Korea’s Premodern Past in Film

Korea 159 poster

Listed under Korea 159 in UCLA Registrar, Variable Topics in Culture and Society in Korea

Korean 159 engages in the relationship of culture (art, literature, film) and society in Korea. In Winter 2020, Korean 159 will address how contemporary Korean society engages with its premodern past through the medium of film. This course will use contemporary Korean film portrayals of events in Korea’s long history as windows into how the memory of this past becomes relevant to contemporary social, political, and cultural concerns.

Course Topic Objectives and Outcomes:

Through this course, students will develop a critical and informed perspective to how history is portrayed in film media. By viewing “period films” (sagŭk) which vary from art house cinema, South Korean popular blockbusters, to North Korean propaganda, students will understand both the historical significance of the events portrayed in these films and the stakes of the past in Korea’s present. These films will demonstrate how in both South and North Korea particular messages and discussions about contemporary society are transmitted through not only film as a media form, but history as a site of controversy and critique.

Students will be trained to be sensitive consumers of media culture through an understanding of how historical film operates as a genre in the Korean context and how it uses history as a lens or framework to engage in contemporary cultural and social debate. Film will therefore also serve as a case study for how Korea’s past is part of ongoing dialogues about Korea’s present, offering students an awareness of how the discourse of history operates in Korean popular culture.

Students will also engage with these period films alongside while surviving historical documents and literary works. Comparisons between text and screen will illuminate how popular media shapes and influences historical memory. They will also be introduced to critical literature on the history of contemporary Korean film, as well as scholarly debates concerning the contemporary use of the premodern past (“medievalism”). Students will practice writing critically and analytically about the “historical film” as a genre, informed by both a historical awareness (in terms of its context of the film’s production and the period depicted) and a cultural and theoretical sensitivity to how the past becomes a part of the present.

History of Korea, 1260 to 1876

Korea 180B Poster

Korea 180B in UCLA Registrar


In 1260, after decades of intermittent warfare, the Koryŏ dynasty of Korea capitulated to the Mongols, inaugurating a century of Mongol domination on the Korean peninsula. This period, which saw Korea’s integration into the Mongol empire, also witnessed a number of changes, both subtle and dramatic, in Korea’s society, religion, political relations, and intellectual culture. Social transformations among the Koryŏ elite helped set the stage for rise of a new dynasty, Chosŏn. Relations with the Mongol empire established some of the core institutions that guided Korea’s later relations with the later Ming and Qing empires of China. Neo-Confucianism was introduced to Korea and became the dominant intellectual strand in Korea.

This course will focus on the history of Korea between 1260–1876, roughly the period corresponding to the late Koryŏ and Chosŏn dynasties, beginning with the Mongol period and ending with Chosŏn’s entry into the modern international system. It will introduce students to the major historical and historiographical issues surrounding this period, while allowing students to experience first hand the process of historical inquiry.



If you are looking for a passive educational experience, this course is NOT FOR YOU.

Korean studies, especially premodern studies in the West is an underdeveloped field with few, accessible resources, especially for beginners. This is made worse by the general “ivory tower” problem where the state of knowledge within the academy is often inaccessible to a broader, interested audience. So for instance, while university students rely heavily on open-source internet resources, such as Wikipedia, to complement their learning process and to study for exams, these resources are sometimes quite poorly curated. We see this in the English-language Wikipedia articles concerning Korean history, where the bulk of the articles are low-quality and rely on low-quality source materials.

The problem is not unique to Korean studies, or even the humanities. In the sciences, cutting-edge research is often behind a paywall, Science too faces this problem of misrepresentation in the media or poor communication across boundaries, but science majors usually get to work hands on in lab experiments and pursue meaningfully in the process of scientific knowledge production. In the Humanities, however, students are often asked to do projects, write research papers as classroom assignments, but are not actually given the chance to PARTICIPATE and IMPACT the direction of public scholarship.

This course will change that. In this course, students will engage with the forefront of research in Korean history. They will make their own contributions to the field by communicating this research to a wider audience in their final projects. Students will therefore be encouraged to make their final projects public (optional).

  • The course will engage students with the basics of historical research and historical writing
  • Students will read up-to-date, current research on Korea’s premodern and early modern history.
  • Through active discussion, deep reading, and engaged collaboration, students will communicate their knowledge and perspectives to one another
  • Students, as their final project, will make tangible contributions to public knowledge by publishing with the UCLA Korean History and Culture Digital Museum project, a public resource that connects academic research with the broader public shphere
    • Formats flexible: The default is a 3-5 page essay (1000 words) discussing a major issue or topic, though any format is possible EQUIVALENT (art, comic strips, video essay, podcast…)
    • Note: publication is optional and not required for course completion. Students who wish to share their work publicly should sign WAIVER.
  • Students will divide into groups according to their chosen area of interest.
    • War and military
    • diplomacy and trade
    • women and society
    • religion and society
    • knowledge and science
    • frontiers and margins
    • learning and culture
    • law and justice
    • ethnicity and class etc.

History of Korean Civilization

Listed as Korea 50 in UCLA Registrar

This course surveys the history of the Korean peninsula from the period of early state formation to contemporary North and South Korea. Taking account of Korea’s pivotal geographical and cultural position in East Asia, the course will cover topics such as the emergence of Korean political and cultural identities, the appropriation of cosmopolitan ideologies like Buddhism and Confucianism, formation of traditional Korean society during the Chosŏn period, and Korea’s confrontation with imperialism and colonialism in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It will also examine Korea’s postwar division and the divergent historical trajectories followed by North and South Korea. We will consider these issues both in terms of their immediate historical context and their impact on contemporary Korean society and global politics.

By taking the course, students will

  • Acquire a chronological overview of Korea’s history
  • Engage with major themes in Korea’s history
  • Understand how Korea’s past is integrated with the histories of Korea’s neighbors and broader global patterns
  • Develop their ability to read historical materials (both primary and secondary) with a critical lens
  • Reflect on how they might relate to the experiences of people distant in time and place from themselves
  • Improve their writing skills by formulating complex ideas based on solid logic and evidence
  • Improve their writing skills by articulating their own, personal perspectives on the historical past in an evidence-based manner