Shin-pyo Kang

Introduction to the New English Edition of “Twenty Days with Claude Lévi-Strauss in Korea”

Editors’ note: This is the first appearance in English of a seminar hosted by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1981. The following is a new introduction written by Kang Shin-pyo. Both selected excerpts and the full seminar transcript with appendices are also available.


This book is the record of a remarkable conversation between Claude Lévi-Strauss, the leading proponent of structural anthropology in the twentieth century, and a group of South Korean scholars invited as leaders in their respective disciplines. It took place in Seongnam, in the context of a seminar that was conceived as an encounter not only between scholarly generations but also between East and West and North and South. The conversation filled five days in October 1981, interrupted for eleven days while Lévi-Strauss traveled in the South Korean countryside to explore aspects of the country’s cultural traditions.

The seminar was initiated by Kang Shin-pyo, then Chairman of the Department of Socio-Cultural Research at the Academy of Korean Studies. Kang had begun to apply a structuralist approach to the analysis of East Asian cultures in the course of his doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii and became acquainted with Lévi-Strauss’s work during academic sojourns in London and Paris. In this respect he was typical of a generation of South Korean humanities scholars who by the mid-1970s were internationally mobile and alert to developments in European and American theory and methodology. The 1981 seminar provided an opportunity for them to engage with Western scholars on their home ground; although Lévi-Strauss and his ideas were the focus of the seminar, other North American and European anthropologists took part by invitation: David Eyde, David Wu, Bob Scholte and Henry Lewis.

The institutional context in which these scholars came together was the work of the Academy of Korean Studies, which was sponsoring a project on the theme of Symbol and Society in Traditional Korea. The Academy had been created in 1978 by the South Korean Ministry of Education, Science and Technology under the government of President Park Chung-hee. Park had established a military dictatorship in 1963 and sealed its authoritarian character with the Yushin constitution in 1972. Under his leadership the country underwent a process of rapid forced modernization sustained by a combination of police repression and the mobilization of popular consent. The creation of the Academy was part of a strategy of “balancing” the effects of technological and economic change through the promotion of cultural or spiritual values; its name was literally Research Institute of Korean Spiritual Culture. Under the dictatorship its function was to legitimate the regime at the level of culture as well as to provide materials for the construction and dissemination of a nationalist historical narrative. Accordingly, the “Korean Studies” that it looked to develop was not an area studies of the kind that were developing in the West at the same time (although, like the Western version, it was multi-disciplinary), but rather a program of research and development directed inwards with national consciousness as its object. 

Appendix 2, Figure 3: Seminar Participants at Academy of Korean Studies.

The 1981 seminar thus took place at the heart of a significant moment in South Korea’s political economy, but the character of that moment and the paradoxes it implied for the mission of a humanities project with “traditional culture” at its center are largely absent from the conversation. When Lévi-Strauss, at his own insistence, went in search of tradition in the provinces, his attention was directed to the restored manor houses of the provincial service (양반 yangban) elite and the folk villages (민속마을 minsokmaeul) maintained as showpieces by local and regional governments. These preserved the traces of a historical way of life whose disappearance was being accelerated by forced development in the countryside; the icon of rural modernization under the banner of the New Village (새마을 saemaeul) Movement launched in 1970 was the replacement of wood and thatch roofs with corrugated iron. The author of Tristes tropiques recognized this tension when, in his concluding remarks, he expressed the “hope that Asia comes up with a solution to the problem of how to live with the free market and industrialization without the destruction of interpersonal relationships and the destruction of meaning.” And the problem of reconciling “industrialization” and tradition—the Academy’s underlying agenda—was certainly part of the conversation here, acknowledged and embraced in particular by David Eyde.

It is notable, though, that the forces challenging “tradition” appear in these conversations as impersonal and global. Eyde in particular falls easily into the language of Westernization, Americanization and (Western) imperialism. The particular circumstances of South Korea’s modernization, in which Park’s illiberal state in partnership with big corporations controlled the market and enforced low wages and poor working conditions by manipulating and criminalizing the labor movement, are unspoken here. In effect the Korean and Western speakers are talking about different things, and it is not clear how far the visitors are aware of it. Similarly striking is the candor with which Bob Scholte articulates his (generational) challenge to the authority of anthropological knowledge in “neo-Marxist” terms (along with the exchange about Lévi-Strauss’s comparison of South Asian Buddhism to Marxism). In 1981, a new dictator, Chun Doo-hwan, was consolidating his position following the brutal suppression of democracy movements precipitated by Park’s 1979 assassination, and the seminar participants’ presumption of open intellectual exchange contrasts sharply with the repression of the left which was part of everyday life on South Korean campuses at the time.

These contradictions, however, reflect the inherent ambivalence of the Korean Studies project. The developmental dictatorship’s interest in state-building coincided with the intellectual ambitions of a generation of scholars who were equally committed to identifying the elements of a post-colonial national identity “from the bottom up.” The fact that most of them had completed their doctoral studies abroad is itself a marker of that post-colonial moment, and one of their shared concerns was to explore the cultural and intellectual foundations for building strong, independent and locally rooted scholarship and scholarly institutions. In this sense, Korean Studies was a declaration of independence—from Western culture, but also from a well-established East Asian Studies which originated in Europe and in which Korean traditions were overwritten by Japanese and Chinese culture—and a quest in its own terms for a counter-balancing authenticity. Accordingly (as the list of participants indicates), with the notable exception of a number of scholars of French literature, most of the Koreans who attended the seminar were already engaged in the study of Korea’s historical culture from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. And they were facing a complex task: first, to introduce cosmopolitan discourses while negotiating the exit from post-colonial tutelage, and then to position themselves safely (and with intellectual integrity) between the nationalist dictatorship and the people, both generally symbolized by men in uniform.

Appendix 2, Figure 5: (top) Claude Lévi-Strauss commenting on the structuralist elements in Ancient Chinese Philosophy; (bottom) Claude Lévi-Strauss having conversations with Koh Byong-ik (President, Academy of Korean Studies) and other scholars of Korean Studies.

In the light of this wider picture, what we can observe in this seminar is the Academy—in spite of the intentions of its state founders—offering a safe space for intellectual interchange. (The proceedings were published in full in Korean at the time.) The outcomes of these conversations can be seen in the ways in which the seminar participants contributed to the development of public life and the critical academy in South Korea following democratization after 1987. A few examples: Lee Gwang-Gyu and Choi Hyup were among those who contributed to establishing a research base for the institutionalized national project. They laid the foundations for research on the Korean diaspora based on Lévi-Straussian approaches to family structure, and Lee was later appointed as the first president of the Overseas Korean Foundation. Kang Shin-pyo himself became a leading voice in an ongoing debate about whether it would be possible to generate forms of social theory that were distinctly Korean, derived from the characteristic elements of Korean culture. Yu Jung Ho can stand for the literary scholars who would introduce post-structural theory to the debates, through translation and original work; he was also active in movements for civic empowerment and in discussions about the politics and ethics of engaged scholarship. Cho Hae Jung and Cho Ok La, who did their research on women in Korean society, founded the organization Alternative Culture (또 하나의 문화 Tto Hanaui Munhwa), which was the cradle of cultural feminism in the 1990s.

As the present text makes clear, the seminar was carried on mainly in English, with occasional interjections in French. The transcript is presented here in English for the first time. The Korean version was published by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1983 under the title Anthropology of Lévi-Strauss and Korean Studies (레비스트로스의 人類學과 韓國學 Lebiseuteuroseu eui Illyuhak kwa hangukak). That edition included documentation on the planning of the seminar and short reflective essays by Lee Gwang-Gyu, as well as the photographs included here. The 1981 transcription was done by Bernard Olivier, and the present edition was prepared from the original typescripts by Cheong Hee Yun (Sogang University) and Eve Rosenhaft (Sogang and Liverpool Universities).   

Selected Excerpts from October 14, 1981, “Kinship and Social Organization”

Editors note: This is the first appearance in English of a seminar hosted by the Academy of Korean Studies in 1981. These are excerpts from the seminar’s first day. The full seminar transcript with appendices is also available.


Appendix 2, Figure 4: Seminar Kinship and Social Organization (October 14, 1981).

Kang, Shin-pyo: Now it’s my honor to introduce Professor Lévi-Strauss. Surely you all know that Professor Lévi-Strauss escaped from philosophy to anthropology, that his most extensive field research was with Brazilian Indians during the period 1935 to 1939 when he was professor of sociology at São Paolo University, and that after a wartime period in New York he returned to Paris, where since 1960 he has been Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of the Laboratory of Social Anthropology at the Collège de France. Surely you all also know that in the course of his career, Professor Lévi-Strauss has written a series of books and articles, perhaps most notably Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté, Anthropologie structurale, Le Totémisme aujourd’hui, La Pensée sauvage and Mythologiques, which have shown him to be one of the eminent minds not just of 20th– century anthropology, but of the intellectual life of the 20th century.

His structural anthropological approach to kinship and marriage, totemism, primitive classification, myths, and a variety of other topics has brought new perspectives and stimulated creative debates not only amongst anthropologists but throughout the social sciences and the humanities everywhere. The movement called structuralism which traces its ancestry largely to the ideas of Lévi-Strauss, even though he might well disavow some of its manifestations, is one of only a small handful of intellectual currents in the latter half of the 20th century which have generated new insights and creativity. Much of Lévi-Strauss’ thought reflects a deep awareness of process as an ongoing interplay between opposed and complementary poles. His structuralism at its most basic levels has a fundamental compatibility with traditional Asian world views. It’s therefore highly appropriate that his work with us leads off our research project on Symbol and Society in Korea.

In the interplay between data and theory, between structuralism and practical reason, between East and West, between North and South, we may hope and expect that there will be created new perspectives and insights into Korean culture, Asian culture, and human culture.

Claude Lévi-Strauss: I cannot start this presentation without first of all expressing my wife’s and my own feelings of gratitude to the Academy of Korean Studies, to President Koh, and to Professor Kang, for having made our trip possible and for the marvelous welcome they have given us. And listening a moment ago to President Koh’s words, I was also a little bit confused and ashamed that you should expect me to bring you anything new in the matter of social anthropology.

For it seems to me it’s a very old tradition in Korea to be interested in this kind of studies and even older perhaps than in the Western world. I’ve been told that Korean scholars consider that anthropological studies about Korean people and culture go back to the 18th century, when a group of people, belonging to the school of Silhak if I am not mistaken, published books on rural life, folk customs, and agricultural technology. And it so happens that, by a piece of luck, last night I was given the opportunity of reading a French student’s master thesis which is an annotated French translation of an 18th-century Korean book, which I don’t dare to pronounce, Kyongdo Chapchi, and I was really amazed at the details of ethnographical information, the precision of the details it’s possible to find in your old literature. And at the same time I was wondering if the tradition of anthropological studies in Korea doesn’t go back even earlier. When I read your great book, the Samguk Yusa, I noticed that in the seventh century King Munmu wished to appoint his half brother Prime Minister and that the latter accepted on the condition that he first be allowed to travel incognito throughout the country to observe the living conditions of the people, their labor and leisure, that is, doing anthropological fieldwork.

He said that at that time, each family of informants gave him a very pretty concubine to spend the night with, something which does not very often happen to contemporary anthropologists. But I noticed too that (also in the seventh century) a monk called Wonhyo had a son, very intelligent, who, it is said, composed books on folk customs and the place names of China and Silla. This son was considered one of the sages of Silla, which really puts anthropological research on a very high level.

And I have another reason to be confused and a little bit ashamed because we have to carry out our exchange in a language which, except for a few distinguished colleagues from the USA and Canada, is not our native tongue, and as you may have noticed already, my English is rather poor and I have a very strong French accent which makes it even more difficult for you to understand. Besides, when I try to express myself in English, I feel exhausted pretty soon, so I shall ask you as a favor not to hesitate to interrupt me if you don’t understand what I say, to ask me to repeat it, and if you disagree with what I am saying, to object. Really this will be a great help to me, because it will give me some relief when I’m trying to speak to all of you.

Today we are expected to discuss problems of kinship and social organization, and it’s not particularly, or it’s not exclusively, about my own work that I wish to talk, but about the kind of research which is being carried on nowadays in France, not only by me, but also by my associates and some younger colleagues. But since this research is always in the line of structural analysis, it is perhaps suitable that I should first of all begin by explaining what I understand, what I mean, by structure. The main distinction to be made in this respect would be between two notions: system and structure. What is a system? It is a grouping of elements and relations between those elements which fit together and which brings about a certain result. Let’s say for instance that an automobile engine is a system, so that if any element is modified or breaks down, the engine will not function anymore.

Structure is something rather different, or I would say it’s a special case of a system. It is made up of elements and relations like a system but also of the whole group of their transformations. By this I mean that in a structure, if an element or relation is changed, another change or several other changes will occur in the other elements or relations, while certain propositions will remain true about the structure.

It seems to me that this idea of a structure should be very easily grasped by people like you who have been brought up in the tradition of Confucian thought, because, really, I couldn’t find a better example of structural thought than ancient Chinese tradition. In that tradition, there are different systems. There is a cosmological system which is ruled, so to speak, by the Yin-Yang opposition. But this opposition can be transformed into many other oppositions, so that it can be said that Yang is to Yin as light is to darkness, as male is to female, as sky is to Earth, as the emperor is to his subjects, as ancestors are to the living, as a father is to a son, a husband to a wife, a master to a disciple or to the servants, and so on.

So we have different systems: cosmological, sociological, political, religious, but there is a close correspondence between all these systems, and when we shift from one to the others, there is a basic relationship or several basic relationships which remain the same. And what appears to me to be a characteristic of traditional Chinese thought is also a characteristic of many other kinds of thought all over the world; for instance, in ancient Greece, we find practically the same way of thinking. It has also struck me quite often that the reason, or one of the reasons why anthropological structuralism (which contrary to what is usually believed, did not really originate in France, but was first of all expressed in the Netherlands through the work of men like Russell, Van Wouden, Josselin de Jong and several others some years before we tried to do the same in France) developed among our Dutch colleagues first is that they were studying Indonesia and that Indonesian thought is itself structural. Really, structuralism is not a creation of the Western world, impressed with technology, pseudo-scientific minds, etc. It’s a kind of thought which we received from the people whom we study. When we try to make structural analyses, what we are actually doing is to borrow the thought of the people we study, either in the distant past or in the present, and use it in order to better understand them, as if in this kind of thought, there was a kind of common denominator, a kind of common ground which extends to all mankind including ancient thinkers and contemporary native thinkers, but a real mode of thought which is best able to help us translate one way of thinking into another way of thinking.

Appendix 2, Figure 6: At National Museum of Korea; Claude Lévi-Strauss with his wife [Monique Roman] at Sungkyunkwan University.

Special Focus: Structures

In the course of the twentieth century, structure became a central category of thought across a wide array of sciences. From linguistics to anthropology, psychoanalysis and history, the epistemic aim of analyzing structures guided a diverse range of research programs. And yet, the quest for immaterial or timeless structures that might underlie, order, organize—let alone determine—more readily perceptible domains of reality today appears strange, even suspicious, to most cultural anthropologists and historians of science. To grapple with these changes in the epistemic virtues guiding the work of anthropologists and their historians, as well as structures’ many afterlives outside of the academy, this Special Focus Section aims to adopt a broader historical view of the phenomenon by shifting analytic attention away from specific structuralist texts, intellectuals, and institutions toward structures as epistemic things in the history of anthropology and adjacent domains of inquiry.

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