(29) Choson Kings Try to Repair Flood Damage

By Yang Sung-jin

The protracted heavy rains that pounded Seoul and Kyonggi regions earlier this month are now wreaking havoc on the southeastern Kyongsang province, leaving untold damage in their wake. Despite the government’s efforts to repair the damage caused by the flooding, the rains, it seems, are here to stay.

In the Annals of the Choson Dynasty, the cases of devastating downpours are almost countless. To help the victims, the Choson kings and officials did what today’s government is supposed to do: mobilize whatever resources are available to alleviate the pains of the victims and repair the damage.

When massive landslides and floods hit the city of Kwangju, Cholla-namdo in the summer of 1396, King Taejo, the founder of the Choson Dynasty, immediately took measures to exempt the villages affected by the flooding from national taxation. Furthermore, he ordered officials to deliver bushels of rice and other sundry foods to the victims.

Notable are the details recorded in the Annals regarding the damage and other particulars of the flooding. For instance, in 1648 when torrential rains raked central Chungchong province, a prisoner shackled with sword and handcuffs was spotted floating in a swollen stream.

In June, 1421, downpours beset the capital city of Seoul, destroying 75 houses. With the sounds of mourning everywhere, some climbed on their roofs and others desperately grabbed boughs to survive. Still the casualties were considerable, which prompted King Sejong to donate consolation goods to the relatives of the deceased.

In 1409, severe rainstorms and flash floods literally ravaged the Kyonggi and Kangwon regions. “Strong winds and rainstorms, along with bolts of lightning, resulted in landslides in Mt. Tobong. The State Council reported the disaster to the king and sent meteorologist Kim Chong-son to assess the damage. According to his report, a total of 270 landslides took place in Pyokche and Koryong (now Koyang). In one of them, all 22 members of a family were killed.”

As a Kyonggi-do governor delivered a report detailing the damage done to the region, King Taejong said with tears in his eyes, “People say that there was a king who made due efforts for this kind of situation. What should I do to follow suit?”

Disaster-Preventing Rituals

King Taejong’s angst about his responsibility is understandable. In 1405, the king actually did what he was supposed to do at that time _ send an official to perform a ritual of sacrifice to avert the flooding and drought. It seems natural for the king to have done what today’s meteorologist views as unscientific in light of the inexplicable recurrences of flood and drought seen in those years.

“In recent years, the northeastern regions are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. Therefore, we have to send people there to hold a ritual,” King Taejong said.

On the occasion, the Ministry of Rites provided a historical background: “In the past, there was an annual ceremony falling on every February to appeal to the mountains and rivers for help, a ritual called `Yongjae.’ The past ritualistic procedures should be adopted.”

Apparently the Choson people interpreted the cause of natural disasters by their own yardstick. Often a high-pitched debate was held in the court as to who was the responsible for the aberration of nature. Not infrequently officials laid the blame squarely on the almighty king.

For instance, the Office of Inspector-General filed a strong appeal to King Sejong in 1441, “Although it is impossible to know how the heaven interacts with humans, it is certain that the two are closely connected. This autumn, the cloudy weather and recurring floods have hurt the people and farmland. Even in winter, strangely warm days are truly disconcerting.

“Though Your Majesty did what a king should do to prevent such disasters, we cannot help but point out a couple of things that need amendment. Ancient kings of wisdom corrected human affairs to stave off natural disasters. Therefore, Your Majesty should be more cautious in mind and body, issue a positive statement, investigate the subject’s transgressions, sympathize with the happiness and sadness of the populace and halt all unnecessary projects,” the appeal continued.

As King Sejong responded positively to the appeal, official Hong Sim noted, “There must be a reason for the frequent disasters. People in the southern regions are upset about their unwanted migrations. The farmland of Kangwon and Hwanghae provinces is critically damaged. Also people are subject to harsh labor for constructing fortresses in northern frontiers.

Moreover, pagan Buddhist constructions are under way. All of which should be immediately terminated to avert further disaster.”

But King Sejong did not agree with Hong’s proposal. The king’s refusal, in fact, reflected a power struggle between officials and their king whenever there was a natural disaster. For the most part, court officials lost no time in pointing out all the mistakes, or mismanagement by the king, when a disaster occurred. They offered the fuzzy, yet effective association between the heaven and human affairs to support their views.

In the event of floods, drought or other calamities, the king first requested his officials to come up with countermeasures which include: rituals, tax exemptions, tax reductions, the supply of emergency food and other essentials and the recognition of wrongly-convicted prisoners (the injustice to whom the Choson people believed to be one of the reasons for natural disaster).

For instance, official Kim Yu reported to King Songjong in 1472, “This year, continued flooding destroyed more than 300 houses in the capital. As a result, numerous people were removed from their homes, which calls for immediate state assistance. Given that all the wise rulers of the past investigated the judicial system to identify falsely-accused citizens when a natural disaster occurred, Your Majesty is also required to find the unfairly charged prisoners and release them to show generosity.” The king accepted the proposal.

Pray, Pray, Pray

In 1625, an official appealed to the king concerning the severe drought and flooding. “Since Your Majesty took office, natural disasters have persisted, leaving almost nothing to eat. Streets are now filled with corpses and without a countermeasure, countless people will die. So it is strongly urged that Your Majesty hold a ritual aimed at soothing the heavens and helping the people.”

King Injo, however, did not opt for the ritual. “It is deplorable that you are asking me to hold a ritual, which is insignificant compared with amending what I have done amiss. To pray without righting the offenses would only add to the heaven’s ire. Therefore, in a bid to regain the fundamentals, I order you to reduce my daily food, cancel all musical events and hold hearings to identify the wrongly-accused.”

Unlike some of today’s irresponsible government officials, Choson officials were quick to beg to be fired when flooding or other calamities struck the nation.

In 1410, Deputy Prime Minster Song Sok-rin tendered a note of resignation, saying “All the conflicts between yin and yang and the overlapping of flooding and drought are due mainly to my inappropriate counsel to the king.”

But King Taejong did not accept Song’s resignation. Instead, the third monarch of the Dynasty said, “My unworthy behavior is the cause of all the calamities. So, understand my intention and continue to work for me.”

In 1455, Deputy Prime Minister Shin Suk-ju also asked to be allowed to resign when a rainstorm inundated the capital city, “Due to my inferior ability, I have failed to help Your Majesty balance the yin and yang, which eventually caused today’s disaster. Therefore, fire me immediately to avoid punishment from the heaven.” Of course, the king did not grant the request.

But not all the officials were forgiven. On Dec. 18, 1431, the Ministry of Justice reported to King Sejoing about some officials charged with the mismanagement of rescue operations. “Panui district chief Lee Sang-hung and six others failed to evacuate people living in low-lying areas to higher ground before the flood, resulting in terrible damages to property and human life. Also, they are responsible for the deaths of innocent people for their lack of vigilance against impending floods.” The officials were flogged as punishment for their negligence.

In 1476, official Chong Kwal filed an appeal concerning the natural disasters, “Even though Your Majesty took necessary measures to avert such disasters, recent calamities do not show any sign of abating. There must be a reason for this. First of all, nothing is more burdensome to the commoner than the state construction projects.

Temples are continuously being built, wasting countless funds. Moreover, some people have applied to the order of Buddhist monks to avoid the compulsory labor imposed by the state. Worse, some monks are idling away public money without doing anything while the remainder bear the strain of heavy taxation.”

Official Chong would have been flabbergasted to find that four corrupt monks were charged and arrested last Thursday for habitual gambling with millions of won. It seems all the more disdainful that they were hellbent on making a quick fortune with the donations of Buddhists while innocent people were suffering the misfortunes of floods.