A People’s HistoryHow modern Korean history is seen from the viewpoints of individuals
Jung Sung-hee  |
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승인 2013.10.09  16:11:21
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DURING HIGH school years, students learn about the tragic modern Korean history and feel enraged at the shame and pain Korea had to go through. But even though they feel enraged, students do not take a genuine interest in history, thinking that it only provides a list of dull dates and facts. For those who have been fed up with such tiresome history classes, the exhibition *A story of Dongnong family: 27 years with the Korean Provisional Government* provides a chance to understand history in a refreshing way, by placing in the spotlight some of the actual people involved in historical events.

When : 2013. 8. 13 ~ 10. 13
Where : Seoul Museum of History
Ticket Price : Free
The history of a family


The exhibition is being held to commemorate Korean Independence Day. The word “Dongnong” in the title of the exhibition is the pen name of Kim Ka-jin, a high government official during late 19C and an independence fighter in Shanghai. The exhibition portrays Kim’s life and family: his son, Kim Yi-han, and his daughter-in-law, Jeong Jeong-hwa. After Korea lost its sovereignty to Japan, Kim’s family escaped to Shanghai and devoted themselves to the independence movement in the three decades that followed.
The exhibition shows how the family lived through this turbulent period. It explores what kind of official Kim was, how his family began the independence movement in Shanghai, and what happened to them after Japan lost the Second World War. Following the journey of Kim’s family, the visitors can glimpse famous events in modern Korean history and examine what each event meant to the Kim family and their contemporaries. From the Gabo Reform of 1894 to the Korean War, the landmark historical events that students usually learn about mainly through textbooks are displayed from the perspectives of those who actually lived through the momentous but painful era.

Looking at history through the eyes of Dongnong and his family

We usually understand history in a macroscopic way. We learn about famous historical figures and events, but we do not examine how such events influenced individual persons, one by one. This exhibition, in contrast, takes a microscopic approach to history, showing how Kim and his family persevered. Even more remarkably, it goes beyond introducing the family members and their experiences and enables visitors to feel as if they have become members of Kim’s family.
The exhibition is divided into two parts, with each part reflecting the two key figures in Kim’s family: Kim Ka-jin and his daughter-in-law, Jeong Jeong-hwa. Each part of the exhibit starts by introducing the environment Kim and Jeong lived in at a particular moment, thus helping visitors to understand what kind of people Kim and Jeong were and what they went through. Kim Ka-jin was born to a concubine in the prestigious noble family *Andong-Kim*. He was highly talented in Chinese poetry and calligraphy and received a good education, but due to his lowly birth as the son of concubine, becoming a government official was hindered. Then, at the age of 32 in 1877, Kim was finally employed as an inspector at the Royal Library and went on to become a competent diplomat serving as a minister of Japan. Soon he became a key figure within the government and contributed to the modernization of Korea.
Jeong was born into a prestigious family, too, and was arranged to marry Kim Yi-han, son of Kim Ka-jin, at the age of 11. Jeong wrote in her diary that the marriage was quite absurd since she and Kim Yi-han were friends of the same age. Like other daughters of prestigious families, she grew up to be a traditional obedient and wise woman. Immediately after Korea lost sovereignty to Japan in 1910, Kim’s family fled to Shanghai, China and Kim began his independence movement as a president of the Grand Joseon Corps, a secret society for Korea’s independence. Jeong’s diaries are displayed along the wall, guiding the visitors through the exhibition. Following the phrases that show Jeong’s honest feelings, a whole carriage of a train headed for Shanghai is displayed in a passage. The narration about how worried and fearful Jeong might have been is broadcasted along with the sounds of train wheels.
After the provisional government of Republic of Korea was founded in 1919, Jeong looked after the independence fighters, cooking and washing clothes for them. Rooms made of worn-out bricks in a corner of the exhibition are filled with furniture and goods that show what daily life was like for the activists involved in the provisional government, including Kim Koo, the legendary independence fighter considered as the father of the provisional government. Since 1920, Jeong tried to sneak into Korea three times to raise funds for the provisional government, and a special darkened exhibit hall featuring a replica of the ship that Jeong rode allows visitors to listen to the waves crashing onto the shore and imagine how risky and scared Jeong might have felt alone in the darkness. Such visual and realistic images make the exhibition more dynamic and enjoyable.
After Korea regained independence in 1945, Jeong returned to her homeland in 1946. However, what awaited Jeong and her family at Pusan port was not kind greetings, but cold DDT that the U.S. soldiers sprayed. The poetry written by Jeong shows how sad and betrayed she felt when her husband, Kim Yi-han, was abducted and taken to North Korea during the Korean War and when she was falsely accused by police of helping a spy from North Korea. Jeong could never hear about her husband since then until her death. At the end of the exhibition, a television monitor shows a short documentary of Jeong during her last years of life, which signals the end of the long journey.
Humanized independence fighters
The exhibition breaks new ground in helping us all better understand independence fighters and Korean history. Independence fighters are often idolized in contemporary Korea – depicted as saints who overcame every profane desire and devoted themselves completely to regaining the sovereignty of their nation. However, from the personal descriptions of Kim Ka-jin and Jeong Jeong-hwa as they carried forth on their journeys, we can see how they were human beings just like any of us. For Kim, who dreamed of modernizing Korean society, the independence movement became a journey to reclaim his dream. Given the circumstances of his birth, he would not have been able to imagine himself becoming a high official had he lived in Korea centuries ago. However, in his era, Korea began to change: it gave him a chance to flourish as a government official, and it recognized his existence. After Japan annexed Korea, losing his nation might have meant losing everything that he dreamt of. It is understandable for him to be infuriated to the extent that he left everything behind, including his fame, power and wealth, and escaped to Shanghai to fight for independence. What he wanted to recover was not only his nation, but also his lost dream of a different Korea.
Contrary to what most people know about independence fighters, Jeong began her independence movement involuntarily. She was not personally motivated to become an independence fighter. When she first went to Shanghai, she was only a 21-year-old woman who obediently followed her father-in-law’s orders. However, even though she did not participate in the independence movement by her own will, she later became an ardent independence fighter herself who would risk her life for her country.

*              *              *

Kim and Jeong were not saints who came from heaven. They were ordinary human beings who wanted to fulfill their personal desires just like us, but who did it through the independence movement. Likewise, *the story of Dongnong family* shatters the idolized image of independence fighters and humanizes them. Seeing their human sides allows us truly to sympathize with them and more readily realize the greatness of their deeds. Their personal desires, fears, hesitations and pains -- hidden under the idolized image of independence fighters -- are what many of us common people possess, too. In the light of common human beings, not idolized independence fighters, Korean modern history turns from an array of facts to a story of a living people just like us. History is not a record of dead people, but a record of people who once lived.

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