Friday, October 25, 2013

The Manufacture of Rule in Korea

San Francisco's Asian Museum has a fascinating little show up about the creation and maintenance of what was (and I did not know this before) one of the world's most long-running dynasties.  That would be the Joseon, which held sway (it says here) from 1392 for more than 500 years.  The promos tout it as "Celebrations in Korean Art During the Joseon Dynasty," but that is somewhat overblown: most, and far and away the best, stuff comes from the 18th and 19th Century.  And the most fascinating pieces are scrolls that help to explain the theatre of elite power in Korea--call it, for lack of a better name, "the manufacture of rule."    Evidently the Joseon (or more likely, somebody on the house staff) knew how to put on a grand show, so as to demonstrate the legitimacy of state power in the incumbent.  One's first thought is--my stars the way humans will oppress others of their species. But second: my stars, how happily, how eagerly we accept this kind of domination, so long as it is wrapped up in a good story.

I could numb you with all kinds of newly-acquired factoids about the Joseon, most of which you already know or don't want to hear from me.  I will restrain myself and stick with one.  That is, per  wall panel, there were 27 generations of Joseon rulers (divide 500 by 27 and you can surmise some pretty long reigns).   Succession went by a kind of primogeniture.  Or so it was said, but there's the fun part: evidently of all these 27, only seven went off according to plan.  The other 20, it says on the wall "came to power irregularly as a result  of feuds and rivalries."  How a form of succession can be called "irregular" when it happens 20 out of 27 times is a question left to a higher pay grade than mine.

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