Building Korean Studies into a thriving field
UCLA historian John Duncan. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

Building Korean Studies into a thriving field

The immense contributions of UCLA historian John Duncan to the Korean Studies field will be celebrated at a workshop on May 24. Duncan retires from UCLA in late June.

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, May 23, 2019 — Colleagues, former students and staff inevitably speak of UCLA Professor John Duncan with great respect and affection. A historian of pre-modern Korea, Duncan joined the UCLA faculty in 1989. Over the next 30 years, he became a recognized scholar of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) while helping build Korean Studies into a thriving field, both at UCLA and worldwide.

“I have to have had one of the world's best jobs, there’s no way to get around it,” reflects Duncan. A member of the third generation of U.S. scholars of Korea, he became a professor in 1988 — a moment when the stage was set for explosive growth in Korean Studies.

“There were a number of factors behind that growth: the large number of Korean American students arriving on campus and wanting courses on Korea, the dynamic growth of the Korean economy, the democratization of South Korea and the Korean government’s willingness to step forward and provide some funding for Korean Studies overseas,” he remarks.

Duncan began his career at Boise State University in Idaho, but joined the department of Asian languages and cultures at UCLA a year later, where he has also served as chair and director of graduate studies. He also was study center director of the UC Education Abroad Program at Korea University, his undergraduate alma mater, for four years.

“I feel extraordinarily blessed to have been here at UCLA, in part because of its location in Los Angeles,” he adds “There is a very large Korean presence here, with many Korean American students and many non-Korean students interested in Korea.”

In honor of his retirement at the end of June, Duncan’s immense contributions to the field as a scholar and educator will be celebrated at the “Workshop on Korean History, Culture and Society” on May 24, 2019 at the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library

Speakers at the event will include senior colleagues in the field and a number of Duncan’s former Ph.D. students. The Center for Korean Studies, which the UCLA professor led for 16 years as director and then co-director, organized the workshop and has created the John Duncan Fellowship in Korean Studies in tribute to him.

A dream career: Seizing the opportunity to build a field

Until the early 1990s, the study of Korea in North America had been limited largely to pre-modern history and modern Korean politics (heavily influenced by a Cold War lens). Duncan and colleagues in the field consciously seized the opportunity to build Korean Studies at UCLA, both in terms of size (i.e., the number of students and scholars) and breadth (i.e., the number of disciplines covered).

“Throughout my time at UCLA,” says Duncan, “the university has been very supportive of what we've been trying to do with Korean Studies. We have about 15 faculty working on Korea now at UCLA. Only three of those positions were created with money from the Korea Foundation — the rest were created by UCLA. That's amazing.”

UCLA faculty specializing in Korea, moreover, teach in a broad range of disciplines, including history, literature, sociology, film and television, ethnomusicology and gender studies — giving students the widest range of undergraduate courses on Korea of any university in North America.

Robert Buswell — founding director of the Center for Korean Studies (CKS), current director of the Center for Buddhist Studies and distinguished professor of Buddhist Studies — notes, “It is John, more than anyone, who helped shape Korean Studies at UCLA into the premier such program in the United States. When he served as director of CKS, John realized that the strength of a program derived from its ability to recruit superlative graduate students.

“John’s approach to scholarship,” continues Buswell, “has shaped the UCLA program: a solid foundation in pre-modern history, religion and literature, impeccable grasp of classical Chinese, virtually native command of modern Korean and Japanese and profound engagement with Korean, Japanese and Western scholarly traditions.

“In the course of raising several millions of dollars in core funding for the center, which put it on solid financial footing,” says Buswell, “he also ensured that much of that funding went to graduate-student support. This decision ensured that UCLA’s graduates would be the scholars who would seed the many new programs in Korean Studies that began around the country over the last generation.”

In addition to awarding CKS numerous grants, the Korean Foundation made a $1 million endowment contribution to the center. Duncan initially raised another million in matching funds, roughly $750,000 of which was donated by individuals living in Korea. Surprisingly, few contributions came from the Korean American community in the United States.

“John has been known for his tireless service to the field; he has produced probably the largest number of Ph.D.s among all faculty of Koran Studies outside South Korea,” comments current CKS Director Namhee Lee, a cultural historian of modern Korea at UCLA. “He has been a principal advisor for 25 Ph.D.s, many of whom have gone on to become important figures in the field.”

Cindy Fan, vice provost for international studies and global engagement at UCLA, remarks, “John has been instrumental in making UCLA’s engagement with Korea highly successful by strengthening our student exchange programs with Korean institutions and by partnering with the Korea Foundation to foster a vibrant Korean Studies community on campus. He has also been a sage advisor to the International Institute’s leadership,” she adds. “I am grateful to him for being so generous with his scholarship and wisdom, and for giving so much to UCLA.”

Interest in Korea has widened appreciably among the UCLA student body in the 30 years that Duncan has taught here. When he began teaching on campus, some 70 to75 percent of his undergraduate students were Korean Americans. Today, he says, “Korean Civilization” (a course so popular that it reaches whatever student limit is set) draws a broad mixture of students from every ethnicity.

“Probably the thing that I have enjoyed the most in my career is working with graduate students,” shares Duncan, “that’s been a real source of pleasure and inspiration for me.” In training a generation of Korea scholars, he has sought to ensure that they develop excellent Korean language skills and hands-on experience of the Korean academic system early in their careers.

“One of the sources of frustration for me and other colleagues who have worked to build the Korean Studies field was the very poor language skills of U.S. Koreanists,” says the historian. After years of sustained but unsuccessful efforts, Duncan and colleague Professor Ross King (University of British Columbia) created the Inter-University Center (IUC) for Advanced Korean Language Studies at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul four years ago.

Their aim was to establish a program not only where graduate students could perfect their Korean academic language skills, but where established scholars could do the same, enabling them to present research and participate in question-and-answer sessions in Korean. Several universities participate in the program, among them, UCLA, the University of British Columbia, Harvard, Michigan and USC.

For Jennifer Jung-Kim, who completed a Ph.D. in history under Duncan and now teaches for both the International Institute and the department of Asian languages and cultures at UCLA, the language center is one of Duncan’s signature contributions to the field. “Graduate students from all over the world now have a place to hone their Korean language skills so they can research and speak at a proficient level,” she says.

Korean Studies takes root in Latin America

Duncan has not only advanced the field of Korean Studies in the United States, but also in Latin America. At the invitation of the South Korean government, he spent over a decade working to develop scholarly interest in Korea in the region, starting roughly 15 years ago.

Duncan worked with a team of UCLA colleagues (including experts on both Korea and Latin America) to give professors and students in Latin America a solid grounding in Korean Studies. Using grants secured from various institutions supported by the South Korean government, the UCLA team participated in lecture tours, joint research projects, intensive lecture workshops and offered tele-education courses broadcast from UCLA to universities in Central and South America.


Carolina Mera of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (left) and UCLA's Kyeyoung Park at a
July 2007 conference, "Korean Studies in the Americas," which brought scholars of Korea
from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and the United States to UCLA. (Photo: UCLA.)

“Our goal from the beginning was to take advantage of the expertise that existed in Latin American universities, to try to build on what they already had and to support our colleagues to the point where they could do it on their own,” remarks Duncan. “I'm very happy to say that we've succeeded in that.”

The UCLA team turned over the tele-education lecture program in Korean Studies to the National Autonomous University of Nuevo León three years ago. “I remain active as part of their executive committee and continue to participate in their programs from time to time, as do some of our other faculty here,” he says.

A career path that began in Korea

Duncan’s biography is well known in the Korean Studies field. When lack of funds caused him to drop out of college, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea at the height of the Vietnam War. He spent two tours there, during which he worked hard to improve his Korean language skills.

“I discovered that I really liked the place and the people,” he says. “At that age, I was sort of rebelling against what I thought was the excessive individualism of American society. When I went to Korea, I discovered that people had a very strong group orientation there; I found that fascinating.

“And Koreans are very warm. If you’re in Korea a month, you have some friends and you’ve been to somebody’s house for dinner,” he comments. “At least, that’s the way it used to be.”

After finishing his military service, Duncan stayed in Korea and spent another year doing intensive language study. He then enrolled in Korea University, where he completed his undergraduate education. At the time, he was the first — and only — Western student at the university, although a few U.S. Peace Corps volunteers were then teaching English there.

Duncan went on to complete an M.A. in history at the University of Hawaii and a Ph.D. at the University of Washington. Although his initial research interest was the social-political history of pre-modern Korea, over time he became interested in Koreans’ sense of self, both among the elite and everyday people.

“I’ve been doing something much more akin to cultural history, or intellectual and cultural history,” he says. His chief research finding? “Koreans have had a strong sense of self as constituting a distinctive and enduring social-cultural-political collectivity that dates back for centuries,” he says.

Among Duncan’s many publications are: “The Origins of the Chosŏn Dynasty” (University of Washington, 2000); “Rethinking Confucianism: Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam,” co-edited with Benjamin Elman and Herman Ooms (Asia and Pacific Monograph Series, UCLA, 2002): “Reform and Modernization in the Taehan Empire,” co-edited with Dong-no Kim and Do-hyung Kim (Jimoondang, 2006); and “The Institutional Basis of Civil Governance in the Chosŏn Dynasty,” co-edited with Lee Jung Chul (Seoul Selection, 2009).

Duncan has also translated many works on Korea from classical Chinese and Korean into English, including several items in “Sourcebook of Korean Tradition,” 2 vols., edited by UCLA Professor Peter H. Lee (Columbia, 1993 and 1996), as well as two monographs: Kang Man-gil, “A Revised History of Contemporary Korea” (Global Oriental/ Brill, 2005) and Kim Jungbae et al., “A New History of Parhae” (Global Oriental/ Brill, 2012).

Over the course of his career, Duncan has received many prestigious awards, including the Yongjae Award (Yonsei University, 2017), Manhae Grand Prize (Society for the Promotion and Practice of Manhae Thought, 2010) and the Korea Foundation Award (2009).

The UCLA professor is an active member of the Korean Studies community in both the West and in Asia, writing, presenting and publishing research and in both English and Korean. He currently serves as one of three editors for the Historical Materials Series of the Korean Classics Library coordinated by the UCLA Center for Buddhist Studies. In fact, says Duncan, editing translations for that project will occupy his first six months of retirement, at a minimum! He will, of course, continue to do research and publish — only without the demands of teaching or administrative service.

“It is hard to see him retire,” says Hyung-wook Kim, Ph.D., assistant director of the Center for Korean Studies, another former graduate student. “Meanwhile, I understand he deserves a less stressful life — no more faculty meetings! — after long years of helping many others. To call him my mentor does not sufficiently express my respect and appreciation for him.”

This article was published on May 23, 2019, and updated on May 24.