An Essay on Bold People

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Primary Source Text

English Classical Chinese

In the world, that which is to be feared is none other than the people. The people should be feared more than floods, fires, and wild beasts, yet those above them, on the contrary, treat them with condescension, and command them with cruelty. Why do they do this?

In general, those who are happy to partake in what has been achieved, who are bound by what they can see, and who obediently follow the laws and obey those above are ordinary people. Ordinary people are not worth fearing.

When facing harsh exploitation that strips the skin and sucks the marrow, that exhausts all that households earn and the land provides in order to meet endless demands, those who are despondent and frustrated and blame the ruler are resentful people. Resentful people need not be feared.

Those that conceal themselves among butchers and pedlars, secretly nurturing dissent, surveying the realm, and wanting to spread their claims when the times permit are bold people. Bold people are to be greatly feared.

Bold people wait to exploit opportunities when the state exposes its frailties. They raise their arms and cry out [to raise the people] from their farmland. Hearing their voices, resentful people will come together and, without a thought, they will chant as one. Ordinary people look out for their livelihoods and cannot but follow, with their hoes, rakes, spears, and lances, and kill the tyrants.

The demise of the Qin dynasty was due to the rebellion of Chen Sheng[1] and Wu Guang,[2] and the rebellion in the Han Dynasty was due to the Yellow Turbans.[3] Moreover, when the Tang dynasty was in decline, Wang Xianzhi[4] and Huang Chao[5] availed of it [and rebelled]. In the end, only after the state was lost did they stop. This is entirely the fault of those who severely [exploited] the people to enrich themselves. Then bold people attained [their goals] by availing themselves of the opportune moment.

Heaven established a ruler to nurture the people, not because it wished one man to arrogantly look down from above, or [indulge] greed as vast and deep as a gorge. The calamity of the downfall of the Qin and Han dynasties was a matter of course. There was nothing unfortunate about it.

Now, our state is not like this. The terrain is enclosed and rough, and the people few [in number]. The people are also disrespectful, lazy, and narrow-minded, without any notable integrity or chivalrous spirit.

Therefore, in ordinary times, exceptional persons with extraordinary abilities do not appear for employment in the government, and when faced with chaos, bold people and fierce soldiers do not come to the fore to wreak havoc and make the state concerned. This is also fortunate.

Nowadays, however, things are not the same as they were when the Wang family reigned. The previous dynasty set a limit to their taxation; they shared the profits from the mountains and the lakes with their people. They mobilized their merchants and patronized their craftsmen; they were able to weigh their revenues and plan their expenses. Because they kept in reserve what was left unspent, they did not levy additional taxes to the final year of their reign – when there were great unforeseen wars – for they worried they might exhaust their fields, their courts, and their treasuries.

We are not like that. With such a small population, we are serving the gods and supporting our rulers with the same etiquette of China. Yet among the five portions of tax people submit, only one portion goes to the court, and the rest is extorted by cunning middlemen. In addition, [since] there is no savings in the government bureau, if something happens they will tax the people doubly. Moreover, the magistrates collect revenue without any restraint. Therefore the grievances and resentment of the people is even more severe than that of the end of Koryo dynasty.

Because our state has no bold people, those above have become complacent and know no fear. If someone like Kyŏnhwŏn or Kungye emerged, wielding a club [to instigate a rebellion], then how could they guarantee that the resentful people would not follow? It would be like the uprisings in Qizhou and Liangzhou, [the bold people] crouched in readiness [to spring]. Those who govern the people should be fully aware of the forms of what they should fear. If, moreover, they can take precautions, then it is possible the situation can be saved.











上之人恬不知畏。以我國無豪民也。不幸而如甄萱,弓裔者出, 奮其白挺, 則愁怨之民, 安保其不往從, 而祈, 梁, 六合之變, 可跼足須也。 爲民牧者。灼知可畏之形。與更其弦轍。則猶可及已。

Discussion Questions

  1. Who are the “bold people”, and what is Hŏ Kyun’s attitude towards them? Are they good or bad? What is their role in society? What course of action does the author recommend to deal with them?
  2. How are different social strata represented here? Who is responsible for the current predicament?
  3. What kind of comparison is made between Chosŏn and Koryŏ?
  4. How are historical references used in this text?
  5. Who do you think Hŏ Kyun is writing for?

Further Readings


  1. Chen Sheng (陳勝; died 208 BC), also known as Chen She, was the leader of the first rebellion, known as Dazexiang Uprising, against the Qin Dynasty during the reign of the second Qin emperor Qin Er Shi.
  2. Wu Guang (吳廣; died 208 BC) was another leader of the first rebellion against Qin Dynasty during the reign of the second Qin emperor Qin Er Shi.
  3. The Yellow Turban Rebellion, also translated as the Yellow Scarves Rebellion, was a peasant revolt in China against the Han dynasty.
  4. Wang Xianzhi (王仙芝; died 878) was a major agrarian rebel during the reign of Emperor Xizong of Tang, whose rebellion, while failing, along with those of his one-time ally Huang Chao, began a series of rebellions that led to Tang Dynasty's disintegration.
  5. Huang Chao (黃巢; 835-884) was a Chinese smuggler, soldier, and rebel, and is most well known for being the leader of a major agrarian rebellion that severely weakened the Tang dynasty.