Contextualizing the Past: Historians Shed New Light on the Past

  • onNovember 1, 2014
  • Vol.16 Summer 2012
  • byLee Dukil

1. Song Si-yeol and His Country
Lee Dukil, Gimm-Young Publishers, Inc.
2000, 398p, ISBN 8934905026

2. A Country the Crown Prince Sado Dreamt Of
Lee Dukil, Wisdomhouse Publishing Co., Ltd.
2011, 440p, ISBN 9788993119367

3. Histories Whisper
Kim Gi-bong, Phronesis
2009, 264p, ISBN 9788901094182
  4. Reading History with Literature, Reading Literature with History
Jou Kyung-chul, Sakyejul Publishing Ltd.
2009, 272p, ISBN 9788958284321

5. The Age of Maritime Expansion
Jou Kyung-chul, Seoul National University Press
2008, 581p, ISBN 9788952108678

6. History: Everything One Has to Know
Nahm Gyung-tai, Dulnyouk
2008, 687p, ISBN 9788975278198


Pansori is one form of Korea’s traditional music and performance. It is performed by a sorikkun, a singer who sings and tells a story, and a gosu, a drummer who keeps rhythm. The longest piece of pansori can last for six to seven hours. The singer not only sings and tells a story while playing the roles of different characters but also acts as a commentator. Pansori is a storytelling where the Korean oral tradition lives on.

The fact that one person can lead a story for six to seven hours that makes people cry, laugh, applaud, and cheer shows the power of a story better than anything else. Koreans are experienced in the power of a story told through pansori. Professional storytellers were active until the mid-20th century in Korea, and usually told interesting old tales at places like provincial markets and received money for it. Though they were reading an existing text, they attempted to modify the content to make it more interesting. Unbound by the printed text, they created vivid stories of their own.

With such a tradition of pansori and storytellers, the interest in narrative and storytelling has been rapidly growing in Korea. Storytelling is often emphasized when a cultural relic is developed, a museum is opened, or an exhibition is held. Many local governments try to create a brand based on their historical figures, tourist sites, local products, and relics through storytelling. For example, Gunwi-gun, a county in North Gyeongsang Province, uses Monk Iryeon (1206-1289) from the Goryeo dynasty as a subject of storytelling and as a local brand because he wrote Korea’s leading history book Samguk Yusa (Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms) at Ingak Temple in Gunwi-gun.

The reason for the recent emphasis on storytelling in Korea is that storytelling is widely recognized as a core element in cultural content and the tourism industry. Let us suppose that there is something called “A.” What will “A” need in order for it to remain for a long time in people’s memory and spread widely? An impressive and interesting story about “A.” How does a site that does not look like much become a celebrated spot visited by a great number of people? By having a special story related to the place.

Interest in storytelling is not limited to industries in Korea. For example, historian Kim Gi-bong’s Histories Whisper gives an easy and simple explanation on the relationship between history and storytelling. The author points out that there is no such thing as 100 percent fact. Historical documents referring to the recorded facts from the past and history are based on research, however, historical documents based on 100 percent fact do not exist. History is a story about the things that have already taken place. A historian uses his imagination to add a plot to the documents from the past and make a story. It is therefore meaningless to ask whether history is fact or fiction.

Kim Gi-bong focuses on popular historical dramas and films in Korea. He says that such great interest in historical dramas is due to people’s desire for a story. Historical dramas push into the gap between historical facts and use imagination to overturn the context. This is the storytelling of history. Historical dramas present fictional content that are different from historical facts but sometimes they are considered as more persuasive and acceptable. Is such fictional content dangerous and meaningless?

No, argues Kim Gi-bong. It is storytelling that makes the meaning of life more colorful and rich. That is why the title of his book is not “history” but “histories.” Diverse stories are possible even with one historical theme or material. The author dreams about a universe of stories where many stories harmonize.


Playground of History : West, East, Korea (5 vols.)
Nahm Gyung-tai, Greenbee Publishing Company
2009, 487p, ISBN 9788976825100 (Korea 1)


In the field of Korean history, there is also Lee Dukil, a writer who has attracted much attention and popularity in historical nonfiction. After receiving a PhD in history, Lee left academia and wrote history books for the general public. He shows particular strength in focusing on one person and his era and deals with complex topics in an accessible style. In Song Si-yeol and His Country, which became very popular when it was published in 2000, Lee reinterpreted Song Si-yeol (1607-1689), respected as one of the best Confucian scholars during the Joseon dynasty, as one who rejected change and was intent on protecting the interests of his faction.

Furthermore, he argued that Joseon began to wane as the faction led by Song Si-yeol continued to stay in power. In Korea where traditional Confucianism is still influential, Lee’s argument sparked a heated controversy. Many of those who support Song Si-yeol opposed Lee’s argument; for the first time, historical nonfiction brought about a strong response.

In A Country the Crown Prince Sado Dreamt Of, Lee Dukil argues that the tragic Crown Prince Sado (1735-1762), who was in fact killed by his own father, had the qualities of a sage king. His argument was again met with strong counterargument. Lee tends to make arguments that are different from the mainstream theories of Korean historical circles. This is sometimes why many readers feel a certain catharsis when reading his books. In other words, he is an issue maker in the field of history.

In Western history, books by Professor Jou Kyung-chul have commanded attention. In particular, his book The Age of Maritime Expansion has been highly praised. This book covers the process between the 15th and the 18th centuries when various regions of the world interacted via sea routes and created a global network. It attempts to describe the real meaning of world history where the whole world joined together in one great flow.

In this ambitious book, Jou argues that modern history was not led unilaterally by countries from Western Europe but rather formed by the participation of world civilizations. Unfortunately, the process was mostly violent and oppressive, and this resulted in the globalization of violence. However, the book is valuable in that it makes us think about the possibility of a different type of globalization. Apart from The Age of Maritime Expansion, which is more academic, Jou has also published relatively accessible books such as The History of Tiresias, Reading History with Literature, Reading Literature with History, and Reading World History with Culture.

Among them, Reading History with Literature, Reading Literature with History attempts to newly understand various literary works of the East and the West from a historical point of view. For example, it sees the fables of Aesop from the perspective of slaves who formed one part of Greek society. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the book looks at how purgatory was added to the dichotomy of hell and paradise. In Treasure Island, it explores the phenomenon of overseas expansion during the modern imperialistic era and the relationship between the state and pirates. Other works, including Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, are newly viewed from a historical perspective.

Meanwhile, Nahm Gyung-tai, widely known as a translator of nonfiction, wrote Playground of History: West, East, Korea. This series consists of five volumes: two on Korean history, two on Western history, and one on Asian history. Though the volumes cover diverse topics and periods, they are described in a familiar, easygoing tone. The author has also published History: Everything One Has to Know, in which he emphasizes the points where Eastern and Western civilizations have met and interacted. It is a masterpiece written by a writer who has neither studied history nor holds a degree in the field. This was only possible because he has been translating books in a variety of areas for over 20 years.

Though there are many writers of nonfiction in Korea, most of them focus on Korean history. Though this is because Korean readers are mainly interested in Korean history, this limited scope is a problem that the Korean publishing market has to overcome in the future. Another problem is that historians who write nonfiction for the general public are very rare. Seen from this point of view, historical nonfiction in Korea is a genre that requires much exploration and development in the future.