Fulbright Forum – June 24, 2011

Scott Wells

Kicking the Hanmun Habit: The Dynamics of Language and Power in Late-Choson and Korea’s Long Hanmun Hangover

The final thirty-five years of the Chosŏn dynasty—from the opening of relations with Japan following the 1876 Treaty of Kanghwa, to Japan’s ultimate annexation of the Korean peninsula in 1910—were marked by rapid, thoroughgoing and often difficult transformations in Korean society. As Koreans encountered Western imperial powers and a rapidly modernizing Japan at the beginning of this period, Korean society slowly began its own process of modernization-cum-Westernization, spurring reappraisals within Korean society of the country’s Sino-centric past and the once-shared knowledge, symbols and practices of the East Asian cosmopolitan order. A major consequence of this reappraisal was the demotion of Literary Sinitic (commonly termed hanmun in Korea today) from its long-held status as the de facto official written standard of state affairs and its removal from the center of the curriculum of state-sponsored education to the periphery in the guise of the newly created classroom subject hanmunkwa.

Helping to bind the region together, the shared use of Literary Sinitic was one of, if not the most defining forms of knowledge, symbol and practice in premodern East Asia. Understanding the demise of Literary Sinitic in Korea will improve our understanding of the disintegration of this formerly vibrant East Asian cosmopolitanism, and help us apprehend the lingering effects and influences exercised by such transcultured practices even after those practices are reimagined and reconfigured to fit new, nationalized frameworks as in the case of hanmunkwa.


Scott Wells took a B.A. in Korean and Linguistics from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and is finishing his M.A. in Korean Studies at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. He will begin a PhD at UBC in September. He and his long-suffering wife Lindsay, who has accompanied him to Korea, are parents to a lively three-and-a-half year-old daughter Shelby.