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Chaekmun: Answering the Questions of the Age

Posted September. 03, 2004 22:08,   


By Kim Tae-wan. 504 pp. 20,000 won. Published by Sonamu.

“I, who am foolish and undiscerning, have inherited the great work of ruling this kingdom. I lack both sagacity and wisdom, and cannot see what tasks are most urgent, like one who is faced with deep pools and thin ice without knowing how to cross them.”

In 1611, Joseon’s ruling monarch Gwanghaegun voiced this earnest appeal to the 33 state examination finalists, as the question for the Chaekmun (策問, section that asks the examinee about political strategy) portion of the test. The question asks what is most imperative for the revitalization of the people—in regard to engaging men of ability for public offices, reforming the tax system, maintaining land and properties, organizing family registers, etc.—following the ravages of the 1592 Japanese Invasion.

The thirty-five-year-old scholar Im Suk-yeong responds, “Why do you not speak of your own mistakes and the country’s faults?” He boldly argues that “the most urgent undertaking should be to eliminate the intervention of the queen and the concubines, the practice of advancing into public office through bribery, and the repression of opinions that criticize the wrongs of the monarch.”

This reply is a severe denouncement of the cardinal weakness of Gwanghaegun, who conducted Joseon Dynasty’s highest order of realistic diplomacy but ultimately failed in his domestic administration. Gwanghaegun was the son of a concubine and thus was compromised in terms of legitimacy to the throne; he employed a large number of Buk-in (people affiliated to the Northern party), who had previously been excluded from power, and advocated reform, but eventually sealed his own doom by endorsing the political collusion of the concubines and the Buk-in faction, selling public titles and offices to generate revenue, and suppressing negative critiques of such damaging practices.

The modest wording of the Chaekmun question seems to reflect Gwanghaegun’s awareness of this state of affairs, but upon reading Im’s answer, the king became outraged and demanded that Im’s name be stricken from the list of those who had passed the examination. The controversy dragged on for four months, aided by the appeals of such principal ministers of state as Lee Hang-bok and Lee Deok-hyeong, but was eventually wrapped up with the king’s pronouncement that “henceforth none whose answer deviates from the purport of the question be selected in the state examination.”

The Joseon state examination, known as “Gwageo,” is divided into the “Sogwa” (the preliminary exam) and the “Daegwa” (the main exam). The former is again divided into the “Saengwon-si,” which tests one’s knowledge of the Nine Chinese Classics, and the “Jinsa-si,” which evaluates the examinee’s writing abilities through the composition of poetry. Those who have passed—and thus given the titles of “Jinsa” or “Saengwon”—then go on to take the Daegwa. This latter exam generally takes place in three stages, called “Cho-si (初試),” “Bok-si (覆試),” and “Jeon-si (殿試).” “Passing” a state exam refers to successfully completing the Cho-si and the Bok-si. The 33 candidates who have passed the exam then take the Jeon-si, which is superintended by the king himself, to be ranked according to their abilities. Chaekmun is a test question that the king personally poses during this final round, and requires the examinee to come up with solutions for important administrative tasks of the day.

Kim Tae-wan’s book collects 13 Chaekmun questions that pertain to current political circumstances alongside 15 answers by famous statesmen, and provides the Korean translations and explanations for them. Although the policies offered by the examinees are based on Confucian metaphysical philosophies of morality, justice, and virtue, the critical attitude that informs them still retains resonance in our present-day lives.

In fact, the book clearly demonstrates that the Joseon state examination system was not based simply on knowledge of the classics and skill with a pen. As the example of Im Suk-yeong reveals, such rites are replete with the practical concerns and fears of the rulers as well as the life-staking intensity of the young minds who aspired to government.

In 1515, Jungjong posed the Chaekmun question, “If you were Confucius, how would you rule under the kingdom’s present circumstances?” Among those who answered was Cho Gwang-jo, who later went on to launch an ethical reform. He made his position clear by writing, “In contemplating the rule of a country, Confucius advocated the ‘illumination of the right way (do, 道),’ and in meditating on learning, he spoke on ‘being vigilant when left to one’s self.’”

Seong Sam-mun and Shin Suk-ju passed the state examination side by side in 1447, the 29th year of Sejong’s reign, but posterity has evaluated them respectively as “an eternally loyal servant of the king” and “a utilitarian.” Their answers to Sejong’s question—“Even the best of laws give way to corruption in the long run. How should we prevent this?”—reflect this divergence. Seong wrote that the problem rested on the heart of the king, writing, “The heart is the foundation; law is merely the means.” In contrast, Shin answered that “it depends on whom you hire for the job.” One cannot but wonder whether their eventual destinies were presaged in these answers, the one emphasizing a monarch-centric sense of “allegiance (chung, 忠)” and the other foregrounding the idea of “practicality (yong, 用)” from the subject’s point of view.

Chae-Hyun Kwon confetti@donga.com