The Early Years of the RASKB--The First Beginnings

By Brother Anthony of Taizé

1. The First Beginnings

The Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch was born at 4:30 pm on June 16, 1900, when a founding meeting attended by seventeen men (all but four of them missionaries) was held in the Reading Room of the Seoul Union Club. On that day officers were elected and a constitution (based on that of the London RAS) was adopted. Among those present were the acting British Chargé d’affaires, J. H. Gubbins, and the missionaries James S. Gale, Homer B. Hulbert, George Heber Jones, Horace G. Underwood, H. G. Appenzeller, D. A. Bunker and William B. Scranton. Other missionaries who were members of the RASKB from the very start included H. N. Allen, O. R. Avison and M. N. Trollope.

The first paper presented to the Society, on “The Influence of China upon Korea,” was given by James Scarth Gale on October 24, 1900 and it was the first paper published in Volume One of Transactions a few months later. It stressed the overwhelming influence of Chinese culture on Korea. The second paper, by Homer B. Hulbert, on “Korean Survivals,” sought to contradict it and stress the role of native Korean traditions and values. In the two years that followed, seven more lectures were given and 2 more volumes of Transactions were published. But, after a final lecture about Ginseng at the end of 1902 and the publication of Volume 3 of Transactions soon after, everything stopped. The RASKB seemed to be dead.

The foundation of the RASKB in 1900 came at the end of two decades in which Korea had experienced almost unimaginable changes, in the course of traumatic events of which the most dramatic included the Gapsin Coup, the 1894 Donghak Rebellion and the resulting Sino-Japanese War, the Gapo Reforms with the royal decree ordering the cutting off of men’s topknots and the abolition of the Gwageo exam in 1895, the assassination of the Queen in 1895, and the proclamation of the Daehan Empire in 1897.

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, a series of remarkable Protestant missionaries, mostly from North America, came to settle in Korea. They founded schools and hospitals, set up a printing press, studied Korean, set about translating the Bible, and began to explore the very unfamiliar culture in which they were plunged. They began to publish books, reviews, even newspapers. Their activity went far beyond founding churches, it was essentially designed to transform Korea by contact with the modern world-at-large into something very different from what it had been hitherto.

Outwardly, at least, their program of modernization linked in with the long-standing wish of the Korean intellectuals of the the reformist Silhak (practical learning) and Gaehwapa (enlightenment) schools. Equally importantly, it echoed many of the most positive aspects of Japan’s Meiji reforms.

More information about the early history of the RASKB can be found here.

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