Models of national identity-building in East Europe and East Asia

(Comparative analysis of Bulgarian and Korean experience)


Zornitza Grekova
Ph D Candidate, Sofia University


The process of identity-building at micro (personal, familial, tribal, ethnical etc.) and at macro (religious, national, regional, and global) level is of main concern for many scholars since the Second industrial revolution and expansion of colonial empires which coincide in time at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. The countries where that particular industrial revolution occurred were the ones that lead the imperialistic expansionism all over the world. At the same moment, nationalistic feelings arouse around the world, inspired by or opposed to the colonial imperialism.
The nineteenth century imperialism is equally new and old phenomenon as traces of imperial power and/or behaviour could be traced back millennia ago to the ages of Ancient Egypt or Ancient Roman Empire. Closer to our time, in the 15th to 20th century, the Ottoman Empire as territorially expanded entity has an imperialistic influence over the Balkans and the Middle East. At the end of 19th and the beginning of 20th century the world witness the rise of Japan as modern nation-state but soon this status has been transformed into colonial maritime empire with overseas conquests, especially the Korean peninsula. The imperial domination of the Ottoman Empire over Bulgaria and of Japan over Korea resulted in an unprecedented urge of national identity quest and formation. Language, common origin and shared history are the basis for the new national revival in Bulgaria and Korea.
The main focus of the paper is on the elements of identity-formation in Bulgaria and Korea during their past under imperial/colonial rule. Bulgaria is under Ottoman rule for near five centuries (1396-1878) and Korea is part of the Japanese empire from 1911 to 1945. Although different in time, geography, ethnicity, language etc., it can be argued that both nations share the same elements of identity – language, common origin and religion.
The present paper will be divided into the following parts: the first one deals with theoretical background and notions of nation, identity and nationalism, while the second explains the relations between empire/master and dependant territory/subjects. The third part is devoted to the question of vernacular language as source of identity. Religion and its influence on identity is the focus of the fourth part.

Theoretical background
 Although situated in different chronological framework, the two nations – Bulgarian and Korean − follow identical paths in their quest for new “self”. A.C. Robles Jr. studies the problem of the “self” and the “other” through Tzvetan Todorov’s work from 1982 “La Conquête d’Amérique” (The Conquest of America). Robles makes the conclusion that there are three axes of relations to the other – the self decides if the other is good or evil (values judgement, or the axiological axis); the self may adopt the values of the other (praxeological axis); the self may know or remain ignorant about the identity of the other (epistemic axis) (Robles 2008: 19−20). Moreover, identity as it was popularized by Erik Erikson (1959, 1968) “is a characteristic defining one's sense of self. It represents a continuity in the ego's integrating functioning that must be achieved; it is not simply a defining attribute of the ego” (Hood n.a.).
The nationalism and, in particular, the quest for national identity might be studied as “perennial” phenomenon where the nation, or in the terms of Anthony Smith (2000) the ethnie, is linked by common “perennial” ties predating modern time and nations. The most influential representative of this school of thought is A. Hastings (1997). According to him the emergence of nation is interconnected with the ethnic and religious belongings which represent the preconditions for the nation-formation. One of his basic ideas that distinguish him from authors of other theoretical conceptions is that he studies nation, ethnicity, nationalism and religion as four distinct and formative elements in world and European history (Hastings 1997: 1). Nevertheless, all these notions are so closely interrelated that one could not be described and defined without considering the influence of the other three. However, Hastings as “perennialist” and Anderson (1991) as “modernist” share a common point in relation to the national formation – the spread of vernacular language. This spoken vernacular is one of the strongest ties that bind all ethnies into one nation (Hastings 1997: 2−3).
From another perspective, Smith analysis of nation-formation is based on two main presumptions which he characterizes as “twofold starting-point”, the first one being “the importance of historical clusters, or heritages, of myths, memories, values and symbols for cultural community formation” (Smith 2000: 1). The second presumption is related to the “vital role of ethnic ties and ethnic communities, or ethnies, in providing a basis for the emergence and persistence of nations (Ibid). Again the ethnie is defined in terms of shared history, common ancestry, and close ties. The close interrelation between these two points is further studied by John Armstrong (Armstrong 1982, chapters 1, 9) who describes this phenomenon as ‘myth-symbol complexes’ in the identification and persistence of ethnies. The above-mentioned authors agree that myths of common origin are central to self-determination and symbols – central in shaping common emotions and “ensuring cultural differentiation” (Smith 2000: 1, Armstrong 1982, chapters 1, 9; Smith 1986, chapters 1–2).
For the purposes of the present study, elements of the cultural approach in dealing with national identity and nations are chosen to be the most adequate ones. This “’objective’ (or cultural) approach emphasizes the presence of common territory, language, historic fate, traditions or religion as constituent elements of nationhood” (Volgyi 2007: 3). The main advantage of this approach is the fact that it combines the methodology used by the “perennialistic”, modernist and ethno-symbolist theories in regards to the cultural roots of nations and their identity. The basic limitation of this approach is its linkage of supranational elements, such as religion and language, with pre-national ethnic groups. The most quoted example in this regard is the German language spoken in Austria and Germany without ever being a binding tool of identity-formation between these two nations. However, the combination of cultural elements and objective criterion for nationhood (shared feeling of belonging) are the ground as for identity-building as for nationalism related research (Smith, 2001:12).

The process of self-consciousness in the realm of foreign empire
The main difference between territorial empire such as the Ottoman Empire and a maritime empire as Japan is often described lies not only in the geographical distribution of power – over neighbouring countries or overseas territories, but also in the feelings of closeness between ruler and subjects. In the case of the Ottoman Empire the population under domination is feeling the presence of the foreign ruler/aggressor more closely than in the case of the territories under Japanese rule, whose power is maintained by force through imposing Japanese administrators or converting locals into “Japanese”.
“The roots and evolution of nationalism in Central and South-Eastern Europe can be traced to the early nineteenth century” when it becomes “the driving force in the national revolutionary struggles for liberation from imperial domination and the formation of independent nation-states” (Volgyi 2007: 2 and 4). National consciousness and nationalism emerged prior to the formation of nation-states in the region, subjugated under imperial rule (Ibid: 3).
In the Ottoman Empire the relations between Bulgarians and their ruler entered into the “nationalistic” phase after the Vienna Congress from 1815 when the idea of nation-state became predominant in the diplomacy and political discourse all over the European continent. Meanwhile, the Empire undertook reforms and issued two important documents: the Hatt-i Sharif of Gülhane (Imperial Edict of Gülhane) or Tanzimât Fermânı (Imperial Edict of Reorganization) in 1839 and the Hatti-humayun in 1856. These documents were influenced by the Russian-Ottoman wars from the first half of the 19th c. and expanded the autonomy of the Christian minorities within the Ottoman realm. With these reforms the Empire for the first time acknowledge the existence of other “nations” than its own “dynastic nation” and the religious rights for its population. These reforms did not decrease the national feelings and the ongoing process of identity-formation among Greeks, Serbians, Bulgarians and others. For Neshev (1997), the Bulgarian nationalism is an ideological as it creates new ideology against the century-old slavery. It draws more from the mythology of the ancient glory than from the political objective of the purely European nationalism.
In Asia these tendencies begin to emerge at the beginning of twentieth century when nationalistic movements, the new philosophy of Asian nationalism and active struggle against colonial power take place all at the same moment. “It was this very domination which generated in course of time a spirit of resistance against foreign rule and engendered the growth of nationalism in different countries of Asia.” (Mehta 1958: 91) The roots of Asian nationalism are interconnected with the revival of ancient cultural heritage – a tendency that could be traced back to 18th century. This development is due to “foreign aggression or domination” (Mehta 1958: 90). What is the main characteristic of the Asian nationalism at this time is that it “was simple and straightforward. There was one overriding aim-independence-to which everybody could subscribe. The enemy, too, was obvious and alien. Consequently, everybody knew what they were for and whom they were against.” (Rose 1967: 283)
The Korean nation's past relationships with various neighbors that have shaped its sense of nationhood. These relationships have contributed greatly to the evolution of Korean nationalism, which today influences how Koreans perceive their past and its impact on their national identity. (Olsen 2005, Korea, divided nation, p. 9) The Japanese domination creates the movement for national liberation in Korea and strengthens the feeling of identity-belonging. According to Bluth (2009: 29) these feelings are more tangible in the Northern part of Korea.
In the struggle against the colonial empire the new generation of Korean leaders has been formed: Rhee Syng-man and Kim Gu and others. The same path of leaders’ formation can be observed in other Asian countries under colonial rule – for example, in Indonesia the future president Ah. Sukarno and his vice-president M. Hatta build their relations and obtained political legitimacy through their participation (military and political) in the struggle against the Dutch empire. Here it is noticeable the difference with the Bulgarian experience where the leaders of the national liberation movement never joined the political class after the liberation in 1878.
Vernacular language as main tool of identity-building
The inclusion and spread of spoken vernacular language in literature as instrument of national identity-building and tool in the hands of nationalism were studied thoroughly for the first time by Benedict Anderson in his pivotal work “Imagined Communities”. There he argues that the transition in literature by replacing the “high” or “sacred” language with the spoken language is the main reason behind the spread of new ideas in the late 16th century onwards. Another tool that facilitates this spread is a purely technological invention – Gutenberg’s printing machine (Anderson 1991: chapters 2 and 3). 
The modern era in Bulgarian literature comes in 1762 with the manuscript “Istorija Slavjanobolgasrskaja” (History of the Slavo-Bulgarians) written by the monk Paisii Hilendarski. His book aims to revive Bulgarian national consciousness and self-esteem through the praise of culture, language and the greatness of the medieval states and in opposition to the predominant “fashionable” Greek influences over the Bulgarian society, especially the “intelligentsia” and “notability”. The book is also written for the purpose of the revival of language, culture, national and religious values (Todorova, 1995: 75).
The first printed book in the nowadays territory of Bulgaria appears in 1806 and is called “Kyrīakōdromion, or Nedelnik” (from Bulgarian – Sunday book) by Sofroniĭ Vrachanski, Bishop of Vratsa (1739-1813). This book is the first one in modern Bulgarian language but follows the traditions of both Modern Greek and Old Russian religious literature. The book consists of 96 sermons, and was intended to serve as a religious guide at a time when the Bible had not yet been translated from Old Bulgarian. Although this book has purely church purposes it brings into Bulgarian literature tradition the new forms of Modernity by the use of spoken vernacular Bulgarian language that has significant differences from the Old Bulgarian (Church-Slavonic) language.
Although separated by time and space, Korean identity-building follows almost the same path as the Bulgarian one in terms of vernacular language use. Inspired and forged by the Japanese imperialistic and colonial domination, the Modern Korean literature began its development in the first decade of the twentieth century (Jager 2003: 20). Jager relates the beginning of the “real” modern literature to the preoccupation of Korean authors with “issues of national identity, the modern vernacular language and the status of literature” (Ibid.). Furthermore, Kim (Kim 1998: 65) suggests that an essay written by Yi Kwang-su and entitled “Munhagiram hao” (from Korean: “What is literature?”) is “the first establishment of modern literary theory in Korea”.

Common origin and identity
The ancestry is a common denominator in construction of identity – familial, tribal, national or even regional. Almost every movement for national liberation uses the myth of the common origin, or phylogeny in identity, and thus shared historical experience in crafting and exploring the feelings of national belonging. And more importantly, the myth of common origin, or phylogeny, is regarded as the most persistent in the nation consciousness. But “unlike biological phylogenies, in which a true pattern of vertical descent exists, cultural phylogenies, even if predominantly vertical, will contain many instances of populations interbreeding and the horizontal transmission (e.g., between neighbours) of cultural elements” (Mace et al. 1994: 552). What is understood here as “common origin” is cultural phylogeny, that is defined as “the cultural path that most of the ancestors of the majority of members of that culture followed” (Ibid). Often, the cultural common origin is translated into popular understanding of common blood but this blood differs from the “other’s” blood by cultural characteristics.
The myth of common origin is widely used by the Bulgarian liberation movement, inspired by Paisii’s book. There the glorious past is represented as unchanged characteristics of the Bulgarian kingdoms (tsardoms) regardless the ethnicity of the ruling family – Proto-Bulgarian or Slavonic. Actually, the Slavonic as notion is assigned to cultural heritage/identity and Bulgarian (Proto-Bulgarian) – to legitimacy of power. In Modern era these two notions “gather together” to form and to build the Bulgarian identity.
In Korea, the myth of king Tangun and his kingdom Chosun is so widely spread that regardless the doubts that such person and kingdom ever existed (Bluth 2009: 28) the Korean people refers to them as symbol of national identification. For example, the most known Korean dynasty that ruled for more than 500 years denominates itself as Chosun (1392−1910). The name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Korean language contains the word “Chosun” (Chosun Minju Jui Inmin Konghwagook) and one of South Korea's leading newspapers is the Chosun Ilbo (Chosun Daily or Korea Daily) (see Olsen 2005: 12−13).

Religious roots of identity
The role of religion in identity-building is subject of research in different scientific fields. For example, in the field of psychology Beit-Hallahmi (1989) links interpersonal and intrapersonal theories of identity as applied to religion and studies thoroughly three levels of identity – collective, social and collective religious identity. As appropriate to the study subject of this paper, the definition of the latter will be provided. Thus according to Beit-Hallahmi (1989) and Hood (n.a.) “collective religious identity or a religious sub-identity may be a source for support and integration of ego identity. Through this three-tiered structure of identity concepts, Beit-Hallahmi links both intrapersonal (psychoanalytic) and interpersonal (social) traditions of identity research in a single theory applicable to religion.” To facilitate such comparisons, researchers must pay more attention to what can be called the rules of engagement regardless the field this engagement takes place – politics, social society, or religion (Bernstein 2005: 67−68).
There are different models explaining the linkage between religion and identity. The conflict approach suggests that religion is one of the methods for mitigation of social conflicts, contradictions and changes. The religion plays significant role in conflict resolution as well as in process of identity-construction through healing the brokeness in the industrial society (Moi 1979: 25). The functionalist approach agrees that there is a variety of levels integrated through the religious affiliation and there is a dialectical connection between these levels. The psychoanalytic approach stresses on the individual level and the link that the respective person has to religion community and to national community. In this regard, it is most suitable for the purposes of this paper as it shows the “imagined” idea that an individual has for its own belonging.
In the Bulgarian case there is an obvious link between predominant religion (the Orthodox Christianity) and identity-formation without this religion being exclusive – all Bulgarians confessing other religions are also Bulgarians. The religion binds the ethnicity by introducing the Slavonic heritage into the Bulgarian nation. According to Neshev (1997: 76), the tradition of the inseparability of the Bulgarian Church from the process of national enlightenment and desire for independence begins with Paisii Hilendarski in 1762. Orthodox Christianity became the identifier of Bulgarian ethnic and national identity, while the Ottoman Turks were identified with Islam. The religious and national elements intertwined in the struggle for national independence and affirmation of Bulgarian national consciousness (Tafradjiiski, Radoeva & Minev, 1992: 209-210).    
In Korea the situation differs in a way that the majority of the population is Buddhist or Christian with strong animist influences. But the religion in its role as identification for national belonging emerges in the period of Japanese domination. The Japanese rulers tried to impose Shinto religion instead of traditional Korean religions and beliefs and that attitude of oppression produced common sense of religiousness (Olsen 2005: 12−13, Bluth 2009: 28−29).

Through the brief analysis of common elements of identity-building, it was shown that geographical and timeline remoteness not always predetermines different answers to the same problems. The spread of printed books and spoken vernacular language combined with common origins and glorifying past serve as elements in the identity-building in two distant nations – Bulgarian and Korean. Another resemblance could be found in the actual position of both countries in their broader regions. Bulgaria shares with many countries in Eastern Europe the slavery and the mistakes of the past, has survived the syndrome of Balkanisation and has been reluctant into drawing the exact borders of the region – who is in and who is out. If East Asia is taken in broader sense, for example as the ten states from Southeast Asia and South Korea, China and Japan (ASEAN + 3), the question to be answered is where are the real boundaries of the region and how it is possible to build a common regional identity without being hunted by the ghosts of the past (the still traumatic case of the Korean comfort women sent to Japan).

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