By Yang Sung-jin
Kim Young-oak, a fast-talking oriental-scholar doctor-writer, is currently attracting record-breaking numbers of viewers with his philosophy lecture series on EBS TV.
Touching on a variety of subjects including traditional Korean thought, the series is indeed entertaining and educational, except for his unrestrained word choice and multilingual verbiage peppered with English, Chinese and Japanese.
During one of his shows last week, the former Korea University philosophy professor made an interesting comment about Chong To-jon, a well-known Choson court official.
With his trademark screaming tone, Kim Young-oak argued that Chong To-jon was the “true gentleman-scholar” who upheld traditional ideals no matter what.
There is no doubt that Chong To-jon (1337-1398) played a key role in helping Yi Song-gye establish the Choson Kingdom.
Yet Choson contemporaries had a conflicting opinion about Chong. The official record in the King Taejo Annals downgraded the achievements of Chong and yet other officials commented on Chong’s excellence as a scholar and politician.
At the same time, King Taejo very much appreciated Chong’s role. In an article, dated Jan. 25, 1395, the king said Chong’s comprehensive knowledge of classical texts and history was unparalleled and Chong’s political genius helped found the nation.
“Moreover, Chong has both a gentle personality and dashing political sense. Since I took the throne, Chong has done an excellent job in governing the nation and publishing historical documents,” King Taejo said.
Curiously, Chong’s personal background was not that colorful. His father was a mid-level court official during the later period of the Koryo Kingdom and his maternal grandmother was a house servant, a critical disadvantage at a time when class was of the utmost importance.
In 1360, Chong passed the state examination of the Koryo government and began to develop his turbulent career.
At the time, the Koryo court was in a state of confusion regarding its policies toward China. In 1375, Chong ventured to oppose a group of officials only to face a harsh punishment.
He was exiled for two years and released in 1377. Disappointed, Chong stayed in his hometown before establishing a local school in Seoul. But some people, particularly local bigshots, did not want Chong hanging around.
The hostility directed at him pushed Chong to embark on a life of wandering which lasted nine years, a bitter experience for an ambitious and highly intellectual gentleman-scholar.
Chong’s troubled life reached a turning point in 1383 when he met with Yi Song-gye, who was then a local governor from a northeastern region.
Yi Song-gye and Chong went on to pave the way for the future nation building by eliminating the old Koryo bureaucrats.
Boosted by Yi Song-gye’s favor, Chong rose up the court ladder and expanded his influence in the military.
But the Koryo officials did not cave in easily. Chong was exiled again during the second year of the Koryo King Kongyang in 1391 after relentless political attacks made by Koryo officials.
The Koryo officials did not forget the weakness of Chong’s family background while mounting personal attacks. But Yi Song-gye sped up his plan to overthrow the declining Koryo Kingdom and Chong regained his position as chief strategist.
In 1394, Chong secured the treasury and the command of local military units as a top Choson official. In June, he pushed for the basic law of Choson and mapped out a plan to move the capital from Kaesong to Seoul.
Chong also set up a basic philosophical and political foundation for Choson, discriminating against Buddhism and favoring neo-Confucianism.
But not all the Choson officials had a favorable opinion of Chong, whose influence seemed to expand every day.
Yi Pang-won, who later became King Taejong, deemed Chong as a dangerous figure
and staged a coup to take the initiative in 1398. In the process, Yi Pang-won killed Chong, ending the saga of the “true gentleman-scholar.”
Generally speaking, Chong was both a literati and military officer. Chong often said that he was the chief architect of the Choson Kingdom, not Yi Song-gye.
During the late Koryo period, Chong witnessed the dire situation firsthand while experiencing hardship himself. Foreign forces often pillaged local villages and the corrupt Koryo officials harassed the populace.
The difficulties strengthened Chong’s patriotism and reform oriented mindset. His nation-building movement not only involved the political coup but also the developing of overall governing systems designed to resolve the festering problems of the decaying Old Kingdom.
Given Chong’s role in launching a new nation, one might think he espoused the monarch oriented political structure, but his basic principles did not support uch a notion.
Instead, Chong believed an ideal political system should be based on powerful cabinet members responsible for well arranged and diversified governing functions.
The underlying notion was that all policies should be aimed at helping the populace and if the king loses public support, then a coup can be staged.
Chong also supported a merit based bureaucracy in which ability outweighed background.
With his renowned power of logic, Chong authored a number of books while dipping his feet in practical politics.
Chong’s profound knowledge covered a wide range of academic fields and his grand vision were only some of the features that mesmerized Kim Young-oak.
“Although the king ordered our gentleman-scholars such Chong To-jon to drink poison as a form of persecution, they did not seek a shameful exit. They accepted their fate but never lowered their voices in pointing out what was wrong with society and the nation,” Kim said during his TV lecture.
“Chong did not flinch at the murder attempt of Yi Pang-won since he knew the Choson Kingdom would be ruled according to his own vision and system even if he died, and that is why he accepted his death with laughter,” Kim said, adding that such an upright attitude was essential to Korea’s traditional gentleman-scholar.