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The History of Civilization Is Not an Exchange of Conflict

The History of Civilization Is Not an Exchange of Conflict

Posted November. 17, 2001 11:32,   


Chung Soo-il (67), former Professor of History (East and West Relations History), published two massive volumes which are close to 10,000 pages long. The books are titled `History of Exchange Between Civilizations in Antiquity` and `Silk Road Studies`. Professor Chung was arrested in July of 1996 for espionage and received a sentence of 12 years. After serving five years in prison, he was transferred to a detention center on August 15th of last year. It seemed that the public was forgetting him during his imprisonment, but last September Dr. Chung published `Ibn Batuta`s Travels` (2 Volumes – Original Text and Critical Commentary), an important work for understanding the Islamic world and the history of relations between East and West. The work was the second translation of the original text in the world and drew great interest from publishers and the academy in Korea. Two months after, he has published two different types of work.

`History of Exchange Between Civilizations in Antiquity` is the first volume of Professor Chung`s projected `Complete History of Exchanges Between Civilizations`. Volumes on the Medieval and Pre-Modern periods are forthcoming. A history of exchange does not approach 5000 years of human history by looking at the rise of and fall of kingdoms or the perspective of evolution. It approaches history through `exchange and communication`. A project whose academic point is not yet clear, Professor Chung`s study of history from the perspective of exchange purports to go beyond the categories of `East` or `West`, `advanced` or `developing`, and seeks to understand civilizations through mutual relations and exchange.

In the `History of Exchange`, which spans over 700 pages, a tapestry of exchanges between ancient civilizations such as in Roman times unfolds. For example, the work traces how the dissemination of jade glass and precious stones facilitated these exchanges between ancient civilizations, how the statues of the Buddha travels from India and becomes transformed in the interaction with Greek civilization. The Scythians, the Huns, and other horse-herding tribes of the North who have been relegated to the margins in importance also become a part of the thread of exchange. The work is a new way of looking at world history and civilizations rather than rewriting that history.

If the history of exchange is the keyword for a macroscopic view of world history, the Silk Road is the keyword to a microscopic view of the history of exchange. One cannot ignore the central importance of the Silk Road which served as the main throughway for exchange between civilizations. This is why Professor Chung named his book `Silk Road Studies`. The author explains that studying the thousands of years of human travels and interactions through the Silk Road leads us to understand the complete underlying framework of the history of exchange. Once we examine the actual exchanges that took place between people, the fossilized history comes alive.

We went to the author`s residence in Seoul, Kumhodong because we wanted to hear some of the stories behind the writing. We had to turn back, however, when all that we got was his wife`s voice on the intercom - ``His whereabouts are uncertain, so you can`t meet him.`` The closed door did not open and no one answered the phone. Although we wanted to persuade her further, we felt our resolve weaken when his wife said, ``(My husband) only sleeps two to three hours a day and his health has gotten very bad.``

The only other course of action was to email the author our questions. Professor Chung responded, ``The field of `Silk Road Studies` was a subject I formed under the `Exchange of Civilizations Research` and taught it to my students. But after my arrest, the field was shut down. I felt sorry for my students and thought that I should at least record my notes for possible future use and spent two years in prison working on that.`` As for the `History of Exchange`, Professor Chung said that the work was finished in 1995 but he only published it this year. He says that the bibliography is comprised of works that are five years old because he could not make any outside communication during imprisonment and could not access libraries easily even after release because he lost his citizenship. Although he wanted to give up on publishing it because he felt burdened by his conscience, he finally mustered up enough courage to submit it for publication. During the time that he wrote `Ibn Batuta`s Travels`, Professor Chung put together 20 or so pieces of paper that were 10-15 cm in size with pieces of rice and drew four historical maps on his own. In the other two books, he also drew multiple maps by himself and compiled hundreds of index items, showing an unflagging scholarly discipline. Professor Chung constructed a map of the three roads that formed the heart of the exchange route between the East and the West because he wanted to show his readers the actual topography. This map is worthy to be called a masterpiece.

`History of Exchange Between Civilizations in Antiquity`

By Chung Soo-il

Sakyejul Publishers

`Silk Road Studies`

Original Text and Critical Commentary

Mun-Myung Huh angelhuh@donga.com