The Parliament of Histories: New Religions, Collective Historiography, and the Nation

By Walraven, Boudewijn | Korean Studies, June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Parliament of Histories: New Religions, Collective Historiography, and the Nation


Walraven, Boudewijn, Korean Studies


Historiography is a social process, and professional historians are not the only ones to create images of the past. Therefore an understanding of what history means within a particular society requires an examination of the views of nonprofessional contributors to the historical debate. In this article, the problem of collective historical representation and identity construction at different levels of social organization is mainly illustrated with the recent historiography of religious groups that base themselves on the teachings of Chungsan Kang II-sun (1871-1909). In the conclusions, it is argued that a focus on national history, shared by such groups, is not necessarily repressive but offers them an opportunity to carve out a collective identity.

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[History] does not simply equal the past. The past is a notion of time, and in as much as any general concept is linked to it, it is one of chaos. History, by contrast, is a product of the mind--the intelligible representation that generation after generation and civilization after civilization have to create, ever anew, out of the rough chunks of the past visible to their eyes--the noble representation the forms and lines of which are determined by the unquenchable thirst for truth and knowledge, which in this life never finds the fountainhead.

Johannes Huizinga (1)

This quotation from a posthumously published lecture by the author of The Waning of the Middle Ages and Homo Ludens drives home the fact that it does not take a postmodernist to believe that history, in the sense of the representation of the past, is socially constructed. Few historians these days, whether they are absolute relativists or are convinced that some kind of truth may be established, will deny that history is part of the cultural edifice societies create. Yet, the implications of this view deserve more attention than they usually receive. In this article, the idea of historiography as a social activity, involving as a consequence attempts by social groups to formulate their own identity vis-a-vis others, as well as social frictions, negotiation and compromise, will be pursued through an investigation of various collective representations of Korean history. I believe that this is not only of interest from an anthropological point of view, but also has a bearing on the practice of historiography.

Because history is a social construction, it is not exclusively the professional historians who decide what a society regards as its history. In fact, some societies that set great store by historiography did not even have professionals to write history. This was the case in pre-modern Korea, where the writing of history was a temporary task for government officials (who nevertheless maintained certain standards one might call "professional") or an intellectual exercise taken up by amateurs. In Europe, the emergence of history as an academic discipline and a true profession was a nineteenth-century phenomenon. Even when there are professional historians, they are dependent on society for their very existence, while historical laymen, such as novelists, poets and playwrights, painters and film-makers, religious leaders and philosophers, politicians, lobbyists, journalists and media personalities act as contributors to the representation of history. These individuals all have their social ties, work within prof essional organizations, or have to confront audiences, readers or followers. This makes their historical representations much more than just a private affair. To direct attention to the non-professional "co-authors" of history is all the more justified in the Korean context, where history derives part of its importance from the fact that it is considered to be relevant by almost every section of society, which does not only make history a topic that deserves to be studied as a social phenomenon, but also affects the activities of professional historians. …

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