This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest thinkers of the later Joseon period ― Dasan Jeong Yak-yong (1762-1836). Last Saturday, more than 500 worshippers visited his tomb in Namyangju, northeast of Seoul, to commemorate his death.
Why does this Joseon-era political "victim" command respect from his great, great, great descendants? His legacy is bigger than his real life. He was the first Korean who advocated democracy and politics for the people.
Dasan stressed that the governor, namely the king, should administer the country with integrity and fairness. He said the government was the agency to provide aid and favor to the people, adding they were not subjects for control. Instead, the people should be the subjects of the government's sympathy and rule.
He showed a special affection for the weak, lamenting the income gap between the ruling and lower classes. He espoused the negative impact of social and economic polarization in the era.
His care for the weak, and concern over the income gap have become key campaign themes of parliamentary contestants 250 years later.
He admonished the rulers to behave themselves if they wanted to get respect from the people. He did not advocate the toppling of dynastic rule.
Instead, he was an advocate of gradualism in introducing democratic practices under the king.
He called for reform of the kingdom by espousing practical learning called Shilhak, advocating neo-Confucianism to inject vitality into the kingdom.
His penname Dasan (tea mountain), comes from his appreciation of the medicinal value of tea.
Jeong would not be remembered now unless he had to live 18 years in domestic exile in Ganjin, South Jeolla Province. He was ousted from the royal palace following factional feuding, but during his long exile, he wrote many books. There is no document to prove the allegation that he was baptized, despite his enemies accusing him of backing pro-Western Catholics.
He wrote 500 volumes or some 14,000 pages, on a reform program for governing the country according to Confucian ideals. His books include the "Book of Changes" and "Classics of Poetry". One of his flagship works is "Mok-min-shim-seo" (Mind of Governing the People). In the book, he championed proactive role by government in solving poverty.
He was also an expert in civil engineering. He designed and oversaw the construction of the walls of Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon.
His book "Gyeongse Yupyo" (Design for Good Government) was a blueprint for state management.
His egalitarianism and humanism get deeper scrutiny among Koreanologists overseas ― they say Dasan spirit is moral pragmatism. Jeong said material progress and morality should go hand in hand.
He was an enthusiastic fan of pragmatic Western ideas but remained deeply committed to Confucianism, valuing tradition as a foundation for the people and society.
He was an avid reader of Chinese books. In his letter to his children, he advised them to read books rather than to hold a memorial service for him.
Jeong was eight years older than Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel was one of the creators of German idealism that revolutionized the European society.
It may be naive to say Dasan is equal to or superior to Hegel in philosophical terms. Koreans know well Hegel's idealism and philosophy, though many seldom appreciate Dasan's thoughts and love of the country, according to former lawmaker Park Seok-moo, president of the Dasan Research Institute. Park is planning to hold an international seminar this year in order to shed light on Dasan's philosophy and its implications for contemporary Korea. Dasan was humiliated in life, but commands respect in death.
The parliamentary election is over Wednesday. Winners and losers should be wise enough to scrutinize Dasan's teachings. Power is prone to change. Losers should not be disappointed, and winners should not be cheerful. They will get respect only when they live for the people, by the people and of the people.
Those in power should bear in mind Jeong's admonishment against corrupt rulers. He lamented the governing elite tended to extort the people's toil and sweat by trying to stand above them.
Had his thoughts been translated into English during his life, he might have influenced Western thinkers and philosophers, including Jeremy Bentham of England (1748-1832), and Jean Jacques Rousseau of France (1712-1778).
It is encouraging, however, to note that a few Western professors have begun to research the spiritual world of Jeong, arguably Korea's greatest thinker.
By Lee Chang-sup
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com.
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2015 51st PaekSang Arts Awards