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Sky of Choi Si-hyung

Posted February. 20, 2019 07:53,   

Updated February. 20, 2019 07:53


In January 2015, an artwork auction was held in Seoul, and two pieces of paintings broke our heart. They were the paintings of the last moments of Donghak (an academic movement in Korean Neo-Confucianism) leaders Choi Je-woo and Choi Si-hyung, who were executed in Seoul in 1864 and 1898, respectively. One of the two paintings depicted the scattered blood of decapitated Choi Je-woo and the other one demonstrated the moment immediately before Choi Si-hyung’s execution. Disgracefully, both paintings were drawn by a Japanese artist.

At the time the artist drew the paintings, Joseon was under Japanese occupation. When you take a close look at the paintings, you can see "44" at the bottom of the left side, which means that the picture was painted in year 44 of the Meiji Restoration, i.e., 1911. Joseon officially lost its national sovereignty in 1910, but it was already under the control of Japan even before then. The painting of the last moments of Choi Si-hyung, in particular, best demonstrates this fact. There are two Joseon officials and three Japanese soldiers. Joseon officials are holding folding fans while Japanese soldiers are wearing long knives on their waist. If the painting was actually a repainting of other artist's work as he said, the actual image of the execution ground in 1898 may have been so as well. The death of Choi Si-hyung was a result of collaboration and plotting of groups who represent the Japanese with knives and Joseon officials with folding fans. This was the reality of Joseon.

They could not, however, kill the spirit of Choi Si-hyung. They could not remove his sublime idea of life that "Humans are the sky." The second Donghak leader saw humans as the sky even in prison and paid respect. He sent a message to his acquaintances, who were worried about him, saying, “I need 50 nyangs for an important matter. I would appreciate it if you come up with the money.” He bought rice cakes with the money and shared it with hungry prisoners. For him, prisoners were the sky. This is exactly what the artist of an empire missed to catch.