I was recently given the gift of an early Capitol Records Beatles LP on vinyl from 1965, and on the back it says, “This monophonic microgroove recording is playable on monophonic and stereo phonographs. It cannot become obsolete.”
As vinyl records were replaced by tapes, CDs and ultimately digital formats, isn’t that last statement resoundingly false? It is obsolete.
But what does it even mean to be obsolete? It doesn’t mean something’s function is gone. I can still play the record and I can still use a turntable to produce the same sounds one would have heard in 1965 — the original utility of the record is still present, but there’s no denying it’s a product of a different time.
Can the same sense of obsolescence be felt in history? This week, we’ll explore events that show the difficult transition from obsoleteness to modernity in a larger historical context. However, one note before we begin: just as there are those who still appreciate vinyl records, there are also those who value the past and the events within it despite their perceived antiquity. That which is obsolete worked in its own historical setting, so it is just as important as what is considered modern.
Yi Haeung — in later life known as the “Prince of the great court,” Heungseon Daewongun — was born in 1821 during a time preceding great change in Korea. The young Daewongun was educated through the traditional Confucian schooling of his day, and as part of the Yi family he was born into an affluent and ruling dynasty within The Kingdom of Joseon whose domain encompassed the Korean peninsula.
Korean history during the 19th century is a patchwork of complicated family histories, as the Yi, Min and other aristocratic families sought to control domestic affairs. Daewongun navigated the often brutal nature of this policial class as his son Gojong ascended to become the 26th king of Joseon. As Gojong was appointed at age 12, Daewongun acted as regent and began to understand the nature of the Korean government.
At this point in time, Korea was facing a sort of historical obsolescence. The mostly agricultural country faced the growing industrial powers of China and Japan, both of whom were called to put down rebellions as the Joseon army failed to do so. There was a tide of change coming that would eventually jeopardize the Korean ruling system in addition to an ever-expanding Western influence.
The Confucian system that Daewongun was educated in was itself being supplanted by Christian missionaries’ own schools. The uneducated masses were not being taught in Korean systems — as they were restricted to all but the highest of the elite class — but in those of the Western Christians, whose schools were open to all. How could the Joseon ruling class then stay relevant?
Daewongun grew determined to keep the Joseon way of life intact, even if new alternatives were appealing to the populace. He soon began his attempt to prevent foreign missionaries from arriving and ousting any newcomers from abroad. Attacks also began against established communities within the kingdom. In a sense, this mimics the same course the Boxer’s took in China.
Yet this desire to maintain the established social order waned as Japan began to forcefully open the country. Through a series of unequal treaties and conflicts over the latter half of the 19th century, Japan slowly broke down Korean independence and invested in the Joseon courts to grasp control over the declining kingdom. China did the same thing, even fighting Japanese forces on several occasions in Korea; certainly a kingdom with a semblance of independence would not allow two foreign nations to fight on their own soil.
Ultimately, the chaos of foreign powers and the stagnation of Daewongun’s politics led to his retirement in 1874, and Gojong came to true power. Now, Gojong himself was an interesting historical figure, working with foreigners in his perceived committment to a new Korea; however, his wife, Queen Min — Min being a family name as the high ranking court officials were never given their own name — was the true leader of the country.
Empress Min ruled the courts and placed her family members in positions of power, elevating the Min family to rival the Yi in terms of dominance. Min was a smart and well-minded queen, well aware of the political situation that was tearing apart her kingdom.
By 1895, Japan had won the First Sino-Japanese War, officially forcing the withdrawal of Chinese troops from Korea, a power long held under the authority of the Qing courts. In doing so, the balance between foreign powers collapsed and Japan seemed poised to dominate Korea. To mitigate this, Min began to work with Russian diplomats to encourage their presence in the country. This move would hopefully restore balance to Japanese power while still modernizing the nation.
In reality, the plan backfired, Min had made the courts of Meiji Japan target her as their top roadblock in Korea. Soon, a division of soldiers loyal to Japan and Daewongun surrounded her residence at Gyeongbok Palace.
Late in the evening on Oct. 8, 1895, Japanese agents broke into the palace, hoping to slay the queen and her followers. They entered, but not knowing what Min looked like, and ended up killing several of her attendants. It was a gruesome affair. Blood was spilt recklessly and without regret. These were mostly unarmed victims.
Finally, they approached Min and slaughtered her. The agents grabbed her body, disrobed, violated and burned it, then buried the corpse out amongst the pine trees near the palace.
In efforts to stop her nation from becoming obsolete due to foreign advancements and forced isolation, Queen Min faced a brutal end. After a horrified Gojong demanded a search for her corpse in 1897, only one finger from her body was found.
That sad story may have led to the end of revolution and an attempt to modernize — as Japan would conquer Joseon in the following years — but, in China, events this week proved critical for the birth of a new nation.
On Oct. 10, 1911, the Wuchang Uprising began in what is modern day Wuhan.
The Qing dynasty in China was crumbling by the arrival of the 20th century. As seen in Korea, the Qing were no match for the Japanese in the First Sino Japanese War, and like the Joseon elite, the ruling Manchu’s were struggling to maintain stability during a growing internal divide.
Hoping to modernize, the Qing began implementing broad societal reforms, including increased education, the removal of the examination system — a confucian system through which government officials were picked — and even the foundation of a new army.
Literally called the New Army, the reformed, westernized military force was supposed to be the new initiative that assured Qing domination over the large Han populations within China; in reality, it was what brought about their downfall.
In Wuchang, a commander of the New Army, Wu Zhaolin, staged a coup against a Manchu fort and forced officials to flee the city. The Manchu leaders had built a military force that they could not control, and soon the city declared a new government that could not easily be suppressed.
Soon after, other areas joined in the revolution in what has come to be known as the Xinhai Revolution, or the Revolution of 1911. The Republic of China would come about after such struggles against Manchu domination began. While bloody, the effort to stop obsolescence resulted in a new Chinese nation.
Again, “obsolete” and “modern” should be used carefully in a historical context, but I hope they can help illustrate the changes that happen across history. What is new now will someday be old, and what is old was once new. See you next week!