(Translation) 金時習 名分說

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Among his contemporaries, Kim Sisŭp (金時習, RR: Kim Siseup; 1435 – 1493) was often remembered as a Buddhist monk, if not an eccentric hermit, who had an extraordinary talent for poetry.1 This understanding of Kim could derive from a well-known anecdote about him. The Biography of Kim Sisŭp written by Yi I (李珥; 1536 – 1584) describes him wailing and weeping for three days and turned Buddhist after burning all his books when he heard that Grand Prince Suyang (首陽大君; later King Sejo, 世祖; 1417 – 1468) usurped the throne of the rightful child king, Tanjong (RR: Danjong; 1441 – 1457) in 1455.

This image of Kim, however, changed dramatically as the collection of Kim’s works was published by King Chungjong’s (RR: Jungjong; r. 1506 – 1544) order in 1521. Those government officials who participated in the publication predominantly described Kim as a high-minded Confucian scholar and interpreted his involvement in Buddhism as a protest to King Sejo’s usurpation of the throne. “On Titles and Distinctions,” which was compiled in the collection, may be the best example that reveals Kim’s image as a Confucian scholar in protest, as it subtly but unmistakably criticizes the usurpers in King Sejo’s regime who violated the foremost Confucian order mandated between the ruler and the ruled. Indeed, the usurpation of the rightful king must have been an act that shook the foundation of the Confucian society such as Chosŏn (RR: Joseon) kingdom.

Kim Sisŭp made his point clear by repeatedly emphasizing the importance of one’s distinctions assigned to the denominations in several articles throughout the collection. For example, in “On the Great Absolute (Taiji shuo),” he cries out for the moral duty that man ought to do (Sollen), which meant to observe one’s titles and distinctions.2 In “The Biography of Yurang,” moreover, Kim states that, with all the difficulties, I try to humiliate those who have two minds toward their sovereign.3 “On Titles and Distinctions,” which is presented below, articulates Kim’s criticism against King Sejo’s regime at its full length.

1 Ki-young Um, “A Study of the Recognition for Kim Siseup (金時習) in 16th Century of Joseon Dynasty,” Minjok munhaksa yeon’gu 69 (2009): 63-64.

2 Yong Gon Kim, “The Formation Process of Kim Siseup’s Political Ideas: His Conditions and Responses toward the Establishment of Moral Politics,” Hanguk hakbo 18 (1980): 48.

3 Kim, “The Formation Process,” 50.

Original Script

Classical Chinese English





Great are the titles and distinctions to people! The Book of Change states,“The Heaven is venerable and the Earth is base,1 the cosmos has been settled [this way]. The higher and lower are displayed, the noble and humble have their places [to be at]”, meaning that the titles and distinctions cannot be overstepped. What are the “titles”? They are [the titles of] the Son of Heaven, feudal lords, marquises, ministers, senior officials, functionaries, commoners. What are the “distinctions”? They are [the statutes] high and low, venerable and base, noble and humble. If you possess the titles and distinctions but do not regulate it with rituals, then the discipline and law cannot be preserved. The heart of titles and distinctions would [then] vainly become an empty vessel and no one would command it.

Consequently, the Son of the Heaven rules over feudal lords, feudal lords rule over ministers and senior officials, ministers and senior officials control functionaries and commoners. The noble, as noble, command the humble. The humble, as humble, follow [the command of] the noble. The fact that the upper command the lower is similar to the head and eyes moving the hands and feet. The fact that the lower serve the upper is like the branches and leaves protecting the roots. Thereafter, the upper and lower support one another, the roots and twigs maintain one another: if you apply these [methods] to a country, the country will be naturally governed, if you apply these [methods] to a family, the family will be naturally put into order. If you go through these means, then the sovereign will be like the sovereign, the subject will be like the subject, the father will be like the father, the son will be like the son, the husband will be like the husband, the wife will be like the wife, the elder will be like the elder, the younger will be like the younger, and they will obey to a hundred orders. The sovereign of Wei awaits Confucius to lead policies. It must first have a correct title. By so saying, if the titles are not correct, the language will not follow [the reality of things]. If the language is not following [the reality of things], the things are not realized. If the things are not realized, the people will not know what to do with [their] hands and feet.

The Book of Change states, “The great sovereign possesses the Mandate.2 He establishes a state and carries on his family. He should not use petty people”, meaning that the titles cannot be overstepped. The Book of Change states, “Up in the Heaven and low in the pond,3 a gentleman will make a difference between the upper and the lower, pacify people’s minds and pacify people's minds", meaning that the titles cannot be violated. The Heaven and Earth set the titles and distinctions. The sages cultivate the titles and distinctions. Then and now, historians have been [in charge of] rectifying the denominations and distinctions. They do not approve [the meaning of] decorative tassels.4 The titles and distinctions are cautious.

Replacing the marten’s tail by a dog’s tail would lead the titles and distinctions to confusion. It was wrong for the feudal lords to have hunted in Heyang because they ruined the titles and distinctions. If they become non-righteous, then it violates the practical meanings of the titles and distinctions. Even if the person of the king is weak, he still ranks above the feudal lords and is distinguished as weak. The sovereigns of Wu and Chu used to not attend the morning session with their correct garments on.5 We should stop these things from happening again. It was wrong for the them to ascend the throne without recording it. If the king is not addressed as the Heaven, then it is tantamount to belittle him, and this is wrong. At the beginning of the Springs and Autumns, Lu Yingong compiled history books and, by doing so, established [the history of] the Three Jin.6 By showing the subtle will, which is solemn and rigorous, of which the Sages have started, Lu Yingong settled the titles and distinctions into one. We should not follow those cases below standards no matter how shortly, because it would confuse [the titles and distinctions].

1 天命, the Mandate of Heaven.

2 James Legge translates this as “heaven (conceived of as) honorable, and earth (conceived of as) mean”.

3 This is a reference to li (離; ☲), one of the 64 hexagrams.

4 Decorations that feudal lords would attach to their horses.

5 Wu (吳; 11th century BCE - 473 BCE) and Chu (楚; 1030 - 223 BCE) were two of the main kingdoms during the Springs and Autumns period (771 – 476 BCE).

6 Lu Yingong (魯隱公; ? - 712 BCE), the 14th king of the Lu state (1042 - 249 BCE). San Jin (三晋, the "Three Jins"), that is the partition of Jin between three families, becoming the new Zhao (趙; 403 - 222 BCE), Wei (魏; 403 - 225 BCE), and Han (韓; 403 - 230 BCE) dynasties.

Discussion Questions

  1. In which year Kim Sisûp's original text was written?
  2. How was Kim Sisûp related to other literati during Sejong's reign? Did the defenders and critics of Sejong's rule (or simply the political status quo during Sejong's rule) use clashing philosophical arguments or frameworks to bolster their respective cases, or did they generally agree on the philosophical underpinnings, and disagree only on the immediate facts?
  3. Why was Kim Sisûp's writings put into a collection? Where was the later preserved? Who were his audience before and after his texts were collected?
  4. Why did he write this piece? Is it possible that Kim wrote this piece for personal ambition? For self-congratulatory purpose? How was this piece compared to other writings of Kim, in terms of literary style and content?
  5. Can this text on 名分 be considered a pamphlet against prince Suyang who took his nephew's (Tanjong) throne after a coup d'Etat?

Further Readings

  • Kim Jin-Bong [김진봉] (2016). Maewôldang Kim Sisûp-ûi Chôngch'isasang-e kwanhan yôngu [매월당 김시습의 정치사상에 관한 연구 = A Study on the Political Ideas of Maewoldang Kim Si-seup], Ph.D. dissertation in Philosophy, Ethics and Culture under Jeong Gyeong-Hwan [정경환]'s supervision, Pusan: Dong-Eui University, 196 p.


1. 司馬光, <<資治通鑑>>卷第一 https://ctext.org/wiki.pl?if=gb&chapter=579652

2. 김시습 in 한국민족대백과사전(Encyclopedia of Korean Culture, in Korean). http://encykorea.aks.ac.kr/Contents/Index?contents_id=E0009666