Seoul Subway Randomizer Adventure #5: Ujangsan


Before I first came to Korea to teach English in 2001, I was told that I’d be living in the suburbs of Seoul, and I imagined something like Marin County or Long Island: detached houses, shopping malls, people with cars. Then I ended up living in an area more densely populated than most of Brooklyn.

So what makes a suburb? In Korea, even though these outlying areas have more or less the same apartment towers, the same main roads with the same office buildings and coffee shops, the same back streets with little restaurants and bars, there’s nevertheless a different feeling from the more central distrits in Seoul. It’s hard to pin it down exactly what’s different, but my two companions — a Colombian and an American, neither of whom has spent much time in these kinds of neighborhoods — were strangely exhilarated by our walk through a typical stand of Korean apartment towers, as we passed the usual convenience stores, laundries, an English school and a kindergarten or two.

Soon we cut between two buildings and headed up into the hills of Ujangsan Park, thick with forest. It’s not a high mountain, and in a few minutes we were at the top, where we found what you usually find at the top: a gym.

Everything old is new again

After a steep scrabble down a not-quite-legit trail, we were out on the main road again, heading north until we passed Yangcheon Hyanggyo Station and entered into a bit of a historical district, though historical in a distinctly Korean way.

First we came to the looming Hongwonsa Temple. Part of Korea’s main Jogye order, it’s nevertheless built in an unusual style, and I learned from a monk that the abbot was inspired by his experiences with Southeast Asian Buddhism.

Just beyond the temple is the ancient Confucian school that gives the nearby subway station its mouthful of a name. According to a sign inside the school, Yangcheon Hyanggyo was founded in 1411, in the early decades of the Joseon Dynasty, but you’d be hard pressed to find anything physical that actually dates back to the 15th century. I did find a foundation stone dated 1980 for the main building.

Like most traditional buildings in Seoul, these have obviously been rebuilt numerous times, most recently during the restoration boom of the late 20th century, when South Korea’s economic strength caught up with its national pride and it became possible to recreate the heritage that had been lost during the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. (Don’t underestimate how many historically important buildings were destroyed by the former rather than the latter.)

Also in the neighborhood is the Gyeomjae Jeongseon Art Museum, which is full of replicas of the paintings of a particular artist who once lived in the area, along with a diorama of what the little village once looked like.

This artificiality can be disappointing if you’re attached to a Western romantic idea of authenticity, of the aura of the thing in itself. But there’s something poignant about it too: a Confucian school that has survived for centuries and remains active — there was a group of school girls there when we arrived, getting lessons in etiquette from a woman in a hanbok — persisting not through its physicality but on the strength of its ideals and the traditions upholding them. And, to be fair, I’m a proud graduate of Columbia University, which was founded in 1754 as King’s College, and good luck finding any physical remnant of that event on today’s campus in Morningside Heights.

Building the future

If the area around Yangcheon Hyanggyo is a bit run down, that’s probably because of the massive LG Science Park that’s under construction on the western edge of the district. For now, landowners are probably holding out and holding off, waiting to sell or upgrade until the opening of the enormous new R&D campus. It’s an interesting move for LG, shifting from the tech corridor in Seocho and south of Gangnam to the western districts, out by the airports, that have for some time been trying to build themselves up as Seoul’s future, but so far haven’t really taken off.

We made an attempt to get to the Han River, but we dead-ended in an apartment complex and decided to call it a day. We hopped a local bus back to the subway station, stopped for a rest at a little cafe that sold Guarneri-brand Korean microbrew, and then headed home.

Ways of telling tales

I like the way Owen Lattimore writes. He’s got style and verve, and he doesn’t shy away from bold statements, whether it’s comparing the Urga Living Buddha’s shopping spree in Shanghai to that of a drunken sailor or simply declaring this or that political action a disaster. It’s probably only my Asian studies friends who will ever end up reading Lattimore, but as I make my way through Nomads and Commissars: Mongolia Revisited, from 1962, it makes me realize how useful it is to have a plainspoken, amiable guide to obscure times and places.

Lattimore was a mid-20th century China Hand, to use a now-dated term. He advised Chiang Kai-shek during World War II, and he spoke fluent Mongolian when no one else did, and he wrote it as he saw it. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that he never earned an advanced degree, though he served in major academic posts. He never went through the seasoning — deadening? — process of learning to write only sentences that you can defend to a committee.

And if there was one thing Lattimore failed at, it was defending himself to a committee. His later years were damaged by Senator Joseph McCarthy, who claimed that Lattimore was “the top Russian espionage agent in the United States.” The charges mostly amounted to invented hearsay, and stemmed perhaps from what looks, in retrospect, like Lattimore’s eminently sane approach to Communism and Communists, which was to consider them carefully and write about this or that particular action or person on the merits.

So set aside the Communist nonsense. What strikes me is that I write a lot about foreign places, I plan to write a lot more about foreign places, and Lattimore is an example I like of how to do it.

There’s room to criticize. Lattimore’s breezy confidence smacks of a casual imperialism that was common among British writers of an earlier era and American policy experts at mid-century. Nomads and Commissars is written at almost the last possible moment before any serious thinker on Asia had to take into account Orientalism and postmodernism more generally. The best products of the new ideas — Laurel Kendall is a personal favorite — have found new ways to tell good stories without the narratorial remove of earlier writers.

But just as the earlier writing was (usually unintentionally) dishonest about the motives and power dynamics that underlay it, post-modern scholarship is often dishonest in the other direction, as writers strive to pretend that they don’t have personal opinions. Kendall, for example, always dodges the question of whether the shamanism she studies is “real,” and of course any good postmodernist can tear apart the whole concept of the real until the person who asked the question feels like an idiot for believing in reality.Another fine postmodern storyteller, Heonik Kwon, dodges questions by fictionalizing his accounts, putting them entirely into the voices of his informants. And yet I am sure that Kendall and Kwon have some gut-level beliefs about ghosts and spirits, one way or the other, and it seems somehow a little sneaky never to come out and say what those beliefs are.

Somewhere there’s a balance. As I continue to write on topics that interest me in cultures not my own, I’ll have to work on that balance. As I do, I should remember Lattimore and the pleasure of a bold assertion well stated.

[not a christian country]

There is a kind of meme among conservatives that America is a Christian nation — that the founders were Christian, that the Constitution is based on Christian principles, that sort of things. And so I thought it was interesting to discover that in our treaty with Tripoli, passed unanimously by the Senate in 1797, Article 11 expressly states that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”


Now, this isn’t a note written by Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. It’s merely the expressed views of a unanimity of senators at a time when they could personally recall exactly what the foundation of our country was about.

America has, from its foundation, embraced religious freedom. This is just one more example of how basic that idea was to the founding generation.

[hermit kingdoms]

In a New Yorker article on Burma, John Lanchester notes that “Burma … has long been preoccupied with isolation, and the desire to be cut off from the world recurs in its history.”

But Burma is not alone in one sense: it is hardly the only nation in the world that has sought to isolate itself from all outside intrusion. Korea was long known as the Hermit Kingdom, and North Korea maintains that tradition to this day. Bhutan is less militantly cloistered, but it strictly limits its contacts with the rest of the world. For many centuries, Tibet and Nepal held themselves aloof, as did a number of the kingdoms of Central Asia, and not only from Europeans, though from Europeans more intently than with close neighbors.

Indeed, dotted across Asia, from Japan and Korea to the landlocked mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan, were forbidden kingdoms. I have studied Asian history more closely than some other regions, but I wonder whether Asia is uniquely rich in hermit states. Certainly the territories of Persia and Rome, whatever the ruling state may have been at the time, have not lent themselves to such isolation. Nor has the easily traversed European peninsula, with its superabundant coastline and its many rivers flowing to every sea. About other parts of the world, I’m less certain. But I do wonder whether there is anything in common among the hermit states beyond geographical potential.

[why we fight]

The outbreak of war in Lebanon got me to wondering about the roots of the modern Middle East and its conflicts. Sitting on our bookshelf was A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, by David Fromkin, which Jenny had thought was quite good.

So I started in on that, but I hadn’t gotten very far before I realized that in order to understand it, I would need a clearer sense of what World War I was all about. So I backtracked to John Keegan’s The First World War. As one might expect from a historian of warfare, The First World War is very much a military history, with a fair description of the political crisis that precipitated the calamity and a great deal to say about specific battles and tactics. But any military study of World War I inevitably leads one to ask deep and difficult questions about the nature of warfare itself, not to mention questions about the political and social motivations behind this particular war. The Germans intended to take Paris and the French Berlin, but what did they hope to do when they got there? Why were societies willing to mobilize such massive armies to fight with tactics that were understood at the outset to involve massive casualties? Why were men willing to advance in ordered ranks under shelling and machine-gun fire that spelled certain death? Why did none of the armies pull back from the stalemated front lines to fight a guerrilla war? Why did everyone agree to show up and play by the spectacularly murderous yet orderly rules established by Clausewitz in On War? There seemed to be a great deal Keegan was leaving unsaid.

This is presumably because his answers to these larger questions can be found in his masterwork, A History of Warfare, a trenchant exploration of the roots and ritualizations that have characterized war throughout history. A sustained criticism of Clausewitz, the book argues that war is usually fought by tactics that are dictated as much by cultural preference as by any absolute material aims. Military culture, Keenan suggests, ossifies at the moment of its greatest glory and is extremely resistant to change, which helps explain why Mameluke horsemen continued to confront riflery long after such attacks were proved futile, why the Ottoman Empire had such a difficult time adjusting to the military imperatives of modern Europe, and why the United States continues to send armored divisions against every enemy, from Communist-tainted jungle hamlets to Branch Davidian compounds to insurgent-permeated Iraqi cities.

Keegan also makes the point that every sort of war — 20th-century Clausewitzian massive wars, Maoist “protracted” wars involving forced politicization of civilians, the primitive warfare of the Yanomamo — is incredibly brutal and loathed by most of its participants. Protracted war, moreover, though often successful on its own terms — Mao, Tito and Ho Chi Minh did take power eventually, and the ongoing terrorist struggles in the Middle East have certainly strengthened the hands of men like Nasrallah — they do so at an extraordinary cost in civilian deaths and typically for the purpose of installing a repressive regime that quickly succumbs to rampant corruption.

The news of late reinforces the sense that war is inevitable and getting worse, but that turns out to be false. In an enlightening and encouraging article for Science and Spirit, science writer John Horgan presents this arresting statistic:

Hard as it may be to believe, humanity as a whole has become much less violent than it used to be. Despite the massive slaughter that resulted from World Wars I and II, the rate of violent death for males in North America and Europe during the twentieth century was one percent. Worldwide, about 100 million men, women, and children died from warrelated [sic] causes, including disease and famine, in the last century. The total would have been 2 billion if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society.

This calculation is so counterintuitive because in primitive societies, warfare rarely results in more than one or two casualties at a time, whereas modern wars can reduce whole cities in an instant. But the populations involved in modern war (and peace) are also drastically larger, and relatively few countries have face more than two or three high-casualty wars in a century, whereas many primitive societies are in a state of endemic tit-for-tat warfare.

I’m not sure how encouraging all this is for the Lebanese or Iraqis at the moment, but I am coming to the view that while war has been with us throughout history, its forms and purposes are widely varied and amenable to adjustment, even to elimination. Keegan reminds us that until quite recently, slavery, infanticide, dueling and cannibalism were all also practices that had remained a part of human culture since the dawn of our existence, but they have largely been eliminated. Of course, I don’t think war will be eliminated easily or soon. But is it possible? In theory at least, I would have to say yes.


When Ghengis Khan died, his legacy was so powerful — and so disputed — that his family homeland was closed to all outsiders and remained closed until after the fall of the Soviet Union nearly 800 years later. This and other fascinating and bizarre facts about history’s most prolific conqueror can be found in Jack Weatherford’s engrossing if somewhat undercritical biography, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. And what better time to learn about this astonishing figure, who really did reshape the political landscape from Manchuria to Central Europe, than now, as the Mongolians celebrate his octocentennial?

[oy vay]

While rereading Norman Davies’s Europe: A History, I ran across “Livy’s catch phrase, Vae victis! (Woe to the vanquished),” and it suddenly dawned on me that the most ubiquitous of Yiddish phrases, oy vay, means literally “Oh, woe!” Which is always what it seemed to mean, but I had no idea it came from the Latin.

[driving eurasia]

A curious thought: Back in the 1960s, it was easier to drive from Paris to India than from Vienna to Prague. The hippies who first rolled into Kathmandu and Goa came overland, driving in caravans through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan: friendly territory, unlike the walled-off wastes of Eastern Europe.

I suppose my only point is to notice how much and how fast the world changes. Which, I expect, is a trend that will continue.