Colleagues, friends, and visitors, I am excited to write this first of what I hope to be useful but “impressionistic” essays on public relations, media, research, and writing. We are living in an era of unprecedented technological and economic change, and the locus of many of these changes lie in South and East Asia.
Unbelievable fortunes are generated here in extremely short periods of time. Over 10,000 new companies are created in China everyday, and China’s share on the global economy has grown from just 2-percent in 1984 to 19-percent in 2018. History is not only being made in Silicon Valley and Davos, but increasingly in Bangalore and Singapore. Asia will undoubtedly play a major role in all of our futures in ways similar to it did in the distant past when the Silk Road facilitated the dissemination of immense cultural, social, and technological innovation. Recognition of this fact prompts those of us in the West to not only reassess how we view the world, but also how we engage it through our own work. Whether we like or not, those of us in the educational and nonprofit sectors need to get used to writing about Asian topics, as well as communicating with our professional counterparts in Asia.
In my first article for The Medieval Magazine, I wrote an essay on the life of the Korean poet Hwang Jini (c. 1500-c.1560 CE; Korean: 황진이). Unknown the many Westerners, Hwang Jini is a source of fascination, pride, and considerable interest to modern Koreans. Hwang Jini was a kisaeng — she belonged to female caste of entertainers and artists that operated in ways similar to the Japanese geisha or the Italian cortigiana onesta — and she composed what are arguably the most beautiful poems in the Korean language. There are countless novels, soap operas, and even a kunstfilm about her life, loves, and losses; she remains a popular figure of immense reverance to Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.
Whenever I introduce non-Western topics (or figures) to predominantly western audiences, I make a concerted attempt to place my subject within a proper socio-historical context immediately. It doesn’t matter whether I am doing so in person through a public lecture or via a published, digital medium. I know that this is essential as if I don’t do this, I will lose my audience’s attention quickly due to their lack of familiarity with the subject at hand. In my role as as a PR writer, I need to stimulate curiosity and wonder rather than boredom. To reinforce the attention of my audience(s), I also must humanize my subject by avoiding unnecessary or unfair comparisons with western counterparts; instead, I utilize examples of their own work and evaluate their creativity objectively.
In my essay on Hwang Jini, for example, I situate her unusual position within Joseon era Korea (1392-1910 CE) as a woman with immense freedom in being able to maneuver across the sharp social divisions, but additionally as a woman who was marginalized due to the low social class to which she was born into. I then provide two examples of her poetry that best encapsulate the complexities of her life as well as the richness of her poetic talents. The latter serve to bring Hwang Jini alive as a real, historical person, and my audience can hear her voice with her own words. I wanted to conclude my essay with a brief, balanced evaluation of her life’s work with some further contextualization via old legends that demonstrate how Koreans view Hwang Jini’s genius as a female artist.
The reaction to my article has been extremely positive, and I have had readers ask for further information about Hwang Jini, Joseon Korea, and women in Korean history. It was gratifying to see many Koreans responded so positively to my piece, resharing it via their social media accounts too. Many Western readers commented that they are interested in incorporating non-Western topics — especially from East Asia — into their research or classrooms, but they’ve been weary of doing so and are unsure of where to begin and how to get started.
Now more than ever, it is critical for those of us in the West to engage with non-Western histories, literatures, art, and cultural traditions. Asia, with its economic might and wealth, is arguably the most exciting region in the world today. I’ve told my correspondents to put aside fear and to follow my method: research; situate; humanize; provide examples; and evaluate.
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