Friday, January 27, 2017

Homer B. Hulbert

A portrait of a white man with well-combed hair and mustache, wearing a suit.Yesterday marked the 154th anniversary of the birth of Homer B. Hulbert, Class of 1884. Little had anyone known then that this second child of a Congregational minister in New England would become fluent in the Korean language -- fluent enough to pen scholarly articles and books -- and fight for the independence of a small country on the other side of the planet. How did Hulbert come to learn about the small country unknown to most Westerners at that time and become so attached to it?

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1884, Hulbert decided to become a minister like his father and began his studies at Union Theological Seminary. That same year, Gojong, king of Korea, asked the U.S. government for three Americans to teach English to the children of the Korean royal families. John Eaton, who worked for the Department of State and was a close friend of Hulbert's father, asked whether one of the Hulberts would be willing to go. Unlike his reluctant brother, Hulbert enthusiastically agreed to join the crew, even though he didn't know much about the country other than a brief mention of it during his geography class at Dartmouth. With two other American missionaries, he departed to Korea in 1886, where he worked at Royal English School in Seoul until 1891.

A page from a book, written in classical Korean alphabets. The words are written vertically, from top to bottom. There is a divider in the middle of the page.
During his time at Royal English School, Hulbert sought to make up for the lack of scholarly resources and felt an urgent need to publish a textbook written in Korean. At the end of that effort came the publication of 사민필지(Saminpilchi), or Geographical Gazetteer of the World, in 1889. In the preface to the book, Hulbert notes that, nowadays, it's not sufficient for a nation to manage and understand only what lies within their physical borders. An efficient governance under the new order requires nations to constantly interact with different states. Therefore, leaders of a nation ought to understand the culture, customs, history, and geography of different countries in order to thrive. The first chapter explains the concept of the planet Earth. The following chapters each introduce a continent and countries within that continent. Colored maps are attached to each chapter to provide a visual aid to the text.

Circle-shaped atlas of the Earth in a white background. The oceans are in sky blue color, African continent in green, Asia in yellow, Europe and Australia in pink.
An atlas within Saminpilchi
Towards the end of the preface, Hulbert highlights that he wrote this textbook in Korean to make this information available to a greater portion of the Korean population. In fact, the publication of this textbook in Korean language was unusual in that, despite the existence of the Korean language, scholarly works in Korea to that date were written exclusive in traditional Chinese characters. The Korean language, Hanguel, was perceived as a language for the lowly and common people, whereas traditional Chinese was thought to be the language of the upper class and of scholars. Hulbert had a different opinion. In The Korea Review, an English-language magazine produced by American missionaries and teachers in Korea, he published several articles praising Hanguel for its intricacy and scientific mechanism. His appreciation of Hanguel evolved into a passion for Korean folklore and traditional literature, and he translated several Korean folktales into English, including Omjee the Wizard.

Cover of the book Omjee the Wizard. An old man with white beard and purple turban is at the top right corner of the cover, looking down into an orange and yellow carpet with red fringes. Within the carpet are creeks and green leaves where little children with fairy wings are running around.
Omjee the Wizard
Hulbert expressed a deep interest in the history of Korea as well. In The History of Korea, which was published in both English and Korean, he covers the time span ranging from 2300 BCE, when the first nation-state was founded in the Korean peninsula, to the 14th century CE. Another history book he penned, The Passing of Korea, presents a detailed analysis of various aspects of Korean society leading up to Japanese control of Korea during his own lifetime.

Cover of an traditional Korean book, bound by tiny ropes. The title is on the top left corner of the cover, written vertically from top to bottom in black.
The History of Korea
Initially, Hulbert thought it would be inevitable for Korea to fall under foreign control and, in that case, he preferred Japanese control to that of the Russians. However, after the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1905, Hulbert changed his stance as he realized that Japan would never grant Korea the political autonomy that it had promised. The Treaty served as a turning point for Hulbert as he began to involve himself politically on Korea's behalf. In November 1905, he delivered Korean Emperor Gojong's letter to the Secretary of State, in which the king pleaded fruitlessly with the U.S. government to halt Japanese aggression. However, Hulbert was not discouraged by the U.S. government's disinterest and continued his advocacy for Korean independence.  In 1907, he assisted confidential emissaries from Korea to the Second International Peace Conference in The Hague. Hulbert tried to create an opportunity for the Korean delegates to speak at the Conference, but they were prohibited from entering the hall. Upon learning about Hulbert's attempt, the Japanese Empire increased its scrutiny of foreigners in Seoul, which eventually led to Hulbert's expulsion from Korea in 1907.

Even after his exile form Korea, Hulbert didn't cease his efforts and continued to contribute articles to various American magazines and newspapers about his adoptive nation. After more than forty years away, Hulbert finally got a chance to return to Korea in 1947, when the first president of the Republic of Korea, Syngman Rhee, invited him back. In August of 1949, he arrived back at the country he had been longing to return to for decades. Shortly after, his return, Hulbert died and was buried in Yanghwajin foreigners' cemetery in Seoul. After his death, Hulbert has continued to live in the memories of Koreans; he was conferred the Korean Order of Taiguk in 1950 and, in 2013, he was selected as an "independence activist of the month." One reason for his persistent presence in Korean culture is because, until World War II, colonial aggression in East Asia was the least of concerns for Westerners. Within such a context, Hulbert's opinions and actions stand out as a special case worthy of remembrance.

Rauner holds several of Hulbert's works. To see Saminpilchi, ask for Alumni H877p; The Korea Review, Alumni H877k; The History of Korea, H877h for English H877hi for Korean; The Passing of Korea, H877pa and Omjee the Wizard, Alumni H877o.

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