THE JUST AND THE UNJUST
When Suyarig took the throne with bloody hands as King Sejo, all standards of right and wrong, good and evil, were overturned. Fierce and ruthless men and sly sycophants were pronounced to have been meritorious in introducing a new order under Sejo, and officials of integrity and courage were charged with treason. The court was now a place where evil and disorder reigned.
A few men of justice could not bear the spectacle much longer. Their position was one of loneliness and extreme precariousness. They had only one alternative: to protest by throwing themselves bodily at the enemy, just as Jesus two millenia before them attacked the stronghold of Satan which was devouring the spirit and life of the nation. Such was the cause of the six ministers who plotted to reinstate Tanjong.
Suyang had staged his coup with an eye on the crown that was on the head of his nephew, but even he could not openly defy propriety, so he decided to go through the motions of having Tanjong abdicate the throne in his favor. The date of abdication was set for June of the third year of Tan- jong's reign. Suyang prostrated himself before the king, indicating, according to custom, his desire to decline the offer. A hush fell over the court, all faces turning ashen, when Suyang was about to receive the royal seal proffered from the throne. At his moment Seong Sam-mun, keeper of the seal, who was to get the seal from the king to hand it over to Suyang, broke down and burst out in loud wailing. Suyang, pretending to decline the seal, erked his head up and fixed Seong Sam-mun with a long stare. In a sepulchral air the ceremony came to a close without further mishap. If even at this late hour several more, ready to face death, had sided with Seong Sam-mun in his protest and so disrupted the ceremony and if the populace had joined in the cry against the abdication, even the determin- ed Suyang may well have been stopped. They merely let Seong Sam-mun wail on. Suyang ignored it and proceeded with the ceremony of ascen- sion. Tanjong became ex-king, but only in form. Actually he was held under house arrest. He rued his plight and there were many who shed tears in pity. But the general situation was too far gone for any hope of a reversal. Seong Sam-mun dissuaded his Ue-minded friend, Pak Paeng-nyeon, from committing suicide. The two discussed ways to reinstate the deposed king. They were biding their time.
An opportunity came two years later. A party was being prepared court to honor an envoy of the Ming court from China. Seong Sam-mun and Pak P'aeng-nyeon discussed plans for a coup with Ha Wi-ji, Yu Ung-bu Yu Seong-weon, Yi Kae and Kim Chil. Again, destiny intervened to set a different course. A minor incident happened at the last-minute, and the majority decided to hold off action, except for Yu Ung-bu who, perhaps because he was a soldier, insisted on going through with it even if it was dangerous. Seong Sam-mun rejected it on the ground that the plan was not foolproof. Then Kim Chil changed his mind. He told the king everything. The plan was upset and all six men were arrested. They underwent Sejo's personal interrogation punctuated with the worst conceivable torture.
The noble tragedy of the Six Martyred Ministers to which no human tongue can do justice is required reading for all Koreans. This at least they must know, even if they cannot read Shakespeare or are ignorant of Goethe. This is so because in this event we discern Korea's spirit at its best, in all its vividness, amidst the intensity of suffering. Beneath the layer of dirt and the rotted skin we are witnessing the quick flesh and the warm blood. We catch a glimpse of the shining core deep inside the weathered, eroding crust. One of them scrupulously stored away every grain of rice he received in pay because he did not wish to have anything to do with a stipend paid by the unjust. By way of furniture in his room, the keeper of the royal seal had only a straw mat. Is this not an instance of the integrity of Korea's spirit? With a red-hot iron rod the thigh was stabbed and the navel was burned out, and the arm was slashed off with a sword. Yet no flicker of feeling showed on the countenance. Is this not the fortitude of Korea's spirit? With the vastness of an ocean of a heart, they withstood the torture, laughing it off.
Their souls purer than gold, their devotion warmer than fire, they were able to say, in all seriousness, to Sejo's face: "Sir, you have finished off every important official of the former king except this one, who is innocent of the plot. Keep him alive and make good use of him; he is a very good man.' Again, to the soldier applying torture: "This iron is cold now. Put it back in the fire.' If this is what Korea's soul is capable of, there is little point in being concerned about Koreans being weak. Yu Ung-bu, the soldier, kept standing as the skin on his back was flayed. Faced with his remark, one may rest assured about Korea's unbending will and endurance. He said, "I tried to drive you out with my one sword and bring the king back to the throne. Unfortunately, a treacherous one gave us away to you. I have nothing further to say to you. On the day of the plan," he continued to his fellow plotters, "I wanted to use my sword but you fellows talked me out of it because you thought my proposal was not foolproof, and you brought this on us ... They are no better than beasts. All right, if you want to know more, ask these fellows, these would-be scholars."
Without such statements, the span of five millennia would lose much of its luster. The shame of the five centuries of Yi Korea were more than offset by this event. These six martyrs still live on to exalt us all to pride worthy of Korea.
The mission of the six ministers was not to succeed but to die. They were chosen to die. God had decided on the six ministers for a sacrifice to be offered on the altar of justice, a sacrifice on behalf of the nation. By their death they would repay the debt of injustice and revive the seeds of the just. God is not cruel nor did he particularly hate Korea when he demanded the blood of the Six. The death of the just only partially signifies punishment of the nation's sin. Justice is as much a principle of history as is charity. Therefore, the demand for the blood of the just has a meaning that goes deeper than exacting a price: keeping justice alive.
What King Sejong had failed to nurture in the Chiphyeonjeon by providing its members with clothing and food, liquor, money and power, these six ministers revived by shedding their blood at their place of execution on the southern bank of the Han: Korea's spirit is what they regained. Here is the poem Seong Sam-mun composed just before going to the place of execution:
I will not swerve from principle
But will die to realize my loyalty.
In my dreams the pines
By the king's tomb are green as ever.
Yi Kae, too, wrote:
When life has its proper weight
Then great is life.
But when life is light as a feather
Then glory is in death.
I go out after a sleepless night.
My dreams were of the king's tomb
Where the pines stay vivid and green.
The king's tomb refers to Munjong's. The more we read the story of the six martyrs, the more we find ourselves gritting our teeth and clench- our fists, but as we come to recite these two poems, we feel our hearts heaving, the tears coursing down our cheeks but neither from indignation nor from sorrow. It is our admiration that knows no bounds. Our hearts go out to them for they are so dear to us. It is because they are still living, and it is because we realize that we find our lives in them.
After the martyrdom, on the recommendation of Cheong In-ji and Sin Suk-chu, the king Tanjong was demoted and called Prince Nosan and exiled to Yeongweol in Kangwon-do. A man in his service, Wang Pang-yon, bared his heart:
I drift so far from my lord.
As I sit alone by the wandering stream,
The stream weeps, too, passing by in the dark.
Tanjong, too, was sad:
The cuckoo wails,
The moon hangs over the hills,
As I look out from the pavillion
Reflecting on the dear ones I left.
Your cry fills me with sorrow,
And when it dies down so do my cares.
To those who have parted, I say:
Never go to the pavillion on a spring night
When the cuckoo is crying.
Unable to bear his sorrow, he would go to the pavilion at night and have someone play the flute or sing a song. But his days of washing his tears in the stream of Seogang could not last long. The "loyal" Cheong In-ji, backed by a whole court of officials, made strong representations that Prince Nosan, the former king, should be killed. To them, even the shadow of this helpless young man was a source of irritation. They would not be able to sleep until his image was wiped away. Why were they so uneasy? Tanjong did not have even a needle to defend himself with. It was the populace behind him that they feared. Or perhaps the youthful figure in white pricked their conscience, which they could not entirely smother after all.
Finally, they sent men who strangled him in broad daylight, much as one kills a puppy; he was seventeen. Were Sejo and Cheong In-ji so heartless and ruthless? Rather, it was God, who wished to make this youth a man of sorrow to the full, as a symbol, needless to say, of the Korean nation. His short stay in Yeongweol inspired a great deal of sympathy in the villagers. Many a story was told of him: in the middle of the drought he made it rain by praying for rain; his body was thrown into the river but it did not float away, and someone recovered it for burial; his soul hurried off to Mt. T'aebaek on a white steed.
Sejo may have ruled over his ministers and officials; the young king, although dethroned, ruled the populace. Sejo may have been called "illustrious sovereign" but only for a time; his young nephew continues to rule for all time. Like a child who had the misfortune of parting from his mother, he was given, by dint of his lost life, the job of inscribing on Korea's heart that eternal agape. The sacrificial lamb was slain and the blood of the just was shed.
As if some bloodthirsty devils inhabited the palace, the ministers and officials demanded more blood. Scores more were implicated in the restoration plot and were executed. One of the princes, Keumseong, brother of Sejong, and several others were also executed on charges of conspiracy with the ousted king. Yet for all that, Sejo struggled on to become a good king.
After a complete success in his seizure of the throne by shedding the blood of loyal courtiers as well as his own relatives, Sejo devoted his remaining years to being a model king, as he was later to be known. Then came Yejong, followed by Seongjong. Peace prevailed for some forty years. Seongjong. was so good-hearted and generous that he was widely admired as a sage-king. Between Sejo and Seongjong. it appeared as if a period of advanced culture was brought forth which wiped clean the stains of the blood of the just. But the appearance was superficial. The bloodstains were not to be wiped away that easily or cheaply. The situation was like a whited sepulchre. Attempts at promoting industry, encouraging learning, compiling codes, printing books and enhancing national strength by foreign expeditions-all worthy as far as they went-were far from adequate -to conceal the bones of the just on which all these activities were based.
Conventional historians given to superficial observations like to present Sejo as a king of outstanding ability and his reign as an age of peace and prosperity. The meaning of a period can never be known merely from government rhetoric or tables of figures. One has to go to the hidden, less known side of society, to the back alleys rather than the main streets, to the provinces rather than the capital. One has to look at obscure little people rather than celebrities before one can hope to view the age in its true aspect, to discern its true meaning. On this basis, we must acknowledge that the reigns of Sejo and Seongjong. were a whited sepulchre.
At the time of Sejo there lived an eccentric by the name of Kim Si-suep, one of a group known as the Six Living Ministers; Weon Ho, Yi Maeng-jeon, Cho Yeo, Seong Tam-su and Nam Hyo-on were the others. The Six Living Ministers lived out their lives refusing to enter into government service contrasted with the Six Martyred Ministers who refused to kneel before Sejo. This group of the Living Six was of one mind with the dead six.
Kim Si-suep, was declared a child prodigy as early as his fifth year. He impressed King Sejong who felt a deep attachment to him. A man of magnanimous heart and superior intelligence, he was upright and unassuming, with unyielding rectitude. He was well read and was adept at poetry. He was twenty-one and was reading books in the quiet of the mountains near Seoul when Tanjong was deposed. He broke down in tears at the news. He burned all his books and became a half-crazed monk. He began a career of lifelong wandering, visiting places of beauty and temples. He sought to express in poetry his unrelieved feelings of indignation and frustration.
If someone followed him he would be seen sitting in a temple whiling the time away with the monks, or he would be frolicking with children, or he would be found drunk, wallowing in some ditch. A crazy monk, but 1 he was more than just crazy. He would go with writing paper to the side of a stream, where he would scribble out a verse in fury and grief. then burst out wailing, rip the piece off the roll and let it float away in the stream. He would build a wooden effigy of a farmer and set it up on his desk; he would keep staring at it, then cry aloud. Sometimes, he would plant crops and when they grew up he would suddenly grab a sickle and whack them down, then himself break down and wail. At the sight of of- ficials conducting themselves improperly he would give a scream: what have these poor people done wrong? Again he would collapse wailing. One can gather what he had in mind.
He was crazy, yes, but crazy with his sense of justice. He became crazy because his heart ached so helplessly. He was much too ashamed to live in society to remain sober. Once Sejo picked him for attendance at a Buddhist ceremony but he was nowhere to be found early that morning. He was finally located submerged in a cesspool with only his face above the muck. Such was his way of showing how ashamed he was of the times. He was well acquainted with Sin Suk-chu, who once tried to console him. Sin had someone ply him with drinks and when he was properly drunk had him carried over to his house. The moment he realized where he was up he stood and started to leave. As Sin Suk-chu tried to de- him by tugging at his sleeve, he cut off the sleeve and ran away. So aloof was he in his- dignity. He was the one who laughed at Sejo and his work with such cold if ghastly cynicism. As he urinated by the roadside he felt he was doing it on Sejo's face. When he fell into the cesspool, it symbolized the age, not his body, that was submerged.
There is a story that belies the so-called age of peace and prosperity under Seongjong. Two of Seongjong's ministers brought their dispute before the king with the request that he pass judgment on it. Their quarrel was over, a female entertainer whom each desired for his concubine. Seongjong. ruled: that two ministers should be fighting over a concubine was only conceivable in a time of decline and decay; his reign was no such age; and therefore both ministers should forget the whole matter. But burying a dispute does not bury the fact. These two episodes are facets of the age of Sejo and Seongjong. respectively.
The supposed age of prosperity comes to an abrupt end with Seongjong's passing. The dread disease surfaced on that very day.
Prince Yeonsan with his mad undertakings laughed diabolically at the prosperous age of Seongjong. The reigning prince sent out special envoys to collect young girls of beauty from across the country for his own gratification. Through many another such undertaking he caused the death of numerous innocent people. In addition, coups were staged repeatedly by one faction to oust another, involving exiles and executions of leaders of the defeated faction. Since executions included not only prin- but also their relatives by blood or by marriage, each such coup was a veritable carnage. Such sanguinary feuding continued into the years of the following King Myongjong. At this spectacle who cannot help recalling the Biblical passage: "I come quickly ... with my reward"? Whoever disbelieves this judgment of justice simply because no penalty was visited upon Sejo himself nor was made visible to Tanjong, has no idea what- how Providence works, and lacks an eye for history.
The eternal design of God who rules over history cannot be fathomed any standards of individual, temporal, relative morality. In the absolute aspect where a day is like unto a thousand years there are individuals, and yet a whole nation or even mankind as a whole is taken as one individual. The eye of truth sees a whole in individuals and in- in a whole; for in truth there is no difference of one and many, or of you and me, or of past and present. They do not exist and at the same they do exist. Therefore, what we call blessing is not necessarily blessing. What we call misfortune is not misfortune. What we call a reward is not necessarily reward.
I do not have to tell in detail of Yeonsan's wild wayward conduct, of the numerous cases of carnage among feuding factions. Nor do I have to point to who was right or who was wrong, who deserved to die or who was wronged.
Be they murderers or murdered, all took part in the bloody drama, all plunged into a tangle of deranged minds. One who kills the body in is murdered in the spirit. A man who kills another does so with a loss his mind, and after the act of murder his mind remains deranged. The nation which destroys a righteous man cannot but experience derangement of its mind. That was how there came about the enormous bloodshed, in which murder seemed pursued for its own sake or as some surd pastime. No one can possibly look upon the events of this period the work of normal, intelligent human beings. Murder has been known other histories and factional strifes in other nations. Yet nowhere else can we find such acts of murder done purely out of hate and jealousy without any other motive. It was neither religious persecution nor party struggle, neither ideological fight nor conflict of principles, nor even quarreling between clans. At this time God dealt a blow to Korean conscience.
No, God did not deal the blow; man brought it on himself. That conscience which failed to recognize a righteous man could only lose its sanity. For conscience judges itself. So conscience which committed murder, while knowing full well what it was doing, had no choice but to go mad. It is in this sense that God made men mad. In historical terms, the consequence of defying conscience during the years of Sejo and Seongjong surfaced in the mentality of the time of Yeonsan People's minds were deranged, twisted, paralyzed, and God placed a perverted mind, Yeonsan on the throne over that society. Through this man God handed down a severe judgment on the culture fabricated by Sejo and Seongjong. the whitewash was all scraped off and the putrid corpses were laid bare. The cultu re was shown for what it was: false and worthless.
Many historians may object to the theory that the misfortunes of Yeondan's time go back to Sejo's iniquity. They may pronounce it to be a misunderstanding or forced speculation. It is not because they lack sufficient reason to see it that way. But think a little more and you will see that they are shortsighted.
The name Yeonsan brings to mind lechery and abandon, yet all the blame cannot be laid on him as an individual. In him there were evidently three strains of bad blood-cruelty, lasciviousness and nihilism. The first quality he inherited from his mother, the second he learned from life in the court, the third came from the influence of society. His mother, of the Yuri clan, was so fierce in temperament that she scratched the face of her husband Seongjong. which led to her loss of status. In the complexity of court life the woman may well have had reason to act as she did. Nevertheless, that she should have left scratch marks on the face of none other than her husband, much less the king of a country, tells a great deal about her disposition. Yeonsan seems to have taken after his mother, and besides he must have brooded over the story that her mother had been unjustly demoted and died by foul play. His father Seongjong. was good-natured but he indulged in merrymaking. The name, Age of Peace, was fine, but not a single day at the palace passed without wine flowing and dancing girls entertaining. Yeonsan was brought up in such an atmosphere so his lasciviousness was only to be expected. Men of letters gained the upper hand in the supposed age of peace, but already factionalism had begun to develop among them. Confucianism, which set store by form and formality, also fostered the practice of condemning rivals by stern moral precepts. In reaction, there were signs that small souls were gaining ground with their unprincipled ways. Not a little of his dislike of learning 'and his penchant for nihilistic thinking were due to the kind of trends that 'prevailed in society. Such was Yeondan's personality: he was the one chosen to bear the burden of all the iniquities of the age. This historical duty was imposed on him by Sejo and Seongjong.
Following the drama of madness, relative peace set in throughout the reigns of Myeongjong and Seonjo. Yi Hwang and Yi I, two outstanding Conucians, set the stage for Neo-Confucianism in Korea. Many who had been wronged were vindicated. It seemed as if things in general were looking up. That does not mean that the malaise of the age was cured. Far from it; it was well advanced, affecting, as it were, the very nerve center. The affliction became chronic. Factional feuding was the disease that was for the next three centuries to eat away at the vitals of the nation, paralyze its vitality and spirit, smother its conscience, poison its very life.
This is one subject in Korean history which a foreign reader will be at a loss to appreciate. Only Koreans may be able to do justice to the psychology behind such feuding because it is a property of Korean history and because this feuding arises from abnormal psychology. On the face of it, Korean feuding appears to be partly a fight between younger and older generations, partly a fight between political groups, and partly a fight between old and new ideologies. These differences were merely a matter for contention or a pretext for fighting, or a triggering that, set off a feud, but were not the cause. For the origins of factional feuding one has to go, I believe, all the way back to the Three Kingdoms period. It was during that period that the originally grand scale of national life dwindled. Its broadminded outlook was foreshortened, and the high soaring spirit flagged. As for more immediate causes, one may cite the well-known quarrel between the Kim Chong-jik group and its rival group.
Kim Chong-jik was a man of probity, who held himself so aloof that he aroused jealousy and resentment in Seo Keo-jeong, and this hostility, according to some, paved the way for a flareup that soon followed. Kim Chong-jik's disciples on the whole were overly critical of others and gave rise to serious reaction. Partisan exclusiveness became rife. This practice went from bad to worse until Yi Chun-gyeong, prime minister to King Seonjo. was moved to make dire predictions about the prospects of ferocious factional fighting. From hindsight, it was not even a prediction. All he did was point out what was already visible in the offing.
This is far from an adequate explanation of the causes. One must return to the periods before Seongjong. There is ample proof in the case of Nam I, a youthful commander of legendary fame. A line in a poem by him provided an opening for his enemy:
All the stones on Mt. Paektu
Have been used to sharpen the blades;
The Tumen ran dry for so many steeds
Have been watered.
If you fail to bring peace to the land
Before the age of twenty,
Who will call you hero afterward?
A fellow by the name of Yu Cha-gwang was jealous, and by changing "bring peace" to "seize' (by replacing one Chinese character) he accused Nam I of designs on the throne. Nam was imprisoned and died under torture. Yu Cha-gwang was widely known as a man of small mind but we can readily see how intense and widespread was suspicion in a society capable of dispatching a man of unquestioned reputation. It was not Yu Chaigwang that killed Nam I but the feelings of uncertainty, apprehension, jealousy and suspicion that prevailed in those days. There must have been animosity between those literati out of government and those in positions of power; that crippling -atmosphere had much to do with the violent end of Nam I. The literati on the outside, for their part, suspected that government officials held them in utter contempt.
Although Yu Cha-gwang does not seem to have had an organized following, one may speculate that under Yejong the situation was ripe for fighting to break out along partisan lines. Again, I repeat that it was not something that sprang up during Yejong's years but dates back to the time of Sejo characterized by murderous intent and intrigue.
Our pursuit of the taproot of partisan feuding, indeed, must go back to the Three Kingdoms period. Origins of the feud have often been sought in Confucianism, which takes form and conforming to form seriously. That Confucianism is fraught with such pitfalls goes a long way toward accounting for the history of factionalism in Sung China. Confucian doctrine indeed served to intensify partisan quarrels, yet one cannot rightly attribute all basic causes to it. Individuals and classes too had a part up to a point, but how can individuals or classes sustain such lasting influence on national history for centuries? No, none of these applies.
Until we realize that responsibility rests squarely with the whole nation there can be no satisfactory cure for it. We lost our selves as a nation. In Korean history thousands of evils and abuses stem from this loss of self and there has been no serious attempt to recover the self that was lost. Loss of self means loss of ideals and freedom. Without national ideals there is no way to rally the nation to a cause because it is not force or law but ideals that bring a nation together. Unity of purpose of itself yields national unity. Lack of freedom leads to formation of factions. As factional squabbles are a matter of jockeying for small power, partisans are - bound to be servile before the powerful. From this we can see that factionalism arises from servility. A nation on the decline is open to internal conflict. Nevertheless/ no country can be restored until it rises to an ideal above and beyond all small differences and petty hatred. And this takes deter- that will not be thwarted short of death.
Starting from the fall of Kogury6, Korea has come to this point where its once generous heart has turned to unforgiving hardness. What was once dean and pure is now filthy and murky. A nation that was once good-natured is now starved for love. Readiness to help and fair play are now replaced by suspicion and jealousy. What will God propose to do with this nation, cowardly and shifty, effete and underhanded?
When we ponder what the Creator will do for Korea, we should place ourselves in the position of a loving parent who intends to rear his child in the best possible way. Suppose we have a "prodigal son" Instead of turning him out, we decide to straighten him out. How would we go about reforming the intractable child? Two answers are possible. Reasoning with him is one. Giving him a jolt to reawaken his conscience is the other. For Korea the time for reasoning was over, and God chose the second way, for only at the height of affliction can one come to his senses. Hence the Hideyoshi invasions of 1592 and 1597 and the Manchu invasion of 1627. Little did Koreans know at the time what these invasions meant.
At the time that the factional conflict was about to get worse and the mental disorder of the nation was entering a chronic stage, Yi I pursued his endeavor with clear vision to ward off the disaster he saw coming. Fighting flared up, however, which divided the whole court right down the middle-into eastern and western factions-with the literati taking sides. The only one concerned about the good of the country, Yi I spoke up, in service and out of it, and laid himself open to misunderstanding and censure. He managed to bring the warring parties under control and brought some peace and harmony to court until he completed his brief life of forty-nine years.
Much has been said about his personality. Some disputed his loyalty and impartiality, some argued that he leaned toward the western faction. Undeniably, however, history shows him to have been a clear-eyed, upright person. Of all the stories told about him, one stands out, revealing his character. in the earlier years of King Seonjo. Yi I, while heading the national academy, indicated his desire to resign when he discovered the king had fallen short of his expectations. When his resignation was finally accepted, someone tried to prevail upon him to reconsider: "You are leaving as you have wished and it must give you pleasure. But if everyone in the government leaves who will take care of the country?" Yi I answered with a smile: "If everyone from the three ministers down to the lower ranks wishes to leave, the fortune of the country will certainly improve." In this anecdote you will sense something of a prophet in him.
It was a time that called for a prophet who would denounce iniquities now and warn of dire disaster ahead. But he was not only a prophet; he was a man of Confucian virtue. He was not the one to tell of God's wrath and righteousness. He was one steeped in Confucian ideals upholding Confucian principles. "When in office one will make the world better together with the populace; when out of office, he will go about improving himself." Yi I sought reconciliation, not national repentance.
This is best demonstrated by his theory of "both are right and both are wrong." On the wrongs, he observed that the two factions were fighting over something that had no bearing on affairs of state and that brought nothing but unrest to the court, so both parties were wrong. But inasmuch as both parties were literati, they would both be right if only they made peace. By way of illustration he cited the case of Po I (Chinese: Paegi) and Shu ClYi (Sukche), two brothers who were at odds with King Wu (Mu-wang), as both contending parties being right. As for the case o both parties being wrong, he pointed out that in the absense of a single justifiable cause of war among belligerent states during the warring period of ancient China, none of the belligerents was in the right. His argument is, one may say, apt enough and his reasoning plausible. But that is not a prophet's manner of talking for the simple reason that it offers no cure.
Instead, he should have, despite the prospect of aggravating the situation for a time, judged right from wrong for all to see. He should have gone after what was wrong in the spirit rather than describing individual acts as being right or wrong. Not reconciliation but repentance.
Reconciliation among men does not endure, for a true reconciliation cannot be achieved until all wrongs are corrected in relations between God and each party. That is repentance, and only through repentance can one be born again. What Yi I tried was somehow to bring contending factions together without challenging the wrongs done. And sure enough, results were contrary to what was intended. As expected, both factions complained that Yi's position was equivocal. Some went so far as to call him a small man out to mislead. Yi could not have been a small man. But in puttering over affairs, trying to patch them over and pretending there was peace where there was none, he deserved harsh criticism. He sought the cause for factionalism in the superficial and the immediate, so the futility of his work soon became plain.
While we do not dispute his integrity, his reaction to the proposal of Chun-gyeong remains a puzzle. Perhaps this position of his stemmed his earlier reasoning. Yi Chun-gyeong left some parting advice for the king when he was about to die. It lists four items: urging the to apply himself to learning; preserving the royal dignity in full; discriminating gentlemen (cheun-tzu) from inferior men (hsiao-jen) when filling government posts; and eliminating factionalism. When the ministers we e shown the document, controversy arose over item four. That alone was evidence enough that there was no cohesion or harmony, at court, and the deceased minister was right in his observation. One is thus obliged to interpret the four-point admonition as based on his honest solicitude about the future of the country.
Contrary to the general expectation, Yi I rejected the advice in a memorial to the throne. What is even more astonishing is his description of the late minister: "He is hiding his head but not his body, and he talks deliberately to mislead and bewilder." He also said, "In times of old a man told the truth when he was about to die. Now a man tells a lie when he is about to die." This was totally unexpected. Did Yi I in fact fail to foresee an impending flareup? Yi Chun-gyeong's death preceded it by only three years. It was impossible for him not to have foreseen it. Did he really believe that Yi Chun-gyeong was an evil man? Did he have some particular reason to say what he said while knowing that Yi Chun-gyeong was not evil?
If indeed Yi I did not expect the outbreak of factional strife, he was not perceptive at all, but that is inconceivable considering his personality and judgment. To have thought that Yi Chun-gyeong, was evil means that Yi I lacked judgment, which he did not. There is no reason to suppose that Yi I failed to judge Yi Chun-gyeong correctly or that Yi I was blind to what was coming. We must then conclude that Yi I was deliberate in his condemnation of Yi Chun-gyeong In that case, one may imagine two possibilities. One is that it was calumny arising out of partisanship. The other is that it was an attempt to forestall a flareup by minimizing feelings of factionalism. Yi I could not have been partisan, as can be seen from the fact that he hoped that all court ministers would retire. That leaves the second possibility. What if that indeed was the case?
If Yi I rejected Yi Chun-gyeong's warning in order to hold off the pro disaster how should we take Yi I's view? Many literati hold this position of Yi I's as grounds for high esteem. They admire the act which they believe was calculated to defend the status of the literati and come to some amicable compromise, an act of sagacious benevolence. Is that true? As an ideal for Confucian gentlemen dedicated to amicable settlement, his act may have been sagacious. Was that the way to truth, however?
Not at all. First, trying to patch up peace where there is no peace involves falsehood for each of the contending parties, even if some peace is achieved for a time. So it is not truth. Second, his attempt at minimizing the seriousness of the situation was doubtless from his sincere concern about the country, yet it is falsehood after all. In fact Yi I himself did not underestimate the situation, as his scathing condemnation of Yi Chun- warning seems to indicate. Yet he told the king that the controversy between the eastern and western factions was not at all serious, and many observers tended to blow it up out of proportion partly because these people were superficial and given to lightheadedness. He hoped to bring the situation under control by presenting it as a minor affair, but did his sagacious strategy work? No. One would suppose that major surgery should have been performed at the time of Yi Chun-gyeong's warning.
Third, solution by compromise is wrong. It may have been feasible if the controversy was indeed a matter of bad feeling between the ministers. If that was how he viewed the controversy he was superficial. If, on the other hand, his action was based on a full realization of the cause of controversy, he was equivocating, as his contemporaries charged. It was a serious malady which no such palliative could cure, and such tinkering would only lead, if anything, to a worsening of the sickness toward its chronic stage. So God did not permit it.
Watching Yi I taking great pains to reconcile the feuding partisans, one is moved to tears: "Ah, that was a man. " The sight of his struggling, even citing what a dead man had to say, brings to mind a mother trying to humor her two quarreling sons: "You two are getting along really fine " That was not what God wished, however. He was too well aware of the perverted nature of Koreans to use such self-deceptive methods. Yi I did say to the king that factionalism was a minor affair but was magnified by "lightheadedness." Herein is the crux of the matter. To call it lightheaded- was far from complete but he was right as far as he traced the cause all the way to the national temperament. Yes, there is the cause. Feuding arises from personal animosity but the underlying cause goes beyond the personal right back to the national character.
Yi I's failure to perceive clearly, although vaguely aware, comes from the dimness of his view. Where he should have taken a religious-historical viewpoint, he saw it as conflict of personal feelings. The leaders of the squabbling factions were about to make peace on the basis of a reconciliation worked out through his mediation, when suddenly he was ordered to leave, and the reconciliation fell through. Yi I was only forty-nine then and much was expected of him, but then this towering figure in whom was reposed the trust of a whole nation was whisked from the stage of history. Amazing was the hand of Providence.
At the news of his death King Seonjo. is said to have broken down and cried loudly. The officials and citizens, academicians and villagers, who attended his funeral extended the procession for miles. The sound of the wailings of mourning attendants is said to have carried far afield. It was for his virtue. But far more than that, the sons and daughters of Seoul had weep for what history had in store for them. The man who tried to sew 'up his dream canopy of peace and harmony was now gone, and all they saw was smoke from a seething cauldron rising from both the south and the north threatening to envelop them all. Rejecting all palliative human measures, the mighty hand of God was at work again to perform real surgery on the nation. God's education of us through history is stern and hard to bear after all.
Back to Queen of Suffering Table of Contents On to Chapter VII. Disaster Upon Disaster