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[Opinion] Tasan the Reformer

Posted April. 10, 2006 07:02,   


In political circles, neo-Confucian scholar Tasan Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836) was a failure. Passing the civil service examinations, he started his career in government, served as royal secret investigator, and was once favored by King Jeongjo.

But after being attacked on the grounds that he was keenly interested in Christianity and occidental sciences, he was sent into exile for 18 years. During that long period, he had to swallow the pains of ruining both himself and his family, and failing to make the full use of his knowledge and experience. Those painful days made him a “great scholar who left behind the largest number of writings since the creation of Chinese letters” (quoted from Jeong In-bo).

The pains and sufferings that he went through, which are described in his “letters from exile,” break the hearts of readers across time. “A poem is not a poem if it does not open readers’ eyes to political wrongs. We are a dismissed family who are not allowed to pursue a career in government. But that does not mean that we cannot become sages or good writers, either. If we, a dismissed family, do not read books and practice good conduct, how can we behave as man should?” From a distant place of exile, he sent letters to enlighten his children and make them keep up the good work.

“You should be respected by the King; you should never be a person simply favored by the King. It is not that important that you become a person that pleases the King. The King would never respect a person who only studies the pleasure of his; who curries favor with him; who finds it hard to give up his government post; who always seeks connection to power elite. One whom the King treats like mistress and seeks to exploit like a slave is bound to feel exhausted and miserable.” Tasan spent so many hours in writing that he suffered from shoulder pain. He did not only write letters; he also dedicated himself to masterpieces such as Mokminsimseo.

Tasan also discussed the role and mindset of an unkwan, an official in charge of giving expostulation to the King. “[An unkwan] should criticize the King’s wrongdoings, make known people’s sufferings and let wrongful officials step down. An unkwan should never take side and jeopardize the other side; he should be fair.” This year marks the 170th anniversary of Tasan’s death. The reform spirit of Tasan, who called for an overhauling of political agencies and local administration, still means a lot today.

Kim Chung-sik, Editorial Writer, skim@donga.com