Resignation of Cho Sik in the Eulmyo Year

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‘Nammyŏng’ Cho Sik 南冥曺植 (1501-72) was a well-known literary figure in sixteenth century Chosŏn. As an intellectual and a teacher, he led an active public life, so it would be misleading to characterize him as a recluse. However, he was well-known in posterity for the fact that he never occupied public office, refusing multiple official appointments by the kings Jungjong 中宗 (r. 1506-1544) and Myŏngjong 明宗 (r. 1545–1567) and living outside of the capital.

Cho Sik was born in the same year as the famous literary figure ‘Toegye’ Yi Hwang 退溪李滉 (1501-70). The two respected one another, and while Yi Hwang held office in the Chosŏn court, he recommended Cho to a court posting, which Cho promptly rejected. The two appear to have shared a mutual admiration, though their disciples strongly emphasized their differences of opinion on philosophical matters. Cho was a prolific scholar, and focused on Confucian morality and self-cultivation in his writing. He had many disciples in the several schools he taught at, and his teachings had a major influence on those who would come to represent the Easterner (dongin 東人) and Northerner (bukin 北人) factions of the Chosŏn court.

Cho’s refusal of public office took place against the historical backdrop of the early sixteenth century. During this period, due to dramatic shifts in political power, the Chosŏn court was repeatedly and violently purged. One of these purges had an immediate impact on Jo: during the Gimyo Purge (gimyo sahwa 己卯士禍) in 1519, his father Cho Ŏnhyŏng 曺彦亨 (1469-1526) was dismissed from office, and his uncle Cho Ŏngyŏng 曺彦卿 was killed.

Cho wrote the following letter in 1555 to refuse an appointment to become Lesser County Magistrate (hyŏngam 縣監) of Dansŏng County (dansŏnghyŏn 丹城縣). As he notes in the memorial, he had been unable to pass the civil service examinations, despite repeated attempts to do so up until 1538. Now fifty four years old, this was not the first or the last time Cho would refuse a court appointment, but it is perhaps the most controversial. It was not well-received at court: according to the historical record, the king was angered, and the response from the court historians was mixed.

Primary Source Text

English Classical Chinese
Serving as a junior sixth-grade official I, Cho Sik, have been newly appointed to the post of Magistrate of Dansŏng County. I bow down, and with great trepidation submit this memorial to your royal highness.

I humbly submit that when the previous king first appointed me tomb guardian, he did not know of my deficiencies. Your highness then inherited the throne, and appointed me administrative accountant. Now, you have appointed me county magistrate. I quake with worry and fear, as though bearing [the weight of] hills and mountains.

Nevertheless, I dare not even for an instant advance into officialdom. I must decline your gracious offer.

I believe that a ruler’s selection of people is like a carpenter’s selection of timber. Deep in the mountains and great marshes, there is no good timber remaining with which to build a great edifice. But a great carpenter selects the tree; the tree does not commend itself. Your highness’ selection of people is the duty of a king.

I fear that I am inadequate, and so I dare not selfishly take advantage of your boundless grace. But in the end, I must explain my reluctance to come forward [and take office]. There are two reasons for this.[1]

Now, I am almost sixty. In my studies, I am negligent and ignorant. In my literary compositions, I am not yet good enough for even the lowest tier of the examinations. In my conduct, I am not even up to the [basic] tasks of sprinkling water and sweeping. I have sought recommendation for over ten years, but I have failed three times and given up. It is not that I am one of those people who did not even attempt the examinations to begin with. There may be people who do look down on the examinations, but they are nothing more than griping commoners. They are not holistic talents who can act upon the world. Moreover, the quality of a person is not to be determined solely by whether he attempted the examinations or not.

But a humble man like me has pilfered a reputation, and misled officials; these officials have heard of my reputation, and misled your highness. What kind of person does your highness consequently take me to be? Did you consider me one who is moral? Did you consider me one of literary accomplishment? One of literary accomplishment is not necessarily one who is moral. One who is moral is not necessarily one such as I.

It is not only that your highness does not know, but even the prime minister does not know this. To use somebody without knowing him will bring shame to the state in times to come. How could it be that the fault would lie with me alone?

I would rather pay actual grains and buy office than use my empty fame and sell my dignity. To betray oneself for a false reputation is worse than using grain to buy office. I would rather disappoint myself than fail your highness. This is the first reason that I cannot come forward.

On the other hand, the affairs of state have already gone awry. The foundation is lost; heaven’s will has departed; the people’s hearts are already distant.

This is like a great tree which has been eaten away at the core for a hundred years; its sap has already dried up, and for a long while it has been helplessly at a loss of when the whirling winds and the violent rains will take it down.

It is not that there are no loyal ministers or diligent literati amongst the men of your court. [It is just that] they know that the situation is so extreme, it cannot be rectified; there is no course of action for them to take. The minor officials are frivolous, and indulge in the pleasures of wine and women. The higher officials are pompous, accumulating wealth and bribes. Fish rot from the belly first,[2] but nobody will take responsibility for it. So the ministers around the king conspire in their own favor, like dragons circling in a pool. The outer ministers rob the people, like wolves ransacking the fields. Moreover, they do not understand that when the skin is gone there is nowhere for hairs to take root.

How many times I have pondered this, and sighed at length, casting my gaze to the sky! How long I have wept and sobbed throughout the nights, staring at my ceiling!

Though the queen mother might be sagacious, she is no more than a widow deep in the palace.[3] And your highness is just a young man; the only successor of the previous king.[4] How can the hundreds and thousands of calamities from heaven be countered? How can the hearts of the people, divided into billions, be brought together?

The rivers are drying up and the [heavens] rain grain. What are these ill omens? In songs of mourning and white clothes, the shape and form [of misfortune] has already manifested. At times such as these, even if those with the talents of Zhou and Zhao occupied key positions, what could they do? And how much more so for one unremarkable man, whose talents are scarcely wild weeds? In a high [office], I could not fix an iota of the crisis; in a low [office], I could not protect even the hair of the people. To serve as your highness’ minister is too difficult. To sell my paltry reputation, gamble on a title [bestowed by] your highness, and eat the food without performing the duties [properly] is not what I wish. This is the second reason that I cannot come forward.

Moreover, there are the recent affairs near the frontier, due to which the officials [there] have not had time to eat. I myself am not surprised by this, because it could have erupted twenty years ago. Because of your highness’ divine prowess, it has [only] now begun to erupt, but it is not something that appeared overnight. Ordinarily, the court employed people based on their wealth, and so they have gained wealth, but lost the people. As a result, how is it surprising that there are no appropriate people to employ as generals, and no soldiers in the city, so that bandits can come in as though the place is uninhabited?

Moreover, at Tsushima [Island] (Taema), the Japanese wretches secretly joined forces with the collaborators, causing a humiliation that will last for eternity, and your regal authority is diminished, like “horns falling from animals’ heads”.[5] Why is it that the treatment of our old officials is harsher than in the Statutes of Zhou,[6] yet the grace shown to the enemy is like that at the fall of the Song dynasty? Are the affairs of the present like King Sejong’s southern expedition, or King Sŏngjong’s northern expedition [to the Jurchen]?[7] Those cases were nothing more than rashes on the skin. They were not afflictions of the vital organs.

When the vital organs are afflicted, it causes knots and blockages, and nothing passes through. [This is why] the officials [of today] are in a panic, carriages racing here and there, and people running back and forth.

Making an appeal to protect the king and putting the affairs of state in order: these depend not on the minutiae of the legal code, but solely on the single-mindedness of your highness. War horses toiling in a square inch of space [can yield] the merit accrued by ten thousand oxen [working together]. This is the opportunity at hand.

But I do not know what it is that your highness is fond of. Is it studying? Is it music and women? Is it archery and horseback riding? Is it gentlemen, or petty men? Your preferences could decide the preservation or loss [of the state]. If you can one day truly apprehend [things], and resolutely devote your energy to studying, suddenly you might renew yourself from within. Renewing yourself from within, there will be myriad [forms of] goodness therein, and a hundred transformations would radiate from it. If you take this and put it into action, then you can make the state constant, the people harmonious, and crises can be ameliorated. In doing so, the mirror will be clear, and the scales will be even, and there will be “no depraved thoughts”.[8]

That which Buddhism calls ‘true sincerity’ is simply about preserving this mentality. If we consider the matter of reaching high up to the principles of heaven, then Buddhism and Confucianism are the same. However, in terms of implementing this in people’s affairs, [Buddhist teachings] it is not grounded [in reality]. Therefore, we Confucians do not study them. Your highness is fond of Buddhism, but if you transfer your energy to studying, then this is a matter of our own school.

Isn’t this like regaining your family after losing them at a young age, and being reunited with family members and old acquaintances? Moreover, “governing well lies in getting proper men. Such men are to be got by means of the ruler’s own character. That character is to be cultivated by following the way.”[9] If your highness can get people using your own character, then, in your inner circle, everyone will be a guardian of the state altar. Then, why should there be someone as lowly and ignorant as me? If you select people based [only] on what you see, then, at your side, there will only be those who deceive and betray. Again, why should there be someone as obstinate as me?

In times to come, your highness will be able to transform the land in accordance with the kingly way. Then, I would give my all (lit. my heart and backbone) to fulfill my duties; even if it was so trivial as to be a groom among the servants, surely [another] day might come when I can serve you. I hope that your highness will take the rectification of your mind as the basis for revitalizing the people, use self-cultivation as the foundation for selecting men, and establish [high] standards, for if there are no standards, there can be no state. I humbly hope that your highness will consider this. I, [Cho] Sik, cannot bear my fear, and risk my life to say this.
























Discussion Questions

  1. What do you think Cho Sik’s underlying motives are in submitting this memorial?
  2. Why does the author refuse the post? What reasons does he give? Do you think that these are the actual reasons, or does he have other motives?
  3. How would you characterize the tone of this memorial, and the relationship between Cho Sik and King Myŏngjong?
  4. What view does Cho Sik have of the current situation of the Chosŏn dynasty? What is his advice, and how does he envisage the king’s role? Is the memorial directed towards the king only?
  5. What religious and political influences are apparent in the memorial? What terms provide the evidence?

Further Readings


  1. Repetition omitted.
  2. In Zuozhuan: 河魚腹疾 not河魚腹痛
  3. The queen mother was Munjŏng wanghu 文定王后, who acted as regent for Myŏngjong between 1545-1565. She is particularly remembered as an active advocate for Buddhism, commissioning artworks and providing state support for Buddhist temples.
  4. Myŏngjong became the king in 1545 after the death of his father, Jungjong. He was only 12 years old at the time.
  5. Shangshu, Mengzi
  6. Most likely a reference to the particularly brutal literary purge of 1545 (eulsa sahwa), at which time Myŏngjong was placed on the throne instead of his elder brother Injong仁宗.
  7. In 1419, King Sejong invaded Tsushima Island due to problems with pirates based there. In 1491, King Sŏngjong sent several military campaigns north to drive back the Jurchens. The campaigns ordered by both kings were successful.
  8. Classic of Poetry
  9. Doctrine of the Mean, following Legge