ON August 1, 2001, Ko Towŏn [Go Dowon], a former journalist and speechwriter for President Kim Dae-jung (in office 1998–2003), initiated an experimental daily e-mail service, which he named “morning letters” (ach’im p’yŏnji). These morning letters consisted of short extracts from the books that Ko had read and thought impressive, along with his brief reflections on them. Subscribers could read most of these letters, which look like hastily combined aphorisms, within a couple of minutes. Calling his e-mails “vitamins for the mind,” Ko claimed that “a great phrase can make the whole day happy, and can sometimes even change a person’s destiny.”1 The morning letters proved to be an immediate success, and subscriptions increased rapidly, swelling to 3.84 million (about 8 percent of the South Korean population) by 2018 and still growing. Compilations of these letters have been published in three volumes.2 With the remarkable growth in the pool of subscribers, Ko added more features to the morning letter service, such as two-minute speeches that had been created in meditation camps (where subscribers were recruited to give speeches that would be posted online), which he named the Lincoln School; traveling programs for mental healing and inner peace; and an online shopping mall for organic products and books recommended by Ko. Subscribers can also read the e-mails through a smartphone app and Facebook.
Just as gift-giving operates on the assumption of reciprocation,3 epistolary transactions for communication generally demand mutual exchanges through replies. In this respect, delayed response or failure to respond could be considered disrespectful.4 The subscribers to Ko’s service, however, do not appear to expect to correspond with him. The morning letters are a one-way transmission of information. The letter writing in this context does not conform to the generic notion of epistolary communication that replaces face-to-face conversations between the sender and the addressee. Instead, it is intended to encourage the recipients to perform acts of meditative self-reflection in everyday life. The sender delivers the messages to various recipients; however, it is each addressee’s choice to ruminate on and personally respond to the values of the messages; there is no obligation to report back to the sender. Letters in this context broadcast Ko’s vision of self-cultivation rather than facilitating reciprocal communication. This example shows that writing, reading, and using letters can be extended beyond the bilateral communication between sender and addressee. In spite of the very specific notions that people might have about letters, their actual functions are neither preset nor immutable but are cocreated with diverse practices in which both writers and readers appropriate them for various projects at their discretion. The flexibility and adaptability characterizing epistolary practices, combined with the versatility and resourcefulness of their users, invigorate as well as complicate human interactions and social life.
In the history of media innovations, however, convergence between bilateral conversation and broadcasting of information is unusual. With its integration of these two seemingly incompatible communicative operations, the Internet has the ability to change many aspects of human behavior. Previously, innovations of new media forms in the modern world have improved only one of these domains. For instance, the invention of the telegram and telephone enhanced bilateral conversation with minimal contribution to the broadcasting of information. Conversely, the invention of newspapers, radio, and television did not generate crucial changes in conversation but dramatically altered the pattern of broadcasting.5 The way that discrete attributes of different media forms influence how their users record, circulate, archive, and retrieve information has been called the “bias of communication.”6 The adaptability of epistolary practices, which encompass individual and group communications as well as wide dissemination of information, defies this binary analytical frame in media studies.
The usage of letters for disparate purposes also influences their content. In particular, usage may change the relation between epistles and writings in other genres. Ko handpicks phrases and axioms from books that he reads and combines them in the form of morning letters. Although he adds comments, the main contents of each letter are derived from other works in different genres: poetry, essays, novels, academic works on social sciences or history, and self-help guides. At a glance, Ko’s basic principle of composing these letters is similar to that underlying the composition of the sorts of commonplace books, which aided men of letters in early modern Europe in managing various kinds of information.7 Just as European literati compiled what they thought useful, Ko Towŏn gathers quotations to pass along. In fact, this method of extracting phrases from multiple sources was not uncommon historically in drafting letters. Women letter writers in eighteenth-century France were encouraged to fill their letters with quotations from books written by male intellectuals in order to demonstrate their cultural cultivation.8 The promiscuity of letters that cut across virtually every kind of information and narrative style does not allow us to easily outline their function and define them as a single genre.
The fluidity of epistles as multiple genres makes them adaptable to diverse media interfaces. Morning letters, which the subscribers receive in their e-mail inboxes, are also available by visiting the morning letter Facebook page (https://ko-kr.facebook.com/godowon/) or connecting to the smartphone app designed for this service. To access the letters, readers can use either passive or active methods, at their convenience. It is also notable that Ko Towŏn published the compilations of morning letters as books. The crossover of the same letters among multiple media forms expands the possible reading modes, which can diversify readership as well as multiply the meanings and social functions of the content. Moreover, these letters, taking physical forms different from their original shape, could easily hybridize with other genres manifested in those material conditions.
The diverse media forms available for the morning letters are geared to the lifestyles of the people who read them. The subscribers must have initially signed up for this service in the expectation of receiving e-mails every morning that would encourage them to engage in self-examination and reflection on their life. In spite of this shared motivation, subscribers may open and read the letters at different moments of the day, and the length of time spent on them may vary from person to person. Some letters might deeply touch the souls of readers, others not so much. Some subscribers may make it their daily ritual to delete the morning letters without even opening them, if they do not unsubscribe from the service. Even though the degree and method of receiving the letters might vary, their arrival every morning punctuates the tempo of the recipients’ daily practices. These letters inserted into the rhythm of people’s lives modify their behavior patterns even if the recipients do not engage with the messages.
The subscribers whose daily life revolves around the same letters have formed a new community with more than three million members. Although they do not know each other, they share the experiences of getting, reading, and reflecting on identical e-mails every day. The members of this epistolary community are tied to Ko Towŏn, as only he has control over sending e-mails to all subscribers. He maintains about 3.8 million nodes, each connecting him to a member; however, these nodes do not intersect with each other unless they go through Ko. To put it differently, Ko’s morning letter service has steered the subscribers into a radial network individually connected to Ko as a guru-like figure rather than into a multidirectional nexus tangled among themselves. The subscribers are free to join the community, but they have no capacity to organize themselves into any meaningful actions for other sociopolitical purposes through their membership. This is a stark difference from what social media theorist Clay Shirky points out as the political potential of Internet users, who generate unpredictable networks by virtue of the effortless connectivity among individuals that technology makes possible.9 Although the morning letter service also uses Internet technologies to reach a wide range of people, it only disseminates Ko’s messages rather than encouraging the subscribers to spontaneously interact. These technologies and human interactions using them do not automatically spark the activist vigor of the people who join this new network, although some particular sociocultural settings enable certain communicative modes to unleash egalitarian and democratizing potential. The usage of the same communication technologies does not necessarily bring about identical behavioral patterns among users under disparate sociocultural circumstances.
As the mediator of all communication in this epistolary community, Ko is ideally positioned to mobilize the members behind different agendas. In fact, he has taken advantage of the enlarged membership to add offline activities. The offline campaigns for two-minute speeches in meditation camps involve a particularly complicated mobilization scheme. These events, mostly attended by morning letter subscribers, allow them to confirm and embody their membership in the same epistolary community through person-to-person interactions in offline space. Moreover, because the highlights of these events, particularly the video clips of two-minute speeches, appear on the morning letter website, the community originally formed intangibly in online space nicely dovetails with the physical gatherings of its members, and vice versa. This coordination between the formation of an epistolary community and the actual social mobilization of its members demonstrates that the act of writing and reading letters can bring together individuals who would not form social groups otherwise.
Ko Towŏn’s application of letters for new purposes, however, is not historically unprecedented. Like the impact of the Internet on the social interactions and organizing patterns of individuals in the contemporary world, letter-writing practices affected both interpersonal nexuses and mobilization of the masses in Chosŏn (1392–1910) Korea. Sixteenth-century Korea underwent remarkable changes in the written communication within elite households, the methods of Confucian scholarship, the social organizations of rural scholars, and their mode of political participation; all these changes converged in the appropriation of letter writing in one way or another. Letter writing had spread widely across society thanks to the invention of an easy-to-learn Korean alphabet in the mid-fifteenth century. After this, many elite women began to write and read, and the correspondence between men and women increased incrementally in elite households, despite the gender hierarchy under Confucian patriarchy. Letter writing became an indispensable daily practice for the Chosŏn elites. This caused both men and women to share their different perceptions about textuality and cultural norms, which gave rise to a new kind of textual culture. The routinization of letter writing in everyday life also prompted Chosŏn people to plug epistolary practices into various projects, similar to how Internet users began to use the technology for unexpected purposes.
Only when diverse social actors considered the Internet quotidian and mundane, part of daily life, did something sociopolitically interesting proliferate there. The connections that people had created in online space entailed diverse organizational patterns for new kinds of political initiatives, social activism, and cultural movements. Ko’s morning letters, likewise, could be successful only because the majority of the Korean population was already saturated with the Internet. The parallels between Ko’s morning letters and sixteenth-century Korean epistolary practices attest to the commonality between letter writing and Internet culture in terms of communicative potential. Just as the morning letters aim at disseminating Ko’s perspectives, Chosŏn letter writers devised diverse social epistolary genres to broadcast their opinions. The subscribers to the morning letter service read Ko’s messages for self-reflection; Chosŏn scholars read the letters written by some prominent masters for Confucian studies and self-cultivation. Moreover, intertextuality with writings in other genres characterizes the letter-writing practices in both cases, and the expanded functions of letters allow them to take diverse media forms and material conditions. Now we read Chosŏn letters in several different material forms: original manuscripts, those mounted on scrolls, those published in codex form both printed and hand-copied, albums in which manuscript letters were pasted, and those photographed into microfilms or microfiches, as well as digitized forms of all the aforementioned material conditions. In both online communities of twenty-first-century South Korea and epistolary networks during the Chosŏn period, letters and letter-writing practices offered their users the versatility and resourcefulness to address and handle diverse issues in the most appropriate communicative and material forms. How can we explain the diversification of Korean epistolary culture in the sixteenth century, rather than earlier or later? And how did it give rise to changes in the definition of textual norms, the mode of knowledge production, the pattern of social interactions, and the method of political mobilization?
This book aims to provide answers to these questions by examining the roles that epistolary practices played in Chosŏn society. Through epistolary practices, people plugged letters, both their own and others’, into all sorts of social interactions, which led them to encompass virtually all kinds of writings as part of letters. The adaptability and flexibility of these practices could seamlessly apply to diverse issues with which the Chosŏn social actors were grappling. Universal characteristics of epistles as multiple genres intersected with historical specificities of Chosŏn society, including (1) the changed linguistic environment after the invention of the Korean alphabet; (2) the lengthy and gradual process of Confucianization; and (3) the novel mode of social leadership and political interaction with the state by educated elites in rural areas.
Building upon existing studies that explore mostly the contents of letters, this book examines letters as material objects, considers the uses of letters for communication and other functions, and analyzes performative elements added to Chosŏn epistolary practices. In sum, it takes a broader perspective to show how the resourcefulness of individual letter writers and the adaptability of epistles defined both the physical conditions of letters as material objects and their communicative functions under disparate sociopolitical circumstances. This epistolary environment reveals how Chosŏn letter writers expressed and shared their thoughts and emotions, produced and circulated diverse information and opinions, and interpreted and performed them. Those who mastered the written culture developed in the dominant communicative mode governed the academic discourse, gender norms, and the mode of political participation. Korean written culture created room for appropriation and subversion by those who joined epistolary practices, particularly by minority elite groups. Like digital forms of communication today, letter-writing practices during the second half of the Chosŏn dynasty were at the heart of sociocultural changes, as epistolary practices directed other variables to interact in new ways.