(32) Symbolism of Fire in Dispute

By Yang Sung-jin

The Choson period is closely associated with the image of fire, a symbol of the dynasty’s civility and its moralistic principles in governing the country. That is why Kwanghwamun (Kwang means ‘fire’ in Korean), the main gate of Kyongbok Palace, is positioned such that it faces due south (also the direction representing ‘fire’). In front of it stands a stone sculpture of a mystical lion named “Haetae,” an imaginary animal symbolizing justice, which is said to live on fire, thereby suggesting the power of water.

Taewongun, the father of King Kojong, positioned the symbol such that it faced Mt. Kwanak, in southern Seoul, in hopes of preventing fires, which Choson people believed frequently took place due to the convergence of the fiery elements of the palace and the mountain, both of which represent fire according to the principles of pungsu (geomancy).

It is anybody’s guess whether such a mystical association had any genuine connection to actual fires, though it’s true that “The Annals of the Choson Dynasty” contains a considerable number of articles relating to fires — and how to prevent them.

On April 3, 1430, King Sejong met with his officials to discuss pro-active measures to prevent fires, especially in sacred places.

“Since last year’s big fire, we have built new roads in the residential areas in order to secure enough space between houses when fires break out. So far, the results have been good. Yet there is still much to be done. Why don’t we divide the houses into smaller units and construct new roads between them, while digging wells?” King Sejong asked.

The king also recommended that the pine trees surrounding the National Shrine, Chongmyo, be cut or trimmed drastically in order to minimize the danger of fires breaking out.

In response to the king’s first proposal, high-ranking official Maeng Sa-song replied, “It’s practically impossible to force people to move to new houses, and once a fire occurs, the artificial space between them is not that effective. And there are few places to dig new wells.”

In the face of such opposition, the king backed off a little bit, saying that he would review the issue later and make a tentative decision on the matter.

Meanwhile, government official Huh Cho said, “Officials at Kumhwa-dokam (the government-funded firefighting organization) are often replaced by others, thus leaving their tasks unfinished. To implement effective fire-prevention measures, these officials should be allowed to work there on a long-term basis.” Huh’s proposal was accepted.

In 1436, an official named Choe Po-ro of northeastern Hamkil-do reported to King Sejong, “Hamkil-do’s four fortresses have houses which are largely connected with one another, posing a fire hazard. To prevent fires from spreading, the addition of windows and extra doors to the outer walls surrounding houses should be banned, and the roofs of houses should be covered with fire-retardant mud.”

In 1438, King Sejong called on northwestern Pyongan Province governor to take appropriate fire prevention measures: “I have heard that, in insulating the houses in your province in the winter, the thick, fortified outer walls of each house are put in close proximity to one another. This poses a great danger in the event that a house catches fire. I would like you to submit a report on what kinds of tools you have in place to combat such accidents.”

Fiery Morning Briefing

King Songjong was as concerned about the threat of fires as his predecessors. In early 1471, the king ordered the Ministry of Military Affairs to file a report on fires in both the public and private sectors in every morning briefing session.

Soon, one report described a conflagration which broke out in the city of Changsong, in northwestern Pyongan-do, on April. 17. The fire consumed some 1,800 bushels of corn and rice listed on the government treasury, reduced 89 houses to ashes, and left seven people dead.

The trouble was not so much the scale of the fire, according to officials who reported to the king, but the fact that the figures reported seemed fishy, and called for a thorough investigation. The official report read, “The amount of corn and rice destroyed in the fire is inconsistent. The casualties and actual damage must have been much more serious. Moreover, the official in charge of the area, Cho Yu-hyong, is sure to be lying about his whereabouts in order to avoid punishment.”

King Songjong authorized an investigation, ordered the governor of the region to provide emergency food aid to the victims, and also ordered official Cho Min to scout the area in search of eyewitness reports that would confirm or deny official reports.

On Dec. 20, 1476, when a firearms storage area burned down, killing four people, King Songjong told officials that he would visit the place himself.

But the officials opposed the king’s outing, saying “Since the king’s movements are recorded in the history books without fail, it would be inappropriate for Your Majesty to leave the palace for such minor accident.”

However, the king did not heed their advice. “Nothing is more important than firearms to the nation’s military. Therefore, I will go there right after the ancestral rites in celebration of New Year’s Day.”

In 1488, King Songjong was confronted with a court dispute over a fire which caused considerable damage to Wonkak Temple in downtown Seoul. A group of officials led by An Ho voiced their displeasure at the king’s expressed willingness to restore the temple, which they said went against Confucian principles.

“We have heard that Wonkak Temple is being restored with Your Majesty’s help. But the fact that King Sejong established such a large temple in the heart of the capital in the first place was misguided, and the cost of repairing it is being unjustly placed on innocent people,” An said.

The king replied, “The repair work is not being carried out because I admire Buddhism, but because King Sejong set up the temple and diplomats from China and Japan are eager to visit the place.”

King Songjong’s dogged insistence, no doubt influenced by his respect for the former king, stifled the opposition and the restoration continued.

Wonkak Temple aside, a number of other fires damaged or destroyed Buddhist temples. In 1452, a fire left Yujom Temple in Kangwon Province in ashes, all of its 143 rooms having been destroyed. Members of the Uijongbu (State Council) reported the accident to King Tanjong and called for an investigation into the exact cause of the blaze.

The investigation that followed revealed that the fire had broken out in the course of a food offering in the compound of the temple by female believers, chiefly orchestrated by the temple’s head monk, who was later formally interrogated for his role in the accident.

Never Play with Fire

In 1474, a couple of waegwans (Japanese trading and living quarters) in the southeastern region suffered severe damage from several fires, prompting their inhabitants to seek help from the central Choson government. King Songjong sent official Nam Chae to the various sites to offer aid to the victims.

According to Nam Chae’s report, the Japanese merchants who were allowed to do business on a limited scale in Choson were often careless with fire, resulting in huge damage. To prevent further disasters, Nam put a strict regulation on the use of fire in the restricted quarters and built up walls aimed at blocking the spread of fires in the event that they occurred.

Given the huge damages caused by fires, there were disappointingly few explanations, be they philosophical or scientific. In 1475, King Songjong asked his officials to brief him on the reasons why fires were breaking out so frequently.

Official Sin Chong replied, “If the occupants of every house were careful, there would be no fires.”

Official Im Sa-hong said, “I read a book titled `Chwa Chon’ which says that fires are just an affliction of the times. But the exact reason why this is so is beyond my understanding.”

Abruptly, Sin proposed a somewhat bold explanation, saying that comets are responsible for fire disasters.

A historiographer who observed the debate commented sharply, “Sin Chong is amazingly glib, but short of proper education and talent, he made a groundless remark following Im’s reply to the king, which invited from guffaws from those attending the meeting.”

King Songjong had a better idea than the comet theory. When a big fire consumed some 200 houses in 1481, the king deeply lamented his own faults: “My lack of virtue is solely responsible for this disaster. That is why the heavens did not send any help and the people did not make any effort to deal with the fire, all of which is shameful.”

The logic here apparently originates in the Confucian principle that rulers are responsible for their people in the same way that parents are accountable for their children. The Choson’s strong emphasis on family bonds was brought home more strongly than ever in 1491, when a former low-ranking official’s house was set ablaze.

As the flames consumed the late An Kun-hu’s house, his widow was said to have risked her life to retrieve the tablet she used to mourn the passing of her deceased husband. Beset by the roaring flames, the widow became trapped inside the house, prompting her son, An Kyu, to run inside and rescue his mother and the tablet.

But the price for these acts of heroism based on the Confucian principle of fidelity to the head of the household was considerable: both suffered burns on their faces and shoulders. The government awarded the exemplary widow with a handsome sum in compensation for her loss while exempting the son from military service as a reward for his valor.

By the way, what single item would you take with you if a fire broke out in your home?