A Pacifist under Imperialism
In 1942-3, the peak of Japanese suppression in Korea, Ham linked the evil of imperialism - both Japanese and Western - to the evil of strong statism. Statism can be defined as follows: The modern state, in its basic nature and aims, is fundamentally a military state, and a military state is bound to turn into a militant state. If it does not overthrow others it will destroy itself, as wherever power exists, it must inevitably be put to use. From this, it follows that the modern state must, without fail, be gigantic and forceful in order to ensure its own preservation. Consequently, statism is the near total dominance of the nation and state by the central government authority. In this regard, statism is based on a strong sense of collective-egoism rather than altruism, which Ham fundamentally could not agree with. Statism also used violence, hence it was incompatible with Ham's central philosophy, the principle of non-violence. In this respect, Ham did not accept statism but had a leaning towards the transcendentalism of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. Ham considered peace among nations to be the 'command' of God and history: "We should pursue the way of peace, it is not a matter of possibility or of our ability. It is a 'peremptory command' from history. Take the way of peace or destruction of all humanity, the way of peace is only before us."
This is the reason Ham was attracted to the pacifism of Lao-tzu, and why he saw Lao-tzu as the first pacifist, claiming that: "Lao-tzu stressed the futility of war and violence as instruments of national policy, recommending that peaceful solutions be found". In this regard, let me also examine the pacifist attitude of Lao-tzu through the contexts of the Tao-te Ching:
"By keeping itself downstream a great realm becomes the unification of the world --- When the great realm puts itself below the small it thereby wins the small realm over. When the small realm puts itself below the great it is thereby won over by the great realm --- Thus each attains what it wants: but the great must remain below." "The highest attainment is free from attainment. Therefore, there is attainment. The lowest attainment is never free from attainment. Therefore, there is no attainment."
The above texts in Tao-te Ching indicate Lao-tzu's desire for pacifism and his resolute notions on state and government. This is the lesson according to which the state that promotes the public welfare in a rather mild manner gains influence. It also shows the purest form of contemplative introspection and political application in dealing with state affairs. Equally Lao-tzu's greatest virtues are tenderness and weakness, exemplified by the infant, the feminine, and water. Water abides in valleys yet it benefits innumerable creatures; although gentle, it is able to overwhelm the 'strongest' opponent. In this way, Lao-tzu's term 'weakness' can be seen as strength, also in this way water follows the Tao - the Natural Way.
Ham's era was ruled by imperialism, consequently the common people were oppressed and had their freedom and beliefs fettered by imperial powers and tyrannical rulers. The prevalent value of materialism under strong statism led Ham to view with suspicion the whole future of civilisation. He saw that profit was the sole purpose of the capitalist world and asserted that: "Using scarce materials for luxurious living is one of the causes of war. In capitalist countries, where profit is the motive, expensive goods are produced rather than more essential goods because more profit is possible. In many instances, war has been waged mainly for political or economic power."
The above writing shows us why Ham was suspicious of capitalist values, although he was not a revolutionary leftist. He emphasised the meaninglessness or senselessness of war and violence as a means of highlighting one's national policy, and urged that peaceful solutions be found. In this regard, Ham began to question "What can we do in order to rescue this world from another potential conflict?" Accordingly, Ham speculated on the necessity of the 'new way' as a new hope for the human race, and he had confidence that the new way stemmed from the re-interpretation of the past; that is, classical philosophy, which was created at a time when the world was 'less polluted'.
However, Ham did not expect the new way to come from Western classical philosophy: "While Western philosophy came about through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Industrial Revolution, these Western philosophies had already been massively influenced by the past". As a consequence of this, Western philosophy had led to the contemporary capitalist and materialist world. Ham argued that: "Humankind cannot rely on Aristotle and Plato in the future." Ham believed that the Western classical philosophy had had its opportunity, had performed and was no longer valid. It was time to examine the previously ignored East Asian classical philosophy: "The people of the West, being secular and dynamic, rational and empirical, analytical and methodological, played the leading role. Now, they are completing their work, and they are about to pass it on to someone else." Yet neither did Ham look to Confucianism for the new way, since the history of the East Asia was already dominated by Confucianism. Therefore, Confucian philosophy had been thoroughly exhausted, as he argued: "Confucius and Mencius have little influence today."
Instead, Ham looked to a new and fresh utilisation of the East Asian classics, in particular to philosophical Taoism, to supply the guide for the revitalisation of stagnant Western civilisation. Ham was convinced that the East Asian classical philosophies could be used to refresh and create a foundation for the coming civilisation. But in order to apply classical philosophies to the contemporary world, Ham emphasised the importance of a re-interpretation of history, rather than simply repeating it: "History requires a constantly renewed interpretation, for it is a continued opening up of a virgin forest of the future." Ham deemed not only history but also the universe, religion and God as the eternal incompleteness, an endless growing, everlasting freshness and a constantly changing process, but not as the completed form. In Ham's view, surely the truth of religion should be eternal truth and the basic truth of religion cannot change. But humankind's view of the world changes, and the phenomenon religion will also change, thus we should reinterpret the religious scripts in the light of contemporary knowledge and experience. By doing so, we must not let the essence (truth) be ruled by appearance (script). Any institutionalising is only necessary to preserve and reveal the essence of it.
In view of this, for Ham, religion was a continual growing and struggling process rather than a ready-made manifestation. Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu's concept of wu-wei (inaction or tranquil activity) also shows in a changing universe that nothing is stagnant, yet all parts of nature are accorded an harmonious rhythm. Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu pursued the limitless freedom of the human spirit, breaking the fixed ideas of human beings.
In this respect, Ham perceived philosophical Taoism as an unused and hidden resource for humankind. Since philosophical Taoism holds a high respect for such values as meekness, modesty and softness as a means of achieving a loftiness of pathos and tranquillity of mind, Ham also upheld these values against those promoted by Japanese and Western imperialism. While Confucianism stresses social order and active life, Taoism concentrates on individual life and tranquillity. Just as Chuang-tzu wished human beings to abandon all unnatural characteristics such as slyness and craftiness, states of mind in which Tao cannot reside, so Ham saw Japanese imperialism as bringing characteristics of cunning and deceit.
Ham argued that during the age of imperialism, statism may be necessary as a 'guardian' to protect the dignity of the common people. But when the age of imperialism has gone, statism should go also. Considering statism to lack morality, Ham saw modern statism as a false idol of the modern world. Inasmuch as the Second World War was the towering production of strong statism, Ham predicted that the era of imperialism and the Great Powers would fade. He foresaw that: "if statism continues, armed conflict cannot be avoided among nations, and if a further world war bursts into flame, the seed of humankind will be completely eradicated from the earth." Ham therefore, believed that the concept of the state should be revised and the nature of the state should be changed in order to prevent further global war and ensure the survival of the human race. By way of illustration, Ham believed that the people in today's world should break the concept that the human race exists for the benefit of the state.
To sum up, Ham was neither a 'Warrior' against Western Christianity nor a chauvinistic East Asian. He was a 'Healer' of the conflict between a heroic imperialism, represented by Japan, and a feeble colony, portrayed by Korea. Ham's fascination with philosophical Taoism was an attempt to discover his own identity as an East Asian Christian in the Age of Imperialism, as a means of fusion between the East Asia and the West. Ham was also an advocate of freedom and pacifism against political restriction, social injustice, and the structural evils within his historical era. Ham saw the values of Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu as offering an alternative to the violence and materialism of civilisation, and hope for humanity.
While Ham was infatuated with such East Asian philosophy, he also became a 'professional farmer' for his sustenance. One summer afternoon, in July 1944, Ham's close friend, Kim Kyosin, came to him and asked ardently: "Go with me to the fertiliser plant in Hungnam. We can enlighten the factory workers and we can help their labour movement." But this time, Ham felt his own limitations and weakness strongly. Having recently been released from prison, and having experienced the sudden death of his father and severe calamity of his own family just previously, Ham felt a sense of responsibility towards his family and also felt a lack of incentive and vigour. As a result Ham regretfully declined Kim's suggestion.
According to Ham, Kim set off without any companion in the direction of the Hungnam Fertiliser Plant, not knowing that it would be their last meeting in this world. Kim was born in Hamhung, which is near Hungnam in the same province. Thus, possibly Kim may have had some personal connection in the Hungnam area, but no record is available on this matter. At Hungnam Fertiliser Plant, as a volunteer, Kim made remarkable efforts to improve the welfare and working conditions of the factory workers, as well as educating and enlightening them both day and night. However, within ten months, Kim's life had ended due to overwork and typhoid fever. It was April 1945, just four months before the end of the Second World War and the Liberation of Korea from Japanese imperialism. Ham was later to deeply regret that he had not accompanied Kim to the Hungnam Plant.
In the years leading up to 1945, Ham suffered imprisonment no fewer than four times by the Japanese authorities. Ham was also forced by the Japanese authorities to live as a 'criminal' in his own land, closing his farm, abandoning his teaching profession and living in poverty. It is an account of this suppression by the Japanese authorities that, when commenting on his life in this period Ham stated: "My only crime was that of being a Korean." As a Korean under Japanese colonial rule, one was politicised and even became a 'law-breaker', if it was realised that one was aware of the inequity of the socio-political structure under the colonisation. In this sense, Ham, as a conscientious Korean intellectual, was a constant and active Korean nationalist against Japanese colonial rule.
Chapter 4: Ham Sokhon in 'Liberated' Korea (1945-1961) Table of Contents Home Page