Seokguram, the Guze Kannon, and the Creation of National Pasts

Henry Em
Tuesday, September 30, 2014 -
7:30pm to 9:00pm
Second floor Residents’ Lounge, Somerset Palace
7,000 won (non-member); free for members

A year before Japan’s annexation of Korea, while climbing the eastern slope of Mt. Toham in Gyeongju, a Japanese mailman made a great discovery. Near the summit he chanced upon what looked to be a cave. Inside he encountered a Buddhist statue of astonishing beauty. Following this “discovery” of the Seokguram, constructed in the mid-eighth century, Japanese authorities began an extensive restoration and pedagogic effort. Today the Seokguram is a major tourist destination in South Korea, a national treasure that is also recognized by UNESO as a World Heritage Site. The restoration effort began in 1913, and it was the Japanese colonial state that first brought Seokguram to the attention of the world. Why would the Japanese colonial state spend money and resources to restore Seokguram and sing odes to the beauty of not just Seokguram but also Bulguksa and the Silla capital of Gyeongju? In contrast to the 1884 unveiling of the Guze Kannon, a seventh-century gilt-wood sculpture at Hōryūji temple in Nara Prefecture – Ernest Fenollosa’s immediate comment was, “Korean of course” – a sculpture that was said to confirm Japan’s status as “the spiritual repository of Asia,” Professor Em will explain how the restoration of Seokguram was crucial to assigning meaning and legitimacy to Japanese colonization of Korea.

Henry Em grew up in Chicago. After graduating from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in East Asian Studies, he spent a year in the Philippines doing human rights work, and then a year-and-half in Korea doing solidarity work related to human rights and the labor movement. In 1995 he received his PhD in History from the University of Chicago. From 1995 through 2012, he was Assistant Professor at UCLA and University of Michigan, and Associate Professor at NYU. In 1998 he was Fulbright Senior Scholar to Korea, and in the Spring of 2000, Visiting Professor at Centre de Recherches sur la Corée, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales. Professor Em is the first faculty member appointed to the Asian Studies Division, Underwood International College, Yonsei University. His most recent publications include The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea (Duke University Press, 2013), and “Historians and History Writing in Modern Korea,” Oxford History of Historical Writing: Volume 5, edited by Axel Schneider and Daniel Woolf (Oxford University Press, 2011).

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