Last Fall I traveled to South Korea. And when I returned home, I could barely walk…and it wasn’t from the amount of ‘trekking’ around Seoul and Gwang Ju and the Yellow Sea that gave me the pain in my legs – it was sitting. Yes, sitting.
When I arrived, fresh off the plane and suffering from jet-lag, my hostess showed me to the place I would be staying, the beautiful building in the picture below.
As we walked in, there was really just one big room that made up most of the house, the room pictured below.
I was slightly puzzled, but I didn’t try to “let on.” I thought she was taking me to the guest house but the assortment of furniture, artifacts and symbols in the room confused me. I wasn’t sure if this was a small church meeting room or if this was really where was I supposed to stay and why did they have the logs on the floor? I didn’t know if they were benches or a table or what. It’s really not good to be jet-lagged, extremely tired and confused.
My confusion, I soon learned, came from my lack of knowledge of Korean culture. Koreans have a very communal culture and do many things together, thus the most important room in the house is the room where the guests or family gathers. And the logs on the floor were the dining room table. And you sat on the floor to eat. And try doing that for 14 days straight and see how your legs feel.
If I were a historian looking at this pictures sometime in the future and I was American, I might have the same problems. With the cross on the wall, the piano in the room and logs that look like benches, I might assume right away that this was small meeting room for a church. But of course, my historical anthropology would be short sighted.
Written text from the time, as well as other pictures and artifacts, such as tables from the era, should tell me that the logs on the floor could possibly be a table, not benches, which is a very western idea about logs on a floor. The communal nature of families also might give me a hint that this was a communal gathering area for the house.
Historical anthropology can be tough to get right. Just like my example above.
A case in point is Robert Darnton’s interpretation of a little known story about cat killings in Paris during the 1730s. In the “The Great Cat Massacre,” Robert Darnton draws on his extensive knowledge of eighteenth century French culture to interpret the story of cat killing. He draws parallels between the Mardi Gras celebrations of the time and the trial and execution of the cats. He asserts that “The text made the theme of sorcery explicit from the beginning. Jerome and Leveille could not sleep because ‘some bedeviled cats make a sabbath all night long.’ His analysis is compelling and seems very plausible, even if the story is a bit gruesome, especially when he describes…well I won’t go there.
The only problem is, others also make totally different and compelling interpretations such as Roger Chartier’s in “Text, Symbols, and Frenchness.” Chartier states that the story “resembles the plot of French folk tales celebrating ruse and the ingeniousness of the lowly turned against the masters” and in such, Chartier questions whether or not the story ever actually took place.
So what are we budding historians supposed to do?
Geertz gives us advice. After his description and analysis of cock fights in Bali, (I love the story of he and his wife running from the police, dashing into a fellow fugitive’s home and their fellow fleer’s wife setting everything up to seem as if they were having tea – all before the police arrive), Geertz concludes:
But whatever the level at which one operates, and however intricately, the guiding principle is the same: societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations. One has only to learn how to gain access to them.(453)
As historians analyze their primary sources a society’s culture, the context in which an artifact, text or symbol is situated and our own biases must be taken into consideration.
One of the guiding principles of society in Korea is communal meals and another is that those meals are eaten while sitting on the floor. My advice is that if you every go to South Korea, try practicing sitting indian style for say, thirty minutes or so a day – you’ll thank me for it.
A little more on culture.
My Korean friend’s text message :
정말 고마워요. 당신 정말 성실한사람이예요..^^(my Korean friend’s smiley face)
faith는 한국어로 믿음. 성실함 이란 뜻이예요. ㅋㅋ(haha in Korean lingo)
My text message:
자는 기쁜 도아주워요! ???? 하하 (haha, literally 하하 is pronounced haha in Korean)