Teaching East Asian studies at UCLA, John Duncan Ph. D. has made remarkable achievements in Korean studies in American academia. Born in Arizona in 1945, he served in the American military stationed in Korea and fell in love with a Korean lady. After quitting his school in America, he transferred to Korea University and studied Korean studies. Married to a Korean woman, he speaks Korean fluently. Back in the United States, he obtained a Ph. D. in Korean studies at Washington State University and has taught Korean studies at the Department of East Asian Studies of UCLA, which is the most active Korean studies department in the nation.
His academic achievements in the field of Korean studies can be divided into four aspects: they are the establishment of the Chosun Dynasty, reevaluation of Chosun Confucianism, formation of the nation, and the failure discourse of the 19th century. He visited all the four areas and made critical reviews.
First, he raised questions about the appearance of new illustrious officials in regard with the establishment of Chosun. By making a critical approach to the theory of political changes at the royal court maintained by the colonial scholars, he examined the subject by focusing on the political and social contradictions of Goryeo Dynasty, in which his creativity stands out.
There his reevaluation of Korean Confucianism deserves discussion. He logically proved two points: first, he critically revisited the prevalent view that saw Chosun Confucianism as a very narrow and inflexible orthodox theory. European and American scholars tended to see the founding ideology of Chosun to be neo-Confucianism, call Chosun the land of orthodoxy, and compare Chosun with the Ming and Qing Dynasties, when the doctrines of Wang Yangming and the methodology of historical research prevailed, as well as Japan during the era of Tokugawa bakufu, when the ideological climate was rich. However, Prof. Duncan argued that the mainstream of Korean Confucianism in the 14th and 15th century was closer to classical literature of the Northern Sung Dynasty that placed more importance on the roles of the central government than the neo-Confucianism of the Southern Sung Dynasty that valued individual cultivation and local autonomy such as Hyangyak. He also demonstrated that Chosun Confucianism was flexible in practice, dealing with reality according to the flow of the period and not being bound to the orthodox theory of neo-Confucianism. Furthermore, he emphasized differences between the public-private concept of the West, which pursued egoistic interests, and that of Korea and the Far East, which pursued harmony across society, regarding the discussions about Confucian capitalism and Confucian nationalism that were popular among European and American social scientists in the 1990s. Thus he maintained that the model from the Western history should not be mechanically applied to the Orient.
The third topic concerns the formation of the nation. For the last ten years or so, European and American scholars argued that the formation of the Korean nation happened in the late 19th century or early 20th century, being the product of Western nationalism. Unlike their argument, however, Prof. Duncan discussed that the formation of the Korean nation was much earlier than that of the West due to the long experiences as a unified nation and foreign invasions such as the Manchu Invasion of 1636 and Japanese Invasion of 1592. He also concluded that intellectuals since the former half of Goryeo were aware that they belonged to a social and cultural group beyond the boundaries of a kingdom or dynasty, being called the same country, and that even the common people were very likely to have nationalistic perceptions that they were different from Japanese and Chinese people already in the 17th and 18th century, judging from diverse materials including Imjinrok that was orally passed down.
And finally, he actively re-reviewed the discourse of failure in the 19th century. The European and American scholars mostly understand that Korea was colonized by Japan or Western powers after opening its port in 1876. But Prof. Duncan saw the argument as the product of the modernization theory, which was raised by the United States after the 1950s. He pointed out that the argument overestimated the interfering influences of foreign powers such as Japan, China and Russia on Korea those days and overlooked the Korean people's efforts to make the country stronger for themselves. Then he went on to reexamine the reform projects and modernization processes of the Great Korean Empire and proved that their reform directions and independent modernization efforts at the end of the empire were positive in order to renew the perceptions of Korea in the late 19th century and early 20th century.
In addition to those outstanding academic achievements, Prof. Duncan has made tremendous academic contributions to the field of Korean studies through the following three kinds of publications: he published books to introduce the research on Korean history by American scholars to the Korean academy, translated the primary materials of Korea into English, and introduced the research achievements of Korean scholars to the West. They are part of his important academic contributions in that they helped to establish the universality of Korean history. In short, Prof. Duncan as a scholar of Korean studies has concentrated his academic passion on Korean studies to objectively understand and write Korea's historical experiences beyond the subjective views and interests of different academies across many nations. Thus his research of Korean history holds important significance.
Being recognized for his academic achievements, he was awarded the Korea Foundation Award from the foundation in 2009.