“Humanities Content” and Its Discontent: Reshaping Digital Humanities in South Korea

“Humanities Content” and Its Discontent: Reshaping Digital Humanities in South Korea

Yongsoo Kim (Hallym University, South Korea)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7195-7.ch006


This chapter provides an overview of the remarkable but peculiar history of digital humanities and its contemporary development in South Korea. Computer-assisted humanities research in Korean studies began with the Wagner-Song Munkwa Project, which was launched in 1967 and lasted for more than three decades. This landmark achievement inspired many database-building projects, including the Sillok Project, in the following years. In the early 2000s, as a new discourse of “digital humanities” emerged in response to the “crisis” of the humanities in South Korean academia, another effort to connect the humanities through digital media to the culture industry gained momentum. “Humanities content” has since dominated the South Korean digital humanities landscape for over a decade. While recovering major digital humanities-related accomplishments, this chapter reveals that constant tension between the non-commercial, academic digital humanities and the commercial, industrial humanities content has been shaping and reshaping computer-assisted humanities scholarship in South Korea.
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Early Practices Of Humanities Computing

The earliest known example of computer-assisted humanities research in Korean studies is the Wagner-Song Munkwa Project. Munkwa was the higher civil service examinations for the recruiting of government officials during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). In 1967, Wagner and Song began to collaborate on the bold project of digitizing and developing a database of Pangmok - the official records of those who passed Munkwa examinations from 1392 to 1894. They worked on this project for over 30 years in order to reconstruct the detailed social networks of the ruling elites in Joseon by computerizing the personal and familial information of more than 14,600 Munkwa laureates (Y. S. Kim, 2000). Their lifetime’s work, the Wagner-Song Munkwa Project CD-ROM, was finally published in CD-ROM in 2001 by Dongbang Media (H. Kim, 2016, p. 307). The database is now publicly available and fully searchable online for free (Academy of Korean Studies, n.d.). As S. Kim (2008) predicted with certainty in her Harvard special lecture on Wagner’s academic achievements, the Munkwa project has contributed tremendously to Korean history studies by providing easily accessible, comprehensive, and accurate digital records of the powerful elites that ruled during the Joseon dynasty.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Munkwa: This was the higher civil service examinations for the recruiting of government officials in the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910). This examination was held periodically throughout the whole period of the Joseon dynasty to recruit higher government officials, following the principles of neo-Confucianism, which was the state ideology of Joseon.

Mokpan: This refers to wooden printing blocks, which were used during the Joseon dynasty to publish collections of writings by Confucian scholars. Woodblock printing dates back to the early 8 th century in Korea.

Sillok: This is the chronological recording of court events and refers in the chapter specifically to the Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty , which is a collection of 28 sets of chronological records of the Joseon dynasty that covers the reigns of 25 rulers from 1392 to 1863.

Humanities Content: In South Korea, a group of humanities scholars proposed “humanities content” as an alternative to the traditional humanities in response to the rising discourse of “the crisis of the humanities” in the early 2000s. They wanted to create the industrial and commercial values of humanistic knowledge by providing cultural “content” through digital media for culture industry.

21st Century Sejong Plan: This is a government-initiated Korean language computerization project which lasted for 10 years from 1998 to 2007. “Sejong” in the title of the plan comes from the name of King Sejong who led the invention of the Korean alphabet, Hangul, in the mid-15 th century. The project led to the construction of the Korean language corpus of more than 200 million words and remain a foundational work for the digitization of the Korean language.

Conceptual History: This is a branch of historical studies which focuses on the way concepts change over time in complex relation to the ideological field of meaning and the politico-cultural discourses in a given society.

Kaebyok: This was a politically progressive monthly magazine and a major source for publication of literary works in colonial Korea in the 1920s. It was first published in June 1920 right after the March 1 st Movement (1919) AU58: The in-text citation "Movement (1919)" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. , which was a non-violent popular resistance movement against the Japanese colonial rule in Korea (1910-1945), soon became one of the major media for public discourse of social criticism in colonial Korea, and was forced to stop publishing in August, 1926.

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