A fascinating look at a turbulent time

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A fascinating look at a turbulent time

An indignant conservative takes pen in hand and decries the national disgrace caused by incompetent bureaucrats and military leaders. Sounds familiar, but it’s a late 16th-century Joseon Dynasty court official writing about a period that still stirs Korean juices: the two invasions of Korea between 1592 and 1598 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
The theme of Yu Seong-nyong’s “The Book of Corrections” is the decay in the Joseon Dynasty after a long interlude of peace that allowed the Japanese to ravage Korea.
Yu writes scathingly of the court’s floundering attempts to ward off Hideyoshi, who invaded Korea not to conquer it but to use it as a springboard to conquer China. The man did not lack for ambition.
Ordinary Koreans saved the nation by forming “righteous armies,” Yu writes, but by the time the reader is halfway into the account and muses about parallels with Korean politics 400 years later, he’ll begin to wonder if it’s time to evacuate. Not just a history, this 225-page book is also an extended jeremiad.
The translation is polished, but long biographical footnotes about forgotten men with unfathomable titles are included. Mr. Choi told me that the publisher had requested many of them; but add them to the book’s own wealth of characters and some chapters read like Biblical passages of “begats.”
The otherwise excellent translator’s introduction omits some information useful to a general reader, such as how the musical-chairs Korean court managed to function at all. Only today’s Education Ministry compares, although former ministers are no longer executed. Another small gripe: Each chapter begins with a few sentences of summary integrated into the text. It took me a few chapters to catch on.

by John Hoog
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