(Translation) 成俔 文明論

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“On Civilization” written by Sŏng Hyŏn 成俔 is a social commentary essay that was compiled into the now well-known literary collection called Yongjae ch’onghwa 慵齋叢話 or in English Comprehensive Commentaries of Yongjae (a translation preferred by John Duncan of UCLA). The essay is a Sŏng’s discussion of how his country compared to “the Great Ming” in terms of government, society, people, culture and many other aspects. Not only does the essay provide historians valuable and richly detailed account of how a fifteenth century person thought of his country in relation to others, it also contains many Sŏng’s whimsical depictions of everyday life of the Chosŏn people which make the essay a fun read even for the most causal readers.

Sŏng Hyŏn was a prominent official in fifteen-century Chosŏn, who eventually rose to the key position of Censor-General 大司諫, Inspector-General大司憲, and Minister of Rites禮曹判書. Sŏng would an apt candidate to write about the Ming, a destination he has frequented as many as four times in his life (1). During his first such trip, on which he went with his older brother Sŏng Im 成任 in 1474, he even composed enough poems about his travel to compile a collection called The Sightseeing Records 觀光錄. Also, Sŏng was often one of the designated Chosŏn officials responsible for hosting and entertaining official visitors from the Ming (2). For historians reading “On Civilization” as a source, Sŏng’s extensive contact with the Ming would prove to be both a boon and a bane at the same time. On one hand, his familiarity with the subject assures readers Sŏng knew what he was writing about but, on the other hand, it could constitue a driving force in steering Sŏng away from objectivity in his depiction. Therefore, it is advisable to keep a keen eye on what is fact and what is opinion when reading “On Civilization.”

“On Civilization” was one of the many entertaining pieces that Sŏng wrote for the literary collection Yongjae ch’onghwa. Yongjae ch’onghwa, which was named after Sŏng’s cognomen Yongjae 慵齋, belongs to the genre of literary miscellany, generally defined as a compilation of anecdotes, literary criticism, curious tales, and causal writings on various subjects. And Yongjae ch’onghwa is itself a gold mine of most amusing materials about 14th and 15th century Chosŏn, including officials’ affairs with kisaeng 妓生entertainers, strange customs of government offices, curious tales about commoners, and many others. Because of the relatively informal nature of the genre, Yongjae ch’onghwa serves as an excellent alternative to the usually bland and dry history of Chosŏn narrated by court-centered official sources, such as the often Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty 朝鮮王朝實錄, and also offers what these official sources lack – the insight into how people actually lived and thought at their time (3). For anyone interested in a socio-cultural history of Korea, Yongjae ch’onghwa would be an apposite source to consult.


(1) Sŏng Hyŏn visited Ming four times through private tours or on official missions in various capacities. He traveled to Ming in 1466 with his own brother, Sŏng Im 成任, in 1474 with his colleague Han Myŏnghŭi 韓明澮, in 1485 as the Envoy for the Thousand Autumns Mission 千秋使 (Mission to the Ming for the Crown Prince’s Birthday) and at last in 1488 as Envoy for Expressing Gratitude for Imperial Grace 謝恩使.

(2) John Duncan, “Introduction to Yongjae ch’onghwa” (Handout received in Premodern/Early Modern History of Korea with Professor John Duncan, UCLA, Sept 2017), 4.

(3) John Duncan, “Introduction to Yongjae ch’onghwa,” 1-2.

Original Script

Classical Chinese English


Our country is different from the Central Dynasty (1). When people of our country study, we have to study [Classical Chinese texts] with Kugyŏl (2). This is why we do not learn easily. People of the Central Dynasty speak what they write and do not need Kugyŏl. That is why they learn easily.


People of our country are treacherous and distrustful. We always do not believe in others. This is why people do not believe in me as well. People of the Central Dynasty are good-natured and trustful. Even when they trade with foreigners, they seldom quarrel with others.


Even when simply confronted with trivial matters, people of our country become agitated and vociferous easily. Therefore, we fail to achieve even with a large number of people. People of the Central Dynasty are reticent and do not speak much. Even when they have a small number of people, they could achieve.


People of our country eat and drink a lot. We only focus on the present. If our stomach is empty, we do not know what to do. Petty commoners take loans to buy luxurious houses, but still they do not know thrift when they spend on food. They are therefore beleaguered by poverty. Rich people always hold feasts and banquets and never get tired of doing so.


When our military go on an expedition, over half of the cohort are supply wagons. Every few li of journey, the wagons are so cumbersome that the whole army become stranded. People of the Central Dynasty do not eat much. Sometimes, they can just eat a flatbread and last for a day and night. They do not need to have rice. When hungry, their soldiers carry their rations in the saddles. Although they travel thousands of li, they only need to bring silver coins. When they ask for food, there is immediately food to eat. When they ask for alcohol, there is immediately alcohol to drink. When they ask for a horse, there is immediately a horse to ride. When they ask for a servant, there is immediately a servant to command. Every house they go to stay has a roof; every hostel they go to lodge has a married woman. Therefore, nowhere that they go is difficult.


Our officials eat in the morning, at noon and in the evening. Some of them drink all the time. They assault their servants and slaves and demand sumptuous meals. If the servants and slaves misspeak a word, they will be whipped and beaten. Although some officials of the Central Dynasty are from the ranks of chief ministers and grand masters, they only eat a plate of rice and meat prepared by their households and sent to their offices (3).


When our envoys go on foreign missions, local officials would go and welcome them at the borders [of their respective jurisdictions] with wine and food prepared. After they go into town, they would invite the envoys to stay for an extra few days, hold lavish banquets, and immerse themselves in drunkenness. They are never sober during the day; because of [their debauchery], countless of the envoys become ill and give up on their duties. When local officials see the envoys off, they camp before picturesque mountains and celebrated waters, holding on each other’s sleeves and not letting go for a whole day. Therefore, the obtuse squanders the official treasury and idle all day. The able siphons public fund to their self-benefits. As days go by, the government become destitute. Clerks and people are also worn out and cannot bear the bitterness of life.


When envoys of the Central Dynasty go on foreign missions, ten thousand horsemen lead the way with splendid pennants and battle-axes. It is such a grandiose view. When they go into town, local clerks and officials prostrate before the hall and usher the envoys to their rooms. The envoys only eat pig trotters and plain rice and sleep with their followers in the same bed. The next day, they immediately set off without delay. To see the envoys off, local clerks and officials only go 5 li out of town and have three tea cups of drink (4). If some clerks and officials want to cultivate a relationship with the envoys and bring their own food and alcohol, the envoys would say they would come back for them. Therefore, the envoys never linger around and the officials never waste resources. This is why the prefectures and counties are always plentiful.


Half of the people of our country are slaves. Thus, although there are well-known prefectures and enormous counties, few soldiers can be recruited. In the Central Dynasty, everyone is a citizen. And in every household, there is a crack trooper. Even a small and remote village has a few ten-thousands people to be recruited. People of our country are frivolous and ungovernable. Commoners do not fear government clerks. Clerks do not fear scholars. Scholars do not fear grand masters. Grand masters do not fear chief ministers. High and low overstep and struggle with each other. In contrast, in the Central Dynasty, commoners fear government clerks as if they are dholes and tigers. Clerks fear grand masters and chief ministers as if they are ghosts and gods. Grand masters and chief ministers fear the Emperor as if he is the Heaven. Therefore, they are able to govern and their orders are to be followed readily.

(1) The phrase “中朝” in the original text might be best translated as “The Central Dynasty” here. It is tempting to simply translate the phrase as “China” or “the Central Kingdom.” But there are two reasons discouraging me from doing so. First, “China” is a modern neologism, so to use the term is to run into the danger of anachronism. Second, “the Central Kingdom” is usually translated from the term “中國.” And the word “kingdom” normally refers to 王國 in Chinese. However, in the original text, the author did not use 國 and instead employ 中朝 to describe the political entity/community west of his own country. Considering that the issues of nationhood and formation of nationalism are highly contested subjects still in, especially East Asian, historiography, the author’s choice could be telling and thus I decide to simply literally translate the term as “the Central Dynasty” and let historians decide the significance of a 16th century person using such language.

(2) Kugyŏl 口訣 is a system for rendering Classical Chinese texts into understandable Korean. It was commonly used by Korean scholars during the Choson Dynasty. In Kugyŏl, additional markers or words are inserted into a text written in Classical Chinese in order to help Korean readers better comprehend the text. These markers or words are usually Korean grammatical particles added between Chinese phrases.

(3) I rely my translations of official titles on Charles Hucker’s A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China. While I am aware that Korean and Chinese official titles are different, I take that Sŏng was referring to a hierarchy of Confucian society/officialdom, which originated in China, rather than actual official positions in Choson Korea. The term 公卿 in the original document does not correspond to any actual official title in Hucker’s dictionary. But the title 卿 is generally used, particularized with prefixes, for eminent officials and translated as “Chief Minister.” I understand the phrase 公 here is simply a prefix attached to the title 卿 for the purpose of honorification. The most direct translation for公卿, therefore, would be “Honorable Chief Minister.” For simplicity, I simply write “Chief Minister” in the translated text. The term 大夫 is commonly translated as “Grand Masters.”

(4) It is a tradition in East Asia to farewell someone with three cups of wine.