(3) A Look at Choson’s Bureaucracy

By Yang Sung-jin

As Korea’s economic woes are translated into bankruptcies and layoffs, the ordinary laborer’s job security is now more vulnerable than ever. It is no wonder that many college students are now, somewhat blindly, preparing for the highly-competitive state examinations to become civil servants, a post of higher social status and, well, enviable job security.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty tells almost the same story concerning the civil servant system of the Choson Kingdom (1392-1910).

The state exams were difficult and time-consuming. Those who passed the screening test were given a fairly high social status and job security.

The only difference is that Choson public officials had to bear far greater moral and ethical responsibility than those of today. “The Choson Dynasty’s law clearly stated that if a public official was caught taking a bribe, not only did the person involved get dismissed from the office but also his descendents were barred from civil service posts, forever,” said Goh Yoon-hee, researcher of the Korean Studies Database Research Institute.

“Without this kind of strict and refined regulatory measures, the Choson’s bureaucracy would not have lasted such a long time,” Goh added.

Indeed, the 500-year-old Dynasty hinged on the high moral standard of the civil servants, in contrast to the current system focusing on specialty and professionalism. Yet, it seems that the everyday life of civil servants has not changed much over the past 500 years.

In general, the Choson state examination took place every three years, promoting 33 civil applicants and 28 from the military sector to the first rung on the bureaucratic ladder. Their journey upwards, however, was by no means easy. It took roughly 15-30 months to climb the next step of the 18 stages.

The only exception was the person who placed first in the examination, called “changwon.” While other ordinary officials had to spend over seven years to attain the post (if you were lucky), the changwon was able to jumpstart the complicated bureaucratic hierarchy under the systematic support.

“The privilege given to the changwon can be interpreted as evidence of the Choson Dynasty’s emphasis on individual effort as the essential condition for promotion, not family background, which was favored in the previous Koryo period,” Goh explained.

But the Choson’s merit-oriented policy was not complete. The applicant’s passing the exam totally depended on their academic ability and knowledge about the Chinese classical texts, which was fair enough. Yet, once the exam was over, those applicants of the privileged class were given a better job, leading to a faster promotion — a diehard legacy of the hereditary aristocracy.

The newly-appointed public officials had to go through a gruesome initiation process, or “hazing” by seniors. A record dated 1662 in the CD-ROM Annals states, “The newly appointed officials traditionally pay a visit to their seniors before they get the formal certificate. But, the seniors tear apart the newcomers’ clothes and play a humiliating trick on them.

Although its origin is unknown, this evil practice is still continuing in the name of custom, which should be eradicated as soon as possible.”

Worse, a feast offered by the newcomers followed the excruciating initiation ceremony. A document dated in 1529 in the Annals points out that newcomers avoided the post of sagwan (historiographer) because the sagwan appointees had to provide an expensive feast for the seniors as an initiation process.

Once the person was appointed to a government post, the nation offered a “salary” to the officials. Yet, Choson’s salary did not involve money. It was a piece of land, rice and clothes.

A track of land given to the officials as a payment was classified into 18 different kinds, based upon the official’s rank. Yet, as the scale of the government got bigger, more land was needed, but the government’s land was quite limited. So, King Sejo revised the related law, drastically cutting the number of officials receiving a piece of land in 1466.

Another form of payment was to give food (usually rice) and clothes to officials, which was called “nokbong.” There are 1,305 articles related to nokbong in the CD-ROM Annals, suggesting all the imaginable controversies about the limited salary and the officials demanding more.

Therefore, the honorary officials, who did not work in the office but received the nokbong, were the first targets of “downsizing.” For instance, a document in 1400 asks for layoffs for the honorary officials: “The number of ‘kumkyo’ (honorary) officials dramatically increased. But they get their salary at home without working in the office. Please get rid of the kumkyo’ post, which will cut unnecessary officials and thereby save the labors of the public.” This is a passage reminding today’s buzzwords such as “downsizing,” “restructuring” and a “small, efficient government.”

Choson officials were also required to abide by the designated office hours (5-7:00 a.m.-5-7:00 p.m. in the summer time) as today’s breadwinners do.

But as there are some deadbeats today, there were lazy officials in the Choson Kingdom, as well. In 1482, an official named Kim Seung-kyong states: “Even though the office hours are manifested by law, there are many absentees as I have inspected. And 10 lashes with a cudgel for the violators is too lenient a punishment.”

Interestingly, there was also a lunchtime set for the civil servants. Since the official lunch was provided by the taxpayer’s money, it was also the first target to be scrapped in emergency. The Uijongbu (State Council) filed a petition to King Sejong in 1436, the year the dynasty was hit by a severe drought: “The government should spend 57,280 soks of rice (1 sok equals 5.12 U.S. bushels) on a yearly basis. Yet we have only 123,300 soks as a total reserve. Considering the expected shortage of rice next year, we urge that the lunch for low-ranking officials should be curtailed.”

The Choson officials also had to perform night duty. Dreading this task, it seems, is a universal human trait transcending time because the CD-ROM Choson Annals reveals various incidents in which officials tampered with the night duty system. For instance, Sahonbu (Office of the Inspector-General) filed a formal report calling for the dismissal of officials found neglecting the night duty in 1632. In another case, an official named Lee Seung-jo was exiled in 1400 because he was caught inviting a kisaeng (female entertainer in licensed quarters) into the court while on duty.

Another part of human nature is to want a vacation. According to numerous records related to the word “vacation” in the CD-ROM Annals, not only the regular public officials but also government slaves enjoyed a vacation. Moreover, King Sejong ordered in 1426 that a government female slave should be given 100 days off following childbirth. What draws interest from present scholars is the fact that King Sejong went as far as to allow the husband of the female slave to have 30 days off also, to take care of her.

“Not only the government’s slaves but also prisoners had vacation during the Choson Dynasty,” Goh explains. “King Sejong allowed five days of vacation a year to prisoners so that they could meet and pay respect to their aging parents, which shows the importance of the filial duty during the Choson Dynasty even for prisoners,” she added. In short, when it comes to the vacation system for public officials, it was a pretty modern concept, from which today’s policymakers can take a cue.

Another interesting fact concerning Choson officials was the retirement system. Unlike today’s “forced early retirement” in a bid to trim the bloated organization, Choson people thought it a courtesy to let officials aged 70 retire after their life-long service to the country. One official, Cho Mal-saeng, implored to King Taejong in 1416: “It is often said that the subject should finish their life peacefully after serving the nation until the age of 70. How many years could be left for an official aged 70? Let all these officials retire.” Today’s civil servants, however, should not blindly quote the above passage to save their posts because only an official of high integrity was able to reach 70 without an error in the Choson Dynasty.

(2) Choson Society Opened to Foreign Exiles Out of Diplomatic Concern

By Yang Sung-jin

The presidential inauguration ceremony on Feb. 25 will be conducted with less fanfare, largely due to the current economic crisis. The organizers of the event announced last month that it will not invite any foreign guests, at least officially. Only personal visits and individual attendance are allowed. Yet even the scaled-down ceremony will still be a great photo-op, in which numerous guests of different nationality pose together with the President-elect.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty gives an intriguing clue as to when foreign guests started to attend such a weighty public ceremony.

An article describing the enthronement ceremony of King Sejong (1418-1450) states public officials bowed to the king while “Songgyungwan” (National Confucian Academy) students and a “hoe-hoe” man and “hoe-hoe’ monks attending. “Hoe-hoe” man is today’s Arabian. Thus the passage clearly shows there were a certain number of Arabians even in the earlier Choson period.

The article entries related to foreigners do not stop there. In 1419, Arabians came out to greet and welcome the king on the occasion of the hunting. In 1426, Arabians, Japanese and other foreigners are reported to attend a ceremony celebrating the New Year’s Day.

A document dated in 1427 reveals that the officials made a petition to the king that “hoe-hoe” man should wear Korean clothes while stopping the Islam prayer, a move designed to encourage Arabians to marry Koreans.

“Especially in the earlier period, the Choson Dynasty maintained a generous policy on foreigners. By helping foreigners to settle down here, the Dynasty was able to maintain a better relation with neighboring nations in the East-Asia. As a result, lots of foreigners including Chinese, Japanese and even Arabians used to live here,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Seoul Systems Co. (SSC), the developer of CD-ROM version of the Annals.

One of the assimilation polices was “sa-sung,” a practice in which king endows a new surname to the person as a reward. Even before the Choson Dynasty, getting a surname means the person in question acquires a social status and public recognition. Therefore, the name-giving to foreigners played a positive role in helping the foreigners to settle in Korea.

For instance, today’s surname “Chang,” whose place of origin is Toksu, originated from Chang Sun-ryong, a former Islam, who naturalized as Koryo man by receiving a new surname from King Chungyol (1274-1308).

Despite the generous and positive policies on the assimilation of foreigners into the Choson Dynasty, some people still perceive the Choson period as deeply isolated and hostile toward foreigners.

The perception is not totally untrue, especially for Hendrik Hamel and his company of Dutch sailors, whose ship “Sparrow Hawk” wreck ashore on Cheju Island in 1653 and had lived in the Choson Kingdom for the next 13 years until eight of them escaped to Nagasaki. When Hamel returned to his country, the Netherlands, he wrote a book recounting the Choson Dynasty — the first introduction of the Choson society by a foreigner to the West.

Above facts, however, is relatively well-known history. What’s still unknown is recorded in the Annals in which articles concerning Hamel and his company are sprawling here and there between 1653 and 1667.

The CD-ROM version, however, instantly shows all the related articles. And their life was indeed tough. In April, 1655, Ching China delegate visited Seoul, where the 30 something Dutchmen who survived the shipwreck, were serving in the army. One of them, named “Nambuksan,” pleaded the Chinese diplomat to send him back home, on the street. He was imprisoned and later died because he rejected eating in the prison, which worried the Choson government a lot.

One article related to Hamel mentions another, rather successful Dutchman — Jan Janse Weltevree. He was shipwrecked on Korean shores in 1628, and took the name “Pak Yon.” Unlike Hamel and his company, with his skills of casting cannons, naturalized Pak contributed to the development of cannons in the Military Training Command and lived out his life in Korea, which marks the first successful case of naturalized western foreigner.

Back to the specific article concerning Pak Yon, it must be noted that Pak identified Hamel other Dutchmen as “Nam-man-in” (Southern barbarian man). Pak was also called as such. “Though still uncertain, it is safe to assume that ‘nam-man-in’ here means foreigners. In the Annals, unidentifiable Westerners are believed to be often called as ‘nam-man-in’ because the word frequently appear in the later Choson period when foreigners began to visit Korea by chance or on purpose,” the SSC researcher Lee explained.

And, by chance, five black men arrived at Cheju Island in 1801. Interestingly, the first black people were deserted, on purpose, by a large ship, which disappeared after quickly discharging them on the Korean soil, according to the Annals.

The original Annals, written in Chinese characters, describe the black men as “myon-chae-ku-huk”, meaning that “their entire face and body are black.” Unable to understand their “barbarous” language, the Choson officials asked them to write down anything, which they did. But it was “entangled pieces of thread” for the Annals historiographers, reflecting the time’s widespread notion that only the Chinese are valid characters.

Later, more and more Western explorers visited the Choson Dynasty, which deepened the notion of the Choson people that “man-man-in” is strange, and thereby uncivilized, sort of people, after all. But Lee warned not to generalize the Choson Dynasty as isolationist toward foreigners.

“If you look at especially the earlier period of the Choson Dynasty, you will understand how realistic they were when it comes to dealing with foreigners. They did whatever necessary to defuse the tension along the northern border, one of which was to attract more foreigners to become Choson people. By offering new surname, government jobs, and even servants, the Choson attracted a lot of foreigners in return for military peace around the borders,” Lee said.

In other words, the Annals demonstrate that foreigners were encouraged to join the Choson society. The measure of highly diplomatic calculation resulted in a more racially diverse and generous society.

The most striking evidence of the Choson Dynasty as a racially generous society is Dongchungrae, who was a descendant of the northern tribe outside the Choson territory. According to the Annals’ records of the general of “barbarian” origin, Dongchungrae naturalized and then applied for a state exam to get the post in the military, which he did. Achievement after achievement, Dongchungrae gained confidence from the king.

During the Yonsangun reign (1494-1506), Dongchungrae was promoted to a chief of the royal guard, the highest post ever for a naturalized foreigner in history.

Unfortunately, that was the limit of the Choson Dynasty’s generosity about foreigners. Dongchungrae joined the coup d’etat overthrowing the tyrant Yongsangun, yet was given a lesser reward. Deeply angered, he complained somewhat excessively, which resulted in the treason charges. As a result, he was put to death in 1508.

Even though Dongchungrae case does not have a happy ending, it still does have a point. Even now, it is hard to imagine that a foreigner (naturalized or not) will be appointed as chief of Chong Wa Dae (presidential office) security guards.

(1) ‘Sagwan’ Showcased Best of Penetrating Journalism

By Yang Sung-jin

There were no journalism textbooks, no state-of-the-art tape recorders and no style guide. Yet, they did an amazing job of reporting, which is now regarded as a masterpiece. Even editors of today’s top-notch newspapers may well envy the accuracy and fairness of the reports, not to mention the much-honored privilege of the reporters involved.

They are “sagwan,” or historiographers of the Choson Dynasty, who made the “Annals of the Choson Dynasty,” chronicles embracing the 472-year-long Hermit Kingdom with unparalleled detail and sense of history.

But why is it that sagwan were given such a powerful right to peep into every nook and cranny of the Choson Dynasty? Or, why did the Choson Dynasty’s rulers undertake such a time-consuming work with so much passion in the first place?

“In the earlier Choson Dynasty, the government published a relatively large number of historical documents. What scholars speculate about the flood of the government-led history books is that right after overthrowing the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392), the elite strongly felt the need to justify their rule.

The creation of the `Annals of the Choson Dynasty’ can be viewed under this historical context,” said Lee Nam-hee, senior researcher of the Seoul Systems Co. (SSC), the developer of the CD-ROM version of the Annals.

But the deeper, underlying reason for the compilation of the large-scale Annals is the widespread belief that the historical-recording serves to set an example for the following generations while checking the rulers of the day through close observation and monitoring.

The CD-ROM Annals of the Choson Dynasty provides a pertinent episode suggesting the role of sagwan as today’s sharp-eyed reporters: In 1401, King Taejong went on a hunting trip but was irritated to find a sagwan in the hunting excursion. The king asked a high-ranking official why the sagwan followed him even to a site unrelated to state affairs.

The official answered, “the king’s acts are essential to what the sagwan records. And nobody can dare to check a king from falling for laziness and indiscretion. Therefore, what the king duly should fear are only death and the pen of the sagwan.

“The heaven, though intangible, rewards good behavior, punishes the bad. The pen of history leaves nothing untold whether it’s good or bad. The indelible record is to be read by our descendents, which is why we fear history most,” the official said. Following this event, King Taejong, who had disregarded the sagwan, was much more careful about how he acted.

Though the spirit of recording history was strong in the earlier Choson Dynasty, the systematic process for compiling the Annals had yet to be made.

At the heart of the systematic backup comes from a government’s organization, whose role slowly shaped as time went by. “When a king dies or is dethroned, the incoming king set up a committee in charge of publishing the Annals of the previous reign. And then, sagwans and related government officials, deemed as the best writers of the time, started working on the Annals,” Lee said.

The special committee, launched whenever the need to publish Annals arose, was called “Sillockchong.” But this does not mean that sagwans worked only during specific periods designated for generating the Annals — they worked all the time.

Unlike the on-and-off Sillochong, what occupied a permanent spot in the government’s organization is Chunchukwan (Office for Annals Compilation). Established in 1401, Chunchukwan collected various
historical documents and records when it was not in charge of compiling the Annals. Then, if the Annals-making started, Chunchukwan, in concert with Sillockchong, took the lead, supplying necessary manpower and logistics.

More important, the Chunchukwan was the place where the sagwans — eight full-time and about 80 other chroniclers were added if the Sillockchung was set up — dipped their pens into every subject while collecting and classifying the necessary information.

The Sagwan’s status in the government hierarchy was not that high, but the quality of the sagwan as a historiographer was second to none.

Even from the beginning of the Choson Dynasty, laws were enacted concerning the selection of sagwans. The initial conditions and requirements for the sagwan were very strict. Those who applied for the job needed a mastery of the Chinese classics and history, not to mention excellent writing skills. In addition, the family background of the applicants were thoroughly reviewed in an effort to divert any involvement with factional strife.

But that was not the end of the complicated process for selecting sagwans. The king himself should be consulted about the specific sagwan that were recommended by related officials. The highly prudent selection process testifies to the emphasis placed upon the role of sagwan, and the confidentiality (thereby, fairness and neutrality) of the Annals.

The confidentiality of the Annals was crucial, especially concerning the incumbent king and officials, whose conduct was closely recorded by the sagwans.

As is human nature, nobody wants their misconduct to be recorded in the history books. Therefore, there was a consensus that the related persons including the almighty king were strictly banned from reading the Annals about themselves, and even the first draft and basic materials were classified as confidential. If not, the correct and fair history would be arbitrarily forged and edited by the king drawing his unchallenged authority, which opposed the fundamental idea of recording history as it truly was.

But as is human nature again, the kings fervently yearned to get a peek at the historical documents about themselves. King Sejong, widely regarded as one of the best rulers during the Choson Dynasty, was no exception.

The CD-ROM Annals reveals an incident, dated March 20, 1431, showing King Sejong’s desire to read the Annals. “As Chunchukwan completed the Tajong Sillock [Annals of Sejong’s father], I desire to read it,” King Sejong said.

One of the highest-ranking officials, Mang Sa-song, said, “If Your Majesty reads it, future kings will do the same and change the records. Meanwhile, the sagwan also will not record what really happened fearing the king will read it, all of which will block the truth from being written down as it is.” King Sejong agreed with Mang’s remark, and since then, no king ever read or touched the Annals throughout the reign of the Dynasty. In short, the Annals were sacred.

“The fact that there were four copies of the Annals demonstrates how much the Choson people cared about the Annals. More importantly, they made the type printing only for the four copies, which is also evidence of the Annals’ significance at that time,” the SSC’s senior researcher Lee explained.

The CD-ROM Annals shows that during the King Sejong’s reign, it was decided that the four copies of the completed Annals were to be stored in four different places: one in Chunchukwan, and three other copies in Chungju, Chonju and Sungju, in an effort to prevent the Annals from being impaired by unexpected accidents.

Considering that sagwans were conferred absolute autonomy as reporters, it seems likely that some ill-willed sagwans would abuse their power. But that kind of abuse never happened, Lee said. “Choson scholars, especially sagwans had a strong sense of honor. It was not a high-ranking position, but the post of sagwan was regarded as the highest honor to the entire family. And surely, they retained the idealism about being clean and fair in doing such a public work,” she said.

Indeed, Choson scholar’s idealism involved in the Annals contributed to a remarkably accurate reporting of the society. But that was not the only factor. There were a lot of other systematic mechanisms protecting the process, as well. One of them is “saecho,” a process of deleting all the other drafts except for the final.

The 80-something sagwans had to choose which items should be dealt with and which ones should be excluded. Therefore, it was likely that once the decision was made, no more controversies were welcome. To that end, the practice of saecho (meaning washing the draft in Chinese characters) was adopted in order to prevent any controversy from flaring up later. But saecho was a peculiar act. The scripts were actually washed and dried in the river.

“Saecho was possible because at that time the paper was soaked with oil, and if it was washed, the paper could be used again,” Lee explained. Also the paper itself was a precious material, so the saecho process was an energy-saving measure, she added.

“The sagwan system and the Annals played the role of a check and balance for the power structure of the Choson Dynasty. What matters most here is that the Annals symbolize the relentless historical judgement on one’s behavior. The sense that your present acts will be judged by historians, and the atmosphere in which sagwans faithfully acted as candid reporters, therefore, were the driving force of the 500 years of history,” Lee said.

There is a striking passage in the CD-ROM Annals revealing how closely, and “faithfully” the sagwan reported nearly everything concerning the king and state affairs: in 1404, King Taejong, a perennial hunter, tripped and fell off his horse while chasing after a deer. The embarrassed king ordered the officials nearby, “Don’t let the sagwan know about this.”

All of which are now safely recorded in the Annals, including the king’s desperate order.