(Translation) 徐命膺 北學議序

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“Introduction to Discourse on Puk'ak 北學議序” is an introductory piece written by Sŏ Myŏngŭng 徐命膺 for Discourse on Puk'ak 北學議, a foundational text of an emerging school of thought in 17th century Choson called the School of Puk'ak (literally translated to Northern Learning). The introduction explains the background as well as some of the motivations that prompted many thinkers of Sŏ’s time to embrace the new philosophy of Puk'ak. For readers who are unfamiliar with relevant history, this introduction serves as an excellent introduction to the rise of Puk'ak, an important episode in Choson intellectual history with which any serious Choson history students ought to familiarize themselves.

The School of Puk'ak gained currency in the Choson intellectual sphere around the early 18th century, introducing a country-wide debate and re-examination of how Choson ought to strengthen itself. Treating the relatively more technologically advanced Qing dynasty as a model of economic and social reform, proponents of Northern Learning asserted that mastery over material processes, especially those related to agriculture, means of production and commerce, was the panacea for the ills of Choson. In particular, together with Hong Taeyong 洪大容 and Pak Chiwŏn 朴趾源, Pak Cheka 朴齊家, the author of Discourse on Puk'ak, espoused the belief that technological advancement and mastery over the material world would translate to prosperity and wealth of a country. The School of Puk'ak was also referred to as the School of Sirhak, or Practical Learning 實學, and the School of Profitable Usage and Benefiting the People利用厚生派. Historiographically speaking, the advent of Puk'ak is monumental for two main reasons. First, it represents a heuristic departure for the Choson intellectuals from Neo-Confucianism, the philosophy that had dominated the country’s intellectual landscape for centuries and a school of thought that largely, and for some overtly, concerned itself with the metaphysics rather than the practical. Second, it also signals a change of attitude in Choson towards the Qing, which the Chosons, because of the Qing’s non-Sinic background, had held to be “culturally inferior” than themselves and refused to view as cultural equals. In this light, what the proponents of Puk'ak were advocating was quite revolutionary. Some would even suggest that the likes of Pak Chiwŏn to be the “harbinger” of Korean modernism.

It is against this backdrop that Pak Chiwŏn embarked on writing Discourse on Puk'ak, for which Sŏ Myŏngŭng, a like-minded peer of Pak and a high official in the Choson court, wrote an introductory text. In the introduction, Sŏ particularly stressed the importance of mastering the numerical standards of the material world. Sŏ was also recognized by contemporaries as well as later generations to be one of the founders of the School of Northern Learning. The introduction was later compiled into a compilation of Sŏ’s personal writings named the “Literary Miscellany of Pomanjae 保晩齋集 (Pomanjae was Sŏ’s cognomen),” in which “Introduction to Discourse on Puk'ak 北學議序” was featured and preserved for us.


Chung, Ah-young. "A harbinger of Korean literary modernism." The Korean Times. Feb 18, 2011.

"보만재집 保晩齋集 [Literary Miscellany of Pomanjae]" Han'gung Minjong Munhwa Daebaek kwa Sajŏn 한국민족문화대백과사전 [Encyclopedia of Korean Culture]. https://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Item/E0023327 (accessed 16 June 2020)

"북학 北學 [Puk'ak]" Han'gung Minjong Munhwa Daebaek kwa Sajŏn 한국민족문화대백과사전 [Encyclopedia of Korean Culture]. https://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/SearchNavi?keyword=%E5%8C%97%E5%AD%B8&ridx=0&tot=3765 (accessed 16 June 2020)

"북학의 北學議 [Discourse on Puk'ak]" Han'gung Minjong Munhwa Daebaek kwa Sajŏn 한국민족문화대백과사전 [Encyclopedia of Korean Culture]. https://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/SearchNavi?keyword=%E5%8C%97%E5%AD%B8&ridx=1&tot=3765 (accessed 16 June 2020)

"서명응 徐命膺 [Sŏ Myŏngŭng]" Han'gung Minjong Munhwa Daebaek kwa Sajŏn 한국민족문화대백과사전 [Encyclopedia of Korean Culture]. https://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/SearchNavi?keyword=%EC%84%9C%EB%AA%85%EC%9D%91&ridx=0&tot=11 (accessed 16 June 2020)

Original Script

Classical Chinese English


As to things like city walls, houses, carriages, and tools, all of them have a numerical standard endowed by nature. If you follow these standards [faithfully], things will be solid, complete, and enduring. If you do not, things that are built in the morning will fall apart in the evening, bringing much harm to the people and country. Now studying the Rites of Zhou, [we would notice that] the width of roads has its standards and the length of houses has its conventions. If a wheel’s hub is one third of the length of the spoke, the wheel does not get stuck in the mud. And if a roof’s slope is of one to one ratio to its height, the roof drains properly. As to things like the proportion of metals and stones [in metallurgy], the arrangement of soft and hard skin hides [in tanning], the soaking of silk and the painting with dye, all are recorded in the book. Here, one may see that the knowledge of the Sages, which includes numerical standards for ten thousand things, is vast, important, profound, and subtle; everything is made to its ideal [form]. How could one ever consider [them] trivial and slight [them]?


From the Han dynasty onward, scholars [in our country] no longer mastered the universal numerical standards and said that these [numerical standards] were the affairs of artisans. [This was why] all the books about numerical conventions at that time only contained general descriptions. In China, however, there are experts in every occupation and masters for every craftsmanship. Learned and talented scholars from all corners of the country understand the nature [of learnings on numerical standards] and push their understanding to the utmost, passing down what they knew from generation to generation. When it comes to things like city walls, houses, carriages, and tools, few scholars deviate from the numerical standards set out by the Sages. Therefore, [what they build] are refined, delicate, solid and firm - free from the trouble of damaging wealth and harming the people. However, our country is not like this. Although our country benefits from [the nourishment of] the mountains and waters, all these benefits are wasted in the expense of repairments and maintenances, the amount of which becomes unbearable as time goes by. Therefore, our country is said to be an impoverished one. Alas! But is it that our country is poor in actuality? Or is it that the numerical standards have lost their proprieties?


Pak Cheka, with courtesy name of Ch'asu, is an extraordinary scholar. In the year of Musul [1778 in Gregorian calendar], he followed the Envoy for Presenting Circumstances to Beijing, where Pak saw the city walls, houses, carriages, and tools there and lamented, “this is the institution of the august Ming.” The institution of the august Ming is also that [recorded] in the Rites of Zhou.

Whenever he came across [a structure or an object the numerical principle of which] can be utilized in our country, Pak studied it fastidiously and learned [the convention of which] in secret. If there was any incomprehension, he would go around and make visits [to scholars] to solve the mystery. On his way back [to Choson], he recorded his learnings with a pen in a book, which later became the Inner and Outer Chapters of the Commentary on Puk'ak. The volumes of this book are detailed and meticulous, and its organization limpid, not to mention its inclusion of several essays written by Pak’s peers of like minds. Once it is studied, the book contains [numerical conventions] that can be implemented immediately [throughout the country]. Alas, how dedicated, diligent, and ingenuous you are! Ch'asu, I exhort you!

Recently, the King wished to compile a book of [numerical] conventions so as to refining the Grand Code [for State Administration]. When the Duke of Zhou authored the Rites of Zhou, he first ordered the Six Ministers and their offices to record everything relevant to their posts and planned to make a book out of them. Could this book be ratified [into the Grand Code for State Administration]? It is when the wind blows, the kite bird screeches; it is when the rain comes, the ant crawls [for the ant hills] (5). Whether this book would be ratified, there is no way to know. Perhaps it would not be the kite bird and ant for the Grand Code of our country. I am therefore writing down my feelings about the situation in this preface. (translation)