[FOUNTAIN]Heed history’s lessons

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[FOUNTAIN]Heed history’s lessons

In 1787, Catherine the Great of Russia toured the newly annexed Crimea Peninsula. The governor of the extremely underdeveloped region was Grigori Potemkin, who was a lover of the Empress. In order to impress the monarch, Mr. Potemkin had beautiful village scenery painted on cardboard and set along the banks of the river the Empress’s boat would sail along. After Catherine the Great passed, the facades were moved further downriver in order to disguise the poverty of the region and to pretend it was well-developed. The story may have been exaggerated, but the term “Potemkin village” came to refer to an attempt to hide something shabby or embarrassing.
In fact, a Potemkin village is not always a bad thing. Sometimes, it can be a temporary expedient to make up for flaws. An ancient Chinese story about a stopgap measure is an example illustrating the origin of Potemkin villages.
King Huan of Zhou Dynasty led a military campaign to conquer the state of Zheng in order to rebuild the authority of the royal court, which had been in name only. However, King Zhuang of the Zheng Dynasty refused to submit and fought against the Zhou army. King Zhuang used a battle formation called Aligned Fish, where tanks and infantrymen line up in a single file like fish. While putting tanks in the front and infantry in the rear, soldiers were lined up between the tanks in a single file to make up for insufficient numbers. King Zhuang triumphed greatly with the tactic, and later emerged as the most prominent leader among the Five Overlords of the Spring and Autumn Period.
Whether it is a Potemkin village or an Aligned Fish tactic, such a stopgap measure has to remain temporary and must not be cheating. With the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting approaching, the city of Busan is busy with beautification projects but the efforts might turn the city into a Potemkin village. While it is important to give a good impression to foreign leaders, we need to clean up messes instead of just covering them. The city officials of Busan can learn from John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress.”
A Christian spotted two men, named Hypocrisy and Formalism, jumping a wall and asked where they were going. They responded, “We are headed for glory and fortune.” The Christian said, “You can take the narrow door down there to get to glory and fortune. Why are you jumping over the wall?” Hypocrisy and Formality said, “We always take shortcuts.” However, Hypocrisy missed his step and slipped down the mountain, and Formality got lost in the woods and died of starvation.


by Lee Hoon-beom

The writer is the head of the JoongAng Ilbo’s weekend news team.
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