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Forgery as Historiography in Korean and East Asian History


Admission requirements

MA students. Knowledge of Korean (or another East Asian language) and of Korean and East Asian history is recommended.


This course will introduce historical forgeries from Korea (and to a more limited extent from China and Japan) to discuss their importance in the formation of history and historiography. From the tenth century to the present-day, historical forgeries (mainly of texts) have played an important role in process of (national or other) identity formation. Texts ascribed to rulers, genealogies forged to raise one’s social status, apocryphal sutra’s that introduced new notions in Buddhism disguised as the words of the historical Buddha: the list is virtually endless. During this course, the uses and abuses of historical forgeries will be analyzed using original historical materials and secondary (often western) literature to develop a typology of historical forgeries.
The course will culminate in a critical evaluation of the book The city of light by Jacob d’Ancona and translated and edited by David Selbourne. This work, purportedly 13th-century work by a Jewish-Italian merchant who had visited China before Marco Polo, has been at the center of a controverse regarding its authenticity since its (modern) publication. Each student will be expected to finish the course by writing a critical research paper on one aspect of the question of the authenticity of The city of light in the light of what has been discussed during the course in terms of the role and positioning of historical forgeries.
Classes will consist of one hour lectures, discussions of the reading materials and student presentations and will expose students to a number of approaches to understand historical forgeries in their discursive field. Aside from discussing readings, each session will introduce one (suspected) forgery that will be discussed with the aid of printed publications, blackboard/internet resources, to illustrate topics at hand and to stimulate discussion. During the course, students are expected to exercise growing competency in accessing/referring to/using secondary materials.
Readings will be set for preparation between classes. Students are expected to read these set texts in out-of-class hours and to discuss what they have read when the class assembles.

Course objectives

To familiarize students with the role and position of historical forgeries in a Korean (and East Asian) context through:
a). scholarly discourse relevant to the modern discipline of history, in particular with regard to identity formation and historiography;
b). scholarly discourse relevant to particular conditions of historical discourse and identity formation discourse pertaining to historical forgeries in Korea and East Asia;
c). methods and approaches most useful for historical and sociological enquiry into historical forgeries in Korea and East Asia.
In order to contextualize the aims of b) and c) within the state of the discipline (a), the course will demand an amount of reading about/considering other regional engagements with historical forgeries and history (e.g. Africa, Europe, etc). The usefulness of this comparative design will become clearer as the course progresses, but it is controlled to ensure that Korea (and to a lesser extent East Asia) remains the primary focus of the entire course.


Time and date on which the course is offered or a link to the website.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

a). Reading the set readings. Optional readings are what the description suggests, and also provided as extra resources for completing an essay (see below).
b). Essay (5000 words): this is the major course requirement to pass this course. Students must choose a topic relevant to the content/aims of the course by/before week 7. Delivery of this essay will be expected by/before 31 December (subject to further discussion). Extra guidelines will be provided during the progress of the course.
c). maximally two short oral presentations and one final presentation on the final essay.

  • Classwork: 40%

  • Written work 60%



Reading list

Remco Breuker, Forging the truth: creative deception and national identity in medieval Korea (special issue of East Asian History, no. 35, 2008)

Denis Dutton (ed.), The forger’s art: forgery and the philosophy of art, (University of California Press, 1983).

Anthony Grafton, Forgers and critics: Creativity and duplicity in Western scholarship.

Judith Ryan, Alfred Thomas (eds.), Cultures of Forgery: Making Nations, Making Selves (Routledge, 2003)

David Selbourne, The City of Light: the Hidden Journal of the Man Who Entered China Four Years Before Marco Polo (Citadel, 2003)

Hugh Trevor-Roper, A hidden life: the Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse Macmillan, 1976)

A more detailed list will be distributed later.


Via uSis.