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Korean Historian: French Tricolor Not a Product of “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity”

Korean Historian: French Tricolor Not a Product of “Freedom, Equality, Fraternity”

Posted September. 24, 2005 07:12,   


What do the colors blue, white and red in the French flag represent? The traditional answer is that the colors represent freedom, equality and fraternity, or the spirit of the French Revolution. But is that really true? Author Kim Eung-jong, a history professor at Chungnam National University, says not and argues that it is only a manifestation of western culture admiration.

The first time the tricolor flag appeared was on July 17, 1789, three days after the French Revolution started. The commander of the French National Guard, Lafayette, created the flag by putting the red and blue, which represented Paris, together with white, the symbolic color of the French royal flag. It meant that the king and the revolutionaries of Paris had joined hands.

The three spirits were not slogans of the French Revolution. They were the slogans stipulated in the constitution of the Second Republic. The basis for linking the three spirits with the tricolor flag can only be found in the second article of the Fifth Republic’s constitution, in 1958, when the tricolor flag was ordained as the national symbol and the three spirits were made the slogan of the republic.

In particular, out of the three spirits, “fraternite,” which is translated as “fraternity,” is a quite distant meaning from the lofty definition. As shown in the slogan “Fraternity or death,” fraternity had the violent meaning of distinguishing friends and enemies, both domestic and foreign. The author explains that in such terms, if freedom led to liberalism and equality into socialism, fraternity led to nationalism.

Through 12 chapters, this book analyses and dissects modern western history, which has been mystified such as this example. He shows the darker side of western revolutions that called for noble causes, and discloses the dogma of the religious reforms calling for freedom of religion. On the other hand, he also gives credit to medieval times, branded as the dark ages, in order to justify modernization, and the positive aspects of absolute monarchies.

The Glorious Revolution, also praised as the bloodless revolution, was in reality a bloody civil war, which, according to some researchers, had higher casualties than World War I, considered as the most miserable war in British history. During the French Revolution period, about 200,000 were massacred in a civil war in the Vendee region, while another two million French died in wars abroad. The Russian Revolution was a catastrophic tragedy that sacrificed at least 55 million.

Jean Calvin, considered by Max Weber as having established the spiritual base for modern capitalism, was an ideological tyrant that claimed “religious freedom” but did not recognize the religious freedom of others. Geneva, under the leadership of Calvin, was a small city of 16,000. However, during his first five years of rule, 13 were hanged, 10 were decapitated, 35 burned and 76 were expelled.

Jus primae noctis, Latin for “law of the first night,” is a law that allowed lords or Catholic priests to sleep with a bride first, before she was married to a serf. The author offers evidence that this law might actually have been a myth created by enlightened society members who wanted to end feudalism and criticized the lords and the old system that wanted to establish a central ruling body.

The author emphasizes that western nations are an “imagined community” created in modern times and says that “the mission of the historian is not to take the lead in creating tradition, but disclosing manufactured traditions.” In such context, he suggests distinguishing nationalism into a nationalism that offers people a choice to join, and another exclusive nationalism that only uses blood and race as its standard for membership. He also criticizes nationalistic Korean history academics who adhere not to history but only to national history.

His logic, which provides a large amount of historical background and references, criticizes the mystification of western history, and makes arguments against nationalism is very clear. However, the author, who is said to have read only three articles criticizing China’s Northeast Project, writes, “Korean scholars are not proving evidence why Goguryeo is Korean history.” In this part, it seems that he lost a bit of balance in comparing East and West for the sake of pursuing logical lucidity.

Chae-Hyun Kwon confetti@donga.com