[FOUNTAIN]The virtue of jailhouse scholars

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[FOUNTAIN]The virtue of jailhouse scholars

Punishment is often rooted in revenge, thus criminal sentences during the pre-modern age were cruel and carried out in public. Punishment was brutal to exact revenge for the victims and to penalize perpetrators with pain, and it was open to the public as a warning.

During the Joseon Dynasty, five types of punishment were common: lashing with a switch, caning a person on a buttock or a thigh, putting a person in hardship, like working in a salthouse or for a blacksmith, sending a person into exile and the death penalty.

There were also different types of capital punishment, depending on the crime. Beheading and hanging were the most common, forcing the accused to drink poison was used to honor the dignity of aristocrats and royal families, and slow amputation was for a criminal who committed the most immoral crimes at that time, such as killing one's master, parents or relatives.

These punishments disappeared after political reform in 1894 at the end of the Joseon Dynasty. Today's imprisonments are somewhat similar to the exile that aristocrats and government officials were subject to during the Joseon Dynasty in the sense that a person has to live in isolation far away from home. Under modern imprisonment, a person's travel is extremely constrained.

Occasionally, exile was used as a valuable opportunity to obtain knowledge. The best example would be Jeong Yak-yong, an outstanding reform minded Joseon Dynasty scholar. He produced a masterpiece that comprised the knowledge he collected during 18 years of exile. Shin Young-bok, a professor of Sunkonghoe University, spent an even longer period of time, 20 years, in jail and wrote a book, "Contemplation in a Jail." Mr. Shin wrote that he was envious that Jeong Yak-yong was able to use his days of imprisonment as a period of astonishing creation. Probably because of his envy, Mr. Shin also amassed a respectable record of contemplation while in jail. I would like to point out that seemingly dire circumstances can be used for intellectual enrichment, not only to Kim Hong-gul, the third son of President Kim, who is in detention, but also other prisoners.

"Living in separation from those with whom you have a relationship offers a great opportunity to objectively review one's own position," Mr. Shin says in his book.

"I would like to fill this tiny cold cell with the memories of joys and sorrows of our neighbors and our history. And I want to heat up the cold of winter with enlightenment," Mr. Shin said.

The writer is a deputy culture news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Oh Byung-sang

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