Form Over Content

Recently I did a few sessions of interviews with a 92 year-old Korean gentleman about his experiences during the colonial period. He is a superhero for my Korea research.

On the first day of the interview, he took me to a near-by restaurant for lunch. His hearing ability has gone weak so he speaks very loud, and almost cannot hear what I say. Without paper and a pencil in hand, I sat in front of him quietly and smilingly, while waiting for the food. He was very nice and was trying to remember things that might be of my interest. Suddenly, he started singing a Japanese military song very loud — and said that when Ch’ungch’ong Namdo donated a fighter jet to the Japanese military, he brought schoolchildren to the ceremony and sang this song. The busy restaurant went all silent to figure out what was going on, without him noticing it.

I have conducted about two dozens of interviews in Taiwan and Korea so far. It always fascinates me that people remember songs better than anything else. Songs bring them vivid memories. My superhero Taiwanese interviewee often sang Umi Yukaba for me. The lyrics of this song are scary, featuring loyalty and willingness to die for the lord. But the way he remembers this song is very personal. He remembers his friends, teachers, and students that he loved in his youth while singing it.

This Korean gentleman I meet here also wrote down many songs that he sang as a youth group member for me.

Mr. Kim writing down the lyrics of the song of 防空監視哨 for me


The lyrics, again, are expectedly ultra-nationalistic, and there is not much interesting analysis I could think of. But it is this whole conduct of remembering these songs, singing them for me, and writing them down off the top of his head — the form of his memory — that tells a lot more than the content of the songs itself.

There is another example when I realized that the form of the historical material could be more interesting than the content itself. Mr. Kim gave me a copy (original copy!) of the leaflet that American Commander Hodge distributed from the sky in September 1945, entitled, “Declaring to Korean people.”

It does excite me as this is a real marker of a new phase of Korean history. But what also fascinates me is the the backside of it:

His younger brother used this leaflet to take notes in his biology class! It shows how plenty of them they got at the time (Mr. Kim could spare me one because he had multiple copies), and how scarce paper for notebooks was. More symbolic for social historians like me is that their personal needs always override whatever ‘historic’ significance they knew these things could have. Politics is always digested within their personal context. This is totally the opposite direction from “how politics affected people’s everyday life.” This little leaflet reminded me of why I liked social history.

I am an avid user of digitized sources and I truly appreciate online access to historical material. But the trade-off is that our sources are detached from the context of preservation. I am a little sad that, in many cases, we can get the content more easily but have no idea about the form. For me, it is still worth spending time walking around, and seeing the personalized sources even just for an experience as a student of history.

Category(s): History, Korea, Research, Taiwan

4 Responses to Form Over Content

  1. Very interesting. As a book historian I am most intrigued by the note-taking on the leaflet, but the songs too — it reminds me of how documentaries on China’s cultural revolution often feature the interviewees singing revolutionary songs nostalgically.

  2. Really wonderful posting Sayaka. The biology notes reminds me so much of all the captured North Korean docs in the National Archives. Things like classroom notes printed on back of propaganda posters (close to your example), official military deployment orders printed on back of Japanese colonial period blank forms, or more generally, North Korean court sentences printed on Japanese colonial period judicial sentencing forms, with Japanese sometimes crossed out and sometime just left as is.

    Thanks so much for posting!

  3. Thank you Chelsea and KML for your comments.
    It is easy to dismiss these scribbles but they are interesting, aren’t they? Even when a digital copy in Google Books has a shadow of a hand of the person scanning, it suddenly feels like something human rather than just a resource. :p

  4. I tell my students often that songs are one of the best ways for spreading and entrenching ideas, usually when I’m talking about hymns and religious movements. But the 19th and 20th centuries are very powerful evidence of a modern version of that as well.

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