Soju. A Global History

Park, Hyunhee
Anzahl Seiten
300 S.
€ 96,00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Patrick Chung, Department of History, University of Maryland

Soju: A Global History explores the transnational history of the Korean liquor soju. Alongside the globalization of Korean pop culture, soju has risen to prominence in recent years. It is served in restaurants, bars, and homes the world over. According to Hyunhee Park, soju’s worldwide spread hearkens back to its global origins. Park’s work brilliantly documents soju’s evolution from the dissemination of distilling technologies across Eurasia by the Mongols (ca. 1200–1400) to the present day. And it demonstrates soju was only made possible by the continual transnational and trans-cultural exchange of ideas and technologies.

A historian at the City College of New York whose first book examined the flow of geographic and cartographic knowledge between premodern China and the Islamic worlds, Park is concerned primarily with the circulation of technology and culture across borders.[1] Her analysis of soju’s history draws insights from the fields of history, science and technology studies, foods studies, and archeology to piece together the fragmentary record of soju's evolution. It combines discussions of technical evidence (e.g., comparisons of different types of alcohol and distillation methods) with close readings of a wide range of texts (e.g., premodern Korean histories and literature, Japanese colonial and South Korean government records, and modern-day advertisements and branding). Ultimately, Park's expansive framework allows Soju to move beyond previous studies with narrower geographic or chronological scopes or based on a more homogenous set of sources.

Soju is organized into six chronological chapters that follow two key threads. First, the book situates the development of soju within the broader history of distillation and distillation technology. Park began researching soju as part of a cooperative research project on the history of alcoholic beverages organized by Paul Buell, a historian of the Mongol Empire and Central Asian foodways. Buell’s project, “A Comparative Investigation of Distillation Technologies, Wine Production, and Fermented Products,” brought together scholars studying alcoholic beverages from around the world. The origins of the project no doubt contributed to Park’s close attention to the linkages between soju’s development in Korea and the evolution of distilled liquors elsewhere in the world. Second, in foregrounding the global nature of distillation technology, the book explores the pathways by a variety of social, cultural, and technological phenomena circulated in Eurasia from the time of the Mongols. It documents the array of “large- and small-scale patterns of cultural interactions” (p. 13) that were necessary for soju's emergence — including the spread of distilling techniques throughout Eurasia by the Mongols, the “localization” of foreign technologies and ideas by premodern Koreans, the responses of modern soju industry to the political, economic, and cultural shifts wrought by imperialism, war, and globalization.

The opening chapters of Soju focus on how distillation technologies circulated during the premodern era and, ultimately, entered the Korean peninsula. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the origins of distilled liquors in various parts of Eurasia. In addition to outlining scholarly debates on the subject, the chapter makes a convincing case that the Mongols disseminated distillation technology from the Middle East to the rest of Eurasia using archeological, textual, and linguistic evidence. For example, Park provides a detailed discussion of how the Arabic word for distilled alcohol “arak” (literally “sweat” or “perspiration”) can be found in languages throughout the regions conquered by the Mongols. Chapters 2 and 3 turn to Koreans’ adoption of distillation technology during the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392), a period largely overlooked in previous studies of Korean distillation. Park posits that the Mongols introduced distillation technologies and know-how (e.g., alembic-style still) to Korea during the Koryŏ period to serve a “variety of military, diplomatic, commercial, and societal purposes” (p. 93), including the provisioning of troops and the exchange of diplomatic gifts. The chapters also show how Koreans adopted distillation and used distilled liquors for their own purposes.

The second half of Soju turns from the circulation of distillation technologies to their “localization.” Chapter 4 focuses on Chosŏn Korea (1392–1897) and unpacks the social and cultural shifts that led to the popularization of distilled alcohol in Korea. Unlike the Koryŏ period, the Chosŏn era saw a marked rise in records related to distillation. For instance, the number of cookbooks with soju recipes soared (p. 141). Using these records, Park identifies both top-down state interventions (e.g., the regulation of rice consumption) and bottom-up popular responses (e.g., the use of home-brew soju for Neo-Confucian rituals) that were critical drivers of soju’s popularization. Chapter 5 brings the story of soju to the modern era. It explores how soju production became “industrialized,” a process that began during the Japanese colonial period (1910–1945) and continued during the Cold War under South Korean military dictatorships. For both Japanese and Korean officials, the regulation of soju provided a means to impose order and generate revenue. The South Korean state’s support of mass production enabled companies like Jinro, for instance, to export soju worldwide. Nevertheless, as Park shows, official efforts were only part of the story. Recently, small-scale producers pushed back against the homogenized soju produced by big corporations and created a market for craft soju made using traditional methods. The chapter ends with a meditation on the “dilemma between tradition and modernity” (p. 190) that modern-day soju presents. Is mass-produced or craft soju more authentic? In response to this question, Park points back to previous chapters that show soju’s history is one of constant adoption and hybridization.

The broader implications of Park’s project come into focus in Soju’s final chapter. Rather than focusing on Korea or soju, “Alcohol Globalism” applies the insights gleaned from soju’s history to examine the transfer of distillation technologies to Japan and Mexico. While more speculative and based more on secondary sources than previous chapters, the chapter’s discussion of Japanese shochu and Mexican tequila provides a good starting point for studying the influence of Eurasian distillation technologies and traditions on the Japanese archipelago and the Americas. More than definitive conclusions, Park’s closing chapter suggests the types of local and global frameworks, sources, and actors that must be considered when analyzing any evolution of cultural objects, alcoholic beverages, or otherwise.

Overall, Soju is an impressive work that should appeal to a range of audiences. Like any book, it leaves some questions unanswered. For instance, I wondered if the US military’s sustained presence in South Korea during the Cold War played a role in soju’s development akin to the one Japanese colonization did. Nevertheless, Korean historians and food studies scholars will benefit from the book’s ability to synthesize an eclectic range of primary and secondary sources on soju and distillation. More broadly, the book serves as an exemplary model for students of transnational history—it demonstrates how to effectively navigate the interaction of the global and local contexts across time and space.

[1] Hyunhee Park, Mapping the Chinese and Islamic World. Cross-Cultural Exchange in Pre-Modern Asia, Cambridge, 2012.

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