[FOUNTAIN]Sneering at barbariansEven after the damage caused by two wars with Japan between 1592 and 1598, Korean intellectuals still looked down on Japan because they were deeply entrenched in a China-oriented world view. Whenever delegates of the Joseon Dynasty were dispatched to the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japanese intellectuals visited the delegation’s lodgings to learn lessons. Among the delegates, some acted rudely and arrogantly. As Japanese scholars bowed and laid down a piece of paper, one delegate reportedly stepped on the paper, instead of using a paperweight, and scrawled something on the paper. The Japanese recorded their resentment of such an attitude and those records still exist today.
Korean realists such as Park Je-ga (1750 -1805), however, had a different way of thinking. “Delegates continued their visits to show respect to China and to make friends with Japan, but no one returns with learning of the foreign countries’ good practices. The delegates, however, still deride others, calling them Japs and Chinks,” Mr. Park lamented in his book, “Bukhageui."
Attitudes in more modern China were no different. After touring Japan in 1885, after the Meiji Restoration, a Chinese Confucian scholar sneered at Japan, saying, “Reform of its civilization is an absurd description. Japanese are like frogs in a well.” Another Chinese author, Li Shun-ding, jeered at the Japanese in his books. He wrote “They are imitating Westerners’ clothes and foolishly calling that reform.”
Amid the near-collapse of his government, another Chinese , Chen Qi-yuan, proposed to invade at Nagasaki and march on the Japanese capital. History later proved who the real frogs in a well were.
Both Joseon delegates and Chinese Confucian scholars were the best intellectuals of their period. Because it is extremely difficult to understand another country, we must not laugh at the shortsighted views of the learned men of East Asia only 200 years ago. Accurate perceptions of a foreign country are only possible after long and careful thought.
“If the United States had not helped Korea, I probably would have ended up in a political prison today,” President Roh Moo-hyun said during his visit to the United States, and his repeated conciliatory remarks are hotly debated. If a writer felt the anguish of a pragmatist who is concerned about Korea’s reputation and standing, would he be lonely?
by Noh Jae-hyun
The writer is a deputy weekend section editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.