elevated to Imperial status as the Kwangmu Emperor (광무제) in 1897.

Whatever the case, he is an interesting and complicated historical figure. I like this portrait of him (apologies for the glare coming off the glass) but don't feel as if I really have a sense of what kind of man and/or leader he was. On the one hand, many so-called progressives and reformers put great stock in his ostensible desire for reform and modernization (some Westerners agreed). On the other, there is much in his behavior that displays a cautious if not reactionary streak (suppression of the Independence Club comes to mind).

Good Confucian historiography requires that the moral failings of the last monarchs of a realm are directly responsible for that realm's fall (due to the loss of the Mandate of Heaven). Hence, Kojong/Kwangmu (and his son the hapless Emperor Sunjong) should be blamed for the fall of Korea into Japanese hands. I don't think things are/were quite that simple. I'm not sure whether the most dynamic and righteous leader could have found a path out of colonization.

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