(Translation) 崔鳴吉 丙子封事第一

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Ch’oe Myŏngkil (Choe Myeonggil; 1586 - 1647) was a Confucian scholar and statesman. He had a rather successful career in government as he eventually reached the position of Chief State Councilor, the highest place in the officialdom of Chosŏn. His is one of the better known names in the entire Chosŏn history. However, instead of his other successes and failures, the mark he left has to do with his political position and the fate of his country at around the time of this writing.

During the relatively short span of time between 1592 and 1636, when this memorial was composed, Chosŏn already suffered three invasions, of which the first two were by Japan and the last by Later Jin. The events and the changes in the political climate of this region of Asia was to lead to a fourth invasion--this time by Qing. Chosŏn's subsequent surrender, whose terms included kowtows by King Injo in submission to Hong Taiji of the Qing dynasty who had come to Chosŏn in person, are considered, by many, the most humiliating moment in the history of the dynasty.

Ch’oe Myŏngkil's memorial can be better understood, having these concurrent historical events in mind. However, the role he played in the unfolding of these events and the characterization imposed on him subsequently date back to the time of the third invasion, one by Late Jin. Ch’oe Myŏngkil is remembered as the leading proponent of chuhwaron as opposed to ch'ŏk'waron of Kim Sanghŏn, his opponent whose name rarely fails to accompany Ch’oe's in the discussions regarding this invasion. Chuhwaron can be, more literally, translated as "the argument for seeking peace [negotiation]," and ch'ŏk'waron "the argument for rejecting peace [negotiation]." Ch’oe supported the position favoring diplomatic solution during the Later Jin Invasion in 1627 and would again during this invasion. The two positions have often been understood in terms of "pragmatic compromise" and "adherence to principle" in relation to the tributary relationship between Chosŏn and Ming, and Chosŏn's perception of the Manchus as barbarians and Ming as the Confucian state. Along these lines of thinking, Ch’oe is sometimes characterized as someone who sacrificed his reputation and principle in order to save his country and at others, as someone who corrupted the Confucian principles and caused a disgrace to his king and his country. More recent scholarship deems this kind of view simplistic and demands a more thorough inquiry into the complexity of the situation.[1][2][3]

Original Script

Classical Chinese English





Your minister humbly prostrates in his private quarter because of his illness. Your minister did not participate in court discussion but heard the reports from all the provinces and circuits. Now the words of this envoy from the Later Jin were offensively arrogant and viciously treacherous. Your minister could not bear to hear these words. Among all those who have courage and uprightness, who will not resent to the extent of desiring death? Your minister humbly heard that as to the questions and answers of the bureaucrats and the plans and preparations of the Border Defense Command, their speeches are upright and reasonings are sound. They are good enough to be considered. Yet in your minister’s mind, there is something that your minister could not but be overly concerned. At the time when we were first negotiating peace, our court, using the great righteousness between ruler and minister, repeatedly listed our statements. They albeit dogs and sheep do have consciousness, therefore dare not to force us to violate righteousness. We agreed to be neighboring states, reported to Heaven, and swore an oath. In between these ten or so years, there were no other claims. Now they suddenly uttered this speech, why? Moreover, the caitiffs overran the great desert and were constrained by none. Presumptuously they proclaimed emperorship. Who can turn the tide to stop them? And as to those who desire to use a pretense against our state, their minds are probably hard to understand.

If we only reply with words of mouth, then the course of events is not clear and cannot serve as evidence. If it let the arrogant caitiffs reverse our words and slander us in front of All under Heaven, then what can we use to explain ourselves? In your minister’s humble opinion, in addition to regular response, we should separately write a letter, completely stating that the false title cannot be used to usurp, that the loyalty of ministers cannot be changed, and that the ranks of the venerable and base cannot be confused, so as to clarify the great righteousness and to preserve the essence of our state. As ever send the letter of the caitiffs and the reply of our state to the military command for consultation and then report to the August dynasty. At the same time, send instructions to the eight directions, discipline the soldiers and horses, so as to wait for the revolt and let people of all under Heaven clearly know how unambiguously the court handle this matter. Then by doing so, it can destroy the scheme of the caitiffs and strengthen the morale of our soldiers. Write them in historical records, and there will be no words of regret. Furthermore, your minister heard that Yonggoltae’s (Yonggoldae) trip only used the spring mission and the condolence[4] as pretexts, and the letter of the khan also does not have other words. What are called rebellious letters are those of the Eight Banners and of the Mongol princes.

Reply their regular letters but reject their words of violating principles, so that both the righteousness of ruler and minister and the way of neighboring states can be completed. With regard to plans, it is appropriate. Not to mention now our mountain fortresses are not finished and our defense is not complete. As to expedient strategy of delaying calamity, how can it be entirely neglected? There is no harm in receiving the Later Jin envoy, but whom cannot be received are the Western Tartars.[5] As to the Western Tartars, we should not treat them ungenerously, but what should be severely reproached are the rebellious letters.[6]

Your minister humbly observed the situations of the caitiffs. Sooner or later, all are the eventual invasion. But it cannot be fuzzily handled so that we are being deceived to point of overly desolate and accelerate their invasion. Shut the door of our cities and open channels of remonstration. Although there will be signs of remorse, they are not beneficial. The situation of today can be said to be urgent, but fortunately, it has yet to reach the point of suffering invasion now. Your minister prostrates and hopes Your Highness make all the more effort and first establish a lofty aspiration. Such as the words of the remonstrating ministers and lecturing ministers, Your Highness should accept more. Gather and rank the ministers who discuss affairs. Bravely reform the policies that harm the people. Promote talents and encourage officers and soldiers, so as to fulfill the wishes of your subjects. Thereby your people’s mind will be delighted, and the condition of the state will be consolidated. Although there is an external threat, it will not reach a state of grave frustrations. As to your minister’s lowly illness, it always lingers. Your minister’s spirit is muddled and totally not aware of external affairs. And yet your minister cannot bear the trivial sincerity of concerning the state, and risk displaying what he has in his heart, only to let the brilliant lord to judge, taking what to advance and what to cease.

Discussion Questions

  1. Who was Ch’oe Myŏngkil (Choe Myeonggil)? How did his background influence his writing? What can we learn about his political standpoint from this memorial?
  2. How was Ch'oe Myŏngkil situated within the political context of the Chosŏn (Joseon) court at this time? Who took the opposing view? How would his oppositions in the court respond? What would be their strategies to defend the country? Do they use the same strategies for convincing the king?
  3. Who compiled Ch'oe Myŏngkil’s memorial, when and for what purposes?
  4. Regarding the argument over the ethnicity and the political legitimacy shown in this memorial, how did Chosŏn (Joseon) people during the 16th-17th centuries understand the Chosŏn-Qing relations?
  5. Did the Chosŏn court think of itself as the most "civilized" among the peoples around China? Why were certain groups of people (such as the Khitans and Mongols etc.) viewed and written about in a pejorative manner?
  6. What was the historical context in which this memorial was written? What did the memorial tell us about Chosŏn-Qing relations in the 1630s? Why was the Chosŏn-Qing relation like this? And how about their relations in the remaining 17th century?
  7. Previous scholars have attributed Chosŏn’s cultural prejudice against the Jurchen-cum-Manchurians as a main cause of an antagonistic relation between Chosŏn and Qing. Aside from cultural causes, what about the causes in the political-economy?
  8. Was the idea of "closing the gates and opening the channels of expression" a typically Korean concept during the Yi dynasty? If not, was it also existing in Chinese dynasties and Koryô?
  9. Were memorials an effective method to influence political decisions? And why? Please elaborate your answer.
  10. The contents of this memorial are also included in the Chosŏn wangjo sillok (Joseon wangjo sillok 朝鮮王朝實錄), however the king Injo did not respond to this memorial. Why? And why is this memorial written in official writings?

Further Readings

  1. Huh Tae koo 허태구. “Choi Myeong-gil’s argument of supporting the pursuit of peace with the enemy, and the issue of Daemyeong Euiri” 崔鳴吉의 主和論과 對明義理. The Journal of Korean History 한국사연구 162 (September 2013): 87–122.
  2. Huh Tae koo 허태구. “The Trend and Prospect of Main Study on the Dispute between Ju’hwa-ron(主和論, argument supporting the idea of pursuing peace with the enemy) and Cheok’hwa-ron(斥和 論, argument boycotting the negotiation of peace with the enemy) during Manchu Invasion of Joseon” 丁卯 · 丙子胡亂 전후 主和 · 斥和論 관련 연구의 성과와 전망. Sahak Yonku: The Review of Korean History 128 (December 2017): 179–235.
  3. O Such'ang 오수창. “Choi Myeonggil gwa Kim Sanghŏn” 최명길과 김상헌 [Choi Myeonggil and Kim Sanghŏn]. Critical Review of History 역사비평, February 1998, 393–403.
  4. This refers to the death of Queen Inyŏl (Inyeol), the consort of Injo.
  5. They refer to the Western Mongols.
  6. A version of this suggestion is recorded in the Veritable Records of Injo: http://sillok.history.go.kr/id/wpa_11402026_002