Rice Cycles and Price Cycles: The Economic Worldview of Sim Wŏn’gwŏn, 1870-1933

Rice Cycles and Price Cycles: The Economic Worldview of Sim Wŏn’gwŏn, 1870-1933

Holly Stephens - Postdoctoral Associate in East Asian Studies and Lecturer in History

Wednesday, November 29, 2017 - 12:00pm to 1:30pm
Room 202, Henry R. Luce Hall See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 06511
Lunch will be served.

“The principle of all things, is that they all have good and bad fortune Storing things when they are cheap, and selling them when they are expensive, that is the way to make great profits.”

———Sim Wŏn’gwŏn, 1880.

“Buy low, sell high”: this advice would be readily recognizable to any contemporary Wall Street trader, yet the quote above is taken from the diary of a nineteenth-century Korean farmer living through a period of immense political, economic, and social upheaval. This talk explores the background to Sim Wŏn’gwŏn’s economic logic and its application in his daily life as Sim navigated a series of events that changed the course of modern Korean history. While in many respects Sim Wŏn’gwŏn lived an unremarkable life—he remained a farmer until his death, neither travelling outside of his home region nor gaining any official or scholarly recognition—his diary provides a unique perspective onto the opening of Korean ports in 1876, the subsequent growth of the international rice trade, and Korea’s eventual colonization by Japan in 1910. Throughout it all, Sim kept a detailed account of his farming activities, the prices in local markets, and his efforts to turn a profit. Viewed against Sim’s theory of cyclical prices, as revealed in his diary, the minutiae of everyday life becomes central to a new understanding of economic change and empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Holly Stephens received her Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania in 2017. As a historian of Korea, her research interests range widely to include economic history, agriculture, empire, everyday life, village organizations, and the emergence of the modern state. Her dissertation—Agriculture and Development in an Age of Empire: Institutions, Associations, and Market Networks in Korea, 1876-1945—examines the Korean rural economy during a period of immense political upheaval. Using previously unexamined farmers’ diaries, the dissertation traces the formation and operation of new agricultural organizations that linked Korean farmers to regional and global markets, as new ideas about the state’s role in the economy and the adoption of scientific farming methods combined to transform agricultural production.

While at Yale, Holly will prepare her dissertation for publication. She will also teach a class in the spring on economic change and everyday life in modern Korea.