In 1595, Nurhaci, the Jurchen chieftain who unified Jianzhou Jurchens, sent an envoy to pursue friendly relations with Joseon, which was going through an unprecedented chaos at home and abroad. Joseon could not afford to have another war from the North, so it decided to send a delegate to test the waters. This required a man of courage, resource, and insight.
They finally found the right person for the job – Shin Chung-il, an official serving in the southern part of the capital. Shin visited Nurhaci’s castle in December that year, and put together a traveler journal called geonjugijeongdogi, which is serving as invaluable historical data for the studies of Nurhaci.
At the castle, Shin Chung-il met with a number of Jurchen officials. “We are all wearing silk. Why is it so hard to find anyone wearing silk in your country?” one of the officials asked. It was a question that could sound every offensive. But anger or ignorance doesn’t solve anything. One needs to question why he asked such an overtly offending question. In the 15th century, Jurchen lagged far behind Joseon in terms of culture and economic power. Many tribes sustained on hunting and ranching. Lacking the craft necessary for ironware and farming tools, Jurchen had to depend on the imports from Joseon.
Starting in the 16th century, Jurchen embarked upon a systematic rebuilding of the economy. A more efficient farming management and a state-led trade initiative boosted the volume of national wealth. This led to a dramatic advancement of ironware technologies. Based on such economic strength, Jurchen was able to beef up its military power and cultivated predatory economy. A mentality obsessing with the past numbs the senses for reality check and distorts the ability to make progress. The upshot was the Manchu war of 1636.
Nowadays, Korea’s historical evaluation is witnessing a mixture of emotional extremities ranging from disparagement, hatred, and idolatry. It is beyond my head why our society is losing its reason and calm so drastically. Be it a praise or a depreciation, a historical awareness that has lost reason is pernicious to society’s collective intelligence.