By Yang Sung-jin
Fluency in foreign languages carries advantages in many areas of society, the job sector for one. Not only can mastery over a non-native tongue help secure a job, but, once employed, can help one get promoted. For these reasons, proficiency in foreign languages is being increasingly encouraged. The current bestsellers list reflects this trend as a book detailing how its author mastered English is featured prominently.
During the Choson Kingdom such a mastery of languages was also highly valued. The Choson government’s official interpreters, or “yok-kwans,” received much recognition for fostering friendly diplomatic ties, primarily with powerful China.
But according to an article dated 1548, perceptions of the yok-kwans were not always favorable. When King Myongjong invited an interpreter to take part in a lecture hosted by the king, court officials promptly expressed their displeasure.
“Although the role of interpreters is important for diplomacy, we cannot sit together with yok-kwans since their background is lowly and dirty. Besides, there is no precedent for such a practice,” officials protested.
The social structure of the Choson Kingdom, which honored the class system from the very beginning, cultivated such discrimination against yok-kwans. Yet there were some yok-kwans who surmounted the social obstacles and won the recognition of kings.
Won Min-saeng is a case in point. His name first appears in an article dated 1418: “Won Min-saeng had a excellent personality. He was wise and glib, speaking fine Chinese. The king always asked Won to interpret dialogues with Chinese diplomats. Ming China’s emperor also loved Won and gave gold and silk goods to him as presents on several occasions.”
In contrast, there is the case of a yok-kwan who invited trouble to himself: “Lim Kun-rae was put to death by dismemberment on the street. His father was Chinese and honored as one of the founding members of Choson. But Lim was greedy and mean and got rich by accompanying the mission to China and engaging in trade. He also was an incurable sycophant.”
There WAS a Royal Road
In the reign of King Sejong, Lee Pyon was a pre-eminent yok-kwan. In an article dated 1429, Minister of Rites Sin Sang informed the king about Lee: “Nothing is more important than correct interpretation in diplomacy. But many of the students at the Sayokwon (a government agency of foreign language education) are incompetent in delivering the gist of the message correctly, which often results in humiliation and embarrassment. But Lee Pyon never stopped studying Chinese, even after he passed the state examination.”
Lee was indeed eager to learn Chinese. An article of 1434 explains the process by which Lee excelled in Chinese: “Lee was originally slow in learning and he passed the state exam past the age of 30. Then he started studying Chinese with greater enthusiasm, determined to succeed in the field. Lee read Chinese texts, often sitting up all night, and searched all over the place to find a fluent Chinese speaker to correct his pronunciation. He always spoke in Chinese even at his house and the principle was applied in talking with his friends. Finally, he mastered Chinese.”
Another legendary Chinese interpreter was Lee Chang-shin. His understanding of Chinese and fluency in interpretation was so great that even Chinese diplomats did not spare praise for Lee’s linguistic genius.
On March 17 of 1488, King Songjong endowed Lee with a horse as a present, saying that “only Lee Chang-shin can do a proper job for interpretation of Chinese when we welcome Chinese diplomatic delegates. From now on, encourage younger officials to learn Chinese.”
In 1492, the king offered Lee a drink for conducting flawless interpretation and showing great hospitality to Chinese diplomats. In 1503, King Yonsangun expressed his high regard for Lee, “There is only one person, Lee Chang-shin, who truly knows how to speak Chinese.”
In 1499, Lee was ordered to select and train Chinese-speaking officials to learn the ceremonial procedures necessary to serve the Chinese mission to Choson. A historiographer commented, “Lee Chang-shin’s family declined due to his reckless and vicious wife. But he was approved by the court largely because of his excellence in speaking Chinese and writing diplomatic letters.”
Knowledge of Language is Power
Officials who contributed to the creation of Hangul, the Korean alphabet, were also fluent in Chinese. Shin Suk-ju and Song Sam-mun fell into this category because they, as scholars, were frequently sent to China to learn up-to-date linguistics on orders from King Sejong.
A brief biography of Shin Suk-ju in 1475 states, “He primarily worked for the Ministry of Rites and regarded diplomacy as his true vocation. Shin, fluent in Hangul and Chinese, also translated a Chinese text titled `Hongmuchongun’ into Hangul, which paved the way for Chinese study.”
Choson yok-kwans’ role was not limited to interpretations in the court. They frequently went to China and Japan as Choson diplomatic delegates and in the process introduced foreign cultures to Choson.
In May of 1404, King Taejong sent 10,000 head of cattle to Ming China on 10 different occasions and yok-kwans were involved with the large-scale offering.
In 1406, 84 Chinese refugees drifted ashore on Choson territory and yok-kwan Choe Yun was asked to lead them back to China.
In 1541, Prime Minister Yun Eun-bo briefed the king on the yok-kwans: “These days, we are asking yok-kwans to buy Chinese books when they visit China. But they are returning with no books, citing the difficulties. The main reason for this is that China strictly bans the trade of books.”
Yun suggested sending a specially chosen yok-kwan to China for the sole purpose of buying advanced Chinese books for Choson scholars and the court.
An article dated 1717 shed light on the extracurricular missions of yok-kwans, saying that King Sukchong gave a handsome prize to a yok-kwan who obtained a Chinese emperor’s calligraphy work. Unfortunately, there is no document detailing exactly how the yok-kwan secured the precious item.