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24 Dec

The semester is over – I was originally planning on writing something else—an opinion piece on an issue that has been floating around the Korean expat blogosphere lately—but that piece requires some research and even more thought and tact. I realized that I was avoiding writing because I just don’t feel like doing that research and thinking right now. I wasn’t going to write at all, but then I realized how silly that was. So I’m going to write without worrying about being intelligent or articulate or informed or anything like that. I’m just going to write because... well, it’s been a while, and I feel like writing again. (Note: this entry contains Chinese characters. If you only see gibberish where the characters should be, you probably don’t have the right fonts installed—and in that case it probably wouldn’t matter if you did.)

“Yesterday marked the end of The Longest Semester in the History of my Schooling™.”

Yesterday marked the end of The Longest Semester in the History of my Schooling™. The official end of classes for fall semesters is usually around mid-December, and graduate courses generally end during the first week of December. This semester, though, my last class was this past Monday, the 18th, and the deadline for submitting my last report was yesterday. So, two days before Christmas, I finally finished. My desk is still a mess, covered in piles of books (including the Four Books of Confucianism) and papers. I suppose I’ll have to clean everything up, but I don’t expect it to happen any time soon. Not with preparation for tomorrow’s Christmas dinner and the usual end-of-the-year hustle and bustle.

Despite being really long, this was an interesting semester. I took two modern literature courses, one in poetry and one in comparative literature. To be perfectly honest, the poetry course was far more interesting—there was just way too much academic mumbo-jumbo in the comp. lit. course. And as if the mumbo-jumbo wasn’t bad enough, for some reason I decided to do my report on theory and methodology. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but when I finally got around to writing it I had to continuously resist the urge to smack myself for being so stupid. Maybe it’s just me, but theory and methodology are about as exciting as watching kimchi ferment.

The poetry paper (the one due yesterday) was much more interesting. I will confess that I did play up to my prof a bit. I took the poet Yun Dongju as my subject, a poet whom many scholars claim exhibits a Christian worldview in his poetry. My prof wrote a few articles a while back saying that he didn’t think that Yun Dongju’s poetry showed a Christian worldview, and he mentioned in class that he thought it was more Confucian than anything else. So I picked that up and ran with it. Had I just spouted back what he had written in his articles, I suppose I could be accused of mere brown-nosing, but I decided to approach it with an open mind and see what was what.

I already had a pretty good handle on Christian thinking and the Christian worldview, but I was really clueless when it came to Confucianism. I know what Confucianism is, of course, and I’ve studied it before, but writing this paper meant that I had to distill the worldview into its most basic elements and then compare this with the Christian worldview to see which worldview was actually present in Yun Dongju’s poetry. This required doing a lot of reading and research (thus the Four Books of Confucianism on my desk).

To save you the suspense (since no one is going to read the paper anyway), I found that the worldview was indeed Confucian. The primary error committed by those arguing for a Christian worldview was a complete misunderstanding of what the Christian worldview actually is. If you’re going to insist that a certain body of poetry exhibits a Christian worldview to the exclusion of other worldviews, you need to focus on the unique aspects of Christianity. But these scholars were saying things like “the Christian ideology is the ideology of love.” Well, sure, love is very important in Christianity, but since when has it had the monopoly on love? Every world religion teaches love—even people who don’t subscribe to any religion know the importance of love. So it’s disingenuous to interpret an ideology of love as a necessarily Christian ideology. That’s just one example—another prominent example included the idea of sacrifice, which again is not a purely Christian concept.

To cut to the chase, I selected a number of salient points that offered a comparison between Christianity and Confucianism. To summarize my comparison, both Christianity and Confucianism deal with the relationship between humanity and heaven (“heaven” here is a translation of the Chinese character 天, and although it would take too long to explain exactly what this means and how it differs from what most Westerners think of when they hear the word “heaven,” in Confucianism it is more representative of the ideal than a spiritual realm). Humanity starts out pure, having been created in God’s image (in the Christian idiom) or having been imbued with the pure character and nature of heaven (in the Confucian idiom). Then things go south as human desire and pride cloud that purity. This is where the similarity ends, though. Confucianism teaches that it is within our power to restore ourselves to that original pure state—there is no intervention on the part of heaven. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that no amount of human effort can breach the gap between humanity and heaven, necessitating the sacrifice of Christ to expiate sin. The path of Confucianism can take many forms as each person seeks their own way, but in Christianity there is only one way, one truth, one life.

Another important distinction is the orientation of the two ideologies (I’m using this term to avoid the question of whether Confucianism is a religion or not—a question that I don’t find to be that useful anyway). Christianity is very future-oriented—as Paul says: “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (I Corinthians 15:19). Confucianism, on the other hand, is very present-oriented—no matter how dark the current world may seem, we cannot abandon hope that it can be redeemed. A lot is made (especially by Christians) of the Confucian custom of ancestor veneration, but the fact is that Confucius valued this life far more than the next life. When Confucius was asked about serving ghosts and about death, he answered thusly: “If you are incapable of serving the living (lit. “people”), how will you be able to serve the dead (lit. “ghosts”)?” and “If you do not know life, how can you know death?” (未能事人 焉能事鬼 / 未知生 焉知死).

I must admit that when I first read through Yun Dongju’s poems with a view to picking out Confucian themes, I panicked a bit. Nothing leaped off the page at me, and I wondered if I hadn’t dug myself a very deep grave. But after I did my research on Confucianism and made the above comparison (which here is a simplification of what was already a simplification, by the way, so I’m sure there are holes in it), everything became clearer—it was perfectly obvious that Yun Dongju’s poetry exhibited a Confucian worldview. The only support for the Christian worldview argument is the fact that Yun Dongju was a Christian, but this has no bearing on his actual work—it is sloppy scholarship to say that someone’s works exhibit a certain ideology simply because that person subscribes to that ideology, especially when the works themselves say something different.

Hmm. It was not my intention to recap my paper here, but I guess that’s what’s been on my mind. The presentation I gave in class went very well, and my professor was quite happy with it. I must admit that I probably made things easier by supporting one of his claims, but why make things any harder on myself than necessary (especially when he’s right)?

At any rate, it was a very enlightening semester, even though none of the material covered in either of the classes is even remotely related to my dissertation. When I decided to do my doctoral work here (there was a point where I considered going back to the States to do it), I also decided that I was going to stray much farther from my roots (that is, oral literature) than I had in my M.A. coursework. The reasoning behind this is that if I get a professorship at a university in the States, it’s not going to be a professorship in Korean oral literature, and it’s probably not even going to be a professorship in Korean literature. It’s most likely going to be a professorship in Korean studies. So I need to round myself out as much as possible to make myself a more attractive candidate.

Now that I’m actually doing this, though, I’ve become aware of how woefully ignorant I am. There is so much that I don’t yet know (and that I really should know) that I almost feel like I’m not really ready to receive a doctoral degree. Is it acceptable to be a Ph.D. and still be this ignorant? Not that the learning will end when I get my degree, of course—the life of a scholar is the life of a student—but somehow I feel I should know more than I do. Sometimes I feel like a fraud, like I’m wandering around dressed in a scholar’s costume and hoping that no one guesses what is really underneath.

But maybe being a scholar is not about how much you know. Maybe being a scholar is about an attitude toward learning. That would be nice, because that would mean I’m all set. I love to learn new things, and I’m an avid researcher. The downside to that is that the more you learn, the more painfully aware you become of how much you still don’t know.

Another interesting thing about this semester is that I’m really not that into analysis of poetry. I can do it, of course, but for me analyzing poetry is like taking a beautiful vase and ignoring the artistry to measure how much water it holds, down to the last milliliter. For some reason it’s different with prose. I have no problem analyzing prose until the cows come home. But I would much rather simply enjoy poetry for what it is. It’s not that I consider poetry to be more art than prose... I don’t know what it is. I guess my brain is just wired differently when it comes to the two forms. Whatever the case, I still had fun writing this paper (after the initial wave of panic subsided, of course). Maybe it was because I was dealing with larger themes rather than doing the nitpicking that seems so common in poetry analysis.

As much fun as I had, though, I am not sorry that this semester is over. I know it was only two weeks longer than usual, but it seemed like forever. I didn’t think it would ever end. But it is over now and I can look forward to chilling out a bit and enjoying Christmas before I have to hit the books again and put a serious dent in my dissertation. But I’m not thinking about that now. Pretend I didn’t just write that.

Christmas should be fun. Hyunjin and I bought an 18-pound (8.4 kilograms, 18.6 pounds, to be exact) turkey that is thawing out upstairs as we speak. Last time we got a ten-pounder, but this was the only size they had. Fortunately it still fits in the oven (but just barely—I’m hoping it will shrink a bit in the defrosting process). The bread for the stuffing is ready, and later on this evening I will be jamming it into the turkey’s cold, dead body. We’ll also be having some of Hyunjin’s garlic mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce (which I hate, but everyone else likes), and vegetables of some sort (Hyunjin’s thinking of doing a spiced carrots dish). Man, I’m getting hungry just thinking about this.

And I guess that’s it. I hadn’t planned on focusing on my paper and boring all of you to death, but it’s better than nothing, right? Whatever holiday you celebrate, I hope you have a happy holiday season. See you next time—which hopefully won’t be after as long an absence as this time. Maybe I’ll even write that entry I talked about at the top. We’ll see.

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