What would a true conservative do?
Choi passed the national examination at a young age and served in various government positions. He was a bright scholar and an honest official. On February 20, 1444, two months after the invention of Hangul, Choi and a handful of other scholars submitted an appeal against the new alphabet. It was the biggest mistake of his life. The appeal itself was sincere and logical. He clearly advocated his beliefs, based on the Sino-centric Confucian perspective. He began the appeal by complementing the newly created writing system as “extremely cleaver and superbly outstanding.”
But he went on to claim that creating an original alphabet was a barbaric task and was against the national principle to serve China. It must have been a painful point, as King Sejong emphasized “serving the great” to ensure the survival of the kingdom.
Choi was the most prominent conservative of his time. His opposition to the creation of the Korean alphabet, therefore, makes the insight and genius of King Sejong even more distinguished. After his confrontation with the king, Choi resigned from office and returned to his hometown. He was a conservative who acted according to his beliefs and took responsibility for his actions.
Choi’s conservative world view was inherited by Choi Ik-hyeon 500 years later in the late 19th century. Choi Ik-hyeon (1833-1906) was a conservative who was exiled to Heuksan Island. There, he engraved on a rock, “This land is not a Japanese territory but a subject of Ming China established by Zhu Yuanzhang.”
There are echoes of these beliefs in the words of Lee In-yeong. In 1908, Lee In-yeong was commanding an army with volunteers from the 13 provinces and marching to Seoul. But when his father died, he abandoned the commandership and returned home because he believed “filial piety and national loyalty are one.”
Is there a paper-thin line between a genuine conservative and a blind one? You may “change to defend.” The conservatives who adhere to old customs are not genuine. I wonder how many Koreans today are qualified to criticize the conservatism of Choi Man-ri.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Noh Jae-hyun