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Korea`s power comes from "Sonbi Spirit"

Posted November. 14, 2000 19:33,   


Our ancestors in the Choson period (1392-1910), despite repeated Chinese and Japanese invasions, safeguarded the nation for more than 500 years and developed our inherited spiritual culture.

These achievements were possible mainly thanks to the then united power of the people, but I think what contributed most to the defense of the nation and cultural prosperity was the spiritual strength of scrupulous and composed ¡°sonbi,¡± or ¡°learned gentlemen,¡± of that time. I think I¡¯m not the sole person who regrets the deterioration of the ¡°sonbi spirit,¡± seeing the reality that the Korea of today, losing its balance, is shaken.

The sonbi of the Choson Kingdom were all well versed in Confucianism and believed there are reasons and duties man should fulfill. And genuine learned gentlemen always put a curb upon their desires to live right without acting contrary to reason. There would have been no grounds for them to adamantly avoid living in splendor if they were supposed to enjoy such a life without going against human reason. But in reality, it was very difficult for them to enjoy wealth and rank without acting against reason. So, they always tried to live in an austere manner, restraining their desires for material gains and power.

Common among the genuine sonbi was the faith that they had to think of the interests of the community first before private interests. They thought of their larger family first before ¡°I¡± as an individual, and lived their lives with the notion that the state and the people were more important than the family. It is not too much to say that those who were respected as great learned gentlemen lived for the ¡°true self.¡¯¡¯

The sonbi of the Choson Kingdom, in particular, set a high value on ¡°righteousness.¡± They rejected any compromise with injustice and at times fought it courageously at the risk of their lives. Even when the king insisted on taking an unjust path, they pleaded with the master from a loyal motive, braving severe punishment. When the nation was invaded by neighboring countries, they took the initiative in fighting back the invaders for the survival of the nation, leading voluntary citizens¡¯ troops.

But distinguished sonbi did not only respect being dignified and scrupulous. The genuine sonbi, making friends with nature and enjoying arts, planned their lives with composure. The majority of them loved poems, paintings and writings and some were fascinated with music and martial arts.

It will not be too much for us to have the strong conviction that the Choson sonbi¡¯s clean, upright and even composed spirit must have played the role of a spiritual prop that maintained the Choson Kingdom for more than 500 years. If so, who are the people that perform the duty of spiritually propping up the Korea of today? Which group can function as the lighthouse in rough waves today?

At one time, the then incumbent regime and people close to it had attempted to lead the people morally. The representational case was the enactment of the ¡°National Education Charter.¡± But the moral rearmament campaign led by the political sector soon faced a wall. Also, in the days to come, it would be difficult to expect politicians to become the lighthouse as long as the public¡¯s distrust in

politics is not eradicated. The next option as a group having a strong influence is businessmen. But there is a distinct limit in expecting anything from them given the current situation, in which they are not free from the influence of politicians.

The third option is the class of so-called ¡°intellectuals,¡± such as collegians, educators, religious figures and journalists. We still remember vividly that university students and professors were very much concerned about the future of the nation and took the lead in the April 19 Students Uprising in 1960 that toppled the then dictatorial Syngman Rhee government. After the military regime took power, many students launched struggles against the military dictators and professors supported them behind the scenes. The university society saved face as a group of intellectuals.

However, the leading forces of the students¡¯ movement showed leftist leanings beginning in the mid-1970s and professors looked at them skeptically. Such a trend also caused a split among the students themselves. As time went by, the communist countries collapsed and the military regime slowly lost its power. This change was enough to have people misunderstand that the intellectual society of the nation lost the object it should confront in unity.

Yet, there still remain numerous problems in this country even after East European communist countries have collapsed and the military regime has vanished. These can shake the very foundation of the nation. There are forces to defend the nation against these problems, but they lack unity. I think now is the time for the intellectuals of today to pool strength, taking a lesson from the Choson sonbi.

Kim Tae-Kil, emeritus professor, Seoul National University