Ko Hyeseong-Cheon’s Creative and Pragmatic Scholarship: Bringing about Social Changes in the Everyday Life of the Community

The wider media has focused on the great achievements of Ko Hyeseong-Cheon as a mother of six successful Korean-American children, but her scholarship has not been accordingly acknowledged. In fact, Dr. Ko is a pioneering scholar in Korean Studies. She earned her B.A. in sociology and economics at Dickinson College in 1951, and then completed her M.A. (1953) and Ph.D. (1959) in sociology and anthropology at Boston University. She worked as a research fellow for the Department of Sociology at Boston University (1951-1953) and for the Human Relations Center at Boston University (1957-1959). She also received an honorary doctorate in law from Jeongju University in South Korea (2000), as well as an honorary bachelor’s degree from Ewha Women’s University in South Korea (2004). She has been the principal investigator in many social research projects, and the recipient of various national endowments and grants in South Korea, Japan, and the United States. Her work drew the attention of the Ford Foundation, which granted her the first foundation funds for Asian Studies (1988).

Throughout Ko’s career, her scholarly approach has been to integrate theory and practice, an objective deeply influenced by her father’s belief that learning should actually contribute practical knowledge to make the world better.[1] Her work has focused on the most effective and practical ways to support minority and marginalized communities.

As a Korean-American woman scholar, community leader, social activist, best-selling author, and mother of six children, Ko is located in a unique social and cultural setting. She was born and raised in Korea, and later lived in Japan. When she moved to the United States as an international student in 1948, she started practicing her own creative integration of diverse cultural values in her everyday life. As the mother of six children, she searched for effective ways to nurture a strong Korean-American cultural identity within her children.[2] Ko’s multicultural experiences made her seek out a syncretic life style, and her academic work reflected her own practice of negotiating multicultural settings.[3]

Ko Hyeseong-Cheon’s scholarly work crosses over various fields, including historical legal research, comparative analysis of different Asian ethnic cultures, Korean studies, arts, clothing, aging, food, Eastern medicine, religion, women’s studies, language, music, literature, and education. Part of her strategic pedagogy has been to offer speeches and events for the Korean-American community, so that those living in two worlds can deepen and utilize cultural knowledge in their daily lives. Her academic work and a commitment to social activism has impacted the lives of many Korean-Americans. The following will acknowledge some of her unique and creative academic achievements.

I. Korean Studies

As a Korean mother and scholar in Korean Studies living in the United States, Ko confronted the challenge of cultural identity issues. Her doctoral dissertation was a comparative analysis of 14th century Korean history with China and Japan. It was extremely challenging to find academic resources on East Asian history in the 1950s.[4] However, she did not give up her mission to mine East Asian comparative history, because she wanted to introduce East Asian history more broadly to mainstream academia. As a result of her work, Ko has received many awards in academia, including the Prominent Asian-American Scholar Award from the University of Pennsylvania in 1985. This award recognized “her outstanding contribution to enhance the relationship between Korea and the United States through academic and cultural activities.”[5] She served as the first chair of the Committee of Korean Studies in the Association for Asian Studies. She was also involved in launching the Korean Studies session at the annual meeting of the Association for Asian Studies. In 1984, she helped establish the Korean and Korean American Studies Bulletin (KKASB) to discuss current public policy issues relevant to Koreans.[6] KKASB has promoted unique social analysis from a Korean perspective.

II. Computerized Information System in Cultural Studies

One of Ko’s groundbreaking achievements was developing computerized information systems and research tools for the social sciences and Korean Studies (e.g., the Korean Cultural Information System (KOCIS), Human Area Relations Files (HRAF), and the Human Relations Area Files Cultural Information System (HACIS)). KOCIS, for example, allowed scholars to classify cultural information and perform multidimensional analysis through an organized module in Korean studies. She recognized the significance of computerized systems early in the 1970s, and pioneered computerized information systems as research tools for social studies.

III. Literature and Culture

The significance of learning language and culture has been a vital dimension in the work of Ko Hyeseong-Cheon.[7] She worked as a Korean and Japanese language instructor at Carlisle Barracks Information and Education Center (now Army War College) . Later, she led the development of Information Systems for Teaching and Research on Korea (INSTROK), and published a training curriculum on Korean culture in American public schools.[8]

IV. Art and Culture

In order to deepen her understanding of Eastern cultural values, Ko studied brush painting with the master artist, Sozan Matsuba, at the age of 70.[9] She exhibited her artwork in Korea, Japan, and the United States. As a public speaker, she found art to be an effective way to communicate with audiences. She often shared her scholarly insights on intercultural dynamics through her paintings, her calligraphy, Korean dramas, and ethnic folktales. For instance, in her public lectures, she often used her Korean paintings of Korean folktales to explain East Asian cultural values. Her work created a synthetic stream of theoretical, aesthetic, and practical approaches, forged together from her everyday life experiences.

V. Clothing and Culture

Ko Hyeseong-Cheon has used fashion as another way to explore diasporic culture and ethnic identity in a hybrid world. She was involved in the Culture Wear project, which used ethnic costumes and cross cultural practices in a fashion show that was designed to explore the multiple meanings of clothing that emerge in a diasporic context. The annual International Conference on Culture Wear and Diaspora Museum was organized by the Parsons New School for Design, the Smithsonian Institution, and, Ko’s own, East Rock Institute in 2011.

VI. Aging, Food, and Culture

Ko established Cross Cultural Aging Initiatives to seek a holistic model of wellness by bridging the cultural and social wisdom of Western and Eastern aging care. The Cross Cultural Aging Initiatives have hosted annual conferences in South Korea and the United States. She has studied Korean dietary culture to gain cultural insights into aging well. From her experience of raising six children and serving food at social occasions as the wife of a former ambassador, Ko became curious about the anthropological and sociological dimensions of Asian food and gender roles in food preparation.[10] The result has been new research on therapeutic use of East Asian foods, and an argument that western medicine and eastern medicine can be complementary.[11]

Ko Hyeseong-Cheon has successfully accomplished a number of goals as an intellectual and community leader through her scholarly work and community services. By paving a creative, aesthetic, and pragmatic approach, she linked academia and the community, and thereby brought about social changes in the everyday lives of community members.


[1] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013.

[2] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013.

[3] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, “Authentic Leadership and East Asian Values: Toward Global Leadership Values.” Lecture at 2007 World Women’s Forum, Seoul, 2007. http://www.eastrockinstitute.org/eri/authentic.htm

[4] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013.

[5] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, email message to author, December 13, 2013.

[6] http://www.eastrockinstitute.org/eri/research.htm

[7] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, “Women’s Authentic Leadership” (Seoul: Jungang-Books, 2007). 243, 244.

[8] http://www.eastrockinstitute.org/eri/tkc.htm

[9] Korean National Library-The Koh Family/East Rock Institute Archive Joint Digitization 2013 (Par III. 4-5. Ko Hyeseong-Cheon Publication. P.30.

[10] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013.

[11] Ko Hyeseong-Cheon, interview with author, December 16, 2013; “Therapeutic Use of Foods in East Asia,” Korean and Korean American Studies Bulletin, Vol.9, Nos. ½, 1998; “The Wisdom of Korean Food,” Korean and Korean American Studies Bulletin, Vol.6, No.1, 1995.

Written by: Hajung Lee