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[English Books in Korea ①]

Korea Today and the Charm of Korean Culture




I’m pleased to be able to introduce the English edition of my book about Korea through this interview. This is because such an opportunity does not come around often, and because through this, I can draw the attention of the industry and readers in this harsh climate where the number of English books about Korea is decreasing rather than increasing.
One keyword that automatically comes to mind when you think of English books about Korea is “Kinokuniya” bookstores in Japan. I was literally overwhelmed by the number of English books about Japan that I saw at Kinokuniya Bookstore in Japantown, San Francisco, US. On the other hand, the number of English books published in Korea is far too little, and the fields are focused on culture and language, with very few on economics, society, practical skills, and people. What’s more, the number of titles is shrinking.
My publishing house is also planning to stop printing English books that have been published with great care, without further reprints. They have no choice but to discontinue the publication. Other Korean publishers with many English books in line are doing the same thing, either not updating their existing books or going out of print. Not to mention not publishing new books. Given the global recession in the book market due to the rise of internet media such as YouTube, publishing English books about Korea is extremely challenging.
First of all, I hope that the English book market in Korea will quickly recover from the effects of COVID-19 in terms of sales. In terms of publishing, I hope that other fields such as society, economy, and practical skills will be added in addition to culture and language, and above all, I expect the absolute number of published titles to increase. The following English books about Korea were selected based on popularity at my company’s bookstore specializing in English books about Korea and my personal preferences. I apologize in advance for my lack of knowledge and inexperience in knowing about better books, and readers are welcome to point out any errors.


A detailed and intuitive look at Korean culture


Sketches of Korea: An Illustrated Guide to Korean Culture

Sketches of Korea:
An Illustrated Guide to Korean Culture



If there’s one book about Korea that foreigners living in Korea or tourists visiting Korea pick up casually, it is the book Sketches of Korea: An Illustrated Guide to Korean Culture (Seoul Selection). As the title suggests, it is an illustrated guide to Korean culture. Although it is a small book that fits in the palm of your hand and has only 200 pages, it introduces Korean culture in a very detailed and straightforward fashion, making it popular among staff members of foreign embassies in Korea, expatriates of foreign companies, international students learning Korean, and tourists.
Thanks to the foreign writers’ in-depth understanding of Korean culture, the book provides a comprehensive explanation of keywords related to Korea’s traditional and modern culture, such as kkonminam (men in good fashion and appearance), hunnam (good-looking men), jjimjilbang (public bathhouse with sauna), ingam dojang (legally registered seal), podaegi (baby sling), bibimbap, kimchi, jangdokdae (traditional earthen jars for aging things like gochujang and kimchi), hotteok (filled pancake), cheonggukjang (traditional Korean food made with fermented soybeans), neolttwigi (standing see-saw, jumping on two ends of a wooden board), priority seats, Lee Sun-Shin, folk songs, genre painting, sword dance, bojagi (traditional Korean wrapping cloth), minhwa (traditional Korean folk art), and taekkyon (traditional Korean martial art). What’s more impressive about the book is that it also covers cultural elements that even Koreans today find it hard to explain, such as geongongamri (four black trigrams) of Taegukgi (Korea’s national flag), buncheong sagi (blue-green-colored traditional Korean stoneware), Chiwoo Cheonwang (legendary warrior, worshipped as the god of war), sumaksae (round-shaped tile attached at the end of the eaves), and kkeutdong, which refers to the end of the sleeve of jeogori (basic upper garment of hanbok). The writers’ level of mastery of Korean culture is apparent at the point where they explain that the support made of steel pipes on the delivery motorcycle’s back for the driver to carry loads is derived from jige (commonly known as an A-frame in English) that has long been used by Koreans to carry loads in the past.


Korean culture explained with illustrations

Korean culture explained with illustrations

Korean culture explained with illustrations



In the part describing Korean drinking culture, the writers introduce noraebang (karaoke), poktanju (bomb shot), and room salon (karaoke bars with private rooms for hostesses to entertain customers), as well as the ‘n-cha culture’ (where people move to different places to drink - ‘1-cha’ means the first place, ‘2-cha’ means the second place), daeri woonjeon (replacement driver) - the people who drive drunken people home safely, and haejangguk (hangover soup) - the food that relieves the stomach the day after drinking. An illustration of a typical Korean office worker in a tie lying drunk in the street is a fitting reminder of the exotic side of Korea as seen through the eyes of the writers. Professor Benjamin Joinau wrote - “He will be tired in the morning, but he has gotten rid of his stress, expressed his anger, and improved team spirit, making him socially ready for a new day of work!” - exhibiting his positive thoughts and affection towards Korean culture.
French professor Joinau received his PhD in cultural anthropology with a specialization in Korean studies, and is currently at Hongik University in Seoul. He has lived in Korea since 1994 and once owned a French restaurant in Itaewon, promoting French culture in Korea. The illustrator, Elodie Dornand de Rouville, is also a longtime resident of Korea and now lives in France with her Korean husband, a photographer.


A customized guide to Korean history for foreigners


English covers of A Korean History for International Readers

Korean covers of A Korean History for International Readers

English and Korean covers of A Korean History for International Readers



Aside from culture, the main areas of interest to foreigners about Korea are literature and history. However, with the rise of Korean literature’s international popularity, foreign publishers have begun to publish Korean works through translations, making overseas publication of literature the trend. It is not that there are no literary publications carried out in Korea, but overseas publications have become the dominant type in terms of number and impact. In this article, I would like to introduce history books published in English in line with the given topic of English books published in Korea.
While there are a few history books about Korea published in English, most of them lack coverage of modern history, including the Korean War, or are too thick to appeal to foreigners. In contrast, the book A Korean History for International Readers (Humanist Publishing Group) covers the pre- and post-liberation periods, the Korean War, and the relationship between North and South Korea. In addition, as it contains various pictorial aids such as maps, photos, and graphic materials, it is currently the best Korean history book for foreigners. It was published in an A4-sized edition due to the inclusion of illustrations. As the title and subtitle suggest, this book is an English translation of the Korean book A Korean History for International Readers: How Will Koreans Explain Korean History to the World? and is a customized Korean history book for foreign readers.


Pages from A Korean History for International Readers

Pages from A Korean History for International Readers

Pages from A Korean History for International Readers



In fact, from a foreigner’s perspective, Korea is a unique country that has managed to maintain its cultural identity while remaining an independent nation for so long amongst the great powers. It has achieved both economic growth and democratization in the shortest period of time in modern history; it is also an exciting country in terms of pop culture, such as Hallyu (Korean Wave), and food culture, with kimchi, galbi (short ribs), doenjang (soybean paste), gochujang (chili paste), and tteokbokki. Last year, doejigomtang (Korean pork broth) was named one of the “8 Best Dishes in New York City” by the New York Times.
As suggested by the title, which says that the book is dedicated to explaining Korean history to foreigners, the book is motivated by pride in Korean history and culture. It even has a section called “Historical Sites (ex., ‘Encountering Modern History at Gyeongwoongung Palace and Jeongdong’)” that guides foreigners to visit the sites after reading the book. The writer is The Association of Korean History Teachers, an organization of more than 2,000 history teachers from all over the country that aims to teach “living history.”


Korea’s yadam – historical and fun eerie tales


Eerie Tales from Old Korea

Eerie Tales from Old Korea



The next book that foreign readers find interesting to read, while it’s neither about culture nor history, is Eerie Tales from Old Korea (Seoul Selection), which is a collection of yadam (short, eerie folk tales) and mindam (folklore), and are long-known Korean stories. The book is a collection of stories that Koreans have been exposed to since childhood, such as stories that go something like, “A journeyman was traveling down the road, but the sun had set, and he was lost in the darkness... He ended up staying the night in a secluded house where a young woman in a white dress lived alone.” Most of the stories are scary or grotesque. Characters like ogres, tigers, ghosts, and goblins appear in the stories. Although they might have been terrifying by the standards of the people of the past, they don’t seem to be as scary as they could be from a modern perspective.
The process of how this book came out is also historic and quite funny. When missionaries came to Korea at the end of the 19th century, they asked scholars of the time if there were any scary or bizarre stories in Korea. There, the scholars insisted that there were no such stories. The reason why they said that there were no such stories in Korea was because most of these stories were vulgar by their standards and were related to Buddhism or shamanism. Disappointed, the missionaries studied the Chinese characters themselves, and only then were they able to find the stories they were looking for in a collection of tales called yadam.
The missionaries translated these stories into English and published them in their own magazine (Korea Review) and book (Korean Folk Tales). In 2013, they were republished more than 100 years after they were originally published in Transactions, the journal of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch (RASKB), of which the missionaries were also key contributors, back in 1900.
The missionaries are Homer B. Hulbert, who joined King Gojong’s envoy to the Hague and helped on the ground, striving for Korea’s independence, and James Scarth Gale, who contributed to the rise of Christianity in Korea by naming God Hananim (referring to the Christian God in Korea) to fit Korean sentiment and helped translate the early Bible into Korean. The editor of the book is Brother Anthony of Taizé (Korean name Ahn Son-Jae) of The Taizé Community, headquartered in France, who, at the time of publication, was president of the RASKB. Brother Ahn came to Korea in the early 1980s at the invitation of the late Cardinal Stephen Kim Soo-Hwan and taught English literature at Sogang University for many years.


The royal culture during the Joseon Dynasty, as seen in K-dramas and historical dramas


English covers of Joseon Royal Court Culture: Ceremonial and Daily Life

Korean covers of Joseon Royal Court Culture: Ceremonial and Daily Life

English and Korean covers of Joseon Royal Court Culture: Ceremonial and Daily Life



When it comes to English books about Korea, you can’t leave out books about the royal culture of the Joseon Dynasty. This is because historical dramas play a large role in K-dramas, and Seoul is home to palaces from the Joseon Dynasty, such as Gyeongbokgung Palace, royal tombs where the kings are buried, and jongmyo, where they are reborn as ancestral spirits - the kings and royal tombs are designated as the UNESCO cultural heritage. As such, they are of great interest to international readers and tourists.
Though there are relatively few English books about the royal palace, the book Joseon Royal Court Culture: Ceremonial and Daily Life (Dolbegae) has been a steady seller among foreign readers as it shows the daily routine of the king and queen in the palace and the life of the royal family, which is of interest to foreigners. Originally published in Korean as a book by professor Shin Myung- Ho with the same title, it was then translated and published in English. The English translation was done by Timothy V. Atkinson.
It describes things that ordinary people might be curious about, such as the king’s daily routine, the protocol for greeting foreign envoys, the king’s clothing, surasang - the food served to the king, the queen’s pregnancy and childbirth, the queen’s clothing, the positions of the princes, and the privileges of the royal family. There are also lesser-known stories, such as King Sejong the Great’s exam questions and the fire at Changdeokgung Palace that occurred at the time of Gwanghaegun’s dethronement. It’s especially good for foreign readers to understand the content, thanks to the relatively rich photographs and illustrations.



Written by Kim Hyung-Geun (CEO of Seoul Selection)



Kim Hyung-Geun (CEO of Seoul Selection)

#Korean Culture#English Books#History#Folk tales#Royal culture
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