Visualizing Korea

King of Korea seated, facing forward with arms across chest, pillars of Korean writing on each side.

Lesson Plan Production Details

Developer: Hyungji Park Contact

Collaborating Peer Reviewers: Menglu Gao, Waiyee Loh, Jessica R. Valdez, Rae X. Yan

Cluster Developer: Sophia Hsu Contact

Cluster Title: Transimperial Networks and East Asia

Cluster Timeline: Webpage

Publication Date: 2022


Korea is largely missing in Victorian accounts of East Asia. There is no mention of Korea in Victorian fiction or poetry, as far as I am aware, while travel narratives to Korea begin to be published with greater frequency in the late nineteenth century. The reasons for Korea’s absence range from Joseon Korea’s self-imposed isolationism to tacit British assumptions of Chinese or Japanese jurisdiction over Korea; delving into these factors is beyond my scope here. Rather, this absence leads me to assemble a collage of alternative texts – maps, photographs, encounter narratives, etc. – to imagine the ways in which the Victorians might have understood Korea. I focus on visual materials not only because they transcend barriers of language and time and provide versatile options for engagement in the classroom but also because their production and interpretation often betray ethnographic assumptions.

This lesson plan begins by reaching back before the Victorian era to contextualize Korea’s place in the British imagination through an examination of maps and early “encounter” narratives. The sporadic and limited contact between Europe and Korea before the middle of the nineteenth century, maintained by Korea’s active resistance to foreign trade, diplomacy, and evangelism, changed with the 1876 Ganghwa Treaty with Japan. This and subsequent unequal treaties effectively pried open the “hermit kingdom.”

The sudden influx of visitors to Korea led to a corresponding burst of travel narratives, memoirs, and diplomatic accounts about Korea published in Britain and the United States beginning in the 1880s. The most significant of these was Isabella Bird Bishop’s Korea and Her Neighbors (1898), at once a keenly observant, often sympathetic narrative of a country little known to her English audience and one steeped in the prejudices of her times. As in most Victorian accounts of the global Other, British observers of Korea often adopted an ethnographic approach, staging exotic peoples and lands for metropolitan consumption back home. In Bishop’s and other accounts of the waning days of the Joseon Dynasty, as Japan and other foreign powers competed for control over Korea, we see political, economic, religious, and social upheavals taking place. The visitors came with diverse motivations – from profit to politics to proselytizing – and stayed for varying durations, but all were eyewitnesses to the spectacle of Korea in transition.

Structure and Organization

In what follows, a visual archive (maps, photographs, etc.) is juxtaposed with the limited narrative material to provide insight into a tumultuous period of Korean history and to situate understandings of Korea within a context recognizable to Victorianists. The main period of focus is from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries, primarily from the opening of Korea in the 1880s to the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. However, the sections on cartography and encounters reach back further in time, and the one on photography stretches into the Japanese colonial period.

The first and second units introduce material that mostly predates the Victorian era. Maps serve as useful shorthand for political and spatial understandings of self and other, and “Corea” appears as a distinct named entity in Western maps beginning in the late sixteenth century. Pairing Western maps of Korea and Korean-made maps of the world demonstrate different perspectives on Korea’s place in the world. The second unit features the earliest British “encounter narratives” of Korea. While the first European account of Korea was published by the Dutchman Hendrick Hamel in 1668, the first British narratives were published in 1804 (William Broughton) and 1817/1818 (John M’Leod/Basil Hall).

The third unit, on photography, begins with images of Korea published by Bishop and the American Percival Lowell to see how these writers create narrative representations of the country. Bishop’s photographs of Korea were among her first forays into the medium of photography, and she uses this visual “evidence” to support the authenticity of her travel narrative. Lowell, meanwhile, was invited by Korean king Kojong, and Lowell’s photographs take part within the Korean emperor’s self-making of his image. This unit goes on to explore the ways in which the Japanese imperial government used photography to produce visual and cultural representations of Korea that supported its colonial purposes. The final unit brings together Queens Min and Victoria to highlight two contemporaries whose worlds and lives shared great similarities and differences and to explore their fleeting but significant points of contact.

The units of this lesson plan can stand as independent and complete learning clusters or used to enrich existing Victorian curricula. Each of the units illustrates a discrete theme or medium (maps, first encounters, photography as narrative, and global parallels, respectively) while at the same time suggesting Korean materials and perspectives that enable the practice of global Victorianism.

Suggested Materials

Cartography: Korea’s Place in the World

If a London resident in the nineteenth century were asked to identify Korea, she may have turned to an atlas, a visual encyclopedia of the world. Where (in the world) was Korea? A Victorian world map would have depicted a fairly accurate shape of the country and labeled it Corea or Chosun. “Corea” (after the Koryo Dynasty, 935–1392) or “Chosen/Chosun” (after the Joseon Dynasty, 1392–1910) was usually depicted as independent from China, but place names were often Sinicized. European names were also used, such as Broughton Bay for the East Korea Bay or Quelpart for Jeju Island, as seen in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1875–89). In the absence of Victorian literature about Korea, maps stand in as one form of ascertaining British understandings about Korea, and they reveal as much about the cartographer (and his context) as they do about the object. J. B. Harley describes maps as “a construction of reality, images laden with intentions and consequences that can be studied in the societies of their time” (36).

In this section, I juxtapose Western maps of Korea with Korean-made maps from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, pointing out some landmark maps. The materials below offer additional sources and maps for further exploration, as well as sample sources for the landmark maps. Within Western cartography, Korea first appears in Western maps as a discrete named entity (“Corea”) in a 1594 world map made by Petrus Plancius of the Netherlands. Royaume de Corée was a key map of Korea by Jean-Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville published in 1735 and stood as the basis for stand-alone maps of Korea in Western atlases until the nineteenth century.

Meanwhile, Korean cartographers were also demonstrating their sense of Korea within the wider world. The Kangnido, completed in 1402, “easily predates any world map known from either China or Japan and is therefore the oldest world map surviving in the East Asian cartographic tradition” (Ledyard 245) and is extant in copies from around 1470. The Kangnido (the full name is Honil kangni yoktae kukto chi to, or “Map of Integrated Lands and Regions of Historical Countries and Capitals”) over-represents Korea in terms of size, has China at the center, represents Japan as a much-reduced set of islands south of Korea, and goes as far west as to include Africa and portions of Europe.

Beginning around the sixteenth century, Korean world maps known as cheonhado (“map of all under heaven”; see header image for “Transimperial Networks and East Asia”) were a popular form that sometimes served as tourist souvenirs, and are extant in numerous versions through the end of the nineteenth century. The highly stylized cheonhado places Korea, China, and Japan in the center of a circular terrestrial area surrounded by water and fictional as well as actual places. Korea, moreover, was no exception to the “great flowering” of cartography in the nineteenth century (Akerman 3), and the printer and cartographer Kim Jeongho engaged in a meticulous survey of the peninsula in order to produce the masterpiece Daedong yeojido (“Territorial Map of the Great East”) in 1861.

Discussion Questions
  1. Compare the two stand-alone maps of Korea discussed above (D’Anville’s Royaume de Corée and Kim Jeongho’s Daedong yeojido), and also compare them to a current map of Korea. What differences do you see in these maps, and what might be the causes of those differences? Points of comparison may be accuracy, naming of topographical features, or more abstract concepts of representation/self-representation. How does a map reflect the worldview of its times as well as an understanding of one’s place in the world?
  2. Trace the evolution of Korean maps, both of the world and of itself. How does a progression through Kangnido, cheonhado, and Daedong yeojido, for example, demonstrate changing self-conceptions of Korea and its place in the world? Scholars such as Gari Ledyard speculate that the scientifically less accurate cheonhado might have superseded the earlier, technically superior Kangnido in widespread usage because the cheonhado represented a more familiar rendering of the world. How does the history of maps reflect more than their progression in scientific accuracy?
  3. Using the archive “Korea in Old Western Maps,” trace the evolution of Korea in Western world maps. How does this cartographic record trace the evolution in Western knowledge about Korea? What sources do you think these maps were based upon, and how can we account for the leaps/advances in accuracy of these maps over time?
  4. Scholars differ in their views on how much Western cartographic techniques influenced Korean map-making or vice versa. Ledyard attests to sophisticated Korean map-making methods and argues that Korean map-makers did not actively incorporate Western methods even as they became available. Research further into cartographic methodology and its mutual influences, in Korea versus the West or other contexts.
Primary Sources

Corea.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 9th ed., vol. 6, Adam and Charles Black, 1877, pp. 390–94.

Daedong Yeojido / Kim Jeongho. 1861. American Geographical Society Library Digital Map Collection, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, (AGS) (RARE) At.469 A-1861.

D’Anville, Jean Baptiste Bourguignon, et al. Royaume de Corée. 1735. Leiden University Libraries, COLLBN Port 177 N 115.

Korean Cheonhado Map. 17th–18th century. Ricci Institute for Chinese-Western Cultural History. Note: See header image for “Transimperial Networks and East Asia.” The cheonhado is a category or type of map, of which there are numerous extant versions.

Plancius, Petrus. 1594 Double Hemisphere World Map by Petrus Plancius. 1594. Wikimedia Commons.

The Kangnido Map. 1402.

The World Maps.” The National Atlas of Korea. Note: This source includes colorized versions of other Kangnido and cheonhado.

Secondary Sources

Note: Essential sources are marked with an asterisk.

Akerman, James R., editor. The Imperial Map: Cartography and the Mastery of Empire. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Akerman, James R., and Robert W. Karrow, Jr., editors. Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Chan Lee. Old Maps of Korea. Translated by Sarah Kim, Bumwoo Press, 2005.

Harley, J. B. The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the History of Cartography. Edited by Paul Laxton, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Korea in Old Western Maps (Seoyang Gojidoreul Tonghae Bon Hanguk Jido). 2007.

*Ledyard, Gari. “Cartography in Korea.” Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, edited by J. B. Harley and David Woodward, vol. 2.2, The University of Chicago Press, 1994, pp. 235–345.

Shin, Michael D., editor. Korean History in Maps: From Prehistory to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

British-Korean First Encounters

Stephen Greenblatt writes that “wonder – thrilling, potentially dangerous, momentarily immobilizing, charged at once with desire, ignorance, and fear – is the quintessential human response to what Descartes calls a ‘first encounter’” (20). Marvel, ravishment, and other words akin to “wonder” are often used to describe the European encounter with the New World. Meanwhile, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that Asia was an exception. “The norm until well into the early modern period was for Europe to be threatened by Asia, not the other way around,” Osterhammel notes (2). Osterhammel uses the example of Basil Hall’s narrative of landing in Korea in 1816 as “something like a genuine first encounter” (103), and yet one in which the “natives” – one “Chief” in particular – turn out to be “coolly objective and pragmatic” rather than “gawking in stupefied amazement” (106). How, then, do the first encounters between the British and Koreans fit into the narrative of “wonder”?

In some ways, Korea afforded the possibility of a “genuine first encounter” to Europeans because the country was hermetically closed off to foreigners, unlike its neighbors China and Japan. The first Western account of Korea to be published was by the Dutch sailor Hendrick Hamel in 1668. The earliest recorded British traveler to Korea, Englishman William Robert Broughton, captain of the HMS Providence, came more than a century later. Broughton was tasked in part with mapping the coastal areas of Korea, and his explorations briefly lent his name to a bay on the eastern coast of what is now North Korea. The account of his 1797 journey was published in 1804 as A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean.

A couple of decades later, Scotsmen Basil Hall and John M’Leod landed in Korea in 1816. Their travel narratives, published as Hall’s Account of a Voyage of Discovery (1818 and in several subsequent revised editions) and M’Leod’s Narrative of a Voyage (1817), reached a wider audience than did Broughton’s. Indeed, an unauthorized Philadelphia edition of Hall’s account may have been the first reference to Korea in a book published in the U.S. (Koh 113). Thanks in part to Joseon Korea’s policy of disengaging and rebuffing foreigners, all three explorers’ encounters with Koreans were brief, but their accounts nevertheless stand as the first Anglo-Korean interactions on record. Within a larger East Asian context, Hall’s and M’Leod’s ships were part of the Amherst Embassy to China of 1816–17.

What is of particular interest in these two instances is that we also have the other side of the story. The Joseon Wangjo Sillok, or “Veritable Records of the Joseon Dynasty,” were annual records kept from 1392 to the end of the Chosun Dynasty by historiographers who made meticulous notes on state and national affairs and who went to great lengths to guarantee the authenticity and independence of these records. We have extant accounts of Broughton’s, Hall’s, and M’Leod’s ships as well as their onshore time as reported to the Court. The Sillok descriptions of the appearances and clothing of the foreigners are similar in tone – a mixture of curiosity and indifference – to that in the British narratives and offer valuable insight into Joseon perspectives on the rare Western visitor.

Discussion Questions
  1. Compare the official Korean record of the Britons’ visits with the travel narratives themselves. What are some similarities and differences in how the British versus the Koreans approach the “encounter”? Physical appearance, clothing, demeanor, material possessions, etc., for example, are topics of interest on both sides.
  2. All three of these “first encounters” were unplanned landings made by British sailors on Korean soil, occasioned by vagaries of weather or the practical need for water or provisions. The British were primarily interested in exploring and charting the territories of Korea, although we can read possible trade or diplomatic interests between the lines. Compare these accounts with other notable encounters, historical and imagined, such as Christopher Columbus with the natives of the West Indies, John Smith and Pocahontas, or Victorian missionaries in Africa. How do expectations and experiences differ according to the purpose (evangelism, exploration, trade, etc.) of the trip?
  3. Broughton, Hall, and M’Leod advanced British cartographic knowledge of Korea. Broughton refined the map of the eastern coast of Korea, and Hall’s team charted the western coast of Korea. Broughton gave his name to a bay that remained on Western maps of Korea for many years, and in his narrative Hall arbitrarily names islands and bodies of water. What is the significance of these namings and claimings when, say, the residents of that land are unaware of such?
  4. Select instances from the British travel narratives that illustrate Joseon’s policy of exclusion and non-engagement. How do the British and Koreans interact and communicate despite the Koreans’ initial resistance? How do both parties overcome their lack of a common speech, written language, and means of trade or exchange?
  5. The three illustrations of Korean people found in Hall (facing page 16) and M’Leod (facing pages 38 and 40) may be the first images of Korea circulated in the West. These illustrations were presumably made in Britain by artists, who never set foot in Asia, based upon descriptions by the eyewitness travelers. How would you evaluate these illustrations in terms of accuracy or their cultural role?
Primary Sources

Broughton, William Robert. A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean: In Which the Coast of Asia, from the Lat. of 350 North to the Lat. of 520 North, the Island of the Insu (Commonly Known under the Name of the Land of Jesso,) the North, South, and East Coasts of Japan, the Lieuchieux and the Adjacent Isles, as Well as the Coast of Corea, Have Been Examined and Surveyed. Printed for T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1804. In particular, see book 2, chapters 7 and 8.

Hall, Basil. Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the West Coast of Corea, and the Great Loo-Choo Island: With an Appendix, Containing Charts, and Various Hydrographical and Scientific Notices. John Murray, 1818. In particular, see chapter 1.

Koh, Grace. “British Perceptions of Joseon Korea as Reflected in Travel Literature of the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century.” The Review of Korean Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, 2006, pp. 103–33. Please consult this source for English translations of the Joseon Wangjo Sillok’s accounts of Broughton, Hall, and M’Leod’s visits. They are available in Appendices I and II of Koh’s article (pp. 127–32).

M’Leod, John. Narrative of a Voyage, in His Majesty’s Late Ship Alceste, to the Yellow Sea, along the Coast of Corea, and through Its Numerous Hitherto Undiscovered Islands, to the Island of Lewchew; with an Account of Her Shipwreck in the Straits of Gaspar. M. Carey and Son, 1818. In particular, see chapter 1, especially pp. 29–41.

Secondary Sources

Note: Essential sources are marked with an asterisk.

Carroll, John M. “The Amherst Embassy to China: A Whimper and a Bang.” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. 48, no. 1, 2020, pp. 13–38,

Grayson, James Huntley. “Basil Hall’s Account of a Voyage of Discovery: The Value of a British Naval Officer’s Account of Travels in the Seas of Eastern Asia in 1816.” Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies, vol. 7, no. 1, 2007, pp. 1–18.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World. The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Hoare, James. “Captain Broughton, HMS Providence (and Her Tender) and His Voyage to the Pacific 1794–8.” Asian Affairs, vol. 31, no. 3, 2000, pp. 303–12.

*Koh, Grace. “British Perceptions of Joseon Korea as Reflected in Travel Literature of the Late Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Century.” The Review of Korean Studies, vol. 9, no. 4, 2006, pp. 103–33.

*Osterhammel, Jürgen. Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia. Translated by Robert Savage, Princeton University Press, 2018.

The Photographic Narrative

In an 1884 photo of Kojong taken by American diplomat Percival Lowell, the king looks out at us with an amiable smile, surrounded by symbols of his kingship and yet appearing thoroughly modern and relaxed. This photograph “is currently recognized as the oldest surviving portrait of King Kojong to circulate in the foreign media,” distributed by the king himself (Pai 363). Thanks to his role in brokering U.S.-Korea relations in 1882, Lowell had been invited to Korea as Kojong’s personal guest and given unprecedented access to the king, his palace, and his family during a three-month visit in 1883–84.

In his narrative Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm (published in 1886 but copyrighted in 1885), Lowell included twenty-five photographs taken during his visit. On face value, Lowell (and Englishwoman Isabella Bird Bishop) were “explorers, artists, scientists, colonial officials and soldiers [who] represented the world beyond Europe largely for and to themselves and a ‘home’ audience” (Ryan 215). But questions of agency are more complicated here since Kojong in fact invited Lowell to photograph him and then circulated the image in a deliberate act of self-presentation.

By the time Bishop landed in Korea in 1894 on a multiyear tour that included visits to Japan, Manchuria, Siberia, and China, she was already well-traveled and widely published. For the first time in her travels, however, Bishop was carrying camera equipment, and Anna Stoddart’s biography includes a snapshot from this trip of Bishop as photographer. Bishop published a small book of photographs, Views in the Far East, comprised of 60 collotype plates (some of which can be found here), including twelve of Korea, in Tokyo in 1896. Upon return to England, her photographs of Korea were published as part of her travel narrative Korea and Her Neighbors (1898).

Fast forward a few decades into the early twentieth century, and photography became a key tool for the Japanese occupying government in maintaining control and compliance in Korea. Scholars have documented the ways in which photography was used strategically and intentionally by the Japanese colonial government. Christine Kim explores how Korean royal portraits were deployed “to support Japan’s image of benevolent rule” (102). Sunglim Kim notes how the Japanese colonial government engaged in quasi-anthropological photography intended to demonstrate Korean racial inferiority. Michael Kim documents the ways in which amateur photography was used to stage images of everyday life in ways that glorified the supposedly civilizing effects of Japanese rule. This was especially true in the ten years of the annual Korean Photography Salon (1934–43), which celebrated such collaborationist photography.

Discussion Questions
  1. Even though photography was “a powerful means of classification and visualization of the non-European world,” as James Ryan writes, photography “also collapsed the spaces of home and away, imperial metropolis and imperial frontier, on to one another” (219, 215). Consider Lowell’s portrait of King Kojong (the frontispiece to this lesson plan) in this context. Pai notes this image’s differences from traditional Korean royal portraits, and suggests that Kojong is “consciously crafting his own image and specifically targeting a world audience” (363). How does Lowell’s Kojong portrait play with, and perhaps overturn, the idea of colonial representation?
  2. Bishop’s and Lowell’s audiences with King Kojong are each given a chapter in their travel narratives, but their writing styles are quite different. Bishop, for one, gives paraphrased or directly quoted speech from Kojong and Queen Min, while Lowell does not. Both Bishop and Lowell mention photography explicitly. Bishop notes that Kojong invited her to come take photographs of the palace (254), and Lowell comments that Sunjong, Kojong’s young son, was “peeping […] at my camera” (161). Compare Bishop’s chapter (chapter 21) with Lowell’s (chapter 16) and consider what factors (e.g., gender, the decade-long difference in meetings) might contribute to such differences.
  3. Christine Kim’s account of how royal portraits were used to glorify the Japanese Empire works well with Michael Kim’s analysis of collaborationist amateur photography to demonstrate how photography could be a political tool. In her discussion of Victorian realism, Nancy Armstrong writes that “fiction and photography [take up] a mutually authorizing relationship that had extraordinary influence over how modern people saw the world and situated themselves in relation to it” (247). How does photography offer a public a sense of “realism” that can be bent toward political ends?
Primary Sources

Bishop, Isabella Bird. Korea and Her Neighbors: A Narrative of Travel, with an Account of the Recent Vicissitudes and Present Position of the Country. Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898.

---. Original Photographs Taken by Isabella Bird, Mainly in Korea. National Library of Scotland, MS.42033. Note: This archive includes additional photographs not published in Bishop’s travel narrative.

Ch’oe, P., et al. “Chonjosonsajinyonmaeng Chosonsajinjollamhoe Kwallyon t’ekkyongsongilbot’em Charyojip.” The Museum of Photography, Seoul, 2012. Note: This sourcebook collects newspaper articles related to the Korean Photography Salon and reprints many of those photographs.

Lowell, Percival. Chosön, the Land of the Morning Calm; a Sketch of Korea. Ticknor and Company, 1886.

---. “Advanced Search Objects: results.” MFA Boston. Note: This archive presented through these search results includes additional photographs not published in Lowell’s travel narrative.

Stoddart, Anna M. The Life of Isabella Bird (Mrs. Bishop). John Murray, 1906. Note: The image of Bishop as photographer is opposite page 298.

Secondary Sources

Note: Essential sources are marked with an asterisk.

Armstrong, Nancy. Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism. Harvard University Press, 1999.

Gartian, Luke. “‘A Complete Craze’: Isabella Bird Bishop in East Asia.” PhotoResearcher, vol. 15, 2011, pp. 13–26.

*Kim, Christine. “Korean Royal Portraits in the Colonial Archives.” Ars Orientalis, vol. 43, 2013, pp. 96–107.

*Kim, Michael. “Staging Images of Everyday Life in Late Colonial Korea: Colonial Visuality and the Proliferation of Amateur Photography.” Asian Studies Review, vol. 45, no. 3, 2021, pp. 381–99.

*Kim, Sunglim. “Is Seeing Believing? A Critical Analysis of Japanese Colonial Photographs of Korea.” Journal of Literature and Art Studies, vol. 7, no. 6, 2017, pp. 722–47.

*Pai, Hyung Il. “Visualizing Seoul’s Landscapes: Percival Lowell and the Cultural Biography of Ethnographic Images.” Journal of Korean Studies, vol. 21, no. 2, 2016, pp. 355–84.

Ryan, James R. Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire. Reaktion, 1997.

Queen Min and Queen Victoria

Bishop’s vivid account of her 1895 audience with Queen Min (posthumously titled Empress Myeongsung) is one of the freshest characterizations we have of the latter. According to Bishop, the Korean Queen Consort spoke directly of Queen Victoria. Characterizing the British queen as having “everything that she can wish – greatness, wealth, and power,” Empress Myeongsung asked, “Does she ever in her glory think of poor Korea?” (259).

Did Queen Victoria, indeed, think of her counterpart all the way around the world, born thirty-two years later than herself? Both queens came to the throne as teenagers: Queen Victoria ascended to the throne at age eighteen; Empress Myeongsung became queen consort at age sixteen. But by the time of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, her Korean counterpart had already been dead almost two years, killed at age forty-three in a brutal assassination named the Eulmi Incident. In the early hours of October 8, 1895, the Queen’s residence in Gyeongbokgung Palace was stormed, and she and two of her court ladies were attacked, killed, and burned by Japanese agents. Bishop writes of Empress Myeongsung’s assassination just two chapters after narrating their meeting and concludes, “Thus perished … the clever, ambitious, intriguing, fascinating, and in many respects lovable Queen of Korea” (274).

Highly educated and intelligent, Empress Myeongsung was a powerful and sometimes polarizing figure in the complex politics of the late nineteenth century. She modernized Korea and opened up the country to Western influences, inviting in missionaries, doctors, and educators. One reason for the assassination was that she was seen as an impediment to the Japanese consolidation of influence in Korea.

While her Victorian counterpart was an “early enthusiast of photography,” Empress Myeongsung left behind no authenticated photographs or portraits of herself (Ryan 15). This is especially ironic given that her husband Kojong was, according to Hyung Il Pai, “the most photographed monarch in Korean modern history” (377). Some scholars say that there are no extant images because the Empress did not want herself to be known; others say that the Japanese systematically erased traces of her after the assassination. Whatever the cause, such absence of pictorial representation lends even more value to the physical descriptions of her, including ones by Bishop and Lillias Horton Underwood, Empress Myeongsung’s personal physician from 1889 until her assassination.

The closest that Queen Min and Queen Victoria came to meeting was through Empress Myeongsung’s nephew Min Yong-hwan, who traveled to Europe as minister plenipotentiary two years after his aunt’s assassination. Nephew Min spent a little over a month in London in June and July 1897, where he had an audience with Queen Victoria and attended her Diamond Jubilee celebration.

Thanks to Empress Myeongsung’s vivacious personality, her active political involvement, and her tragic end, she has been the source for numerous popular representations. Notable among them is the musical The Last Empress.

Discussion Questions
  1. Underwood was an American physician and missionary who came to Korea in 1888, married fellow missionary Horace Grant Underwood, and spent the rest of her life in Korea. As Empress Myeongsung’s personal physician, Underwood was the Westerner with arguably the most access to the Queen. Underwood also accompanied Bishop on some of her audiences with the Queen. Compare Underwood’s account of her first meeting with the Queen (chapter 2) with Bishop’s (chapter 21).
  2. The assassination of Empress Myeongsung has been an enduring topic of fascination. Frederick Arthur McKenzie was a Canadian journalist who visited Korea in 1906–07, and was an eyewitness to the events leading up to the Japanese colonization of Korea. McKenzie’s Korea’s Fight for Freedom (1919) was published after the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910, and his writings focus on Korea’s resistance against Japan. McKenzie’s account of Queen Min’s assassination (chapter 3) has a different tone than Bishop’s (chapter 23) and Underwood’s (chapter 9) accounts of the assassination, in part due to McKenzie’s greater historical distance from the event and his awareness of subsequent events. Compare these three accounts.
  3. The Last Empress debuted in 1995 as South Korea’s first original musical, continued through 2007 in Seoul, and also played in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Toronto. The musical had twentieth- and twenty-fifth-anniversary revivals in Seoul. This musical may be the best known contemporary cultural representation of Empress Myeongsung. Parts of the musical are available on YouTube; watch parts of the musical and compare the story to historical accounts
Primary Sources

Bishop, Isabella Bird. Korea and Her Neighbors: A Narrative of Travel, with an Account of the Recent Vicissitudes and Present Position of the Country. Fleming H. Revell Company, 1898.

Mackenzie, Frederick Arthur. Korea’s Fight for Freedom. Fleming H. Revell Company, 1920.

Underwood, Lillias Horton. Fifteen Years among the Top-Knots: Or Life in Korea. American Tract Society, 1904.

Secondary Sources

Note: Essential sources are marked with an asterisk.

*Finch, Michael. Min Yong-Hwan: A Political Biography. University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

*Kim Hee-Gap, et al. The Last Empress. 1995. Composer: Kim Hee-Gap; lyrics: Yang In-Ja; orchestra: Peter Casey. The Last Empress debuted in 1995 as South Korea’s first original musical, continued through 2007 in Seoul, and also played in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Toronto.

Developer Biography

Hyungji Park is Professor of English Literature in the Department of English Language and Literature at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea. Her primary fields of research and teaching include Victorian literature, Korean popular culture, Asian American literature, and contemporary fiction, with a focus on post-colonial and gender issues. Her recent research is clustered around themes of apocalypse and around methodological approaches of “locatedness” (i.e., doing English in Asia).

Header Image Caption

Lowell, Percival. “His Majesty the King of Korea.” 1884. MFA Boston, NRICP Relic No.: 2873. Fair use for non-commercial, educational purposes. See MFABoston Terms of Use.

Page/Lesson Plan Citation (MLA)

Hyungji Park, lesson plan dev. “Chinese Migration and Forms of Global Circulation.” Menglu Guo, Waiyee Loh, Jessica R. Valdez, Rae X. Yan, collab. peer revs.; Sophia Hsu, cluster dev. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2022,