[VIEWPOINT]Relax and remain composed

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[VIEWPOINT]Relax and remain composed

“Gogeum Sochong” (Funny Tales of the Past and Present) is well known as a book of gossip and lewd stories from the Joseon Dynasty. It is full of stories that can make the reader blush. I imagine that many people in their school days might have secretly placed this book underneath their school books to read, and got punished by teachers when they were caught giggling and snickering at its contents.
However, “Gogeum Sochong” is not all gossip and lewd stories. As the title says, it is a collection of “funny tales of the past and present” and includes a variety of stories. Here is one example:
A local magistrate decided to move the graveyard of his ancestor to a mountain behind a village. The residents of the village were greatly worried as they would suffer a great deal whenever the local chief visited the graveyard near their village after the move. There was all kind of wild talk but the villagers were unable to come up with a solution. Then an old woman, an innkeeper, volunteered loudly that she could sort out the problem. She said she would stop the official from moving his ancestor’s graveyard to a place near the village if the people of the village would collect money and give it to her. When people asked what she would do if she failed to stop it happening, she said that she would leave her life at the discretion of the people. So the village people collected money and gave it to the old woman.
On the day the magistrate was to move his ancestor’s graveyard, the old woman waited for him on the roadside with a table set with food and liquor. She introduced herself to the local chief as the wife of a geomancer and said, “I heard that your excellency is moving a burial site to a propitious site, so I come to congratulate you with food and liquor.” The magistrate asked how she could know that it was a propitious site. She replied, “When my husband was alive, he said that the son of the person who is buried there will be a king.” And she even added, “I have a young son, and I would be grateful if you could take care of my son after you are on the throne.”
If the son of the person buried there were to be a king, moving the burial site to the spot was clearly a conspiracy against the throne! At the slightest slip, the ruination of his whole family would be unavoidable! Panicking, the local chief put his hand over the woman’s mouth in case someone overheard and immediately abandoned his plan to move the graveyard.
It is humorous to get a nobleman panicky. The “Gogeum Sochong” contains many high level jokes and moral satires like this. It has taken the form of a book of gossip and lewd stories only because people nowadays read just the erotic stories.
When was the book written? Actually it wasn’t that long ago. It is a collection of many short stories that people wrote as early as the beginning of the Joseon Dynasty, until the end of the dynasty, and it came out in a big volume under the title “Gogeum Sochong” during the Japanese occupation. It is not a book that was compiled by a certain author at a specific period of time.
Why would dignified Confucian scholars of the Joseon Dynasty have compiled a book of jokes that included lewd stories, and even translated it into Chinese? How did they rationalize such an action? It seems that it was necessary for them to explain their actions back then also. The “Gogeum Sochong” defends itself with an explanation that it is “a book to keep one from falling asleep.” It is a justification fit for a short story book. However, all laughs aside, it then seriously explains that “it is in the principle of keeping a balance between relaxation and tension, as the Records of Rites say to joke well.” When keeping a bow, if you keep the string tied, the elasticity of the bow will loosen. But if you leave it undone, it loses its precision. Therefore, you have to hang it tied for a certain period of time and then alternate by leaving it undone for some time. But what a troublesome task that is. The dignified Confucian scholars also needed appropriate tension and relaxation, and that is why they enjoyed jokes.
Our society these days is too hasty, hot-tempered and dry. The commotions that start every day with conflicts in which nobody wants to move an inch almost make my head spin. I want to recommend that we try to take on the wisdom of our ancestors who flipped through the “Gogeum Sochong.” Let’s have the composure of doing things one step later and a breath slower.

*The writer is a professor of Chinese literature at Cheju National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.


by Kim Sang-jo

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