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Taking responsibility for your words

Posted August. 01, 2014 08:17,   


This is what happened at the home of Zhengzi, a Confucian scholar during the Warring States Period in China. His young son wailed, demanding to be allowed to accompany his mother to the market. She placated him by telling him she would slaughter the pig for him to eat if he would wait with docility. When she returned from the market, Zhengzi was killing the precious pig. Stunned, she demanded why he would really do such a thing when she had told her son she would kill the pig for him just to stop him from crying. Her husband chided her, saying that one should not teach tricks to one’s children.

The “Zhengzi’s Pig” anecdote mentioned in the Chinese classics is an old story that reminds readers of taking responsibility for one’s words and the importance of keeping promises. In mid-Joseon dynasty there was an even more resolutely honest man. Lee Gyeong-geom, of royal blood and a scholar-official in the government, made a will stimulating he would leave a house to his nine-year-old daughter to keep his word given to his child. He even had his first-born son sign the item which bid his other children to not complain in case his descendants would fight over the house. This is contained in a book on Lee, which the Academy of Korean Studies, Jangseogak Archives, has translated and disclosed recently.

In the conservative, male-dominated Confucian society of Joseon, the reason Lee left his house to his young daughter, not one of his sons, is as follows. Lee appears to have been the first Korean “fond father.” While presiding over the repairs to his home which was damaged during a Japanese invasion of Korea, he carried his precious only daughter on his back. He then said off-hand like a joke that he would give her that house when the repairs were completed. The daughter, who heard that, boasted to other people that she was the owner of the home. Lee may have been able to laugh it off as a slip of the tongue, but as a father and as a scholar, he chose to keep his word.

Unlike our forebears who have been exemplary thus, Koreans in the 21st century tend of toss out words or promises for which they cannot take accountability. That is why mistrust and cynicism flow heavily underneath Korean society. On the death of Yoo Byung-eon, the former head of the Semo Group, which owned the sunken Sewol ferry, there are those who spread irresponsible doubts that his corpse is fake, denying a statement that had underwent scientific investigation by the top forensics authority in Korea. The politicians’ habit of making irrational comments brings to mind Voltaire: Common sense is not so common.