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Questions about glorifying Joseon

Aug 05,2016
As a native of Beijing and an ardent lover of the Forbidden Palace, I read your opinion piece titled “The truth about our palaces” (Korea JoongAng Daily, Aug. 1) with great interest. I do agree with what you said about the striking differences between the Korean palaces such as Gyongbuk and Changdeok etc. and the Forbidden City in Beijing in terms of posture and the overall impression they leave on people. One observation of mine is that Korean palaces are more intimate and cozier with trees, gardens and ponds filling up large portions of the palaces. They struck me as more exquisite and refined in details compared to the Forbidden Palace.

However, I am not sure whether I can agree with your assertion that Korean kings (of the Joseon dynasty in particular) and their higher officials were more democratic, to quote your words “more transparent, more accountable to citizens and otherwise more human in formal representation to the public.”

You cited Emperor Yongle and King Sejong as two contrasting examples to prove your case, but honestly, everyone knows King Sejong was arguably the most benevolent king of the Joseon dynasty. Exactly how representative was he? King Taejong before him, King Sejo and King Seonjo after him were not exactly benevolent, “democratic,” “accountable” kings, were they? That’s not even mentioning the likes of deposed kings such as Yeonsangun and Gwanghaegun)? Can you really paint Korean history under the Joseon dynasty in broad strokes by citing King Sejong as a proof of what you claimed as “good governance in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries” in Korea? The Yangban system and the strict class-based system in Joseon Korea, which struck me as something almost similar to India’s caste system, pointed us to a different Korea, I am afraid, one that was far from being “democratic,” “transparent” and “accountable” to its people, one that was not much better than Ming China.

With regard to references of Korean historical figures such as King Sejong and Dasan Jeong Yak-yong, they actually get very decent coverage on the Chinese internet. I don’t know which Baidu page you stumbled upon. For example, King Sejong’s page in Chinese is quite extensive and covers a lot of his achievements from various areas. It is much more impressive than the English Wikipedia page on Sejong. You might find this helpful, by the way, on Jeong Yak-yong.

China can sure learn a lot from South Korea and I do agree that South Korea can offer something that might shape China’s future and the world’s future. But I don’t think glorifying Joseon Korea is the way to do it.

Thanks for your time, professor Pastreich.



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