A Visit to Royal Asiatic Society Korea

This week’s blog post is provided by RAS Council member, Professor Susan Whitfield. We would like to thank her for sharing about her visit and the current exhibition in Norwich:

We were delighted last week to visit colleagues at the RAS Korea Branch in Seoul and to give a lecture to their members.  The current and former Presidents, Steven Shields and Brother Anthony, gave us a warm welcome.

The Korea Branch was founded in 1900 by a group of men, mainly Christian missionaries, and was the world’s first organisation for Korea studies.  Their first President was John Harington Gubbins (1852–1929), a British linguist, consular official and diplomat. The Society applied to be an Associate member of the RAS in 1900 and this was agreed by our Council in January 1901. Their lectures, given at the meetings, were published in their annual Transactions and they compiled a small library.   The Society’s activities stopped during the Korean war in 1950 but restarted in 1956. They have continued since then, and today they have premises in the centre of Seoul and a library of about 3000 books.

The visit was made possible because Simon Kaner, Director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Culture (SISJAC), University of East Anglia, and Susan Whitfield, RAS Council Member and Professor of Silk Road Studies at SISJAC, were on a field trip with other colleagues in Japan and Korea for their project, Nara to Norwich.  In their lecture to RAS Korea they introduced the project and discussed the concept and spread of the ‘Silk Road’ term. In particular, they looked at how religions—specifically Buddhism and Christianity—affected all aspects of life, spiritual and material, as they spread and they also considered the effects on the landscapes at the edges of the routes: in Britain, Scandinavia, Japan and Korea. This lecture can be listened to here.

An exhibition exploring the Nara to Norwich project is currently on display in The Forum, Norwich, from 19–25 May, and a public roundtable will be held on Saturday 25th May. On Friday 24th May members of the RAS will be visiting the exhibition when they will also have the chance to see a 12m long scroll of the bodhisattva eleven-headed Avalokitesvara (Knnon), copied from an ancient painting at Hasedera, a monastery in Japan, also on display in the Forum. Twelve monks from the monastery are visiting and will be chanting in front of the scroll as well as taking part in a workshop with plainchant singers in Norwich.

The Hasedera scroll at The Forum, Norwich

The Nara to Norwich website already provides much fascinating information about the project, the exhibits and their stories, and the research that is being undertaken. This weekend will also see the second part of the online exhibition go live. We would encourage everyone to explore this exhibition whether in Norwich or online.

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As well as the trip to Norwich, RAS members will also be going to Dublin for Professor Jane Ohlmeyer’s (Erasmus Smith’s Professor of Modern History at Trinity College, Dublin) lecture entitled Making Empire: Ireland and India, on Thursday 30 May, 6.30pm. This will take place at the Trinity Long Room Hub at Trinity College and is organised in collaboration with Trinity College Dublin and the Chester Beatty and with the generous support offered by Dr. Anna McSweeney of Trinity College, Dublin, and Dr. Moya Carey and Dr. Ai Fukunaga of the Chester Beatty.

The next event at the Society’s premises will be the book launch for Professor Ruby Lal’s Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan. This first ever biography of the princess gives an enthralling portrait of a charismatic adventurer and insight into her multicultural world. We hope many of you will be able to join us on Thursday 6th June, 6.30pm. To join online please email Matty at mb@royalasiaticsociety.org.