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Decidedly Neo-Confucian: Western Ordering of Space in Korea

Authors: Faith Skiles*, Virginia Tech
Topics: Historical Geography, Gender, Asia
Keywords: Space, Modernity, American, Imperialism, Korea, gender relations
Session Type: Paper
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In the years after the forcible opening of Seoul, Korea for trade by the Japanese (1876-1910) imperial interests vied to influence the country. The result of this influence was a struggle over the ordering of the city – whether the city was walled or un-walled, walked or driven, set in traditional patterns or pressed toward “modern” change. It is into this milieu of competing interests that “modern” American Protestant missionaries established a presence in Seoul adding their stamp to the organization of the city. While the missionaries did incorporate Western ideas of spatial order, traditional Korean ways of ordering space became just as important if not more important to the group. This paper ventures into the conversation on imperial projects and the imposition of Western ordering of space. By studying letters, house plans and built environments, this paper argues that ideas of spatial modernity do not apply uniformly across imperialist projects; they do not stand as universal concepts of a homogenous Westernizing project of modernity. Neo-Confucian rather than Western ordering of space became paramount in the mission-built environments. The churches, schools and homes they built often completely mirrored Eastern ways of ordering space or modified Western ideas of spatial order along Neo-Confucian lines in order to facilitate cross-cultural encounters with Koreans. As a result, in spite of the conservative gender expectations of these late 19th century Americans, the restructuring of space to include segregation of males and females, led to American women taking on traditionally gendered male roles.

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