Don's Diary

July 7, 2000


Wait for my flight to South Korea, where I meet David, a PhD student. I ponder on how Korea will compare to the other Southeast Asian countries I know. As an anthropologist and historian, I have a set of models of how various civilisations work - where will Korea fit?


In Seoul, spend time wandering through the underground and street markets. It has a familiar Asian feel, though not exactly the same as Tokyo or Beijing.

Lurking in the back of my mind is a connection that suddenly crystallises of a recent trip to Istanbul. Seoul shares the same energy, the same mix of a recent rural past and rapidly "westernising" consumerism. A transitory moment when two civilisations are in balance, old agrarian and modern industrial.


I travel slowly by train for three hours to Puan in the southwest. Much of the countryside is an extended building site. Half-built bridges, motorways, irrigation channels, cement and stone lie everywhere. A haze emphasises the bare ploughed fields awaiting the rice planting.

Plastic greenhouses full of tomatoes and strawberries bear evidence of a new agricultural revolution.

Notice splashes of spring blossom and, on the hillsides, little burial mounds with stone memorials. Only occasionally is a new house built in the old style with a curved roof of tiles and verandas.


Our interpreter says Korea is strict and conservative in sexual matters - she has only seen one person kissing in public. Confucian pressure led to the segregation of boys and girls from age 11 in the past. All very different from Japan, where the sexes overlap. Historically, mixed adult bathing, though common in Japan, was deeply shocking to Koreans.


Visit a girls' middle school and am allowed to film a class learning Korean. I want to test my thesis that the eye strain of education on the Mongolian eye is causing increasing myopia.

There is certainly strain. Children start school at 8.30am, finish at 4.30pm, then go to "crammers" where, in bad light and general noise, they continue to study until 10pm. We were told that when they return home they often engage in internet chat until 2am.

Their eyes have about five hours' rest. About one-third are wearing glasses and others seem myopic. Much higher than in the West, but lower than the 50 per cent, by the age of 15, in Japan.


Visit an excellent folk museum near Seoul where the houses have separate women's and men's rooms, a form of purdah. The house roofs, often of thatch, have little holes for magpies, a favourite bird, to enter.


Talking to Korean anthropologists, it would seem that over the 1,000 years up to 1900, Koreans abandoned much of their flexibility and equality, becoming more bureaucratic, hierarchical, familistic and ritualistic. With a land bridge and constantly marauding neighbours, Korea became an "ancien regime" state.

Alan Macfarlane is professor of anthropology, University of Cambridge. His book, The Riddle of the Modern World of Liberty, Wealth and Equality, is published by Macmillan this summer.

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