A Deep Dive into K-pop

KPOP Collections: Kpop Groups Collage

Prior to last month, I knew next to nothing about K-pop (Korean popular music) besides having heard a few songs in passing and the rumors of the industry’s infamous elements, most notably a string of high profile suicides over the last few years. As an American with no connection to music or South Korean culture, I wondered if I was getting an accurate picture of the industry or if I was being misled by the most lurid and morbid elements eagerly conveyed by the media.

So I decided to do a deep dive down the internet rabbit hole of K-pop to understand what it is, how it works, and what I think about it. For anything that’s not my personal opinion or that goes beyond basic historical knowledge, I’ll cite my sources, which are a mixture of news articles, academic articles, YouTube videos, and some content aggregators like Wikipedia and Statista. I welcome any corrections or criticisms on inaccurate sources or things I didn’t understand.

I’ll warn you upfront – this essay is over 30,000 words long. It is the largest post I have made on dormin.org besides my novel. Since I sympathize with anyone who doesn’t want to make such a large time investment into a subject of passing curiosity, I will present my key findings here divided between the five parts of the essay. If you’re not sure if you want to read everything, you can jump to any individual part and understand it without reading the other sections.

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How Much Would You Need to be Paid to Live on a Deserted Island for 1.5 Years and Do Nothing but Kill Seals?

I read and reviewed Oliver Platt’s Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age over a year ago, and I haven’t been able to get one small story from the book out of my head.

In 1793, the British government launched the Macartney Embassy, the nation’s first formal diplomatic mission to China. A few ships led by statesman George Macartney set sail from Portsmouth, England, traveled down to Rio de Janeiro, then around the southern tip of Africa, across the bottom of the Indian Ocean, up through Indonesia, along the Chinese coast, to finally arrive at Beijing. The whole journey took ten months, and the diplomats played cards, drunk tea, looked out for exotic wildlife, and watched crew whippings to forget about being bored out of their minds.

While in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the crew spotted a tiny volcanic island. To their surprise, there were two men on the land desperately waving a makeshift flag in the air to get the crew’s attention. Macartney assumed the men were shipwrecked sailors, and he quickly ordered the ships to stop to lend assistance.

Wanna Run and Hide Big Time? Travel to 6 of the World's Remotest ...

On the island, the crew found five men – three Frenchmen and two Americans (from Boston). Surprisingly, they were not shipwrecked, but were living on the island voluntarily under contract with a French merchant company. Their jobs were to harvest seal pelts to sell in Canton, China. They had been alone on the island for six months and had wracked up 8,000 seal pelts, and they still had another year to go on the contract before the merchant company picked them up.

Continue reading “How Much Would You Need to be Paid to Live on a Deserted Island for 1.5 Years and Do Nothing but Kill Seals?”

Polygamy, Human Sacrifices, and Steel – Why the Aztecs Were Awesome

Aztec Leaders: Rulers, Supreme Ruler and the Voice of the People ...
A Chadtec surveys his domain.

The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs was terrible. It was a prolonged period of pestilence, famine, torture, rape, plunder, destruction, conquest, cultural eradication, and general misery, with a short term death toll of something like 600,000 (including military and civilian casualties), and a long term death toll in the millions.

And yet part of me thinks it was totally awesome. That portion of my brain that grew up on Total War and Civilization games thinks the concept of a small number of hyper-technologically sophisticated foreigners led by a verified psychopath waging war on an empire of pyramid-dwelling, polygamist, slave-owning, human sacrificing pagans with the fate of a largely uncharted landmass at stake is incredibly cool. And no one can convince me otherwise.

There are surprisingly few books on the Aztecs, so I took a chance on Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend, which as of writing this only has four reviews on Audible (though 30+ on Amazon). I hope the book gets its due because it’s a fast, narratively-focused, and thoroughly enjoyable walkthrough of hundreds of years of little-understood history, from before the settlement of Tenochtitlan through the Spanish conquest, and over the following hundreds of years of Spanish rule. Townsend’s novel approach to the material is to rely heavily on history texts written by the Aztecs in their native Nahuatl language in the 20-50 years after the Spanish conquests, on top of well-studied archaeological findings.

My main takeaway from the book is that the Aztecs were a highly unique civilization that I desperately want to learn more about. They offer great insights into how a society with radically different structures and norms might function. Whether it was due to their relative geographic isolation, unusual environmental factors, or achievement of a high level of technology for a pagan tribal society, the Aztecs seemed to follow very different civilizational paths than the ancient Greeks, Persians, Chinese, and Indians, despite being at a fairly comparable level of development by the 1500s.

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The Taiwan Junket: A Story of Political Farce & Fools

Taiwan Flag

The following is a true story. It is based on notes taken from a conversation with a former state representative from a Midwestern state who I’ll refer to as John Smith. He has asked to remain anonymous.

It was the early-2000s. With 6 months left in his third term as a state representative, John Smith was a lame duck. Other legislators gave Smith sad little nods in the hallways, and the “watchers” – the lobbyists who sat in on every vote – stopped inviting him to comped dinners at fancy restaurants. Without an opening available in the state Senate, Smith knew his political career was over, at least for a while.

Smith had seen many of his colleagues come close to mental breakdowns when they finally left office. They couldn’t comprehend why strangers stopped taking their phone calls and laughing at their jokes. Their sense of identity and self-worth was tied up in their title and modicum of power over their fellow citizens. But Smith didn’t care about all that. He was a hardcore libertarian, though he wasn’t open about it. He hated the political machinations which stole money from the people to be dolled out by the aristocracy of pull. Smith never tired of mocking the self-righteous, self-important elected officials who revel in power so petty that their own constituents don’t even know what they do.

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Little Soldiers – Inside the Chinese Education System

Image result for chinese test takers

Note – Scott Alexander posted a “Review Review” of this piece on Slate Star Codex on January 22, 2020.

I’m a typical SSC reader when it comes to education. I love Scott’s graduation speech, I think Bryan Caplan is right, and I actively participate in our semi-regular tradition of talking about how much schools suck.

That’s why Lenora Chu’s Little Soldiers: An American Boy, A Chinese School, and the Global Race to Achieve was pure nightmare fuel for me. It’s a non-fiction account of an ethnically-Chinese, American-born woman following her multi-racial child through the Chinese school system in Shanghai. While we complain about our soft, liberal, decadent school experiences in America or Europe, tens of millions of Chinese kids are subjected to a school structure that seems purposefully designed to make everyone as miserable as humanly possible.

Or at least that was my take-away. Lenora Chu has a kinder perspective on the system. Mostly.

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The Opium War – The War On/For Drugs

Wallpapers ID:81842

Over the previous month, I have slowly made my way through the audiobook of Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt.

Prior to reading it, I knew next to nothing about the Opium Wars except that they were a series of conflicts between Great Britain and China over opium that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong, and that they inspired much modern-day nationalism in China where they are seen as the start of China’s “Century of Humiliation.”

(Note – from now on I’ll just refer to a singular “Opium War.” There were a few of them, but the first one is the important one.)

Now that I’ve read it, I feel like I’ve only grasped the surface-level of a vast conflict containing multi-national corporate drug dealers, local mafia drug distributors, corrupt government agents, home-sick merchants, panicking diplomats, political lobbyists, a British merchant who nearly started an international war because he wanted to bang his wife, a Chinese merchant who almost defected to America, drug legalization advocates on both sides of the world, a Chinese advisor who wanted to execute anyone caught holding opium, and countless more individuals, organizations, and governments caught in a tangled international web.

And yet, despite building up at the start of the 18th century and coming to a climax in the mid-19th century, while reading this book about the Opium War, I couldn’t help but think:

This is all so familiar.

The Opium War is like a fictitious allegorical retelling of a whole bunch of very real political problems in the modern world. Namely:

  • The ongoing, intractable, unwinnable WAR ON DRUGS
  • The inherent difficulties of conducting a policy of FREE TRADE when the trading partner is a hostile, protectionist nation
  • The limits of STATE SOVEREIGNTY and MULTICULTURALISM against pressing private concerns

In this post, first I’ll do my best to recount the basic outline of the conflict as well as its most interesting trends and moments. Nearly all of my information comes from the book, with gaps filled in by Wikipedia.

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Mongol Apologia – How Genghis Khan Made the Modern World

Image result for genghis khan

In Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast on the Mongols, he recounts taking a class in college on Genghis Khan where he wrote a paper about some of the economic benefits of the Mongol Empire’s reign, and his Chinese professors gave him a bad grade for overlooking the tens of millions of people the nomads killed to acquire their massive empire. Carlin argued that the Mongol death toll wasn’t the point of the essay and it was unfair to grade him that way, but the teacher said it was morally inexcusable to overlook blatant genocide in this context.

I had a vaguely similar encounter in college, but in the other direction. I took a class on Mongol history taught by a professor who was famous in the field (he had spent years unsuccessfully searching for Genghis Khan’s body in Mongolia), and he used to make good-natured jokes about how one of his TAs was an unabashed Mongol fan. The TA didn’t just think the Mongols were interesting, he genuinely believed they were a force for good in the world, and when giving lectures he would go on at lengths rattling off the accomplishments and stats of the Mongol Empire, only to be occasionally interrupted by the main professor who would remind everyone that the Mongols probably killed a higher percentage of the earth’s population than any military force in history.

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Jack Weatherford’s book, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. When I started it, I wondered if the publisher forced that rather click-baity title on Weatherford. After all, though it’s a well-written and entertaining account, it is a fairly straightforward historical survey of Genghis Khan’s life and legacy. The book never concisely states what the “modern world” is or how exactly Genghis Khan made it.

But now that I finished it, I think Weatherford may have chosen the title after all, because he is about as pro-Mongol as one can get. And though the book is more of a historical account than an argument for a grand historical/cultural/societal explanation for the modern world, there is a faint outline for such a thing somewhere in there.

Even though I don’t totally buy it, I’ll do my best to explain Weatherford’s argument. I’ll also try to explain how Genghis Khan was so awesome (at least in a purely amoral, achievement-based sense) and why he’s one of the most famous people in all of history.

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