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10 Korean History Books You Should Buy

If you’re looking to delve into the complex and fascinating history of Korea, you’ve come to the right place. With a history that stretches back 5,000 years, Korea certainly has many stories to tell. And while many of these stories have unfortunately not been published in English (yet), some of them thankfully have.

This article introduces 10 Korean history books that encourage what I suspect to be (if you’re anything like me) your lifelong love affair with the country’s incredible stories from the past. For even MORE suggestions, check out 10 Essential Books for Korean History Beginners.

Let’s get learning!

1. Korea and Her Neighbors by Isabella Bird Bishop

Isabella Bird Bishop (1831-1904) required an open-air life due to physical difficulties and nervous tendencies. Bishop traveled the world, including Korea, Hawaii, Japan, and Persia, and wrote many accounts of her travel. Most of her writings would go on to become best sellers in the Western world. What’s more, Bird happened to be in Korea during one of the most tumultuous moments in its history. Not only did she interact with some of the most important figures in late Joseon history, including the powerhouse Queen Min (1851-1895), but she also cared deeply about the local culture and took extensive notes on all she witnessed.

This text dates back to 1897. It not only documents daily activities, but also interactions with the royal palace. Isabella’s heartfelt narrative and genuine interest in what was a highly foreign land make this a wonderful historic account.

You can read the text for free on the Internet Archive.
To purchase on Amazon, click here.

2. Traditional Korean Ceramics: A Look by a Scientist by Carolyn Kyungshin Koh Choo

As a ceramic historian, I often get messages asking for books about Korean pottery published in English. While there are many overall guides, they fail to go into much detail. Carolyn Kyungshin Koh Choo’s book is undoubtedly the most detailed and interesting published today. While the book is ideal for those with a pottery background or a science-oriented mind, it nevertheless introduces a wealth of information on the history of Korean ceramics (Goryeo [918-1392] and Joseon dynasties [1392-1910]) to beginners. What’s more, the book includes wonderfully detailed graphs, tables, and magnified images for potters, scientists, and ceramic historians.

To purchase on Yes24, click here (international shipping required).

3. Life in Corea by William Richard Carles

As implied by the outdated spelling of ‘Korea’, this 1888 first-hand account was written during William Richard Carle’s (1848-1929) visit to the hermit kingdom. Carles made two visit to Korea during his stay in China, where he worked for the British Consular Service. What makes Carles’s visit so unique is that they took place with very different agendas. The first was a predominately personal trip, while the second was under the title of Vice-Consul in Korea. As the northern regions remained unstudied, Carles was requested to compile a report on the economic possibilities of the area. This book provides valuable insight into Korea when foreigners were slowly pooling into the country.

You can read Life in Corea for free online.
To purchase a copy on Amazon, click here.

4. Korea: The Impossible Country by Daniel Tudor

As the only contemporary history book on this list, Korea: The Impossible Country introduces readers to the ‘miracle on the Han River’. This expression refers to Korea’s rapid development during the late 20th century. Although many tales will ring familiar such as the 1997 IMF Crisis and authoritarian governments of the 70s and 80s, the author goes into great detail to create a more connected picture how the Korea we know and love today came to be. For those who have traveled the peninsula in the 21st century, this book will come as a refreshing guide for better understanding the beloved skyscrapers and bustling roads of the Land of the Morning Calm.

To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.

5. Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm by Arnold Henry Savage

Another historical eye-witness account is Corea or Cho-sen by Arnold Henry Savage, who looked upon Koreans and Korean society more kindly than many other Westerns entering the country at the turn of the century. While the book may be considered slow at first, Savage’s detailed descriptions and playful observations transport readers to the end of the 19th century. Savage spent most of him time in one region of the country, and detailed descriptions of Korea are not numerous in favor of notes on the culture and customs of Koreans. That being said, this reminds a great primary source among Korean history books to get you started.

You can read the book for free online.
To purchase a copy on Amazon, click here.

7. The Passing of Korea by Homer Bezaleel Hulbert

Homer Hulbert was a missionary, activist, and journalist who strongly supported Korean independence. Hulbert was originally, in fact, pro-Japanese and strongly supported the colonization of the country before developing a better understanding of the small country he would come to call a second home.

Hubert rubbed shoulders with the highest in Korea, including being good friends with Emperor Gojong (1852-1919) himself, to whom Hubert acted as an emissary. The Passing of Korea is very much a political, anti-japan text published four years (1906) before the colonization of Korea became official in 1910. Hubert’s legend goes beyond politics. A man of language, Hubert made great contributions to the study of Hangeul – the Korean alphabet. Hubert died in Seoul during one of his visits in 1949 after catching pneumonia. Upon his deathbed, Hubert stated that he would “rather be buried in Korea than Westminster Abbey”. His wish came true as Hubert was buried in Seoul’s Yanghwajin Foreigner’s Cemetary.

You can read the text online for free here.
To purchase a copy on Amazon, click here.

9. Brief Encounters: Early Reports of Korea by Westerners by Brother Anthony of Taize

It seems hard to fathom that Korea only truly become a household name at the turn of the 20th century. That being said, Korea was not unknown to many such as sailors, missionaries, and diplomats who often made voyages to China and Japan. The accounts included in Brief Encounters begin from days as far back as Marco Polo, ending with more eye-witness accounts from around the 20th century. What makes this book stand out is its wide range of opinions on Korea from the foreign eye. As an example, the documents written by Dutchman Hendrick Hamel (1630 – 1692), a prisoner in Korea for 17 years, are particularly fascinating.

To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.

10. Understanding Korean Art

A trip to Seoul would not be complete without a visit to the National Museum of Korea, where the country’s greatest paintings, ceramics, metalwork, etc. live today. Is Korean art similar to that of its neighbors, Japan and China? What makes Korean art stand out? Are the painted tigers really supposed to look that silly? All of these questions will be addressed in an easy-to-read, beginner’s format. For those already well acquainted with Korean art, this guide comes as the perfect conversation starter to place atop your coffee table. Go on; show off your knowledge.

To purchase the book on Amazon, click here.

2 Comments

  • Delores Soterion
    Posted January 17, 2024 at 6:38 am

    How do I get “The Complete Guide To All 27 Joseon Kings” ?

    Reply
    • Moon Bear Travel
      Posted January 17, 2024 at 8:58 am

      Hello! Thank you for your question. This is an article on my website and not a book. You can read it anytime. Happy reading!

      Reply

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